UFC 164: Henderson vs. Pettis 2 – Preview and Predictions for the Main Card

Saturday, August 31st.
Facebook prelims: 6:30 p.m. ET / 3:30 p.m. PT
Fox Sports 1 prelims: 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT
Main pay-per-view card: 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT

UFC164-Main-1 The UFC returns to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the first time in more than two years with UFC 164: Henderson vs. Pettis 2. Its main event, a rematch between “Smooth” Benson Henderson and Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, has both fighters in the same position they were in the first time met inside the Octagon: Henderson is the defending champion, Pettis is challenging for the title. The original fight, which took place in December 16, 2010 in the now-defunct WEC organization (that was immediately absorbed by the UFC after the event), was an exciting back-and-forth battle seeing both fighters in dominant positions going into the fifth and final round, however more than anything else it will be remembered for the legendary “Showtime Kick” that occurred in the final frame which, though it didn’t knock Henderson out, was so impressively inventive it undoubtedly won Pettis the fight.

Since a lightweight division already existed in the UFC, the WEC belt Pettis took from Henderson was purely a temporary and meaningless ornament, and although “Showtime” was promised an immediate title shot, there was an utter SNAFU of rematches going on at the time involving then-champion Frankie Edgar.  Pettis opted to stay busy and take a fight and found himself on the losing end of a decision against Clay “The Carpenter” Guida (who is also on the main card, facing #1-ranked featherweight Chad Mendes), while Henderson won his debut against Mark Bocek and hasn’t lost since, collecting the belt in the process.

This Saturday, either Pettis will lay claim to what he believes is his rightful spot atop the lightweight heap or Henderson will avenge the only loss he’s suffered since 2007. One thing is for certain: It will be a phenomenal fight.

The main card boasts an impressive lineup, including a contest for featherweight contender relevance between #6-ranked Dustin Poirier and #10-ranked Erik Koch, who was poised to challenge Jose Aldo for the title before an injury sidelined him.

Two heavyweight matchups serve to balance out the card’s weight differential as well, including a fun fight between Ben Rothwell and Brandon Vera (who has once again moved back up to heavyweight after an absolute barn burner of a fight with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua his last time out) and a long-in-the-making heavyweight clash between two big veterans with even bigger personalities, Frank Mir and Josh Barnett.

The undercard has numerous matches well worth a watch, including fights between Gleison Tibau and rejuvenated former lightweight champion Jamie Varner, a lightning-quick flyweight set-to between Louis Gaudinot and a tenacious Tim Elliot, and another between rising prospects Ryan Couture (whose last name is no coincidence) and the Serra-Longo product Al Iaquinta, however this article will solely focus on breaking down the main card and predicting the outcomes of the fights therein.

Let’s get started!

  Featherweight (145 lbs.) Fight — 3 Rounds:
#6 Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier [13-3] (+120)
vs.
#10 Erik “New Breed” Koch [13-2] (-150)

Poirier-Koch Both of these guys are coming off of losses. Poirier dropped a unanimous decision to #4-ranked Cub Swanson (who had, until then, finished four of his previous five fights), while Koch was utterly destroyed by #2-ranked Ricardo Lamas. Suffice it to say that they are each looking to bounce back impressively and remain relevant to the title picture in their division.

On paper, Poirier looks to be this busier, more accurate striker. The Fightville star is also an excellent finisher, having only 15 percent of his wins going by way of the judges’ score cards. Something to take into consideration is that he has looked a little unlike himself in his last few fights since leaving his original home of Gladiator MMA (under the tutelage of UFC vet “Crazy” Tim Credeur) and joining American Top Team. This will be an opportunity for him to right his ship and justify his move.

Koch, on the other hand, was on an absolute tear and was poised to take on featherweight champ Jose Aldo before an injury sidelined him for 15 months. A Milwaukee native, he trains at Roufusport under the watchful eye of head trainer Duke Roufus, however he’s been training MMA-style combat since he was 13 years old. Before his loss to Lamas, his only previous loss was to #1-ranked Chad Mendez, so it isn’t exactly like he’s been losing to slouches. In fact, it could be justifiably argued that ring rust was a factor in his last fight. Though he does have a slightly lower finishing rate than Poirier (77 percent), make no mistake about it: he’s a killer.

This will be a terrifically close fight. They’ve both been fighting the absolute elite in their division for some time now. A lot can change in a year’s time, and the featherweight division has seen many contenders rise up. Koch has quite a lot to prove. Unlike Koch, Poirier runs no risk of falling out of the top-ten with a loss here, but another loss will certainly quash any title aspirations for the next year. Koch’s hometown advantage may come into play, and it certainly won’t hurt that all of his most familiar amenities will be at his disposal up until a few hours before Bruce Buffer announces their names. Unless someone catches someone with something early, it’s a coin toss. I’m going with the guy who Joe Silva thought enough of to schedule against Aldo in his debut UFC title defense and who can walk to the Octagon from his house.

Koch by decision.

 Heavyweight (207 lbs. and up) Fight – 3 Rounds:
“Big” Ben Rothwell [32-9] (+110)
vs.
Brandon “The Truth” Vera [12-6-1] (-140)

Rothwell-Vera This next matchup is a bit of a head-scratcher. For starters, it marks Brandon Vera’s return to the heavyweight division for the first time since 2008 after a two-fight skid against former champion Tim Silvia and current contender Fabricio Werdum sent him packing to the light heavyweight circle. We last saw him lose to former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a highly entertaining back-and-forth battle in which he finally succumbed to strikes in the fourth round, losing by TKO. What makes him think he’ll fare better against even bigger opponents? Surely he’ll have a speed advantage, but aside from that, once you start facing higher-tier heavyweights (whom his opponent Ben Rothwell may be considered after another win), that slight timing difference becomes negligible after a couple of your opponent’s punches land.

“Big” Ben Rothwell is fighting in his home State of Wisconsin. A former pupil of MMA great Pat Milletich and of local great Duke Roufus, he boasts an impressive professional record and an even more impressive finishing rate, at 91 percent. He’s not particularly fast, however he’s a big strong galoot who can put anyone away if he lands cleanly. Like Vera, he also is coming off a loss, via submission to Gabriel “Napao” Gonzago.

Recent photos taken of Vera while training at Alliance MMA with light heavyweight contender Phil Davis and bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz show him to be far larger than he was when he originally entered the UFC’s heavyweight division back in 2005. Sometimes a significant gain in muscle mass can be an advantage, however most of the time history has shown that it is ill-suiting to a fighter due to the extra work it puts on a frame more naturally suited to less mass. Since his first three fights in the organization where he finished all of his opponents (including a TKO win over Frank Mir), he has been running hot and cold almost as a rule, with a finishing rate just making it to 67 percent. He has also lost three of his last five fights. Rothwell, on the other hand, though a natural heavyweight, has looked awfully pedestrian since he joined the UFC roster, alternating wins and losses. The real wildcard in this matchup is the fact that “Big” Ben has been cleared for testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) which, unless a fighter is legitimately suffering from hypergonadism (like Chael Sonnen), is essentially a performance enhancing substance. I’m going with the guy who’s juicing and not the guy who just packed on a whole lotta meat he may not be accustomed to maneuvering about in a dangerous situation.

Rothwell by (T)KO.

  Featherweight (145 lbs.) Fight — 3 Rounds:
#1 Chad “Money” Mendes [14-1] (-400)
vs.
#9 Clay “The Carpenter” Guida [30-13] (+300)

Mendes-Guida Of all of the bouts on the main card, this is the easiest to break down.

Chad Mendes is the #1-ranked featherweight in the world (Jose Aldo, as the champion, does not get a numerical ranking), having only ever lost to Aldo via last-second KO in a round he was otherwise winning in the champ’s home country. He has one punch knockout power which has been made even more dangerous since his camp, Team Alpha Male, brought over Duane “Bang” Ludwig (who holds the UFC record for fastest knockout) as their head coach. He is an elite athlete and was once named Pac-10 wrestler of the year while in college. He is the best pure wrestler in his division and, since losing to Aldo, has put up a three-fight win streak in which he’s knocked out all of his opponents in the first round.

Clay Guida, on the other hand, is the definition of a pressure fighter. He has an endless gas tank, constantly in motion and holds a win over Anthony Pettis while at a higher weight class. A longtime member of Greg Jackson’s MMA gym, he has a 63 percent finishing rate overall, although he has only finished one of his last five opponents.

Guida gets points for kinetic pace. He’s total grit and determination, the quintessential overachiever. Mendes was carved out of the side of Mount Olympus, however, and his loss to Aldo has most likely served as a great lesson to him. Though Guida will have a size advantage, it won’t matter much. Mendes will destroy him.

Mendes by (T)KO. 

Heavyweight (207 lbs. and up) Fight — 3 Rounds:
#6 Frank Mir [16-7] (+155)
vs.
#10 Josh “The Warmaster” Barnett [32-6] (-190)

Mir-Barnett There’s been a healthy dose of trash talk heading into this much-anticipated bout between two true veterans of the sport. Both are former UFC heavyweight champions (Mir actually made his UFC debut at UFC 36, the same card that Barnett took the title from Randy Couture). Both have impressive finishing rates (Barnett’s at 84 percent, Mir’s at 75 percent). Both are primarily ground fighters with deceptively decent standup. Their career trajectories have been rather different.

Currently training at Greg Jackson’s MMA, the Kenpo and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt Frank Mir is considered the best submission artist in UFC heavyweight history, disposing of the likes of Tim Silvia, Brock Lesnar, Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira and Cheick Kongo on the ground. He truly adheres to the philosophy of “tap or snap,” as evident of his maiming of Silvia and Nogueira – both of whom required surgery after they fought him.  A former Nevada state wrestling champion, the southpaw Mir is dangerous wherever the fight takes place and, aside from his first two fights, has never fought outside of the UFC.

Formerly “The Babyfaced Assassin,” Josh “The Warmaster” Barnett took quite a different route in his career. Immediately after winning the belt from Couture he was stripped of his title after his post-fight drug test failed to come back clean. Though he staunchly denies it to this day, it wouldn’t be the first time PEDs have mucked things up for him (his failed drug test essentially tanked the entire Affliction promotion, as they had invested so much in his bout with Fedor Emilianenko they had nothing to rebound on). A catch wrestler, Barnett is excellent at moving to dominant positions while on top of his opponents and sinking numerous submissions bolstered by his BJJ black belt. He is a longtime member of Matt Hume’s AMC Pankration camp, which is home to flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.

Both he and Mir share a recent opponent in Daniel Cormier. While Mir’s fight was, for the most part, a lackluster affair that saw very little action while both men battled gruelingly against the cage for position, Barnett was ragdolled from pillar to post in an incredibly lopsided and embarrassing match. Though this may initially seem like a means through which to determine how they face one another, there are two things to consider:

  1. That’s not the way MMA works. Sometimes fighters lose to fighter who have lost to fighters they have beaten (say that five times fast and try to make it make sense).
  2. As it turned out, Barnett broke his hand in the first frame of his fight with Cormier. An awful impediment to any kind of fighter in any kind of fight, it is quadruply crippling when facing an Olympic-caliber wrestler who keeps coming forward trying to dump you on your head.

What’s so intriguing about this fight is that it’s rather difficult to guess how they’ll go about it. Barnett has better MMA wrestling, but Mir has shown to be decent at keeping it on the feet when he wants to (as evident by his last fight with Cormier). On the ground, Mir comes much more lauded, however Barnett actually has more submission wins (19) in his career than Mir has wins overall (16). Barnett has fought a who’s-who of fighter, possibly facing better competition within his weight class while over in Pride, but Mir has been digging away consistently in his weight class for longer than anyone else in the UFC.

These are two big dudes with even bigger personalities coming together to clash for the delight of the fans. Each of them feel like they have what it takes to make one last run at the most distinguishing title in all of MMA. Although Barnett has won his fair share of fights against quality opponent, he hasn’t beaten anyone reasonably within the top-10 range since his split decision victory over Big Nog back in 2006, whereas Mir has racked up wins against Brock Lesnar, Mirko Crocop, Roy Nelson and Big Nog himself in the same amount of time. Why Barnett is coming in a favorite over him is beyond me.

Mir will be looking to make a statement against Barnett, and I think he’ll do just that via bone-cracking catharsis.

Mir via submission.

 Lightweight (155 lbs.) Title Fight — 5 Rounds:
(Champion) Benson “Smooth” Henderson [19-2] (-130)
vs.
#2 Anthony “Showtime” Pettis [16-2] (+100)

Henderson-PettisIt’s déjà vu all over again.

Finally, Pettis gets his long-awaited shot at the title which was promised to him back during our President’s first term. Both he and the champion are improved versions of themselves, Pettis perhaps more so just due to the aplomb with which he has begun to shell out unorthodox strikes in every match. His wrestling, which he’s been working on with undefeated Bellator welterweight champion and multi-gold winning wrestler Ben Askren, has almost certainly improved, which may very well be why he’s begun to throw more creative strikes with self-assured impunity.

Benson Henderson has had an undefeated run since joining the UFC and has skyrocketed to the top of the most stacked division in the promotion. His kicks to the legs and body are murderous. He has shown incredible cardio through all of his fights and he is almost impossible to submit or knock out. While in the clinch, he’s as dangerous as any lightweight out there.

Pettis perhaps has the finest ring generalship in modern MMA. It’s almost like watching a mongoose work over a cobra. He lulls them into a trance and before they know it they’re backed up against the cage wondering what the hell happened. He did it to Henderson in their first meeting and he did it to Donald Cerrone (whom he was the first-ever to KO) most recently. He likely would have done the same thing to Joe Lauzon had he not knocked him out within the first minute and a half of their fight. Boasting 65 percent takedown defense, 77 percent takedown offense, he keeps it on the feet more often than not, and he’s finished 81 percent of the fights he’s won.

Conversely, Bendo’s stats show him having 65 percent takedown defense and only 48 percent takedown offense. He also only has a 53 percent finishing rate. Then again, he hasn’t finished a fight since losing to Pettis three years ago.  In his defense, when you’re fighting the best in the world, finishes are harder to come by. Just ask Georges St. Pierre.

This fight is going to boil down who has improved the most since their last meeting. Pettis has gotten even flashier since their last meeting (“Showtime Knee,” capoeira kick and wheel kick anyone?), and since his loss to Guida he’s been blasting through his opposition so brutally that, in lieu of any other suitably marketable challengers the UFC brass asked him to drop down a weight class to challenge Aldo (a fight that unfortunately disintegrated). His work with Askren will be put to the test against Henderson, however he himself was able to take Benson down in their first fight, so perhaps it’s not such a daunting task after all.

“Smooth,” though his striking has become a bit crisper and his cardio has improved, has shown no true drastic improvement. He still typically throws one strike at a time, and if he does decide to throw combinations they are cookie-cutter left-right-left combos easily avoided by those even rudimentarily familiar with the striking game. He also is still habitually finds himself with his back against the cage, a position Pettis shines against.

Henderson is the safe money. He’s the odds-on favorite, he’s got several five-round fights heading into this – so we know his gas tank is full – and he’s got a fire lit under his ass to redeem himself against an opponent who embarrassed him to the point of tears after their last bout. His chin should hold up while moving in for takedowns and, if he plays it safe, he could coast to a decision victory against Pettis, who is pure tactfully bottled aggression.

Then again, Pettis is the one with a two-inch reach advantage, an incredibly active guard from which is constantly looking for submissions and sweeps and, to top it all off, he’s fighting in front of his home crowd. Of course, that didn’t seem to work too well for Bendo in their first fight.

I keep going back and forth on this one. Though a Henderson win would most likely set things up for a rubber match sometime in the future, I feel as if Pettis is truly the best lightweight out there – stubbed toe against Guida aside – and he’ll show it this Saturday night in a closely contested matchup that will see his hand raised, this time as the new UFC lightweight champion.

Pettis by decision.

 

(Photos courtesy of Zuffa LLC. and Cagewall.com)

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Jesse Scheckner

A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a former semi-serious musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest performance in film has yet to come. He is TuffGnarl.com's editor-in-chief, a feature staff writer for MMASucka.com and the 2014 MMA Media Correspondent winner at the Florida MMA Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner to talk about the stuff he writes about with him.

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