(It’s such a thin line between a genuine mean-mug and a pouty little kid on the verge of a tantrum-mug. Photo courtesy of UFC.com)
UFC Fight Night 20, which we’ll be liveblogging, is coming at you on Spike TV from Fairfax, Virginia tonight. It’s free MMA and you’re not one to pass that up, obviously, but you don’t want to go in cold, do you? Best to cover all your bases by reading our half-ass predictions and petty bickering first. This is Ben vs. Ben.
Nate Diaz is a sizable betting underdog in his fight against Gray Maynard, due to the problems he’s had with wrestlers in the past. Are you giving Nate any chance to submit Gray like he did during TUF 5, or is this a guaranteed smothering?
BG: All signs point to smothering. Both guys have improved a great deal since their time on TUF 5, but it’s worth noting that Maynard was a green 2-0 coming into the show, and simply didn’t have enough experience to deal with a sharp submission game like Diaz’s. Three years later, submission defense is no longer a visible hole in Gray’s armor; seasoned grapplers like Jim Miller and Rich Clementi were absolutely helpless from their backs during their fights against him. Arguably, Diaz’s jiu-jitsu is on a higher level than Miller and Clementi’s, but after those losses to Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson last year, do we really need any more proof that wrestlers are Nate’s kryptonite?
Maynard’s vast strength advantage will dictate this matchup. There may be an outside chance that the Bully will decide to spend a good chunk of the fight standing and banging — as we saw to some extent in his last fight against Roger Huerta — but he’ll be smart enough to at least steal each round with takedowns. In the end, Diaz will sulk off and complain about bitch-ass wrestlers who don’t come to fight, and Maynard will find himself in the same position that he was in before the fight: Just one exciting performance away from a title shot.
BF: Here’s a quick question for you – who’s the best fighter Nate Diaz has beaten with this high-level jiu-jitsu of his? Kurt Pellegrino? Melvin Guillard? Both those guys were roughing him up something fierce before they threw themselves into a submission, and neither of them would stand a chance against today’s Gray Maynard. Neither will Diaz, for similar reasons. Maynard isn’t just more knowledgeable about submissions than he was on TUF. He’s also become a far more proficient boxer.
Face it, when it comes to striking skills, Nate Diaz is not Nick Diaz. He’s never knocked anyone out in his UFC tenure. He was getting smashed by Guillard until Melvin decided to stick his head in a guillotine. If Maynard really wanted to gamble, he could probably win this entirely on the feet. He won’t, though. Because one thing we know about Maynard is he always shows up with a solid game plan and he never deviates from it one bit, even when you wish he would. If ever there was a chance for Maynard to finish a fight and give the UFC some reason to hand him a title shot, this is it.
Outside of the main event, who on this card has the best chance of being a future title contender one day?
BF: A future title contender, magical Ben vs. Ben Question Oracle, or future title-holder? Because at the rate Georges St. Pierre and B.J. Penn have both been going through challengers, any lightweight or welterweight who hangs around long enough has a fair chance of getting his turn to have some dreams painfully crushed. But whether we’re talking about winning a title or just fighting for one, my pick is Efrain Escudero.
At 23, he’s got time to develop, as well as time to wait for B.J. Penn to retire or just get old and slow. He’s got a good wrestling base, which is practically a must-have for 155ers, and we saw in his fight with Cole Miller that he can also knock people out. I think he’s still several years from getting to the top, but at some point he’s going to fight for the hardware.
BG: Since we’re talking about young, well-rounded guys with a lot of time to grow as fighters, let’s not leave out Rory MacDonald, who’s three years younger than Efrain Escudero and has been fighting professionally since the age of 16. When BJ Penn spoke of that "12-year-old training right now" who would eventually hunt him down when he’s Renzo Gracie‘s age, this is who he could have been referring to — a member of the new-new breed who has trained in all aspects of MMA from a precociously early age. It’s hard to make any big predictions about how a fighter will do in the UFC before he’s even set foot inside the Octagon, but Rory has smashed everybody in his path during his run in King of the Cage, and getting past Mike Guymon would officially establish the Canadian welterweight as one to watch. Maybe by the time that other Canadian welterweight is ready to hang up his gloves, this one will be ready to step in.
Tom Lawlor had an epic entrance at UFC 100, but this is a Fight Night. Typically, only the main eventers even get a little music to walk out to. If the UFC were to make an exception here, what would you recommend for Lawlor to help him top his previous entrance?
BG: Well, as we learned during your recent interview with Tom, his last entrance to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" was apparently a reference to CB Dollaway‘s nickname, "The Doberman." So let’s use that as a starting point: Lawlor’s opponent on Monday will be Aaron "A-Train" Simpson. Now you might think, "Okay, easy, he should come out to ‘Love Train,’ ‘Peace Train,’ or ‘Runaway Train,’ while wearing a conductor’s hat and riding on Seth Petruzelli‘s back." Sorry, but that’s just a touch too obvious. My suggestion? Tom should walk out to "Drops of Jupiter" by the band Train. As this fight will take place in Virginia, he should bring a bucket of brook trout to toss out to the crowd. And yes, he should wear a conductor’s hat and ride on Seth Petruzelli’s back. That part is non-negotiable.
BF: Wow, you are really overthinking this. Nothing like an entrance that the crowd would need to research on the internet afterwards just to understand, much less get excited about. Who even knows what Aaron Simpson’s nickname is? That dude’s got training partners who probably couldn’t tell you.
With his Harold Howard routine at the weigh-ins, it’s clear that Lawlor loves paying homage to the UFC heroes of yesteryear. A Joe Son/Kimo Leopoldo giant cross entrance is a little too obvious/offensive, and you don’t get enough cornermen these days to make a halfway decent Gracie Train, so instead Lawlor should come out to the old UFC theme music. Maybe he could do it Dan Severn-style in a gray sweat-soaked t-shirt, marching down to the cage with a comically serious expression on his face. Perhaps a fake mustache could be involved. Or he could just ride out on Seth Petruzelli’s back, but only if Petruzelli is dressed as Art "One Glove" Jimmerson.
Chris Leben is on the untelevised undercard of this event, fighting a guy who lost a decision to C.B. Dollaway in his first UFC fight. Meanwhile, Jake Rosholt, who punked Leben and hasn’t had any of the legal/steroid problems that "The Crippler" has, is out of a job after losing to Kendall Grove. What, if anything, does this say to you about the fight game as a whole and the UFC in particular?
BF: Part of Leben’s continued employment in the UFC can be attributed to his status as a cast-member on the original “Ultimate Fighter.” With a few exceptions (what’s Jason Thacker up to these days, anyway?), Dana White loves those guys. Still, Leben is 2-4 in his last six fights. More importantly, he hasn’t evolved. He’s the same haymaker happy brawler that he’s always been. The UFC keeps him around because he still has some name value and, win or lose, his fights are rarely boring, or even overly tactical. He is, at least in that sense, dependable.
If that says anything, I guess it’s that the UFC still likes sluggers with tattoos more than mild-mannered wrestlers. Maybe it’s not exactly fair, but it’s the reality. Personally, I think the UFC is going to regret the knee-jerk reaction to let Rosholt go. He was killing Grove before he got careless. He’s a good fighter, just a touch inexperienced. Two or three years from now they’re going to look back at the decision-making process that made them fire him while keeping Leben on, and they’re going to want to shock pen themselves.
BG: The bottom line is that Dana White is generally very loyal to anybody who helped him build the company. We may think of the Crippler as a ne’er-do-well who can’t hang at a UFC level anymore, but to Zuffa, he’s as much a part of the family as Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. Leben wasn’t just any TUF 1 vet — his drunken antics helped keep the show interesting in that all-important first season. He sacrificed himself to welcome Anderson Silva to the Octagon, and did his best to hype up a main event fight against Michael Bisping at UFC 89. Sure he’s a brawler, but he always fights with heart.
By comparison, what has Jake Rosholt done for the company, besides lose two out of three fights by first-round submission? If you’re not a reality show star, and you don’t have a particularly entertaining personality, and you don’t have a built-in fanbase from pro wrestling or bare-knuckle backyard boxing, you don’t get many chances to prove yourself once you enter the UFC. Unfortunately, you just have to win fights.