A lot of questions in the middleweight division will be cleared up by this card as there are four matches taking place there, including the final three matches of the card. So put one and one together and realize that means the main event and co-main event are middleweight fights. But for a quick lesson in the fight kingdom: Once one question is answered, it is inevitable that another one will appear. Still, without the original questions answered we don't know what questions will arise next. Thus... hey! wake up! Aww! The hell with it. Here's the important stuff:
Story Thus Far: At 36, this is Munoz's last shot at being a serious contender for the title. What sucks for him is that most people believe that his days of contending are done and over with (if they ever existed), even with a victory here. Regardless of either opinion, Munoz needs a win here in a bad way as he has dropped 2 of his last 3. When one remembers that those losses were to the champ Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida, it doesn't sound quite as bad.
Mousasi (like Munoz) dropped his last fight to Machida as he returned to the middleweight division and looked flat as the best shot he landed was an illegal upkick. But then again, most do look flat against Machida. Its easy to forget Mousasi is still only 28 when you look at the amount of fights on his ledger and his professional debut came in 2003, but he is which means he should be entering his prime. That is if he hasn't peeked earlier than most.
Fighting Style: Munoz gets labeled as a brawler quite often, which is kind of unfair. But only kind of. He loves to stand and bang as he packs a hell of a punch and is quite accurate. But he has been falling victim to those with much more technical acumen than he possesses and he is aware of his deficiencies in his lack of defensive movement. Thus why he prefers to take the fight to the ground where he can beat down his opponents from top control with his GNP (or as he calls them "Donkey Kong punches"). His takedown ability has been surprisingly mediocre for someone with such a strong wrestling background, but he is persistent and usually gets it after multiple attempts.
Mousasi is a jack of all trades, but unlike most that get that label he is more than just good at everything. His boxing is very crisp and technically clean and he can go back and forth from being the aggressor to being a counter striker. Remember how he jabbed Ilir Latifi to death? And he throws a lot of leg kicks too. But perhaps his greatest attribute is his ability to avoid punishment from his opponents. He'll mix in the occasional leg sweep or trip to get the fight on the ground for good measure, but he prefers the feet.
What to Expect: Munoz doesn't want to stand with Mousasi and he knows it. He has said as much. Mousasi will pick him apart all day with his jab and combinations if Munoz is unable to close the distance. Even then, Mousasi isn't horrible in the clinch and Munoz is very hittable. If Munoz can't get the takedown, he'll be satisfied to push Mousasi against the fence and wear him down with short punches and knees. The uglier the fight the better it will be for Munoz.
While I wouldn't label Mousasi a submission expert, he has had a tendency to slap one on opponents larger than him (such as Mark Hunt, Mike Kyle, and Jake O'Brien) and he does so quickly. He doesn't create the submission, he waits for his opponent to make a mistake or capitalizes on his opponent being rocked by a powerful strike. Maybe its more of an X-factor to mention this, but Munoz is definitely a large middleweight who has been able to avoid quite a few submission attempts. Either he has fantastic submission defense or he is lucky. I know its a combination of both... but I'm leaning more towards the latter. But my thoughts... Mousasi prefers the triangle choke which Munoz could be open to if he has top position.
Munoz will get Mousasi down at some point as Mousasi's takedown defense has been less than stellar. It may be his kryptonite as King Mo and Keith Jardine got him down a combined 17 times. I know I've already said this, but it is the key for Munoz: the uglier the fight the better it will be for Munoz.
X-Factors: Munoz looked great on his first trip to Europe so I don't anticipate any issues. He bounced back really well from his devastating KO to Chris Weidman, so I don't anticipate psychological issues from him after Machida decapitated him his last outing. Both fighters should be in optimal shape physically and mentally.
Who Will Win: Mousasi does too many things well in areas of weakness for Munoz. He can stick and move and can counter Munoz when Munoz presses to make things a dog fight. Munoz will have a chance if he can keep Mousasi on his back, but I don't see that happening. Mousasi by Submission 3rd Round
Story Thus Far: Carmont had an 11 fight win streak (including the last 6 in the UFC) snapped in his last appearance against Jacare Souza, but put up a good fight and had things even going into the final round. Carmont has struggled to get a fan base behind him as he took some controversial decisions during that streak and has often employed a less than exciting lay and prey style in many of his fights. Still, he pushed Jacare more than anyone else in recent memory (key word is recent) and proved he is a high level gatekeeper if not a contender.
Dollaway always seemed to be the most talented alum of TUF season 7, but never seemed to fully put everything together, including losing twice to Amir Sadollah (where is he exactly now?) by armbar in the course of the TUF tournament. Until recently that is. He is 3-1 in his last four and most would argue that the loss in his ledger should have actually been a win over Tim Boetsch. Carmont represents his chance to break into the rankings and declare himself a contender.
Fighting Style: Being big and strong with some solid takedowns, Carmont's grinding approach is smart. Why would you want to bang with Costas Philippou when you know he isn't very good off of his back? He throws a lot of kicks and jabs to keep opponents outside of his range, and has a good clinch game with devastating knees when he chooses to use it, which hasn't been often at all as of late as his competition has gotten better. When the fight is on the ground, he has a smothering top game and showed great resilience surviving some bad situations from Jacare.
Dollaway was a wrestler in college at Arizona St. (along with a plethora of other UFC vets) and remaining true to his roots, has been active in searching for takedowns in his MMA career. Not exactly large for the division, his technique and dogged determination are what allow him to succeed in that venture. Striking he doesn't like to feel things out as he tends to rush in and wing hooks with the intention to hurt. As you can guess, it often leaves him open to eating some punishment himself. You could say the same of his grappling in the sense that he tends to leave his limbs open for the taking as he searches for better position or offense.
What to Expect: Carmont prefers to take a very measured approach and Dollaway is the opposite. You'll see Carmont throw some kicks and jabs to try to keep Dollaway outside, but he won't have much success. Dollaway will be coming right at him. So look for Carmont to utilize his clinch game a lot in this fight in order for him to score some offense while standing.
Carmont has struggled against fighters with a wrestling background to stop them from taking him down as Jacare and Tom Lawlor were able to do. Dollaway himself has only been taken down twice in his UFC career. Look for both of them to attempt takedowns when the opportunity presents itself, but Dollaway is going to be more successful in this endeavor.
Dollaway hasn't exactly been smothering in his top control as he is more worried about landing punches and looking for a submission than maintaining control. Carmont showed he can survive with the best (not excel), and even managed to score a reversal on Jacare. You think he won't be able to do so with Dollaway? Even if Dollaway gets more takedowns, expect Carmont to have more time in top control, especially when one consideres Dollaway's risk-taking nature.
X-Factors: Even though Carmont is from France, he has been training in Montreal for a few years. So going to Europe will be like a homecoming for his in a sense and I would expect he'll be hyped up and own a homecourt advantage. Dollaway fought two months ago, but the fight lasted less than a minute. He'll be fine. But what is it about Carmont that the judges always seem to favor him?
Who Will Win: I've been happy to see Dollaway develop to where he is and feel he is finally starting to live up to his potential. But I don't think his potential has him becoming a contender. A solid gatekeeper absolutely. But he isn't getting past Carmont's smothering game... especially when you consider Carmont must be paying the judges. Carmont by Decision
Story Thus Far: Chael Sonnen saw something in Luke Barnatt to make him pick him first overall during season 17 of TUF and though he is blossoming now that he is no longer on the show, it is becoming more apparent all the time to the rest of us what he saw. Now at 3-0 in the UFC, Barnatt could enter the rankings by the end of the year if he stays busy as he is still learning and growing at the age of 26 with only 3 years of pro experience.
Strickland is younger at just 23, but has been fighting since 2008, giving him a lot of experience at such a young age. A former King of the Cage champion, he defended the belt five times before his UFC call up, indicating that he has some experience against good competition. Its clear he is far from a polished product too as he has a lot of sharpening to do in a number of areas.
Fighting Style: Barnatt is doing a much better job of utilizing his 78' reach than when he first entered the TUF house. Opponents can still get into his range as he let noted grappler (not striker) Mats Nilsson get into his range and land some shots last time out, but he at least has a developing jab to go along with his kicks now. From the clinch he owns some vicious knees which he transitions into very smoothly. His ground game is still a work in progress, but he shows solid defense at this point and the ability to capitalize on an opening.
Strickland was hard to get a read on before his debut as there was a severe lack of recent footage on him. His GNP was easily his biggest strength at the time (and still is) but he seemed to have little else to go with it besides some solid kicks. He has since developed much more sound technique to his punches to the extent that they can do more than just set up takedowns now. Why is it worth mentioning? It means he is still improving and adding dimensions to his game.
What to Expect: A feeling out process from both fighters can be expected as the styles they present to one another are largely new for each of them. Barnatt has been improving his distance striking and I anticipate he will start out with that route, especially with his kicks. Strickland will likely be examining the holes in Barnatt's defense so he can close the distance. I wouldn't imagine it will take him long to do so as the holes aren't small by any means.
Barnatt is going to hit the mat a few times. He has a good sprawl and has proven difficult to take down, but Strickland is stronger than any of his previous opponents. Strickland won't get him down every time he wants... Barnatt will stop some of the attempts, just not all of them.
This is a difficult fight to predict for one very large reason that I've already touched on. Both of these fighters are constantly improving and it is hard to say how much they will be improving in between their last fight and now. Fortunately it has been less than 3 months for each of them since we last saw them so there is only so much that they could iron out. But I would still say expect to see something unexpected in this match... and call that a cop out if you wish. I really don't give a damn.
X-Factors: Strickland has never fought in Europe before whereas Barnatt's last two fights have been across the ocean. Hard to say where these two have improved as well (I know I'm beating a dead horse by saying that, but it does count as an X-factor!)
Who Will Win: I'm having a very hard time picking between these two and it is driving me insane as I usually walk away with who I'm picking before I get to this point and I really don't have a clue right now. I'll give you my answer as soon as I find a coin... Strickland by Decision
Story Thus Far: Niinimaki comes riding into this bout with a 12 fight winning streak, including his UFC debut over respected veteran Rani Yahya, which actually pushed Yahya to the bantamweight division. Having made his professional debut in 2002, the Finland native has paid his dues and just about seen it all. He has also taken up training with the Blackzillians recently. At 31 it is most likely he will be a gatekeeper, but don't be shocked if he advances further than that in the rankings.
Backstrom got the call with a bit over two weeks to prepare for the fight as a late injury replacement for Thiago Tavares. A highly touted prospect, Backstrom turned pro in 2009, but only has 8 fights on his resume, but the competition hasn't been poor. Training at one of the best camps in Europe in Allstars Gym with the likes of Alexander Gustafsson, his development has been well monitored. Most pundits think he'll be in the organization for a long time to come.
Fighting Style: Niinimaki has always been thought of as a grappler, but he completely solidified that reputation as he not only beat Yahya, but it could be said that he outgrappled the ADCC champion. The biggest reason for that is Niinimaki does an excellent job of blending his improved wrestling with his awesome BJJ and is very strong, outmuscling Yahya multiple times during their bout. Though he has done a great job of sharpening his striking skills and can finish with strikes, it still isn't likely. He uses his striking to set up his grappling more than anything.
Backstrom is a hell of a grappler himself, but unlike Niinimaki, he doesn't often look for the submission. Once he gets a dominant position he looks to take mount rather than improve his position for the submission and rain down some powerful GNP. He is savvy and patient enough to work himself out of some bad positions too. If Backstrom has an advantage though, it will come standing up as he is much more dynamic than Niinimaki. He is a beast in the Thai clinch with devastating knees and has incorporated a variety of kicks into his arsenal.
What to Expect: This isn't likely to be a boxing match at all. Backstrom doesn't throw a lot of punches at all, preferring to use knees in the clinch from up close and kicks while at a distance and Niinimaki (like any smart fighter) tries to get the fight to the ground as quick as possible to play to his strengths. Backstrom has a hell of a reach at 72', but is still ironing out some wrinkles with his boxing. I would give the advantage to Niinimaki in straight up boxing, but the overall striking... very tough to say.
Backstrom is a physically strong grappler like Niinimaki, so he won't be steamrolled on the ground despite Niinimaki's prowess. Yahya's lack of physical strength allowed Niinimaki to bully him at times, but Niinimaki will have to rely more on his technique here... not that he is lacking in it by any means. Expect some fun grappling exchanges.
Backstrom is going to make some people "ouch" when he puts his knees from the clinch on display. There is not a damn thing gentle about them. Niinimaki is a tough veteran, so he can probably eat a few of them, but not many. Backstrom will look to apply the clinch when Niinimaki goes for a takedown... meaning Niinimaki will look to get him down quick.
X-Factors: Backstrom has a number of factors working against him here. This fight is very short notice for him while Niinimaki has a full camp behind him and this is also Backstrom's UFC debut. Thats a lot on one plate for a 24 year old with 8 fights under his belt.
Who Will Win: Niinimaki showed a lot of grit by being more than willing to go into Yahya's world in his UFC debut and he made a believer out of me. Backstrom isn't a push-over and it should be a fun fight, but Niinimaki is walking away with a W and Backstrom with a hell of a learning experience. Niinimaki by Submission 2nd Round
Record for last Card: 6-6 Record for Year: 107-69-1
Hey! I said wake up, damn it!