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Friday, June 06, 2003
Mixed Martial Arts--- UFC 43 Previews and Predictions

These previews were originally written for and published on one of the top mixed martial arts web sites on the planet, MMAWeekly. I am now a writer for MMAWeekly and will be writing MMA-related content for them in addition to Ivan's Blog. You can check out MMAWeekly for yourself at www.mmaweekly.com

Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture for the "Interim" UFC Light-Heavyweight Title
It's not Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz, but it is the next best thing. With Tito having fought one time in the past 20 months and now refusing to honor his contract, Zuffa decided to put longtime #1 contender Chuck Liddell in a fight against MMA legend Randy Couture for the "interim" UFC Light-Heavyweight Title. Whoever becomes the "interim" champion will then become the official UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion a few months down the road, unless something drastic happens in the Ortiz negotiations very soon.

The main event line-up change is irrelevant to mainstream fans and media members, because the vast majority of them have never heard of Liddell, Ortiz, or Couture. It's sad, but true statement that most sports fans and writers view everyone in the UFC as "just another Ultimate Fighter." The only possible exception would be Ken Shamrock, and even that depends on whether or not they were watching the WWE a few years back when it was drawing some of the highest ratings in the history of cable television. For hardcore fans, the big questions posed by this fight are, "Will Chuck Liddell be able to continue his streak of dominating opponents and beating them by decision or KO?" and, "Will Randy Couture offer a repeat of his previous performance, where he started off very strong and then faded into defeat in the later rounds?" It's far from certain, but I would "yes" to both questions.

Randy Couture is a warrior who will go down in history as one of the best UFC fighters ever, but the fact remains that he is less than one month away from his 40th birthday. Everyone gets old eventually, and after all these years, Couture finally started to show signs of aging in the last two rounds of his most recent fight. I'm a firm believer that Couture is still good enough to convincingly defeat more than 50% of the heavyweights and light-heavyweights in the UFC, he's not just fighting anyone here... he's fighting one of the most dangerous and well-rounded fighters in the sport.

Couture will surely try to take the fight to the ground, but this is where Liddell separates himself from most of the other top strikers in the sport: He has a background in wrestling, he's extremely hard to take down, and if you do take him down, it can be damn-near-impossible to keep him down. The legendary Murilo Bustamante couldn't take Liddell down with any regularity, and when Vitor Belfort was able to take him down, Liddell simply stood back up and made it look easy to do so. The ultimate counter to the ground and pound offense of Randy Couture (or anyone else) is someone like Liddell who is so well-versed in takedown defense and evasive grappling.

I'm not trying to say that Couture isn't going to be able to take Liddell down. As one of the best ground and pound stylists in the sport, I do believe that Couture is going to be able to take Liddell down and inflict a decent amount of damage on him. Here's the problem for Couture, though: Even a championship-level ground and pound attack generally doesn't end fights with two minutes of offense, or even five minutes in most cases. It's a persistent, smothering, painful assault that wears your opponent down over time until you've won by TKO or decision. I just don't believe that Couture is going to be able to keep Liddell down long enough to finish him off by TKO, and I also don't believe that he's going to be able to grind out a decision victory. Liddell is going to be taken down and he's going to be on the receiving end of some punishment, but he's going to be able to consistently get back up and control the fight in my opinion.

Defending takedowns burns up a lot less energy than constantly putting all of your strength into going for takedowns, with two recent examples of this being Quinton Jackson vs. Kevin Randleman, and Cabbage Correira vs. Sean Alvarez. Couture has excellent stamina and is unlikely to get winded before the final couple of rounds, but Liddell has even better stamina and is even less likely to get winded at any time during the fight. Also, Liddell's perfectly-timed, rock-solid punches and kicks are much more likely to end a fight at any given moment than anyone's ground and pound offense. Through the first three rounds, I'm picturing a somewhat back-and-forth fight in which Couture gets his shots in with ground and pound offense, and Liddell gets his shots in with stand-up striking.

Liddell will probably be ahead on points at the end of Round Three, and this is where I see the difference of the fight taking place. If Couture's proverbial gas tank landed on empty after three rounds that he dominated in his previous fight, the same thing is all the more likely to happen in a fight where he's probably going to have to absorb a lot of good punches and kicks. If Couture's last opponent was able to dig down deep and turn up the intensity at the same time Couture was running low on energy, the same thing is all the more likely to happen in a fight where Chuck Liddell will probably have images of Tito Ortiz racing through his mind and pushing him to finish the fight.

When you're in this position, with your energy running out and your opponent's intensity only getting stronger, the last place on earth you want to be is in the stand-up position. As luck would have it, guess where Randy Couture is going to be if he's not able to miraculously take Liddell down at this point in the fight? You guessed it: The stand-up position. An exhausted fighter on his back can always try to hold on to his opponent for dear life in the hopes of minimizing the damage and making it to the end of the fight. An exhausted fighter on his feet is a sitting duck just waiting to be knocked out by any semi-accomplished striker, much less someone like Chuck Liddell who is one of the best stikers in the entire sport. Randy Couture has never been knocked out in his career, but there's a first time for everything. It's not going to be a cakewalk, but I'm picking Chuch Liddell to score the knockout victory in this fight, probably in the 4th or 5th round. My Prediction: Liddell by KO.

Vitor Belfort vs. Marvin Eastman
It's tempting to pick against Vitor Belfort given that he hasn't won a fight since 2001, but logic dictates that it would probably be unwise to do so. First off, I should say for the sake of full disclosure that I've never been the biggest fan of Vitor Belfort. He has always been a generally unreliable, inconsistent fighter, and he has literally pulled out of more fights during his career than he has fought. His current UFC contract speaks volumes about that: He signed a three-fight contract with the UFC in the summer of 2001, and in the two years since then he has only fought for the UFC one time . Despite all of this, I believe that Belfort is likely to pick up his first UFC victory since 1998 with a win over Marvin Eastman.

The circumstances going into this fight couldn't be more ironic. At 33 years old, Marvin Eastman is the up-and-coming fighter trying to make a name for himself and prove that he can hang with the big boys. At 25 years old, Vitor Belfort is the grizzled veteran who is trying to bounce back from a loss and prove that he isn't over the hill. If that's not ironic, I don't know what is. With an MMA career that started at the age of 18, Vitor has already experienced more highs and lows in his career than many fighters do in their entire career. He has been at the top, and he has been at the bottom, with the low point of his career probably being his embarrassing performance against Kazushi Sakuraba in Pride. Vitor never really lived up to the potential that he showed early in his career, but then again, it would be hard for any fighter to live up to expectations when they win their first four MMA fights with devastating punches in a combined three minutes and fifteen seconds.

The reason that I think Vitor is going to win this fight despite his lack of momentum is because he has shown the ability to come back near the top of his game after long lay-offs. After the Sakuraba fight, he took over a year off before returning and beating a big-name fighter in Pride. Belfort had been out of action for over a year before he stepped into the Octagon with Chuck Liddell last summer. Though Belfort lost that fight, he was able to stand toe-to-toe with one of the most dangerous and well-rounded strikers in the sport for 15 minutes, and he was also able to score multiple takedowns on Liddell (who has amazing takedown defense). Vitor was probably winning the Liddell fight on points until he was floored by a clean punch in the third round. Vitor lost the fight, but he showed that he still "has it," and that he can have a great fight even after a year-long absence from the sport.

There's no doubt that Belfort's opponent, Marvin Eastman, brings a lot to the table with striking on the ground and in the stand-up position, but can he show Vitor anything that he hasn't already seen? Belfort has competed against top-level grapplers like Heath Herring, and top-level strikers like Vanderlei Silva and Gilbert Yvel. It's unlikely that Eastman can bring anything to the table that those fighters didn't, but it remains entirely possible. That's the X-factor in this fight: The question of, "Just how good is Marvin Eastman?" Many times in a fighter's career, the answer to that question can't be answered until they are tested against a top-tier opponent.

Two examples of undefeated fighters who recently faced this kind of test are Tim Sylvia and Rich Franklin. No one could say for sure just how good Tim Sylvia really was until he dominated Ricco Rodriguez, and no one could say for sure just how good Rich Franklin really was until he dominated Evan Tanner. Not counting fights against people who were making their MMA debuts and later became stars, Marvin Eastman has never faced a test like that. Eastman did lose to Rich Franklin by submission in about two minutes, but his submission defense appears to have improved a lot since then, and Vitor Belfort isn't exactly known for winning fights via submission.

The other X-factor in this fight is the question of, "Which Vitor Belfort are we going to see?" Are we going to see the apathetic, almost Pedro Rizzo-like Vitor, or are we going to see the ass-kicking Vitor that we've seen in the past? All things considered, I believe that Vitor has come back strong from long lay-offs enough times in the past that he's going to be able to do it once again. Whether Belfort is able to win this fight by knockout is going to depend on what kind of stand-up game Marvin Eastman has against a striker on Belfort's level, and that has yet to be determined. A decision victory for Belfort is more likely in my opinion, partially because Eastman is not going to be an easy fight by any means, and partially because all of Belfort's fights since 1999 have ended by decision, with only one exception. My Prediction: Vitor Belfort by decision.

Ian Freeman vs. Vernon "Tiger" White
With Ken Shamrock suffering a torn ACL that will keep him out of action for 9-12 months at the absolute least, Vernon "Tiger" White will step in as Shamrock's replacement to fight Ian Freeman at UFC 43. With Freeman’s previous fight in the UFC being a knockout loss to Andrei Arlovski, this could be his Freeman’s last fight in the UFC if he loses again. Losing two consecutive fights generally leads to the UFC releasing you, and not bringing you back until you've won a good amount of fights on other shows. As a 36-year-old man faced with the possibility of "no more second chances," Freeman is going to be putting it all on the line in this fight. The same goes for Vernon "Tiger" White, someone who has a very limited window of opportunity to prove himself in the UFC, and someone who probably wouldn't even be getting this opportunity if the UFC didn't have to find an emergency replacement for Ken Shamrock.

Despite Freeman's intention to move to the light-heavyweight division, and the fact that Tiger is normally a light-heavyweight fighter, this fight will take place at heavyweight. The fact that Freeman will have a size advantage in this fight has been overplayed. Freeman will almost certainly out-weigh Tiger going into this fight, but it won't be a huge weight difference, and Freeman will actually have a reach disadvantage due to the fact that he is about two inches shorter than Tiger. Freeman is probably the one with a reputation as a hard puncher among these two fighters, but even with his win over Frank Mir, Freeman has lost more fights via strikes during his career than he has won via strikes.

Also, while it's fair to say that Tiger White might not be entering this fight at 100% physically due to the fact that it will come just three weeks after his fight with Jeremy Horn, I would argue that Tiger will have the mental edge going into the fight. Tiger feels like he got screwed with his controversial decision loss to Jeremy Horn and has something to prove to everyone, while Freeman is at the very least disappointed (and quite possibly depressed) that he has lost the opportunity of a lifetime to potentially beat Ken Shamrock. Someone’s mental state has a big affect on his ability to do anything, especially something that requires as much mental focus and adrenaline as mixed martial arts.

Ian Freeman showed good punching skills and a high level of ferocity in his fight with Frank Mir, but that fight appears to be have been an aberration in Freeman’s career. Other than that fight, Freeman's career record is 13-6. Eleven of those 13 wins came against fighters with an extremely small amount of MMA experience, while the other two wins came against Travis Fulton and Carlos Barreto. Tiger White’s career record is 20 wins and 23 losses, but he has fought some of the best fighters in the sport to get that record. While Freeman’s record certainly looks a lot better than Tiger’s, I think the experience of Tiger White will prove to be more valuable than Freeman’s experience of beating tomato cans, losing to established fighters, and picking up one impressive win over Frank Mir.

In my opinion, it’s unlikely that either fighter will finish off the other by submission or ground and pound. Both fighters are somewhere between "decent" and "good" at ground and pound, and their skills are close enough in this area that I don’t see either fighter pounding the other to a referee’s stoppage. As for submissions, Ian Freeman showed excellent submission defense in his fight with Frank Mir, but it remains to be seen whether or not that was a one-night-only outburst in the course of Freeman's career. Tiger has a reputation as a good submission fighter, but he doesn’t tend to finish off very many people with submissions. In fact, only five of his 46 career fights have ended with Tiger winning by submission, and not one of those five submission victories came against a big-name fighter.

With both fighters being fairly evenly-matched, the only way I see this fight ending before it goes to the judges is if one fighter is able to knock out the other. It would be a huge mistake for Tiger to underestimate Freeman’s stand-up game, and vice-versa. I have to believe that Tiger and Freeman are both smart enough to avoid making this mistake, and I give Tiger the edge in a pure kickboxing match. Tiger has a longer reach than Freeman, he has more of a history of winning fights with strikes, and he has less of a history of getting knocked out. Tiger has actually been knocked out fewer times in his career than Freeman, despite the fact that Tiger has been in twice as many MMA fights as Freeman.

As long as Vernon "Tiger" White comes into this fight at somewhere near 100% physically, I see him winning by KO or decision. Either scenario is a strong possibility, but I think a decision victory is more likely because of how evenly-matched these two fighters are, and because Tiger’s fights have a tendency to end by decision whether he wins or loses. I can see Tiger knocking out Freeman, but I can also see Tiger chipping away throughout the fight in a back-and-forth battle that he ultimately wins by decision. The only thing we know for sure is that with their backs up against the wall and the future of their careers potentially on the line, both fighters are going to pour their hearts into this fight. My Prediction: Vernon "Tiger" White by decision.

Very Brief Predictions

Kimo over Tank Abbott by submission. Any semi-competent MMA fighter could beat Tank, and Kimo probably fits that bill.

Frank Mir over Wes Sims by submission. Sims' height works against him in this case because his limbs are just four very large submission targets.

Matt Lindland over Falaniko Vitale by decision. Vitale could get an early submission, but I think Lindland will control the fight and win by decision.

Tra Telligman over Pedro Rizzo by KO. Why have people suddenly forgotten the fact that Rizzo has become a slow, boring loser?

Yves Edwards over Eddie Ruiz by KO. Ruiz has no place in the UFC with an MMA record of 1-0, and Edwards will remind us all of this fact.

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