The UFC will kickoff their 2009 campaign during Super Bowl weekend with a Super Bowl-esque matchup of their own. A mixed martial arts (MMA) anomaly will headline the main card at UFC 94 on January 31 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
It will feature a main event between two of the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world, both in their prime, in current lightweight and former welterweight champion B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn (13-4-1) and current welterweight champion Georges “Rush” St. Pierre (17 – 2).
This fight will be a rare treat for MMA fans between two legendary fighters. It will also be a rematch of their 2006 UFC 58 showdown that ended in a controversial split decision victory by St. Pierre. A rematch has been in demand ever since, and now, it has finally materialized.
Personally, I can think of no better way to ring in the new year than to prominently feature the UFC’s welterweight division, which is one of the deepest divisions in all of MMA.
One who is likely less enthused is current welterweight No. 1 contender Thiago “The Pitbull” Alves (16-3), winner of seven consecutive fights inside the octagon.
As a result of the high-profile rematch, Alves has found himself standing squarely in the shadow of this primetime prize fight patiently waiting for his opportunity.
For now, however, he will have to wait for his shot at a championship belt. For the next five to seven months, he will have to pass time by train hard at his home away from home at the American Top Team (ATT) gym in Florida.
The ATT gym is one of the premier MMA training facilities in the world. During the UFC 85 broadcast, commentator Joe Rogan went as far as to say, “In my opinion, American Top Team is the best MMA camp in the country.”
Spearheading the ATT camp is head instructor and former Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Ricardo Liborio. The other two main teachers are boxing coach Howard Davis Jr., who is a former Olympic gold medalist, and Darrell Gholar, who is a former Olympic wrestler and World Vale Tudo middleweight champion.
Not only does Alves train under the tutelage of some of the best, but he also trains side-by-side with some of the best fighters in the sport who push him on a daily basis.
Notable fighters at ATT include Gesias Calvancante, Denis Kang, WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown, and Thiago Silva to name a few.
The correct play for Alves is to take time off from fighting and wait for his title shot, which has likely been discussed at length between Alves, his manager Dan Lambert, and the UFC’s management. Choosing a fight to simply pass the time could potentially be career suicide and is simply not worth the risk.
In an interview with John Morgan for MMAjunkie.com, Alves stated, “If I have to wait a couple of months, six to seven months, to get a title shot. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll wait. It’s just going to get me better and stronger.”
Alves eventually becoming the next welterweight champion also implies that Georges St. Pierre will defend his title against B.J. Penn, which I fully expect him to accomplish.
If so, it would set up the potentially explosive fight between St. Pierre and the underdog challenger Alves that would likely take place sometime during the summer of 2009, which I believe favors the young Brazilian striker.
There is an old adage in combat sports that “styles make fights”, and this matchup is no different. Alves’ unique skill set, firmly based in Muay Thai, will prove trouble for St. Pierre and his tendencies inside the octagon.
This fight will likely come down to one specific battle that will continually be taking place throughout the war. It will come down to takedowns.
Will St. Pierre be able to get Alves on the mat or will Alves keep it standing? That is the million dollar question.
In the past, St. Pierre has been phenomenal at getting his opponents to the ground. His brute strength and ever improving wrestling skills, including his patented double leg takedown, have allowed him to out-maneuver some of the most skilled wrestlers in MMA.
Typically, once his opponent is on the ground he loves to use his elbows to ground and pound. His submission skills are a legitimate threat as well and still relatively underrated, even though he recently achieved black belt Jiu-Jitsu status under Bruno Fernandes.
Alves is no slouch on the ground, but he is inferior to St. Pierre. He is a purple belt in Jiu-Jitsu, however, so his best chance to end a fight is standing. He only has one career victory via submission. There is no reason to believe he will try to get St. Pierre on the mat. Expect him to play to his strength.
I believe St. Pierre has to get Alves to the ground, inflict damage there, and wear him out in the process in order to come away with a successful title defense. I simply do not see it happening.
To keep the fight standing, which is the key to Alves coming away with a victory, he will use three basic weapons to neutralize St. Pierre. These include his leg kicks, knees, and sprawl.
Arguably Alves’ best weapon is his textbook Muay Thai leg kicks, which in my opinion, are the best in the UFC. A quick pivot of his foot, a thrust of the hips, and his shin connects with a thud that can be heard all the way into the upper bowl.
Alves likes to snap them off early and often in the majority of his fights. They are instantaneous, accurate, and hard to react to. The sheer speed also makes it difficult for opponents to grab his leg in order to pursue a takedown.
Alves’ performance against Chris Lytle at UFC 78 was a great display of exactly what his kicks can do. By the second round of Lytle’s left leg was completely raw and he was limping around the Octagon. John Alessio and Josh Koscheck can vouch for their viciousness as well.
Each kick successfully landed takes away the base of the opponent and makes them flat footed. It slowly chips away their ability to shoot in for a takedown, to sprawl, and to get the proper torque on their punches.
St. Pierre’s stance also makes him susceptible to leg kicks. He predominantly has his weight on his front foot until he loads up for a kick. It makes his front leg a target and makes it impossible to check the kicks as well.
Knees are another deterrent to the takedowns that Alves will employ. He is one of the best at punishing guys who shoot in for takedowns with a quick knee to the head.
A great example of this was during round two of a UFC 66 matchup against Tony DeSouza. DeSouza attempted five takedowns during the first round and all were stuffed by Alves. His sixth takedown attempt came during the second round but this time he was greeted with a huge knee from Alves that dropped him immediately. Alves then landed a couple clean shots and John McCarthy stopped the fight.
If Alves happens to get caught off guard and does not have time to throw a knee he can go to deterrent number three which is to sprawl. This is the most common type of takedown defense in mixed martial arts.
Once in the sprawling position, Alves traditionally relies on his great strength to finish off by using under hooks to get leverage and control the movement of his opponent and transition to a clinch position.
Alves may be the only man at 170 pounds on the UFC roster who can match the overall strength of St. Pierre. Both guys typically walk around near 200 pounds and cut to make the welterweight limit.
From the clinch position, Alves typically looks to throw a few knees to the mid-section or the chin of his opponent if he can reach it. He knocked out Karo Parisyan with a knee in the clinch during the second round at UFC Fight Night 13. Then, he typically pushes away back to a normal striking position.
Regardless of how the fight between Alves and St. Pierre plays out, it has the makings to be a knock down, drag out battle for supremacy that is sure to produce plenty of fireworks.
I believe Alves ultimately keeps the fight off the mat using the techniques previously discussed and stands with St. Pierre where he has the advantage. St. Pierre has never faced a striker who is as dangerous as Alves and he is destined for a rude awakening.
St. Pierre and Penn may be overwhelming the consciousness of MMA fans and media at the moment, but in time it is Alves who will be the talk of the town.
Derek Bolender covers mixed martial arts exclusively for TopGunMMA.com. Send Derek a question or comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.