Back in the early 1990’s when the UFC was banned from cable and MMA was struggling to survive, the greatest MMA fighting organization ever created was founded and launched in Japan.  Dubbed PRIDE Fighting Championships, the Japanese organization kept MMA alive for fans worldwide and provided a stage for future superstars.  Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Fedor Emelianenko, and Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva all skyrocketed to international fame through this organization.  The Japanese and their samurai culture have always been more open to martial combat, and now after more than a decade of absence the UFC makes its return to the Land of the Rising Sun with UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson.  The card is studded with Japanese stars and PRIDE standouts and promises to be one of the most exciting cards of the year.  I’m no weatherman, but come February 26th I’m predicting fireworks with a chance of early Mayan apocalypse.

 

Frankie Edgar vs. Benson Henderson: Lightweight Title Fight

 

If there was ever a reason not to drink any fluids during a UFC event, this fight is it.  If you really have to go to the bathroom that bad during the fight, just wet your pants, it’s OK.  These two fighters have unlimited gas tanks and have the uncanny ability to absorb and bounce back from damage.  Expect wall to wall action for as long as this fight goes.

 

frankie vs. ben

 

Frankie Edgar has proved he’s no paper champ by stealing the crown from lightweight juggernaut BJ Penn and defending it in a convincing 5 round decision.  He was taken to hell and back through a rough first round that showed us how tough he is through his second match and second defense against Gray Maynard which saw him dropped, cut, bleeding, but not broken.  Due to a draw decision, the rubber match was an instant classic as we saw Frankie against the ropes again in the first round, only to come back and finish Gray handing him his first loss of his career.  An undersized lightweight, Frankie is small for a decision but that allows him to remain in top physical form come fight time.  Many fighters cut too much weight and find their conditioning suffer as a result.  Frankie Edgar has a virtually inexhaustible gas tank.  Speed is his best ally, and his transition between his boxing and wrestling keeps his opponents off balance.  In order to win against the bigger and stronger Henderson, he’ll have to hit and move like he’s always been doing, mixing up takedowns with quick combinations.

 

Ben Henderson is an athletic southpaw with conditioning on par with Edgar, which makes for a barnburner of a fight.  His background is wrestling and grappling, but he makes use of his long reach and accuracy through effective boxing and kickboxing.  He also has the ability to fight off submission attempts.  Personally I’ve said “He’s gonna go to sleep!” on more than one occasion only to have him struggle out of the choke and give me the finger through the TV.  That last part never happened, but you get the idea.  Since moving to the UFC he has clawed his way to the top, and in his latest outing he dismantled Jim Miller through effective takedowns and ground and pound.  By the way, Jim Miller is an experienced wrestler and a BJJ black belt.  Ben Henderson’s key to victory is to have a gas tank that can match Frankie’s, and not let Frankie’s speed mess up his rhythm.  The easiest path to victory would he to strike Edgar until the champ’s back hits the cage, then engaging in a clinch fight where his bigger size and strength will tax Frankie.  From there he should look to take Frankie down and dish out ground and pound, looking to finish it in the later rounds.

 

My 2 cents:

 

This one’s a tough to call.  It’s really a battle that comes down to speed vs. power only it’s not, since Ben Henderson doesn’t just rely on brute strength.  I think that if Frankie manages to keep the distance and dart in and out like he’s been doing, he should cruise to a decision victory.  If Ben can close the distance and tie the champion up or dictate the pace,  look for the belt to change hands.

 

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Ryan Bader

bader vs. rampageIt’s no secret that Japanese people love Rampage, and Rampage loves Japanese people.  He’s even got a Japanese baby mama, and can speak semi-fluent Japanese.  Making a name for himself in the PRIDE days, Rampage looks to get back on the winning track ont he road to a title, while Bader looks to claw his way up to a title shot himself.

 

Rampage Jackson started out his career as a wrestler, but is now known more for his vicious hands and slams.  Accomplished wrestler Matt Hamill couldn’t take Rampage down once in their 3 rounds dance.  Rampage will look to keep things standing as he always does and let his hands go.  Rampage’s conditioning has always been suspect, but looked great after his move to the Muscle Pharm facilities in high elevation.  If he can keep from running out of gas he has a good chance of knocking out Bader.  If things get dicey he can always look for a takedown, but that’s not really his style.  Rampage also has very good takedown defense, so it’s interesting to see who will dictate where the fight takes place.

 

Until 2011 Ryan Bader was an undefeated MMA fighter and former Arizona State University tearing the light heavyweight division a new butthole.  Then he ran into Jon Jones.  There he suffered the first finish and loss of his career, and was knocked back downt he light heavyweight ladder.  He ran into more trouble when aging veteran Tito Ortiz put him away inside of one round following his loss to Jon Jones.  Things looked grim for the former Sun Devil, but like a true warrior he rebounded late in 2011 with a KO win over Jason McCoy.  A standout ground fighter with a penchant for KO’s (6 of his 9 finishes have come through strikes) Bader poses an interesting puzzle for Rampage to figure out.  Bader is the better wrestler, but if he wants to look for a takedown he’ll have to wade through the dangerous hands of Rampage.  Bader is also a decent striker but Rampage has more experience.  The key will be to keep Rampage guessing.  If Rampage doesn’t have to worry about takedown, he’s free to let his hands go, and just ask Wanderlei Silva how that went in their last fight.  Ryan Bader by no means is out of Rampage’s league in terms of striking, but he should use his wrestling credentials to keep Rampage uncomfortable planting his feet and letting the bombs fly.

 

My 2 cents:

 

This is a battle between an old wolf and a young lion.  The young lion may be hungry and spry, but the old wolf is experienced and battle hardened.  Normally I would have given this fight easily to Bader, but with Rampage’s improved focus and conditioning the fight is much closer to call.  I give this fight to Ryan Bader via decision.  Expect fireworks.

 

Mark Hunt vs. Cheick Kongo

 

For this fight we move to the top of the scales with two of the biggest heavyweights in the division.  Both are strong strikers in their own right, with Mark Hunt being a former K-1 veteran and Cheick Kongo with 10 of his 13 finishes coming via KO/TKO.mark hunt

 

Mark Hunt used to be a one dimensional fighter but ever since his move to American Top Team he has branched out.  Instead of using his takedown defense to just stand and bang, his fight with Ben Rothwell showed us a new side of Mark Hunt.  He went for take downs and attempted submissions mixed in with his usual powerhouse striking.  Mark’s biggest advantage is his chin, aka his ability to take massive amount of punishment to the dome piece.  Don’t believe me?  Watch this fight, trust me it’s worth it:

 

 

 

 

cheick kongoDespite that, it should be mentioned that he was KO’d once my Melvin Manhoef.  All of his finishes have come via KO/TKO, but if the Ben Rothwell fight showed us anything it’s that he’s turned a new corner late in his career.  He’s also re-dedicated himself through a strict diet and training regimen, upping his gas tank and making him a viable threat into the later rounds.  Mark’s key to victory will be to mix things up and make life difficult for Cheick standing by threatening with take downs.  Cheick has never been a strong ground fighter but has legitimate ground and pound skills, so a take down into top position would be ideal.  However Mark Hunt will never be mistaken for a Division 1 wrestler, so look for things to stay standing.

 

Cheick Kongo is a one trick pony, but his one trick is so strong that it’s allowed him to stay in the UFC since 2006.  He has knocked out plenty of people, but the ground remains his biggest weakness.  He has shoddy take down defense, but that might be too big of a factor against fellow striker Mark Hunt.  You can also never count Cheick out of a fight.  He was badly hurt against Pat Barry, being out more than one time, yet still had the ability to turn things around with one punch.  With the ability to end someone’s night in a flash, no matter how far ahead his opponent is in the scorecards Cheick always remains dangerous.  Cheick’s keys to victory will be to keep it standing and press forward. He can’t afford to fight moving backwards against  a tank like Mark Hunt.  He should use his superior reach to keep Mark at the end of his punches and kicks, circling and pressing when necessary.

 

My 2 cents: Another tough call due to the strengths lining up so well.  Traditionally Mark Hunt has relied on his cast iron jaw to weather through punishment and grind his opponents down with punches and kicks, but against a power striker like Cheick that’s a bad idea. Checik Kongo has always has a weakness on the ground that the old Mark Hunt wouldn’t be able to capitalize on, but after his move to ATT it’s anybody’s guess what Mark Hunt will want to do.  It’s a tough call but I think Cheick’s reach and height will make him a hard target to his both in terms of striking and takedowns.  I give this one to Cheick.

 

Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields

 

For this fight I have to wear a chastity belt because it’s impossible to watch Yoshihiro “Sexyama” Akiyama without getting an erection. jake shieldsInternet jokes aside, each fighter poses an interesting puzzle for the other to solve.  The keys to victory are obvious for each fighter, but still some larger questions remain.

 

Sexyama (if you don’t know why they call him Sexyama, you’re not an MMA fan) is coming off the first KO loss of his career via Vitor Belfort.  He has made some chagnes and moved down to welterweight, something he has never done before.  An undersized middleweight, Sexyama never had to cut much weight, so it’ll be interesting to see how his body holds up during the first harsh cut of his career.  Conditioning is always a matter of concern anytime a fighter cuts weight, and it’s even more of a concern now considering Sexyama has never been known for his freshness in the later rounds.

 

sexyamaIt stands to be argued that he could have won the fight against Leben had he not been so tired.  Nevertheless, maybe dropping a few pounds and re-invigorating his career will give him the foresight to repare a large gas tank for Jake Shields, who always comes in shape.  Sexyama’s key to victory is simple: keep the fight standing.  Jake Shields may be a wizard on the ground, but he severely lacks the standup skills to be a consistent threat to Big Sexy.  Considering Sexyama has decent punching power, if he keeps the fight standing he should have an easy night.  Otherwise, it’s bad news for the sexiest man alive.

 

Jake Shields has been on a rough skid as of late, coming off back to back losses to GSP and Jake Ellenberger.  Jake’s standup was never mistaken for world class, but his lack of skills was exposed as Jake Ellenberger calmly waited for Shield’s eventual takedown, timing a nice knee to end his night.  It’ll be interesting to see what Jake Shields has done to get back into the winning column, this being the first time in his career where he’s lost two in a row.  A shark on the ground, Jake has to get this fight on the floor as early and often as possible.  Another key would be to put constant pressure on Sexyama, forcing him to keep moving and thus burning his notoriously small gas tank.  He he can drag Sexyama to hell, he should be able to put him away at will.  Look for Jake to shoot often and early.

 

My 2 cents:

 

This is a perfect stylistic matchup reminiscent of the early days of the UFC.  While neither competitor is a one-style fighter, it’s obvious what each person needs to do.  Sexyama must keep the fight upright at all costs, while Jake needs to drag it to the mat as soon as possible.  The key will be to see who imposes their will early in the match, as well as who has the gas tank to outlast the other later in the match.  This is a toss up but I’m going to have to go with Jake Shields on this one.  Look for a submission late into round 3.

 

Authored by Michael Ahn