UFC 181 is here! Tomorrow night it all goes down as we have one of the most stacked cards to grace us all year long. Two belts are on the line as Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler square off for a second time over the UFC’s welterweight championship slot while Anthony Pettis defends his championship status against Gilbert Melendez. We covered the prelims, now it’s on to the main card!
Tony Ferguson vs. Abel Trujillo
What better way to start off the main card than with these lightweights who are sure to bring the house down. Ferguson finds himself as a strong favorite heading into this bout, but when you take a look at the amount of power Abel Trujillo packs in his punches, odds quickly become a thing of myth. In fact both lightweights contain one-punch knockout power and that’s exactly what I’m hoping for tomorrow night in this intense showdown.
Ferguson brings a noticeable height and reach advantage into this bout and if he doesn’t want to be lying down on the canvas like the likes of Jamie Varner and Roger Bowling, then he needs to use it. Ferguson is especially good at clipping guys coming in and if history tells us anything it’s that Trujillo is going to want to do exactly that. The slug fest between Jamie Varner and Abel Trujillo was truly a thing of shear violence and spectacle, but it showed us that Trujillo likes to throw caution to the wind, bite down on his mouth piece, and just bang. Against a craftier fighter in Tony Ferguson, this could be his downfall.
In the end, I have to favor Ferguson just like the odds are. Ferguson brings a crafty submission game into the cage on top of his excellent counter-striking skills, so it’s really Ferguson’s fight to lose. Don’t get me wrong, Abel Trujillo has the power to put Ferguson out at any second of the fight, but Ferguson is going to be standing a lot further away from Trujillo than Abel is going to like, and he also is going to be looking for submissions if the fight goes to the mat. The verdict is that Ferguson is too good, too crafty, and too smart to get caught up in a firefight with Abel Trujillo and will submit him after smartly taking the fight to the ground somewhere late in the first or second round.
Todd Duffee vs. Anthony Hamilton
The heavyweight wrecking ball known as Todd Duffee once again steps into the Octagon for the first time since the very end of 2012. He takes on “Freight Train” Anthony Hamilton who brings a 1-1 UFC record; he dropped his debut to Alexey Oleinik, but is coming off a win via TKO over Ruan Potts. Both of these guys have the power to end the fight at a punch’s notice. This is definitely going to be a don’t-blink type of fight.
There are two real big x factors coming into this fight, the most noticeable being Duffee’s potential ring rust. Heavyweights are known to being way more affected by long lay-offs than let’s say a lightweight, and I definitely think it will affect Todd Duffee. From what I’ve seen, Duffee seems to be in phenomenal shape, but it’s not necessarily his physique as it is his reaction speed that could be hindered due to his long absence from MMA.
Another real big x factor is the size of Anthony Hamilton. Hamilton is much taller and his overall frame just looks to dwarf that of Todd Duffee. This could be a real factor if these two lock up in the clinch, or if Hamilton finds himself in top control. With the power that these two bring to the table, this fight can end anywhere, so if Hamilton can find a way to get the fight to the ground, or even in the clinch against the cage, it’s going to better favor Anthony.
In the end the real question is going to be how Hamilton has prepared for Duffee’s explosive power punching. Duffee has dynamites in his hands and can close the distance to land jackhammers at a moment’s notice, so it’s real important that Hamilton fights at a longer distance. Really pay attention to potential ploys that Duffee might utilize to lure Hamilton in range, and whether or not Hamilton has the reflexes and defensive capabilities to handle Duffee’s explosions. If Hamilton wants to win this fight, he has to take Duffee out of his game by employing his size advantage against. Even though Duffee is a huge underdog, I don’t like the fact that Duffee has been out for so long. I’m going to roll the dice and predict Hamilton to score the upset by knocking out Duffee with something on the ground or in the clinch.
Brendan Schaub vs. Travis Browne
Another pair of heavyweights are set to do battle tomorrow night as Brendan “Big Brown” Schaub squares off against Travis “Hapa” Browne. Schaub is coming off of a disappointingly inactive bout against Andrei Arlovski where Schaub was the receiving end of a split decision verdict, but before that had one of his biggest victories when he submitted Matt Mitrione. Travis Browne on the other hand is coming off a title-eliminator bout with Fabricio Werdum where he was out-matched, but previously knocked out 3 contenders in Josh Barnett, Alistair Overee, and Gabriel Gonzaga.
Even though Browne sits as a huge favorite in this fight, I think Brendan Schaub has more of a chance in this fight than people recognize. Schaub fell in love with his striking ability a little too much early in his career and paid for it, but since then has been trying to focus more on his grappling as was evident when he surprised everyone by choking out Matt Mitrione. Schaub is an athletic fighter who really has a lot of tools, but the big question will be whether or not he can implement any of his new tools against the long and rangy Travis Browne.
On the feet, Browne should be able to control the distance with his rangy kicks and superior footwork. Browne moves very smoothly so don’t expect Schaub to be able to overwhelm Browne too easily in attempt to score an easy takedown. We saw how much Schaub struggled trying to outwork Andrei Arlovski, and I think Browne could pose as a more difficult task. Schaub’s advantage is going to come if the fight ever gets to the floor. Browne has shown superior takedown defense before, as well as his ability to inflict mass amounts of damage to his opponents who try to take him down.
Even though Schaub has the ability to catch Browne off guard in a choke or other submission, I don’t think Browne is going to let that even be a possibility. The length of Travis Browne, his footwork, and his takedown defense should keep Brown out of harms way and keep the fight where he wants it. Schaub’s chin is a real question after being knocked out three times before, so Browne could definitely catch him with a punch or kick and put him out, but instead I see Browne out-pointing Schaub by putting on a striking clinic on him.
Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez
For the UFC lightweight champion of the world we have the current champ, Anthony “Showtime” Pettis putting his newly earned UFC belt on the line against long-time Strikeforce lightweight champ, Gilbert Melendez. As the last WEC lightweight champ, Pettis was expected to make a fluid transition into the UFC and even potentially make a clean sweep, but this did not happen. Instead Pettis was met with a series of injuries and a loss to Clay Guida that set him back. However, Pettis was forced to improve, adapt, and change. Since then Pettis has looked like an absolute world-eater as he has finished three straight top ranked opponents, including Benson Henderson for the belt. Pettis’s flashy style of striking combined with his vastly underrated grappling game makes him an exciting finisher who leaves you begging to see more every time he fights. Opposite of him is Gilbert Melendez, a tough, scrappy warrior who defeated MMA’s best outside the UFC. Gil got an immediate shot when he transitioned over, and gave Benson Henderson all he could handle for the lightweight belt, but unfortunately lost a split decision. A fight of the year worthy performance against Diego Sanchez put him back in line for the belt, but this time against Anthony Pettis.
Pettis is unfortunately coming off of a long lay-off, over a year, but this isn’t something Pettis is a stranger too. He finished Donald Cerrone after coming off a year long lay-off, and according to Pettis, he feels as healthy as ever. Even though some people might see his long lay-off as a potential x factor in his fight, I do not think it will be so. The real x factor in this fight however is going to be Gilbert Melendez’s aggression. Gil is known as being a real dog in the cage who never backs down from a slug fest, but what he’s going to be getting isn’t a slug fest, it’s going to be a chess match. Pettis is as smart as they come in terms of pacing himself in the cage, and if you think Gilbert is going to be able to just corner Pettis and tee off – you’re wrong. Gilbert Melendez is really going to have to time his bursts well and not get too over aggressive and wind up chasing Pettis; doing so will only open himself up to devastating counter attacks. On the flip side, Pettis needs to be sure to still open up. One of Pettis’s biggest complaints have been that he waits too much. I think Pettis has addressed this in his recent years and doesn’t have the problem of hesitating like he did when he first came to the UFC.
In conclusion I think Gilbert Melendez is just over-matched and doesn’t present anything that Pettis can’t completely neutralize. A lot of people are saying that Gil’s wrestling will give Pettis troubles, but I would look for Pettis’s footwork to really disrupt the takedown entries that Gil might use. Look for Pettis to definitely be on his bicycle, but firing off enough counter shots and landing significant strikes to keep him ahead on scorecards. It’ll be an admirable performance by Gil, but ultimately the speed of Pettis combined with the technical intelligence will just be too much. Pettis by decision.
Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler
At the top of the card we have the UFC welterweight championship on the line as Johny Hendricks fights Robbie Lawler for the second time with gold on the line. Hendricks and Lawler fought for the unclaimed belt after Georges St. Pierre vacated the belt, but now Hendricks is defending the belt. Hendricks also has not fought since that first bout with Lawler back in March of this year where Johny won a narrow unanimous decision in a very back-and-forth fight. Lawler on the other hand has been busy taking out contenders to again solidify himself as the premiere UFC welterweight not holding a belt. Lawler originally earned his shot when he shocked everyone by edging Rory MacDonald, a feat only shared by Carlos Condit. After the disappointing loss to Hendricks, Lawler TKO’d 170lb slugger, Jake Ellenberger, and then also won a decisive decision victory over Matt Brown that went 25 minutes. Even though many of us are sick of seeing rematches for belts, there is no doubt that Robbie Lawler deserves a second chance at UFC gold.
In the first bout, both Hendricks and Lawler seemed content to stand in the pocket and strike. They were both very evenly matched and both had moments where they had each other hurt, but it was a takedown in the fifth round that secured the round for Hendricks, and also the fight. Because of how closely contested the first bout what, a lot of people are speculating what is going to be different – if anything.
A big weapon that Robbie Lawler was not utilizing the first time around was his kicks. Lawler has showed in the Jake Ellenberger just how powerful his kicks are when he slammed them into Ellenberger’s arms, which in turn made them pretty much useless. He also targeted Matt Brown’s body on occasion with well-timed body kicks that had the fellow welterweight hurt. But perhaps the reason why Robbie Lawler didn’t bring his kicking game was for fear of the takedown. I think Lawler limited his output to primarily his hands because he didn’t want Hendricks to catch his kicks. This time around I think this will be different. For one, I’d like to see Lawler use more head kicks – they do serious damage and are also hard to catch. And even if Hendricks does take him down, I see Lawler being able to scramble back to his feet as long as he’s fresh. I would like to see Lawler not worry about the threat of the takedown during the first 2 or 3 rounds, and then ween himself off leg and body kicks later in the fight should it go that far.
For Hendricks, the big question is going to be how he fights with a 100% healthy bicep. He fought with a torn bicep in the first fight and it no doubt impacted his ability to throw heavy power. I’d look for Hendricks to not necessarily stand in the pocket so much, but use more footwork to give Lawler some different angles and see if he can’t wrap some shots behind the ear like Nick Diaz used to knock Lawler out. Ultimately though I wouldn’t expect to see a much different game plan from Hendricks because it worked the first time, if we’re going to see anything vastly different it’ll probably be Lawler and some added kicks.
In conclusion I’m going to pick Lawler to get a decision victory this time around. He is the underdog, but I just think there is more room for him to develop a diverse game plan where as I think Hendricks will show up with a similar approach. Lawler should be able to throw kicks at will in the early going and get himself off the mat if he needs to, but then later in the fight he can resort to his more boxing-oriented approach and hopefully close the fight out strong.