Sunday’s UFC Live event in Pittsburgh is filled with intriguing storylines, fan-friendly matchups, and a handful of TUF alumni looking to keep the ship moving in the right direction. Casual fans may not recognize all the names, but if this is someone’s inaugural experience with the UFC, they are in for a real treat if the fights even come close to living up to their potential. Rather than focus my pre-fight breakdown on the main event, I thought it made sense to give a quick rundown of the three fights have the biggest potential for fireworks.
MARQUARDT VS. STORY
Nate Marquardt has hovered around the top of the middleweight division since his successful UFC debut against Ivan Salaverry nearly six years ago. Yet a one-sided loss in his only title challenge, as well as back-to-back losses in subsequent title eliminators, left “Nate the Great” wondering whether he would ever take his UFC career to the next level. Rather than continue trying to climb the growing middleweight mountain, Marquardt opted to follow in the footsteps of former champions Randy Couture, Evan Tanner and Rich Franklin in search of UFC gold. Each of those men refined their diets, increased their commitment to cutting weight and moved one division south in search of a title, when the prospects at their more natural weight class began to fade.
On Sunday night on Versus, Marquardt will make his debut in the welterweight division. It is a weight class ruled by his good friend and training partner Georges St-Pierre. Other elite competitors also call the 170-pound division home. Guys like Jake Shields, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Thiago Alves, Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit, and BJ Penn (from time to time) all rank among the very best in the game. Marquardt wants to enter that exclusive fraternity of welterweight contenders. To do that, he must defeat another man on the cusp of contender status, Rick Story.
Story is in the midst of a six-fight winning streak, after coming up just a bit short in his UFC debut. What is truly impressive about the streak is that Story’s opponents have progressively gotten more difficult, culminating with a solid win against perennial title contender Alves just under a month ago. A win over Marquardt will undoubtedly put him at or near the top of the “next in line” list.
The two big questions lingering over this matchup are whether Marquardt can successfully handle the cut down to 170 pounds without losing any strength or conditioning and whether Story is ready for someone of Marquardt’s caliber only 29 days after defeating Alves.
Marquardt will likely seek to keep the fight on the feet. He is a very versatile striker, effective with his fists, elbows, knees and shins. He is equally effective when pushing the pace or countering. Marquardt will look to set the distance with the jab so that he can land a big right hand. Nevertheless, his biggest standup key against an aggressive, come-forward wrestler like Story will likely be his ability to control the action and exact damage from the clinch.
Marquardt will want to secure the Thai plumb as soon as Story rushes in. From there, he can use hard knee strikes when the pair jostle in the clinch in the center of the cage. He will rely more on elbows once the action moves to the cage. Alves had some success in the clinch against Story, though he refused to slam the petal to the metal in the final round, when it seemed likely that Story was on his way out. Marquardt won’t make that mistake.
Story knows that standing and striking with Marquardt is a bad idea. He also knows that clinching in the center of the cage is not the right answer. He wants this fight on the ground, and the best way to get it there is to crowd his opponent against the fence and then drag him to the ground. Once the action hits the mat, Story should first focus on getting Marquardt stacked up against the cage and then force Marquardt to carry his weight by using heavy hips and lots of ground and pound.
Nobody knows how Marquardt will fare in a grueling match after his first official cut to welterweight. Maybe the extra cardiovascular work shedding those last few pounds will sap his typically deep gas tank. Maybe the extra dieting in the weeks leading up to the fight will render his gas tank before the cut a little less full than normal. Maybe. Maybe not. Marquardt has no idea. His coach Greg Jackson has no idea. Story needs to make him answer that question.
The problem, of course, with Story forcing a grueling fight is that he last fought on May 28. Assuming he gave his body a week to recover before jumping back into hard training, will three weeks of preparation, including the typical weight cut, be enough time to refill his gas tank? If he didn’t take a week to rest and recover from the tough battle with Alves, will his muscles suffer from early fatigue memory, sort of like batteries suffering from short cycling? Just like with Marquardt, nobody knows the answer to that question. Yet, fighting that type of fight gives Story the best chance to win, no matter what his conditioning state happens to be come fight time.
Story is as hot as any welterweight in the world not named GSP or Diaz. Regardless, this is a major uphill battle for him. Marquardt represents the most complete test he has faced in his career to date. And if Marquardt handles the cut without any deleterious effects on his strength and conditioning, he will be facing one of the biggest, strongest and best conditioned opponents of his career. All else being equal, those advantages are often enough to decide the fight, though all else is not equal. Marquardt is the better all around fighter, period. And he has been fighting at the top of the sport long before Story began his career, so there is a major advantage in terms of experience.
The saving grace for Story is Marquardt’s biggest weakness is his wrestling, and that is where Story excels. I don’t think Story’s wrestling advantage will be enough, in light of the short preparation time, to carry the day, but we’ll all find out soon enough.
KONGO VS. BARRY
If you have never before watched mixed martial arts and you only have time to watch one fight next weekend, this is the one you need to see. You won’t need to bother trying to learn the nuances of the ground game. You won’t need to turn to your friend or jump on the Internet to interpret what the announcers are talking about as they call the action. Cheick Kongo versus Pat Barry will be a good old-fashioned slugfest, assuming Kongo doesn’t shock the world (and disappoint the fans) with a series of takedowns.
For those who don’t know, Kongo and Barry were both highly successful professional kickboxers before tossing their hats into the MMA arena. Their standup skills stand above all others in the heavyweight division, both in terms of technique and raw, bone-crushing power. And both need a decisive win to take a step away the middle of the division pack.
Kongo has one monstrous advantage heading into the fight, and it will be apparent the second the pair stand opposed at the pre-fight weigh in to pose for the media. The Frenchman enjoys a full five-inch height and nearly an eight-inch reach advantage. Those are often insurmountable odds when two equally skilled strikers go to war, particularly if Kongo commits to keeping Barry on the outside with a machine-gun jab and lead leg kicks. Setting the distance at the end of his punches will prevent the shorter, somewhat more explosive Barry from moving into striking range.
Barry is a short heavyweight. He knows that. He has been a short heavyweight his entire career, and it hasn’t really mattered that much yet because he has an innate ability to slip an opponent’s punches and step inside where he is able to exact tremendous damage. He did that against Antoni Hardonk and Mirko Cro Cop. There is no reason to think he cannot do the same thing against Kongo.
Once on the inside, Barry has a significant striking advantage against the much taller Kongo, assuming he can stay out of the clinch and away from knees. But again, knees are a major risk for Barry against every standup specialist opponent, so he is very accustomed to avoiding them. Barry is very good at exploding upward with leaping right hands and left hooks. He is also excellent at digging to the body, an often underutilized strike in MMA. Kongo will likely look to tie Barry up once he penetrates the perimeter, and, if history is any indicator, work for the takedown. Kongo has shown an increasing propensity to take down opponents who pose any threat to him on the feet, something that is surprising for a fighter of his background.
That will be an unfortunate result, if it happens, because a standup battle between these two has the potential to be the Fight of the Year and certainly is the odds on favorite to win an event bonus check, whether for Fight of the Night or Knockout of the Night. The fact remains, though, that this is MMA, not kickboxing, so Kongo would be well served to take the action to the ground, where Barry is his weakest. The taller, longer Kongo will be able to pound away at Barry from inside the guard, tiring and battering him, without having to try and pass the guard or otherwise improve his position. Even though that will possibly rob the fans of a spectacular, jaw-dropping finish, it is the more intelligent path to victory for Kongo, if he finds Barry able to slip his strikes and counter.
Based on the physical advantages, this should be Kongo’s fight to lose. The operative word there is “should.” Nothing is certain when Pat Barry steps in the cage because this guy has the power, skills and athleticism to touch anyone on the chin at any moment and bring down the curtains in an instant. I actually think he will find a way to win this fight, despite the fact that it appears to be a significant uphill battle on paper.
BROWN VS. HOWARD
Matt Brown and John Howard are both going through a serious rough patch in their respective UFC careers. Brown has lost three in a row, succumbing to submissions in the second round of each of those bouts. The fact that he is being brought back after three losses is a testament to his fighting spirit and ability to entertain the fans with his all-action style. Despite those desirable traits, four losses in a row almost certainly guarantees a stint in one of many smaller promotions before receiving another opportunity in the UFC.
Howard is coming off back-to-back defeats after starting his UFC career with four solid wins. Back-to-back defeats aren’t a rarity among top contenders. Parity is the reality of fighting in the UFC. Nonetheless, few fighters receive the opportunity that Brown was given, so Howard must operate under the assumption that this is a one-and-done situation, if he comes up short.
It suffices to say that these two are fighting for their short-term UFC futures. Sure, if they put on a tremendous back-and-forth show, it is possible that both will remain on the active roster, but nothing is guaranteed.
That added bit of pressure can lead to stifling results. I don’t see that being the case with these two. Brown and Howard are fighters deep down in their DNA. They live for a good scrap. And that is precisely what this should be.
Brown is a brawler’s brawler. The guy has good technique, but he is almost exclusively an offensive fighter. He isn’t afraid to take one on the chin in order to return the favor, and that is often his game plan because his toughness is a thing of legend. Keep in mind that he is one of only a very few UFC competitors with 10 or more career losses without ever having been stopped due to strikes.
Howard is an explosive striker in his own right. Before running into his current rough patch, Howard scored spectacular back-to-back knockouts over Dennis Hallman and Daniel Roberts, two excellent opponents. The problem, though, is he doesn’t have the same set of whiskers as his opponent. One-third of Howard’s six career losses came by way of knockout. That is something Brown hopes to exploit.
This fight isn’t about Xs and Os. Brown won’t let it be. He will come to fight, likely sending any pre-fight game plans right out the window. My guess is that Howard will want to bait Brown a bit so that emotion makes him come out swinging wildly. That will open the door for Howard to change levels and shoot for a double leg. Brown’s Achilles’ heel is his ground game. And that seems to be Howard’s best path to victory.
UFC Live: Breaking Down the Matchups
Michael DiSanto breaks down the big matchups on Sunday's stacked UFC Live on Versus card in Pittsburgh...