UFC's first venture onto the sports network Versus is set to have some serious fireworks as a pair of bigger middleweights are set to open up the televised portion of the card.
James "The Sandman" Irvin will duke it out with Italian slugger Alessio "Legionarius" Sakara in the eighth installment of the UFC on Versus 1 Preview series. A lot of questions are in the air as this is one of the more evenly contested fights on paper.
One major question is: How will Irvin fair in his middleweight debut?
As many had expected, "The Sandman" was left battered in his last fight, prompting him to drop down to the 185-pound weight class. Ironically enough, it's the same weight class that's been in ruins for years at the hands of his last opponent, Anderson Silva.
That fight took place over a year and a half ago on UFC Fight Night 14 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Irvin has been sidelined due to a number of injuries incurred in training, and will have a tough time knocking off the ring rust.
Sakara hasn't exactly been the most active fighter either. He only has one more fight than Irvin in the same time frame.
However, "Legionarius" already has three middleweight fights under his belt with a record of 2-1. He is quite accustomed to the weight cut and had shown some great conditioning in his fight with Thales Leites.
With a similar record, it's somewhat difficult to judge who has the edge when it comes to experience. Both fighters have a common opponent—Irvin beat Houston Alexander to the punch while Sakara fell prey to Alexander's knee.
But Irvin's devastating loss to middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva, plus a freak injury loss to Thiago Silva and a disqualification win over Luiz Cane shows that he's been in the cage with more dangerous opponents.
Since the beginning of 2006, out of 10 combined wins, there have been only three fights that went the distance between the two. Each fighter has a very deadly stand-up game in his own way.
Irvin has the power in his hands and knees to put anyone to sleep with just one strike. He has an extensive highlight reel of bone-crunching knockouts, which is one of the reasons why he is popular among fans.
Sakara, on the other hand, is deadly with his lightning-fast hands. His quick, lateral movements and head work keeps his opponents off rhythm long enough to land a painful combination. He can also mix up his boxing with a wide range of kicks.
He's not as powerful as Irvin is on foot, but he is faster and more diverse. That's before we even see how Irvin handles the drop to 185, but it still only takes one punch with "The Sandman."
At some point during the match, it's likely that these two will clinch up after winging some punches at each other. Here, Irvin's strong Muay Thai will give him an advantage in the fight.
Sakara is usually able to dirty box and force his way from a clinch, but Irvin's plum clinch is like super glue if he latches on, and he loves to deliver face-smashing knees in this position until the opponent escapes.
If he is able to, Sakara should avoid Irvin's clinch at all cost. That means avoiding sloppy, telegraphed takedowns as well. Like Sakara himself, "The Sandman" has a tough sprawl to bypass, and he'll make you pay for trying with knees.
He has to be even more careful because Irvin is capable of scoring the takedown himself, should he actually want it.
That's also if Sakara even wants to go that route. It's likely that the two will be content with slugging it out with each other for a majority of the fight. But as the fight goes on, should there be no knockouts, that one big question will resurface:
How will Irvin handle the weight cut?
Being a large light-heavyweight fighter to begin with, it's likely that his first fight in the 185-pound division will have him fading as the fight progresses.
It's here where Sakara should shoot for the takedown after setting it up with combinations first. Irvin's sprawl won't be able to help him if he is sucking too much wind. Even still, Sakara should be careful as Irvin is very strong and can reverse the tide very easily.
If the fight actually does go to the ground, whoever is on the top is more than capable of pounding their opponent into a bird-chirping daze, but Sakara still holds the advantage in the ground game.
Most wouldn't know it by the outcomes of his past matches, but Sakara is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu. He has proven to be very difficult to submit, which is one of Irvin's primary weaknesses.
Sakara is more than capable of finding a submission hold on Irvin on the ground, but that's if the fight even makes it to the floor.
This one will likely be a strategic war of the hands that will be explosive at first, but as the fight goes on, Sakara will pick apart the tired Irvin on his way to a decision victory.
Range striking: Draw
Clinch striking: Irvin
Takedown defense: Sakara
Ground striking: Draw
Submission defense: Sakara
UFC on Versus 1 Official Picks
Sakara over Irvin
Keep an eye out for coverage on Cheick Kongo vs. Paul Buentello in the next couple of days.