Breaking down the UFC 123 main card
UFC 123 on Saturday at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich., features a light heavyweight showdown between former champions, a score-settler between a pair of legends, and key crossroads matches for young and veteran talent alike.
Here's a closer look at the main card, with analysis and picks.
UFC 123: Rampage vs. Machida
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The matchup: You would have trouble finding two styles more different than those of these former champs. Despite considerable wrestling chops and incredible strength, Jackson has become so strike-oriented since arriving in the UFC that fans who followed his Pride Fighting Championships exploits barely recognize him.
"Rampage" greatly depends on big power punches, a style that seems the perfect template for beating a guy such as Machida. With a mercurial style, odd angles and attacks, and uncanny movement, Machida will have a ton of options available to him. He flits in and out and side to side, maximizing his advantages. Jackson has always had trouble with kicks, and in performances such as the one he gave against Rashad Evans at UFC 114, he leaves observers wondering why he doesn't take down his opponents more often. He basically let Evans outhustle him for two rounds before finally stepping it up in the third. By then, it was too late.
Navigating Machida's mix of strikes, foot sweeps and weird combinations is akin to trying to hit a knuckleball pitcher on a day with strong winds blowing out. Jackson will chase around the karateka and try to land his famed right-hand counter, but Machida will prove too quick and elusive. Machida also might score a takedown or two off his strikes, in which case he will find himself in a more advantageous top position.
The pick: I like Machida in a bout that resembles a snake chasing a mouse. In this case, the snake gets nipped all night and never catches its prey: Machida by decision.
The matchup: Rubber matches are rare in MMA, especially among two iconic names such as Penn and Hughes. Hughes might not be in immediate title contention, but, ironically, he has looked better than ever in recent outings against Renzo Gracie and Ricardo Almeida, illustrating again how much everyone else has improved in a division he once dominated. He seems more acclimated to the stand-up game than he was as champion, and he still has those vaunted wrestling chops.
The problem is that he is facing Penn, whose guard remains as potent as that of any fighter in MMA. Plus, when Penn is on his game, he can stifle almost anyone on the feet. He gave Hughes all sorts of trouble in their second match before he ran out of gas. (An injured rib was said to be the culprit.) However, Penn's back-to-back losses to Frankie Edgar have left his immediate future in question. A third match with Hughes should motivate the Hawaiian to return to championship form.
The jump in weight to welterweight doesn't figure to pose much of an issue for Penn, who will always give Hughes fits with his excellent stand-up and incredible ground game. The longer this one goes, the better it is for Hughes, as Penn has long had problems maintaining his form, especially at 170 pounds. Hughes needs to use his revamped stand-up, shooting jabs to counter Penn's jab -- a weapon he used to neutralize Sean Sherk at UFC 84. Hughes also should mix in leg kicks, an underrated and largely underused part of his arsenal, to keep Penn guessing. Penn has never been effective at checking kicks.
In top form, Penn has subtle head movement and MMA-oriented boxing that make him savantlike. Comfortable in the pocket and trading strikes, he has one of the sport's best chins. Hughes ought to use the first round as a warm-up, eventually working to the clinch and ramming Penn against the cage before taking him down, following the blueprint set forth by Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94. The jury remains out on whether Penn's losses to Edgar signal that his best days are behind him.
The pick: Hughes will have some tough moments and tricky submissions to deal with, but he probably will get Penn down at some point, keeping top position long enough to impress the judges en route to a close and perhaps controversial decision win.
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The matchup: Although they both possess college wrestling experience, Davis has a pedigree that ranks several notches up the chain. He was a four-time All-American at Penn State, meaning he finished among the top eight wrestlers nationally in his weight class every year, and he won a national championship in 2008.
Boetsch's brawling style stands in stark contrast to that of most former college wrestlers -- who seem more comfortable working on the ground, at least early in their careers. Perhaps best known for his rag doll toss of David Heath at UFC 81, Boetsch has won four fights in a row and will need every bit of that momentum to take out Davis.
Davis only loses this light heavyweight fight if he makes a boneheaded mistake and gets caught with a heavy kick or punch. Boetsch's best chance is to lure Davis into an exchange, perhaps timing one of his kicks with a solid punch. Only seven fights into his professional MMA career, Davis continues to develop his striking -- but he won't need it here. He figures to take down Boetsch and work from the top.
The pick: Davis by third-round TKO in an impressive performance that catapults him to contender status.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.