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UFC 138 Preview: The Main Card
Leben vs. Munoz
Kicking off free on Spike TV from the LG Arena in Birmingham, England, UFC 138 on Saturday will showcase a clash of middleweights, as Chris Leben meets Mark Munoz. The bout holds some historical significance, as it will be the first non-title fight scheduled for five rounds.
Chael Sonnen has returned, and champion Anderson Silva’s nemesis is back making expectable noise in his campaign for a second title shot. However, beneath that 1-2 duo at 185 pounds, there is room for maneuvering, and the Leben-Munoz matchup offers considerable possibilities for either man to move up key notches in the divisional pecking order.
In the co-main event, bantamweights Brad Pickett and Renan “Barao” do Nascimento Mota Pegado square off in a contenders bout at 135 pounds. Here is a closer look at the main card matchups, with analysis and picks.
Chris Leben (22-7, 12-6 UFC) vs. Mark Munoz (11-2, 6-2 UFC)
The Matchup: Not many fighters can resurrect their career momentum like Leben, whose ability to deliver thrilling knockouts is matched by few others. Fresh off his 27-second stoppage of Brazilian icon Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132, Leben takes on the tough Munoz, whose steady improvement in recent outings makes him a compelling matchup for “The Crippler.”
There are no mysteries to Leben’s style. The left-handed slugger combines aggression with a big-time belief in his chin and ability to absorb punishment; 2010 was a stellar year for him, as he put together gut-check victories over Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama in a two-week span. Knocked out in a one-round loss to Brian Stann on Jan. 1, Leben was reportedly sick coming into the bout but went ahead anyways, looking somewhat flat and unable to get going. With his showing against Silva, he is back to being Leben, an easy-to-sell product precisely because he will trade shots with anyone, which often makes for an edge-of-the-seat fight.
Style-wise, Munoz has the advantage. The former NCAA wrestling champion at 197 pounds has an outstanding takedown game, combined with an ability to wrest himself out of bad spots on the mat. Munoz’s standup is improving, and it has gone a long way toward helping him set up shots. Early performances in his WEC and UFC career saw him go for long-distance, low-percentage takedown attempts that he either willed himself into finishing or got stuffed on, which was the case in his decision loss to Yushin Okami at UFC Live 2. Munoz will not be stuffed here, as Leben is not a good enough wrestler to stymie him. However, he will have to be careful letting Leben get too many chances to let his hands go. Leben is good from the sprawl position, where he will stuff the head and punish an opponent with his left hand.
The fact that this is a five-round fight is a huge advantage for Munoz. He was buzzed in the opening moments of his close decision win over Demian Maia at UFC 131 but has shown an ability to kill the clock and recover in several bouts. The longer fight allows Munoz more time to gauge distances and Leben’s timing and close the gap for a leg takedown or tie-up. Another small factor in Munoz’s advantage is his ability to fight from the conventional or southpaw stance, which will let him see which angles work best prior to closing for a takedown attempt. Physically, Munoz is the superior athlete, and, if they tie up, watch for him to work a quick takedown. Leben will be looking to land his big left hand, and while he has decent kicks, he probably will not use them much for fear of Munoz catching one and planting him on the mat. This is the kind of fight that Leben could be losing every minute of until he lands his massive equalizer: a crushing left that has rescued him on many occasions.
Munoz has shown maturity in his tactical approach, which has evolved in recent fights. He will switch stances as necessary, finding the distance to close the range and get the fight to the mat. That is where his best asset -- insanely hard ground-and-pound -- comes into play. For various reasons, Leben has not been subjected to a lot of ground-and-pound in the cage, as opponents tend to be negated by his underrated positional jiu-jitsu. However, Munoz is a rare bird, simply too strong to lock up and hold in the guard.
The Pick: Once Munoz gets the takedown, he will work to improve position, possibly threatening with chokes while smashing and passing. In a five-round fight, he simply has too much wrestling and power from top position to be denied, and he will bloody and batter Leben in an increasingly one-sided match en route to a third-round stoppage.
Pickett vs. Barao
Brad Pickett (20-5, 0-0 UFC) vs. Renan “Barao” (26-1, 1 NC, 1-0 UFC)
The Matchup: Rated at the top of Sherdog’s “10 Brazilian Prospects to watch in 2010” list, Barao has since gone 3-0 in WEC and UFC bouts, running his impressive ledger to 26-1. The gaudy record includes a decision win over Cole Escovedo at UFC 130, where he showed a decent work rate to secure the victory. Well-schooled in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a training partner and teammate of featherweight boss Jose Aldo, Barao could be the Next Big Thing in the bantamweight division -- a weight class led by an exceptionally versatile and difficult to beat champion in Dominick Cruz and populated by top contenders in Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson, all of whom Cruz has already decisioned. An impressive win against the hard-charging Pickett could position him for an imminent title run.
Pickett will have something to say about that, as he always does. The tough slugger combines solid takedowns with a down-and-dirty brawling style, forcing confrontations and exchanges as he sits in the pocket and unleashes hard combinations while daring opponents to trade. Pickett’s ability to transition from striking to quick takedown attempts is excellent, as he will change levels after unloading on opponents to close the gap and make them defend against a shot. Pickett can take a punch and works at a fast rate, making him a handful for any opponent that cannot outwrestle him and place him on his back -- something Scott Jorgensen was able to do in spots to partially defuse his attack at WEC 50. Therein lies a key part of his strategy.
Barao may be the more talented fighter with the more impressive record, but Pickett will likely hold the wrestler’s initiative. He can take it to the ground, or use the threat of a takedown to parlay that into shots that land. Given the pace at which he works, Barao will need to have improved his standup considerably or he will be on the defensive end of the exchanges, something Pickett relishes because he simply never stops punishing and working foes.
Barao has to take this fight over from the opening round and must not cede a big exchange or takedown, which will only cause Pickett’s confidence to surge. He will probably have to time a perfect counter shot or land first to get it to the ground in top position, as he does not seem to have the wrestling to take down Pickett in a tie-up. For his part, Pickett would be smart to let both men get a good sweat going before taking it to the mat, where Barao’s excellent jiu-jitsu and submission game will be exceptionally tricky early. However, Pickett’s intensity and two-handed attack, plus his ability to keep pressuring and punishing, are going to be a handful here.
The Pick: Expect Pickett to score first in some exciting exchanges early. He will work elbows and the grind as they clinch and battle on the cage, wearing down the Brazilian. Pickett will also throw in a mid- to late-fight takedown or two to switch gears and win close rounds, pushing through some threatened submission attempts en route to a clear-cut but exciting unanimous decision.
Alves vs. Abedi
Thiago Alves (18-8, 10-5 UFC) vs. Papy Abedi (8-0, 0-0 UFC)
The Matchup: Contenders who have lost one-sided title shots and key elimination bouts occupy a curious position in MMA’s pecking order. In general, they are still betting favorites against anyone but the elite of the division, yet are so far away from getting a second crack at the belt that the only plausible course of action is to keep matching them tough in hopes of either creating a new contender or giving them a chance to generate momentum for another title run. Alves fits that definition precisely. The American Top Team welterweight remains one of the best standup artists in the division and a tough nut to crack, especially that he now seems to have his weight issues in check. Though he has gone 1-3 in recent outings, those losses are all decision setbacks to champion Georges St. Pierre and then Jon Fitch and Rick Story.
Facing him is Abedi, a debuting UFC fighter with one of the most difficult first assignments a guy could get. Abedi, unbeaten in eight bouts, is a talented lefty with a powerful physique and a strong left hand. He has also faced woefully modest competition in compiling that record, leaving one to wonder if the UFC knows something the rest of the masses do not.
One obvious hole in Abedi’s standup game is his tendency to go straight back when avoiding strikes, a troublesome trait for anyone and especially bad for a southpaw. He will need to have corrected that or Alves will exploit it by tossing off hard straight counters, following punches with booming kicks as Abedi retreats. Abedi’s experience on the competitive grappling and judo circuits might suggest his best tactic is to take down Alves. However, Alves’ ability to shuck off clinches and resist being grounded-and-pounded are pretty sound. Only top-notch wrestlers with exceptionally good takedowns and top games are going to take and physically dominate him. No one can be certain if Abedi is there yet.
In short, this is a bit of a throw-him-in-there-and-see-what-happens fight for Abedi. If he wins, he will have to show a special blend of first-timer composure and game planning against Alves. Despite his decision loss to Story, Alves still had a solid showing. He displayed good stamina in the final round, cracking some big shots off Story’s jaw and really battling until the end in a fight that was hard-nosed and fast-paced. Plus, his combination of whipsaw kicks and strong punches remain outstanding weapons.
Alves loves to feast on opponents who offer openings for his kicks, particularly when they are not confident enough to breach the gap and try to close the distance, something at which Fitch and GSP are masters, hence their one-sided dominations of Alves. However, Abedi has not shown he is at that level yet. Alves’ counter right hand and punching will have to set the table early; he will probably be a little hesitant to bank heavily on kicks early, as he figures out Papi’s timing and standup, which typically consists of pushing forward and tossing off punches followed by a heavy straight left down the pipe.
Alves is such a talented fighter that we tend to focus on his faults a bit much, given his penchant for seemingly underachieving given his obvious potential; this kind of matchup will remind everyone why people have set the bar so high on him. He will counter Abedi’s attempts to engage and close the gap with sharp counterpunches, throwing kicks into the mix once Abedi eats some hard counter shots. Even if Abedi manages to get it to the ground, Alves has a great ability to scramble and negate positional improvements, eventually getting back to his feet without taking too much punishment.
The Pick: Alves does not spend a lot of time in top position on the ground because he prefers to stand and strike, but his jiu-jitsu game is especially good. He will drop Abedi with a counterstrike in the second round after winning the first by evading and punishing him. Alves wins by second-round knockout after a ground-and-pound assault prompts the stoppage.
Etim vs. Faaloloto
Terry Etim (14-3, 5-3 UFC) vs. Eddie Faaloloto (2-2, 0-1 UFC)
The Matchup: With overseas cards, it is in the promotion’s interest to create a matchup or two that serves a morale-booster for the home crowd. This is that matchup.
At 2-2, with both losses coming in his WEC and UFC appearances, Faaloloto is the equivalent of the non-conference team visiting the ranked powerhouse in Etim, an Englishman fighting on his home turf. In knockout losses against Anthony Njokuani and Michael Johnson, Faaloloto has shown little to suggest he can compete at this level, but that can be changed with a victory against Etim.
Style-wise, Etim remains somewhat limited on the feet, as the lanky lightweight does not have a lot of power or heft on his shots. However, he does have a solid chin and a versatile submission game, which he showed in wins over Shannon Gugerty, Justin Buchholz and Matt Grice.
The Pick: Etim will look to get this to the ground as soon as possible, where his length and solid jiu-jitsu should allow him to have his way. He will either land a submission or control Faaloloto on the floor enough to pound him relentlessly from an advantageous position, winning in the second round after wearing him down in an increasingly one-sided bout.
thiago as a gate keeper. ouch.