Frankie Edgar has only experienced defeat once in his professional career. The current UFC Lightweight Champion was given a wrestling lesson for three rounds en route to dropping a clear unanimous judges’ decision.
Edgar followed up that loss with five consecutive wins, including back-to-back wins over BJ Penn to win and successfully defend the 155-lb title. That is the good news.
The bad news is Edgar’s lone professional loss came at the hands of number one contender Gray Maynard, and during those five fights since getting bullied by Maynard, Edgar doesn’t appear to have changed his game in any way to prevent déjà vu. Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention, Edgar will face his nemesis once again on Saturday night with his title on the line.
That is just one of several intriguing matchups and fun fights on Saturday night. Chris Leben faces Brian Stann in what should be a good ol’ fashioned slugfest. Brandon Vera stands squarely at a career crossroad, and ferocious striker Thiago Silva stands ready to try and prevent “The Truth” from turning around his recent run of misfortune. Marcus Davis and Jeremy Stephens may very well throw down the gauntlet for Fight of the Year. And the “New York Bad Ass” Phil Baroni returns to the middleweight division to face upstart Hawaiian tough guy Brad Tavares.
EDGAR VERSUS MAYNARD
Edgar is a smallish, ultra-quick lightweight who makes his living with constant movement and short bursts of fistic activity, all the while maintaining great balance so that he can either defend a takedown or take the action to the canvas, if the situation calls for it. It is a style designed to win on the judges’ cards, not necessarily one that will finish many fights. To wit, the champ has only ended two of his eight UFC bouts inside the distance.
I don’t think anything will change with Edgar’s game plan against Maynard. The reality is that the champ wants to keep as much separation as possible, while constantly changing angles with strikes. He knows he cannot outwrestle Maynard. He knows he won’t win a power contest, either. He needs to fight in precisely the same way that he did in his title-winning and title-defending efforts.
Maynard should come out with the same game plan that he had in the first fight, which was to score takedowns early in every round, keep Edgar on his back, and grind away for a stoppage or a judges’ decision. “Should” is the operative word because I’m not convinced that Maynard will come out and fight with a disciplined game plan. He may get too caught up in the moment and embark on a headhunting campaign with his always improving boxing skills. “The Bully” has more than enough juice to stop the champ with his fists, but Edgar is the cleaner, more polished striker, so I think he will dominate in the standup arena, for as long as the fight remains there.
At the end of the day, this fight is all about the matchup, and the breakdown on paper suggests that the UFC Lightweight Championship may change hands on Saturday night. Just like Edgar was BJ Penn’s kryptonite, Maynard may indeed be his.
LEBEN VERSUS STANN
One year ago, Chris Leben looked like he was on the fast track for a one-way ticket out of the UFC. Having lost five of his prior eight bouts, including two in a row, he desperately needed a win when he faced Jay Silva on January 11, 2010. Mission accomplished after three hard-fought rounds.
The win was like a shot of adrenalin for “The Crippler.” Actually, I liked “The Cat Smasher” moniker much better. I digress.
Leben followed the win with a statement win over previously undefeated prospect Aaron Simpson via spectacular knockout and then put himself back into the 185-lb title picture with a dramatic, last-second, come-from-behind submission win over Yoshihiro Akiyama 14 days later (an almost unprecedented turnaround time for UFC-level bouts).
Leben now faces former WEC Light Heavyweight Champion and legitimate American hero Brian Stann. Forget about mixed martial artists or any other athlete proclaiming that they are warriors. This guy is a true warrior after having served in the United States Marine Corps and earning the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award for valor in combat, for his leadership during Operation Matador.
Stann is a lot like Leben stylistically—an all-action standup fighter with an underrated ground game. This fight may very well turn out to be a hockey brawl, with the fighters trading power punches until someone falls down. If that happens, I like Leben all day every day.
Few fighters in the world have a thicker set of whiskers than Leben. He seems almost impervious to shots on the chin thrown by anyone other than Anderson Silva. The reality, though, is that even the sturdiest of jaws crack over time, and this guy has a ton of mileage for a 30-year-old fighter. Sooner or later he won’t be able to take those same shots. See Chuck Liddell’s career for a vivid example.
Even though Leben’s jaw can’t last forever, Stann would be foolish to engage in a firefight. He needs to come out and use a lot of angles and pick his spots. Takedowns are possible, but not probable because Leben has excellent takedown defense and Stann doesn’t have great wrestling. Thus, the most likely method of winning for the Marine Corps veteran is to outpoint his foe.
Leben will do what he always does—stalk and fire. He wants to land his big left hand, so he will focus on winning the battle of the feet. Meaning he will constantly work to keep his right foot on the outside of Stann’s lead left foot in order to keep a throwing lane for his bread-and-butter punch. Leben might mix in a takedown or two, just to keep Stann guessing, but that won’t likely be a major focus of his game plan.
VERA VERSUS SILVA
Remember when Brandon Vera was a can’t-miss prospect? It wasn’t that long ago when he smashed Frank Mir in 69 seconds. Back in those days, Vera was viewed as a possible future heavyweight champion, if not a possible future two-division champion since his frame was always better suited to the light heavyweight division.
Vera then suffered a multi-year stretch where management issues and a string of bad performances left him as more of an afterthought than a legitimate title contender. None of that changes the fact that this guy has the athleticism and skills to be great.
Thiago Silva might be the best fighter in the UFC 205-pound division who hasn’t yet challenged for a title. This guy is an absolute animal inside the Octagon, always attacking in the traditional Muay Thai style that longtime fans of the sport are accustomed to seeing from Chute Boxe Academy fighters. Now that Silva is part of the American Top Team, his game is more complete. The only thing that has prevented him from challenging for a title is his conditioning. He had Rashad Evans badly hurt and ready to go in his last bout, but he had nothing left in the tank and had to watch with his hands at his sides as Evans finished the third round on a pair of ice skates.
This fight is critical for both men. Vera is likely fighting just to stay in the UFC. Three straight losses is often a ticket to a stint in the regional promotions. Silva needs a win to remain relevant in the light heavyweight title picture. That sort of pressure sometimes leads to guys fighting passively. It will not have that affect on Vera and Silva. I expect this to be a very spirited affair, with intense exchanges on the feet. Nevertheless, Vera would be well served to take a page out of Evans’ book and use takedowns and ground control to wear down Silva in the first two rounds before looking to take him out on the feet in the final round.
If Silva can stop the takedown, then the fight becomes a tossup. In a striking affair, leg kicks may carry the day. Both men throw leg kicks with bad intentions, and they can use that strike to both chop down the other man’s explosiveness and also open the door for punches upstairs.
DAVIS VERSUS STEPHENS
Remember that game Rock-em, Sock-em Robots? I might be dating myself right now, but that was one of my favorite games as a kid. No, it was not a video game. It was an old school two-player action toy game first manufactured 56 years ago and still for sale today. The object was simple: each player caused his or her action figure to furiously throw punches until it knocked off the head of the opponent’s action figure.
The preliminary card matchup between former welterweight contender Marcus Davis and lightweight fan favorite Jeremy Stephens is the personification of that game. Both of these guys fancy themselves to be elite-level MMA boxers. They will plant their feet, grit their jaws and fire away until someone falls down.
Davis might look for a takedown, if things aren’t going his way. Stephens won’t.
It is impossible to predict how Davis will fare in this fight. This will be his first fight at 155 pounds. I have no idea if he will able to cut the weight without severely diminishing his explosive power or depleting his gas tank. I also don’t know if he is going to cut the standard 10 to 15 pounds that most top lightweights shed before the weigh-ins, or if he has lowered his fighting weight significantly so that he does not have to cut a material amount of weight in the 30 hours leading up to fight time.
If Davis is overly depleted at lightweight, he will suffer a very short and painful debut in the lightweight division thanks to the sledgehammers that Stephens brings with him into the Octagon. If Davis really is fighting at his more natural weight, then this fight becomes very interesting.
Matchups that are guaranteed to be barnburners often fail to live up to the hype. A perfect example is Stephens’ last fight against Melvin Guillard. This fight could similarly fail to live up to the crazy expectations. Davis might come out looking to take the fight where Stephens is at his weakest—on the ground. I’m not sure why, but I don’t see that happening. This is going to be an all-out war. Davis is the bigger guy, though he is likely on the downside of his career at 37 years old. Stephens is the younger, fresher, more explosive fighter. He wins this matchup more often than not.
BARONI VERSUS TAVARES
Phil Baroni will forever grace the UFC’s highlight reel thanks to his savage knockout win over Dave Menne back on September 27, 2002. After an up-and-down career since that time, he will square off against The Ultimate Fighter alumnus Brad Tavares in an effort to prove that he is not a gatekeeper for prospects looking to make their mark in the UFC.
Baroni has a couple of ways that he can win this fight. He can take down Tavares and beat him up on the ground, or he can get in his face with aggressive strikes and look for the early knockout. Say what you will about Baroni’s recent performances, but this guy can both punch and take a punch.
Tavares is not nearly as aggressive as Baroni, but he still loves a good scrap. In some ways, he is Baroni-lite, in terms of his style and power. And he is definitely coming to the MGM Grand to make a name for himself at Baroni’s expense.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Baroni is going to shoot for a takedown right off the opening bell. Nobody expects him to do that, and it can be a very effective tactic, if he sets up the shot with a feinted right hand. Baroni is a much better wrestler than most realize. If he gets Tavares on the ground, he will be able to score some points with his ground and pound.
But that isn’t what I would recommend, if I were in the New Yorker’s corner. I would have him come out of his corner like a bat out of hell firing away with both fists. He hasn’t done that in years—probably since the first Evan Tanner fight. Baroni is at his most effective when he creates early chaos. That is his key to beating Tavares.
The key for Tavares winning is to survive the opening round and try to use his size advantage to tire out his foe. He needs to smother Baroni to prevent him from getting full power into his punches and generally crowd him with the hope of scoring a takedown. Tavares doesn’t want to find out if Baroni’s return to 185 pounds after 18 months fighting at 170 pounds means a return of his devastating punching power, particularly in the first round.
UFC 125 Breakdown
Edgar-Maynard is just one of several intriguing matchups and fun fights on Saturday night. Chris Leben faces Brian Stann in what should be a good ol’ fashioned slugfest. Brandon Vera stands squarely at a career crossroad, and ferocious striker Thiago Silva stands ready to try and prevent “The Truth” from turning around his recent run of misfortune.