The best fight card on network television is this Saturday and that's not hyperbole. I was at the EliteXC event where Kimbo Slice fought James Thompson, Gina Carano set record ratings for women's MMA and so on and so forth. That event at the Prudential Center didn't sell out and didn't feature nearly the strength of Saturday's roster. Not even close.
Saturday's event represents the UFC's best effort to date in terms of putting the right product on the Fox platform. And as a result, the stakes are huge while the fights are ultra-competitive.
Can B.J. Penn reclaim lost glory and re-write how he's remembered before it's all over? Will Benson Henderson keep his title or will young Nate Diaz bring one of the most difficult belts to earn in MMA back to Stockton? Is Alexander Gustafsson the next big that light heavyweight? I answer these questions and more with predictions for Saturday's event.
What: UFC on FOX 5
Where: KeyArena, Seattle, Washington
When: Saturday, the one-fight Facebook card kicks off at 4:30 p.m. ET, the six-fight FX preliminary fight starts at 5 p.m. ET and the four-fight main card on FOX begins at 8.
Predictions for the four main card fights airing Saturday on FOX are below.
This is one of those cards where in retrospect I'm going to regret going all chalk. The fights are close and even when they're not, the underdogs are capable of madness.
In this case, the betting favorite is Henderson. That's a placement I naturally agree with. My sense is that Henderson will win for three reasons. First, despite the pressure game of Diaz, Henderson will have the gas tank to both mix it up and stay on his wheels for a full five rounds (and it's highly likely this goes the distance).
Second, Henderson's outside kicking game will score points. Diaz will block middle and head kicks, but isn't particularly studious in checking leg kicks.
Third, wrestling matters. Henderson is not MacDonald and this isn't welterweight, but that UFC 129 victory is a good blue print on how to attack Diaz. I don't think it's true that "Diaz loses to wrestlers", but a strong wrestler with good submission defense who can wrestle standing while maintaining control from behind and shutting down scrambles can beat Diaz. My belief is that man is the UFC lightweight champion.
The Swede takes this fight for two reasons. The length of his limbs - and his adept use of them - will be too much for the blitzkrieging Rua. Of course, even from the outside, Rua has attacks and can wade through a more technical, precise striker to score damage or points. I am by no means suggesting this is all a foregone conclusion. But the probability certainly favors Gustafsson. I also suspect Gustafsson will be able to take Rua down and control from on top. Again, Rua has an excellent deep half guard sweep and moderately threatening mobile game underneath, but nothing outside the realm of the Swede's control.
I also believe in Gustafsson's natural acumen. He acclimates to the game very quickly. I'd favor him in a rematch over Phil Davis. I suspect the Gustafsson we'll see on Saturday will be markedly better than the last one we saw.
B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald
Here are the facts: Penn is losing more than he's winning. He's coming out of semi-retirement. He also doing so at welterweight, a weight class that's not his home but unconquered territory of his goals...and ego. He's also facing the fastest rising contender at that weight class. Sound like a recipe for success? Not to me.
Penn was the first fighter I was ever a fan of because he has the three of four things the perfect fighter needs to succeed. He's an excellent athlete with particular athletic gifts for MMA, e.g. flexibility, a supreme technician and wee bit bloodthirsty. When was all of those in fights, he was basically unbeatable.
Hubris, however, has been his downfall. He never stuck to the weight class where he should've done the bulk of his work. He was content instead to jump weight classes, mostly to his detriment. Now at 34 he wants to right the wrongs of his youth. It's probably too little, too late.
Penn can win. When he's truly at his best, I believe he can beat anyone at lightweight or welterweight. I also suspect the first round will be close or easily the Hawaiian's. The problem is MacDonald is a more active fighter with a wider offensive arsenal. Over time, the Canadian takes it.
Frankly, this is a pick 'em. Matt Brown is much better than he once was even if he's still a flawed fighter. Swick is obviously very dangerous, but is still on the rebound. There were a few moments in the last bout with DaMarques Johnson at UFC on FOX 4 where he was being overwhelmed on the ground. I ultimately suspect Swick will be able to hurt Brown and then follow up with a guillotine or a TKO finish. But honestly, if Brown hangs on past the first round, it's anyone's game.