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UFC 104 Preview: Rua’s On First

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Dana White and I need to start looking at each other’s GCals a little better, because if he had, he’d know that this was a terrible weekend to schedule a couple of very intriguing fights for UFC 104. I will be out at (yet another) wedding, this time in the scenic part of North Carolina.

(Utterly tangential aside: If you’re of a certain age, you understand the Wedding Summer, where ALL your friends decide that singlehood is overrated and fill your schedule with nuptials every weekend. Now that’s not a problem if you and your friends are mostly assholes like me and mine, but my girlfriend is going on her fourth bridesmaid’s dress of the year. I’ve had enough shrimp cocktail this summer that I’m starting to bleed horseradish. When one of your friends gets hitched, fair younger reader, look out. That shit spreads like H1N1.)

So as I’ll be getting to the telecast a little later than everybody else, I thought it might be worthwhile to go the preview route on this one. Keep your eyes glued on the top two fights of the night, as they have some serious implications for UFC going forward.

Lyoto has to defend his title twice more and then he gets 60 seconds to destroy a car.

The main event features Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida defending his belt for the first time and his undefeated record for the 16th. It’ll be against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who was a walking nightmare in PRIDE but hasn’t been the same fighter in the UFC. He got choked out by Forrest Griffin and won unimpressively against a washed-up Mark Coleman. Then came a redemptive fight earlier this year in which he hit Chuck Liddell so hard that the Iceman’s next time in front of a judge’s scorecard was on a ballroom dance floor.

Rua’s still decent, but Machida looked so impressive taking the title from Rashad Evans that he has to be considered a huge favorite. And it’s not just his karate that can turn heads. Check out this breakdown of an early Machida fight at Bloody Elbow; the man has some serious skills that extend beyond some of the most flawless range in MMA. He’s more than just a one Shoto wonder; there’s MT and BJJ on display there too.

How will it play out? Rua’s game is predicated on speed and power; he’s constantly looking to close distance to get in and use his feared Muay Thai. In theory, closing on Lyoto should be the right plan of attack as he wants to strike from afar. In practice, you have to be quick enough to get inside without getting blasted first, and I haven’t seen anything from Rua since his UFC return that makes me believe that will be the case (and sorry, faster than a 39-year-old Liddell doesn’t count).

I don’t think Rua will let Lyoto outpoint him but I also don’t think that Shogun has the speed anymore that’s necessary to take out the Dragon. Machida has stoppages in three of his last four outings. My guess: Rua stays patient and tries to play Machida’s game for ten minutes. But he’ll get frustrated and overextend himself in the 3rd, which is where Lyoto will get the KO.

The undercard is topped by an important fight between Cain Velasquez and Ben Rothwell at heavyweight. The UFC’s heavyweight division is being dictated by star power these days; that’s why Shane Carwin was pulled from this fight so that White and Co. could get Brock Lesnar back in front of the cameras quickly after a no-damage dispatch of Frank Mir. While Lesnar and Couture command the big headlines (and thus, the matchmakers’ priority) in the division, from a competitive standpoint Velasquez/Rothwell is a critical fight for positioning in the division.

While The Ultimate Fighter has made stars of former IFL standouts Roy Nelson and Krzysztof Soszynski (and an obligatory angry fist shake for making me spell out Sozzy Bear’s name again), it’s Rothwell that beat them both during a run that saw him 9-0 in that league. While he did get beat soundly by Andrei Arlovski, he’s still an excellent banger with solid standup and immense power in addition to some cursory but useful submission skills.

Velasquez, meanwhile, is trying to make a name for himself as the future of the division at 6-0. A win here should position him for a big name fight, but first he has to prove that the weaknesses in his standup game that Cheick Kongo exposed in his last fight aren’t fatal to his prospects. Kongo rocked Velasquez a few times and put him on the mat. Luckily for Cain, a former All-American, the mat is exactly where he likes to be. He just needs to make sure that he’s bringing Rothwell there via takedown and not finding his way there unconscious.

It should be a classic, if not classic, striker versus wrestler matchup. I think it ends early either way, and while Rothwell might be able to land the big shot he needs, I’m thinking Velasquez gets another ground and pound victory in the first.

As for the undercard: I bitched a few weeks ago that the choices made for the televised portion were generally poor, so I was happy to see Spike announce that at least the Ryan Bader fight will be shown gratis. As Hendricks points out in that article and I agree with, not airing Yushin Okami’s fight is a shame. If UFC can squeeze it in, I’ll be a happy camper.

The rest of the televised card is unimpressive. Josh Neer has the potential for excitement but is facing an opponent in Gleison Tibau that, like Kurt Pellegrino at UFC 101, will likely turn the fight into a 15-minute nap (assuming he doesn’t tire first). Spencer Fisher is willing to take 2 punches to land 1, but Joe Stevenson is much more interested in grappling than throwing those punches and should outclass him on the mat. (Could we have gotten Neer-Fisher and Tibau-Stevenson instead? Is it too late to change that? Yes? Damnit.) And finally, Anthony Johnson (best known for having Kevin Burns poke him in the eye repeatedly) will take on Yoshiyuki Yoshida (best known for having Josh Koscheck knock him out twice before he hit the canvas). I sense that one may be a slopfest, but it should be a fun slopfest, which is more than I can say for the two lightweight bouts.

But if you watch a little Spike, take a couple hours off to plan your Halloween costume and then come back for the final two fights of the night, nobody will blame you. And this I promise you: the days of Boring Lyoto are over. You’re going to want to see him win, because if he’s as dominant as he has been in his last couple fights, we’re witnessing the early stages of something special in MMA.

Image from MMASpace.

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About Matt DeTura