- Jason Probst
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Nothing compares to a title fight, especially one between a proven champion and a dangerous challenger. UFC 128 brings that dynamic to the table, pitting light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua against Jon Jones on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Rua, once the terror of Pride Fighting Championships, will see his UFC title reign begin in challenging fashion against the hottest fighter in the game. Jones' march through the light heavyweight ranks has been Tyson-like.
In the co-main event, WEC poster boy and former champion Urijah Faber squares off against rugged ex-titleholder Eddie Wineland at 135 pounds. A host of other interested matchups fill out the lineup. Brace yourselves, folks -- the breakdown and picks are here.
The matchup: There's no question that Jones will be a world champ someday. The only question is whether or not that day will come Saturday.
Fresh off a second-round dismantling of previously unbeaten Ryan Bader at UFC 126, Jones has emerged as "the next big thing," rightfully tabbed as such because his spectacular, brief career has been defined by eye-popping moves. With an 84-inch reach, Jones executes moves that would seem ridiculous and amateurish, except for the fact that they work seamlessly.
Whether it's the spinning elbow he landed on Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94 or the weird choke variants he used to eventually subdue Bader, Jones is equal parts physical specimen and entertainer. He is eminently talented and watchable but hasn't had the kind of gut-check fight a young phenom must endure in order to determine how he handles himself in a pinch.
Enter Rua. The champion rebounded from a controversial decision loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 104 by coldcocking "The Dragon" in their rematch in May. Recovering from knee surgery, Rua will enter his first title defense as an 8-to-5 underdog despite his status as champion and position as one of the sport's best light heavyweights -- if not the best -- over the past five years.
If there is a prototype to beat Rua, Jones may be it. His reach and wrestling present all sorts of problems because he can execute at distances from which most fighters aren't able to operate. Shogun possesses some of the best kicks in the game, and he will have to use them to soften up Jones, particularly early, and make him feel the pressure of fighting in such a huge match.
Jones' best counter when Shogun kicks is a straight right hand. Tie-ups are probably in the Brazilian's favor, as he excels in the clinch and doing damage with knees and punches. The big wild card is Jones' takedowns. He can shoot from long range -- witness the takedown he landed on Bader, which was launched from distance -- and working from top position, he'll have to be careful of Shogun's submissions, always an overlooked variable in his game.
In a knockdown, drag-out fight, Shogun is the pick, given his experience and success in extended wars. However, Jones' range and wrestling edge will be a big problem for Shogun. If Jones avoids getting caught early, he will be able to stay long on the feet, landing strikes and trading even with kicks. Eventually, his wrestling and strength will come into play, and he will take down Rua.
If there is a gap in Jones' game, Rua will exploit it. Jones hasn't gone past three rounds, nor has he had his bell rung with a big shot -- something Rua can definitely do. Any holes in his armor will be taken advantage of, but he hasn't shown any thus far. He just might be that good.
The pick: The guess here is that Jones is every bit as tough as he is talented, and he will rally through a bad spot or two en route to wearing down Shogun and eventually putting him on his back. Jones' wrestling and submission ability will be too much as he powers through a difficult fight to win via third-round submission.
The matchup: A fight away from a likely title shot against 135-pound champion Dominick Cruz, Faber will make his UFC debut in a great matchup against a surging Wineland.
A former WEC bantamweight champion, Wineland seemingly fell off the radar before rededicating himself to training, and the results have been impressive. He has put together four quality wins in a row and sought to round out his ground game. He will need it against Faber, who has made a career out of physically overwhelming foes and being virtually impossible to control on the mat.
At 135 pounds, Faber is the bully in virtually every match. At featherweight, his athleticism and speed carried him until he ran into the bigger Mike Thomas Brown and the magnificent Jose Aldo. No one questions Faber's gameness. In the Brown rematch, he fought five rounds with a busted hand; against Aldo, it was a blasted leg. In his first fight at 135, against Takeya Mizugaki at WEC 52, "The California Kid" was his old self, plying his advantages with typical ruthlessness. Working from a tie-up to take Mizugaki's back, Faber eventually choked him stiff.
Wineland scored a slam knockout against prospect Ken Stone in his last fight at WEC 53 and has cited a renewed dedication to training as impetus for his improvement. Faber's stand-up is strong enough to keep it on the feet, and he has shown a willingness to mix it up in spots. That isn't the best strategy here, as it gives Wineland a chance to land a big shot -- something for which he has become known -- so look for Faber to force a clinch and take it to the ground.
Wineland is confident he is as strong as Faber, and he will get the chance to prove it. Faber's top game and ground-and-pound consist of punishing opponents while pushing the pace and forcing them to work constantly. The key factor here is whether Wineland can control Faber's hands while on his back and work to stand back up without giving up passes and positions. Faber will press the pace and punish at every opportunity, and he will probably have to keep working to deter Wineland from mounting offense.
The pick: This is a tougher fight for Faber than most people might think. Still, is there anyone outside of Cruz at 135 who can really fluster him? Even in the five-round loss to Brown, Faber was virtually impossible to keep down and constantly kept scrambling and trying attacks, even though his opponent was bigger and stronger. Faber is quick to close on people, and his stand-up is competent enough to keep opponents honest. He should be able to adapt, attack and punish Wineland on the ground and in clinches on the way to a second-round submission.
The matchup: Lightweights collide in a heady matchup of aggressive scrappers. Miller has been on a tear, winning six straight, and with a record of 19-2, he has fallen only to Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard -- an indicator of what it takes to beat him.
Shalorus is a marvelously gifted wrestler with the ability to take down anyone simply by willing a single-leg. The problem? He suffers from a bad case of "striker-itis" -- throwing excessively instead of taking it to the mat to win in much easier fashion. Shalorus remains raw -- he has only nine bouts -- but he is a physical marvel with considerable skills given his experience.
This one comes down to tactics and execution. Miller is pinpoint-sharp in both cases, showing a high level of conditioning and intensity as well as smart decision-making. Shalorus has a pretty stout chin and heavy hands but tends to wing punches and dare people to trade. Few foes try to take him down, which is exactly what Miller will attempt to do.
This could be one helluva match if Shalorus can stymie Miller's takedown attempts and force costly exchanges, but Miller probably is a little too savvy and experienced at this point. He has proved he belongs among the division's elite and will mix in strikes with tie-ups and takedowns to wear down Shalorus.
Shalorus has shown a recent penchant for tiring in the third round, and he struggled down the stretch against veteran Bart Palaszewski at WEC 53. Doing so against Miller is not a prescription for success.
The pick: If he used his magnificent takedown ability more often, Shalorus could be a legit top-10 contender, but he has thus far shown a misguided eagerness to strike. Miller will outthink and outwork him en route to a late surge that results in a clear-cut decision win.
The matchup: Marquardt's loss to Yushin Okami at UFC 122 denied him a second match with champion Anderson Silva, but because nearly everyone not named Chael Sonnen is outmuscled by the tough Okami lately, it wasn't a massive setback. Marquardt remains a well-rounded fighter with stout striking and tons of experience.
Miller is something of a poor man's Jon Fitch: eminently well-conditioned and hard-nosed, with limited striking and a high work rate. His style revolves around being able to outwrestle the other guy. If he can, he usually wins, because he also has proved very durable.
This is a good matchup for Marquardt -- but by no means a lock. When he is the stronger guy and is comfortable standing, he's very tough to beat.
Miller's stand-up will need to be improved, as it will be key to putting Marquardt on his back. Marquardt is too tough to simply overwhelm physically, so Miller will have to keep him honest by keeping his hands busy and Marquardt's mind occupied. Otherwise, the former middleweight King of Pancrase will merely have to fend off low-percentage takedown and tie-up attempts while countering and dictating the action.
The pick: Look for Marquardt to establish himself as the better striker -- not to mention that he's still a top middleweight. After getting stymied by Okami via decision in November, Marquardt needs a showcase win. He will bang on the feet and, halfway through the fight, take it to the mat, where he will control from top position and take a one-sided decision win.
The matchup: It was once the nightmare of every fighter in Japan working under the Pride Fighting Championships banner: Filipovic's left high kick was the deadliest weapon in the game in his heyday -- and perhaps in the history of the sport. Since moving to the UFC, he has not fought with the same fire and work rate, instead saving his potent explosions for specific moments. In between those, he gets hit and outworked by opponents. He has gone 4-4 in the UFC, with his peak (circa 2005) clearly behind him.
Schaub, a rising heavyweight talent, has put together some notable wins. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 10 finalist took a big jump forward in his decision win over former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga in his last bout at UFC 121. Schaub showed a mix of confidence and good temperament in adjusting to the flow of the fight and went the distance in impressive fashion.
Filipovic is in decline, and Schaub is on the ascent. It's as simple as that. Cro Cop's best chance is to make a brawl of it early and force exchanges, where he can capitalize with a strong counterpunch or his massive kicks. When he stands around, his confidence seems to wane with each passing minute, especially as an opponent grows more comfortable working against him.
Schaub is a superb athlete and has a solid one-two, kicks and a very good ground game. Filipovic rarely, if ever, shoots for takedowns -- a tactical advantage that will allow Schaub to open up on the feet.
Filipovic has looked like a fighter who simply doesn't want to be in the cage in his losses against Frank Mir and Cheick Kongo, and he's laconic even in wins. The 2005 version of Filipovic would be a favorite against pretty much any heavyweight alive today, but he hasn't adjusted well to the cage and the years seem to have taken something out of his reflexes and killer approach.
The pick: Schaub will open strong and peel the apple accordingly, landing strikes and taking it to the ground if necessary, en route to a second-round stoppage.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.
Jon Jones' big moment has arrived, but is he ready to capture it in typically precocious fashion, or will light heavyweight champ Mauricio Rua roll "Bones" and score one for MMA's old guard Saturday at UFC 128?