Tuesday, May 22, 2007

UFC 71 Preview

Over the past four years, only Fedor Emelianenko has been a more dominant fighter than Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell. Beginning with his KO victory over Tito Ortiz at UFC 47, Liddell has reeled off 7 straight victories, including 4 title defenses, at a time when the UFC's welterweight, middleweight, and heavyweight chamiponships have all changed hands at least once. He has avenged two of his three career losses (to Randy Couture and Jeremy Horn), with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson being the last of the three. On Saturday, the two will meet for the second time in a light heavyweight championship bout. Also on the card is welterweight contender Karo Parisyan, who will face Josh Burkman, the season 2 winner of the Ultimate Fighter. Analysis and predictions follow:

Main Card

Chris "The Crippler" Leben vs. Kalib Starnes

Leben is a hard puncher who made his bones feasting on B-level UFC talent on The Ultimate Fighter and six UFC Fight Night promotions. The only thing more unorthodox than his boxing stance is his ridiculous haircut, which most recently resembled the angst-ridden mohawk punks who hung out in front of Tower Records in the 80's. Leben's results against top-shelf competition have been decidedly mixed. He was savagely KO'd by Anderson Silva, who then proceeded to give then-middlweight champion Rich Franklin the same treatment. After knocking out Jorge Santiago on his sixth UFC Fight Night card, he was beautifully submitted by the uncreatively nicknamed Canadian jiu-jitsu fighter Jason "The Athlete" MacDonald. In Kalib Starnes, Leben will be facing another Canadian jiu-jitsu expert who won The Ultimate Fighter competition in season 3. Starnes defeated MacDonald in 2005, but is coming off a difficult loss to the tough Yushin Okami. Look for Leben to provoke Starnes into trading haymakers and attempt to take an early KO. If Starnes can take Leben to the mat, he will almost certainly try to work some submissions a la MacDonald. Barring a fortuitous punch, look for Starnes to take this via submission in the second round.

Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine vs. Houston Alexander

Jardine surprised everyone with his quick KO of the normally rock-chinned Forest Griffin. Griffin, visibly shaken by his defeat, was thought by many to be on the fast track to a title shot at Chuck Liddell. Jardine has a wealth of experience battling with the lower end of the top UFC light heavyweights, including Griffin, Stephan Bonnar, and Rashad Evans. Houston Alexander, by contrast, will be making his debut in the UFC. Though Houston may pose an unexpected threat to Jardine simply because he's a largely unknown quantity, the safe money is on a KO by Jardine, who will subsequently pushed into the glut of UFC light heavyweights scrambling for position beneath Chuck Liddell. Jardine by KO in the second round.

Terry Martin vs. Ivan Salaverry

Salaverry is an MMA veteran with experience in the UFC, K-1, and Shooto. Salaverry's losses have been to notables like Nathan Marquardt, Matt Lindland, and Akihiro Gono. Martin, however, is best known for having been spectacularly knocked out by a flying flying knee from James Irvin nine seconds into the second round. Martin is a striker and will almost certainly attempt to turn the match into a standing war of attrition. These two journeyman fighters are well-matched, but not particularly exciting. I predict a win for Salaverry by submission in the third round.

Karo "The Heat" Parisyan vs. Josh Burkman

Karo Parisyan is the answer to those who claim Hidehiko Yoshida as proof that judo skills do not translate well into MMA. An energetic, exciting fighter, Parisyan has often used his judo skills to great effect in securing takedowns and grappling on the mat. Parisyan has beaten tough fighters like Matt Serra, Chris Lytle, and Nick Diaz, while his only losses have been to top-shelf talent like Diego Sanchez, Sean Sherk, and Georges St. Pierre. Despite his frenetic style, Parisyan's fights often go the distance, and my expectation for this fight is the same. Though Burkman is substantially less battle-tested than Parisyan, Karo might not have the knockout power to finish this fight early. However, you can be assured that he will battle to the end, as the consecutive dethronings of Matt Hughes and St. Pierre have left the welterweight division wide open. Parisyan will need to win this fight if he wants to elevate himself to position himself for a serious run at the championship, as he is already at risk of being left behind by Sanchez and Josh Koshcheck, whose victory over Sanchez has reportedly earned him a shot at Georges St. Pierre for the number one contender status. Parisyan by unanimous decision.

Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson

It has been over three years since 'Page thoroughly manhandled Chuck Liddell at PRIDE Final Conflict 2003. Rampage has described his style as a "whoop your ass" style, which is about as appropriate as any other term. Unlike Liddell, who uses his wrestling skills to defend against takedowns and extricate himself from the clinch, Rampage prefers dramatic takedowns of the sort that completely knocked out Ricardo Arona, who had locked in a triangle choke. As a striker, Rampage is a dogged brawler whose lack of formal technique is somewhat mitigated by his raw power. At times 'Page's aggressiveness has been a liability, such as when Wanderlei Silva goaded him into an exchange of vicious knees, one of which rendered Rampage unconscious before he hit the ground. However, this aggressiveness will be a key component of any winning strategy against Chuck. More recently, Rampage's record has been mixed and though he scored close (and some say controversial) decision victories over the likes of Matt Lindland and Murilo "Ninja" Rua, he has yet to regain the form he displayed earlier in his career. Fighting Chuck will be a considerable step up for him.

Jack Rossen of Sherdog.com has aptly described Chuck Liddell's fighting stance as resembling a person stricken with rickets. His low stance, designed to facilitate his takedown defense, and his looping, circuitous punches punches are the antithesis of the crisp, direct boxing strikes with which most fighting fans are acquainted. Liddell's list of vicims, however, speaks for itself. Despite its unorthodox appearances, Liddell's game is highly technical and precise, relying on accurate jabs, well-placed flurries, and sharp counter-punching. Most traditional strikers rely on combinations to pick their opponents apart. Chuck's game relies far more on his knockout power. He will use the jab to goad his opponents into exchanges or corner them in the cage, where he can flurry. He seldom throws combinations unless he has already cornered his opponent. Because opponents fear his striking power, they are often forced into being overly conservative (as in Chuck's fights with Tito) or they will rush him and get floored by counterpunches (like Renato Sobral).

They key to 'Page's first victory was his willingness to stand and trade shots with Liddell. Even when he was hit solidly, Rampage always counterpunched and prevented Chuck from pressing the advantage. Though his counterblows were often haphazard and landed only occasionally, they hurt Chuck enough that he was unable to stalk 'Page and pick his shots at will. Jackson was also able to neutralize Liddel's counter punching by pressing forward with hard, straight shots that backed Chuck up and prevented him from setting his feet to counterpunch. Frequently he was able to close the distance and clinch, which neutralized Liddell's punching power and forced him to expend energy to escape or avoid the takedown. At first Liddell fended off the clinches and takedown attempts, but as the fight wore on Chuck's conditioning, which has always been suspect, broke down and allowed Rampage increasingly to muscle him around. After that, it was only a matter of time before the big takedown and inevitable ground and pound. If Rampage is able to replicate this strategy on Saturday, he will make the fight extremely difficult for Liddell. The prediction here is a third round TKO by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

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