Before Louis Smolka made his UFC debut against Alp Ozkilic in January, I studied footage of Smolka’s fights on the regional circuit. What I saw caused me to believe that Smolka was not destined for great success in the UFC. The thing that stood out most was how easy it was for fighters to hit Smolka – whether standing or on the ground, Smolka’s opponents were able to tag him repeatedly. Smolka’s takedown defense was clearly lacking as well. The two things I want to see most from fighters making their UFC debut are effective striking defense and takedown defense, and Smolka didn’t show much of either.
Ozkilic was able to land a whopping nine takedowns in the fight, but he had tremendous difficulty holding Smolka down. Thanks to a heavy volume of takedowns, scrambling, and wild haymakers, Ozkilic fatigued quickly and Smolka capitalized by landing a tremendous amount of strikes. 92 significant strikes later, Smolka won by unanimous decision despite the massive takedown deficit.
Was I wrong for thinking Smolka was headed for failure in the UFC? After watching the tape again, I don’t think so. His striking defense and takedown defense were problems before fighting Ozkilic, and they were problems during the Ozkilic fight as well. Ozkilic landed 60 significant strikes of his own despite his fatigued state to go along with his nine takedowns.
However, there is hope for sudden improvement from Smolka. He’s just 22 years old and has only fought in professional MMA for two years. He’s at a point in his career where fight to fight improvement is not only likely but expected. The Louis Smolka who fights Chris Cariaso should be an improved fighter from the Louis Smolka who defeated Alp Ozkilic. Still, unless Smolka can clean up his defense, it’s difficult to see him succeeding in the UFC long-term.
Now, Cariaso will provide Smolka with a much different challenge than Ozkilic did. While Ozkilic was a college wrestler who went for a bunch of takedowns, Cariaso is a kickboxer and a very good one at that. Fight Metric has scored 13 of Cariaso’s fights in the UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce; not once did Cariaso’s opponent land more standing strikes than he did. Cariaso always lands more strikes at distance, whether his opponent is John Moraga, Takeya Mizugaki, or even Michael McDonald.
I highly doubt that Smolka, a fighter who leaves constant openings for his opponent to land strikes, will be the first to out-point Cariaso standing, even with a significant height and reach advantage. Instead, Smolka will likely have to defeat Cariaso by landing takedowns and either finishing by submission or holding Cariaso down to win on points.
Whether or not Smolka will be able to take Cariaso down is an open question. Again, Smolka was thoroughly out-wrestled by a college wrestler in Ozkilic, but on the other hand, he was very successful in landing takedowns against pre-UFC opponents like Ale Cali and Alvin Cacdac.
Meanwhile, Cariaso’s takedown defense is definitely below-average by UFC standards. He’s been taken down 26 times overall and sports an overall takedown defense rate of 60 percent. Those numbers indicate that Cariaso will make opponents earn their takedowns, but if they can get a good shot in on him, he’s going down.
From watching Smolka on tape, I’m just not sure if he’ll be able to do it. Opponents like Cali and Cacdac clearly had no idea how to defend takedowns at all; Cariaso should at least be tougher to take down than they were. Smolka’s ability to land takedowns is simply unproven one way or the other at this level.
If Smolka is able to land takedowns, then there are a few possibilities for how the fight will play out. One is that Smolka is able to catch Cariaso and finish the fight by submission. (Cariaso has two losses by submission, one to Barao and one to Moraga by guillotine choke. His ground game is not a strength.) Another is that Smolka will be able to hold Cariaso down and win on points with ground and pound. A third is that Smolka will fail to hold Cariaso down, but earn points for landing takedowns… which could make an ensuing decision interesting.
The point is this: if Smolka doesn’t land the takedown, I just don’t see him winning. If he does land the takedown, it’s still possible that Cariaso could win on points if he’s able to scramble back to his feet quickly. It’s a close and tricky call, but at this point I’m just more confident in Cariaso’s skill set.
Pick: Chris Cariaso by decision