As UFC on Fox 3 approaches, Alan Belcher is faced with a daunting task: meeting Rousimar Palhares in the cage.
Palhares, a feared leg-lock specialist, has hit the UFC like a bout of polio, crippling many of his opponents en route to becoming one of the fastest rising stars in the middleweight division today.
Likewise, Belcher, riding a three-fight win streak since his controversial loss to Japanese star Akiyama, has his sights set on the top, hoping to make a concerted run for the title in 2012.
Who will triumph on May 5? Does Belcher have what it takes to avoid Palhares' vicious heel-hooks and kneebars? Can Palhares add yet another limb to his trophy cabinet?
Both men know what they have to do. The following slides show how they'll do it, revealing the keys to victory for each competitor.
While working the sprawl to avoid a ground fight with Palhares may initially sound like a bright idea for the Belcher camp, traditional sprawl-and-brawl tactics may play right into Toquinho's game.
Should Palhares feel a shot failing, he'll quickly bypass Belcher's wrestling by pulling guard into the American's legs. If Belcher isn't careful, he'll offer the Brazilian a kneebar on a golden platter.
In the interests of avoiding the takedown, Belcher should look to "wedge," using a collar-tie (half Thai-clinch) to push Palhares away from his hips and avoid walking home with a limp.
If there's one thing Rousimar Palhares loves, it's a joint-lock.
Given that the Brazilian has one of the most highly developed submission games in MMA today, he would do well to force Belcher into scrambling for position, offering "The Talent" a hellish pace in which limbs go flailing and mistakes are made.
Every time Belcher is forced to change position in grappling range, which he must do in order to escape, his posting limbs and unattended body parts could easily fall prey to Palhares. The Brazilian should exploit these opportunities.
Should this fight hit the ground, which it almost certainly will, Alan Belcher cannot afford to play jiu-jitsu with Rousimar Palhares. No trading of submissions and counters, no polite passes, no technical submission work whatsoever.
If Belcher is to survive on the mat, he needs to focus solely on immobilizing Palhares' hips and getting up whenever possible. BJJ is almost entirely predicated on hip movement. If Belcher kills the hips, he can avoid becoming a statistic on Toquinho's record.
Easier said than done.
As mentioned in Slide 1, Palhares has a luxury option reserved for only the most elite BJJ black belts in MMA today: pulling guard.
While most fighters avoid fighting off their back like the plague and must struggle for each and every takedown, Palhares can simply jump onto Belcher's hips, wrapping up his fellow BJJ black belt and dragging the fight into his world without stress or injury.
Although many competitors take a great deal of damage playing the bottom game, Belcher isn't likely to commit to strikes while sitting in Palhares' guard, if only for fear of a swift reversal facilitated by his shifting center of balance.
We can expect to see Toquinho imposing his superior grappling on Belcher with or without strikes, starting this offense from the bottom position if necessary.
Alan Belcher would be a fool to under-utilize his jab on May 5.
Belcher's front-leg strike is all that stands between winning a decision and getting slammed head-first into the floor. Should Belcher double up his jab and bounce Palhares' head back continually, he can beat the Brazilian without having to lock horns on the mat or against the cage.
Belcher's key to victory is picking his shots. To do this, he must measure using his four-inch reach advantage, keep the fight at long range and batter Palhares with a fast, stiff jab.
Assuming that Belcher is going to avoid rushing in for fear of a takedown, the Brazilian needs to be prepared for a long-haul fight.
It's no use being the world's scariest man for one-and-a-half rounds. Palhares needs to ensure that he has the energy to jump on a submission with force and power in Round 3, when both men are slippery and holding a foot becomes harder than catching a water snake.
Belcher will do all he can to drag Palhares into deep water and sap the Brazilian's strength. Should Palhares truly want the W, he can't allow this to happen.
For Alan Belcher, strategy is crucial in this fight.
Belcher can't get drawn into a barn-burner, opening himself up to a world of hurt against the more powerful grappler Palhares.
If the Brazilian has a clear weakness, it is undoubtedly his striking. Belcher should manipulate the fight to his advantage, dragging Toquinho into a technical boxing match by timing his shots correctly and avoiding over-excited exchanges.
Belcher may not want to hear it, but if he fights Palhares like he fought Wilson Gouveia, he's in for the shortest fight of his life.
Rousimar Palhares' nickname, "Toquinho,",means "little tree stump." It's not hard to see how the Brazilian earned his moniker.
I've never seen a strength test run on either man, but I'd put my money on Palhares being considerably stronger than Belcher. The Brazilian should use this trait to his advantage, cutting off the Octagon and backing Belcher into the cage for a highlight-reel slam.
Even if Palhares doesn't press the American against the fence in Couture-esque fashion, he will effectively stifle Belcher's ability to maintain range by forcing the action on the Octagon's periphery.
Ask yourselves this, fans: if Palhares could take Dan Henderson down, what will he do to Belcher?
If Belcher has one shot at finishing Palhares, it's by flash knockout.
While the Brazilian should aim to push a frenetic pace in order to prevent Belcher from establishing his jab, Toquinho must be careful to keep his chin tucked and hands tight while moving forward. Belcher's hands are no joke and, what's more, they're attached to fairly lengthy arms.
The odds are stacked against Belcher, but Rousimar Palhares should know better than to overlook a five-year veteran of the UFC. The basics of kick-boxing still apply on May 5.