UFC 164 ‘Henderson vs Pettis’ Main Card Breakdown

August 30, 2013

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UFC 164 ‘Henderson vs Pettis’ Main Card Breakdown



Alexander Lee – “UFC 164” airs live on PPV, Saturday, August 31.  Preliminaries will be broadcast on Facebook starting at 6:30 PM (EST).  Coverage will continue on Sportsnet 360, with televised preliminaries beginning at 8 PM (EST) and the main card airing at 10 PM (EST).

The last time the UFC visited Milwaukee, we were treated to an excellent main card that featured a prospect being brought down to earth (Donald Cerrone’s TKO of Charles Oliveira), the ascension of a superstar (Benson Henderson’s domination of top ranked Jim Miller) and a fond farewell to Chris Lytle, one of the UFC’s most respected competitors who submitted Dan Hardy to become the rare athlete that got to walk away from the fight business with his hand raised.

This card looks even better.  Not only do Cheeseheads get to see Henderson again (this time as the reigning lightweight champion), they might also have the privilege of witnessing one of their own take away his shiny gold belt: Anthony Pettis, born and raised in Milwaukee, the last man to defeat Henderson.  You couldn’t draw up a more appealing rematch (and for the conspiracy-minded crowd, it sounds like that’s what the UFC did) and headliner for a card stacked with future contenders and past champions.

*****

Featherweight Bout: Erik Koch (2-1 UFC, 13-2) v. Dustin Poirier (5-2 UFC, 13-3)

The young guns collide!  This one has been a long-time coming.  In fact, it was originally booked for UFC 143 in February 2012.  Both just 24 years old, Koch and Poirier have long been the future of the featherweight division.  For whatever reason, neither has been able to make it over the hump.  They’ve established that they’re a cut above the majority of their competition and only the best of the best have been able to slow them down.

A trio of first round finishes left critics and fans alike salivating at the prospects of “New Breed” Koch.  Then things went haywire.  Since 2011, Koch has missed out on matches with Cub Swanson (twice!), Poirier and most painfully, José Aldo.  The title bout was initially nixed by an Aldo injury, and then Koch was forced out of the rebooking and replaced by Frankie Edgar.  He wouldn’t fight again for over a year and when he returned, Ricardo Lamas was waiting to warmly welcome him back with a bloody beating.  Anyone who thinks that a UFC fighter would ever fake an injury only needs to look at Koch to see how costly it can be to lose a single second of cage time.

Poirier has had his own share of setbacks recently, losing close fights to Chan Sung Jung and Cub Swanson that have slowed his once meteoric rise.  At times, Poirier has looked like a world beater.  In his featherweight and UFC debut, he stepped in for Aldo to take on Josh Grispi (who was 14-1 at the time) and defeated him soundly.  The quality of that performance carried over into his next three matches, which he won in dominant fashion.  If he’d been able to beat Jung, he would have had a title shot by now and who knows how that could have gone?

You’d like to believe that both Koch and Poirier will have their time to shine, but the fight game can be cruel and you get the sense that one of these men will become entrenched in the top five while the other might fade into obscurity.

Heavyweight Bout: Ben Rothwell (2-3 UFC, 32-9) v. Brandon Vera (8-6 [1 NC] UFC, 12-6 [1 NC])

Vera’s return to heavyweight, a division he once seemed destined to rule, should be a welcome sight for many fans.  It was amongst the big boys that Vera had his greatest moments.  I can still remember his stunning head kick KO of Justin Eilers, his guillotine choke on Assuerio Silva (his only submission victory) and the complete destruction of Frank Mir that intensified the championship buzz surrounding him.  Like his idol Randy Couture, he was certain he would be a heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, going as far as to say he would hold the titles simultaneously.

There’s no point in rehashing how far Vera has deviated from those lofty goals.  Suffice to say, a disastrous end to his heavyweight tenure led to an eventful, though fruitless light heavyweight run.  On paper, Rothwell is a perfect rehab assignment, the kind of large, lumbering opponent that a young Vera used to feast on.

Rothwell’s 2-3 UFC record isn’t exactly going to send his opponents running for the hills.  Still, heavyweights with his experience, skill level and resiliency are hard to come by.  You can see why the UFC would view him as an asset.  As much as this fight is a set-up for yet another “return of Brandon Vera”, Rothwell should be just as motivated to right the ship.

Featherweight Bout: Chad Mendes (5-1 UFC, 14-1) v. Clay Guida (10-7 UFC, 30-13)

In a refreshing change of pace for Mendes, he’s actually getting the opponent he was originally scheduled to face.  Cody McKenzie, Yaotzin Meza and Darren Elkins were all brought in as replacements for various reasons.  None of them lasted past the two minute mark.  Winning fights is great.  Winning fights against competition that is far below you in stature (Elkins excepted) and that does nothing to further your title hopes?  Not so great.

Guida’s career is in need of resuscitation after two split decisions that nearly caused fans to riot.  His “slippery” performance in a split decision loss to Gray Maynard infuriated many and a heavily disputed split decision win over Hatsu Hioki only made things worse.  Unless Guida is facing opposition that can match his non-stop pace (like Nate Diaz, Diego Sanchez and Benson Henderson), he often engages in unorthodox tactics that leave crowds cold.

Mendes is somewhere in between.  His cardio is top notch so he can definitely keep up with Guida.  However, he’s become more methodical, particularly with his striking and that means he will dictate the pace, not follow his opponent’s.

The strange thing is that Guida might be closer to a meeting with Aldo, due to his name value and freshness.  Mendes is working to erase the memory of the knee that did him in, elevating his game to ensure that a second meeting will go differently.  If he finishes Guida in the first round (something nobody in the UFC has ever done), then it will be hard to deny him a championship rematch.

Heavyweight Bout: Frank Mir (14-7 UFC, 16-7) v. Josh Barnett (4-1 UFC, 32-6)

The steroid and testosterone therapy related issues surrounding this match are unfortunate.  From a strictly competitive point of view, this is a heavyweight dream match.  In a division where speed and skill are at a premium and crowns can change heads with a single punch, remaining relevant for even a few years is an achievement.  Mir and Barnett have been two of the top heavyweights for the better part of the last decade.

One reason for their sustained brilliance is that their origins lie in the days when fighters focused on a single discipline and then grew from there.  Mir is still one of the best BJJ practitioners in the heavyweight division, while Barnett has utilized “pro wrestling” (as he likes to call it) to neutralize and submit every giant who boasted that they could take out “The Warmaster.  For the first time in a while, Barnett will be facing an opponent as eager for a submission as he is.  Both guys can take care of themselves in a stand-up battle, but if this goes to the ground this match could become a work of art.

Lightweight Championship Bout: Benson Henderson (7-0 UFC, 18-2) v. Anthony Pettis (3-1 UFC, 16-2)

A match almost three years in the making.  Call it cliché if you will.  This is the most anticipated lightweight title fight since the glory days of BJ Penn.

Fate has kept Pettis away from lightweight gold, so it’s only fitting that a cruel twist would finally put him in this position.  TJ Grant should be fighting on Saturday.  That said, there couldn’t be a better replacement (no matter how distasteful it was for Pettis to campaign for the shot when Grant was healthy).  Pettis’ status as the last WEC lightweight champion was supposed to be a golden ticket; an immediate shot at the most prestigious prize, the UFC lightweight title.  A draw in the second Edgar/ Maynard fight demanded a proper ending, so Pettis made the call to take a fight against Clay Guida to stay active.  He was smothered en route to dropping a decision and he found himself pushed back in the increasingly dense lightweight line.

After back to back first round finishes of Donald Cerrone and Joe Lauzon, Pettis was back in the driver’s seat and he made the rash decision to drop down to featherweight to challenge José Aldo.  Pettis was injured and replaced by Edgar and he was once again a man without a plan.

Exit Grant.  Enter Pettis.

The most frustrating thing for Pettis had to be the fact that Henderson somehow leapfrogged him for a title shot.  The same Henderson that he beat for the WEC title!  In interviews, Henderson proudly declared that he wanted to have a title run to rival Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva.  He has taken decision after decision, with nobody being able to outpoint him.  Pettis went the same twenty five minutes as everybody else and he won.

If anything, the “Showtime Kick” has done a disservice to both fighters.  To people who only follow MMA through ESPN or sports digest shows, Henderson is “that guy who ate a ninja kick”.  That kick has overshadowed how brilliant Pettis was on that night.  His striking on point, his jiu-jitsu a constant threat, his cardio seemingly at a level where the two could have fought for days on end.  It was the fight of the year and thousands of people only know about that kick.

There is an unfathomable amount of pressure on Henderson to deliver.  If he loses, it only adds credence to the criticisms of his title defences; the accusation that he does just enough to eke out a victory, escaping with the belt rather than defending it.  No one could argue that he’s improved since the first fight with Pettis.  He’s always been blessed with tremendous physical gifts that helped carry him through some rough patches, but now those rough patches are few and far between.  He rarely finds himself in a bad position.  Whether it’s on feet or on the ground or against the fence, Henderson does more.  That’s why he always wins.

Thing is, he’s facing the one man who went the distance with him and lived to tell about it.  Who has improved more?  Who has gotten stronger?  Faster?  Smarter?  It’s safe to say that this will be another Henderson fight to go to a decision; the outcome is anybody’s guess.

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