UFC

Wrestling key for Sonnen vs. Stann

Inside Fights Scott Sawitz
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One of the drawbacks of being in the light-heavyweight division in the UFC is that it’s a veritable shark tank of talent at the top. To be among the top 10, or top five, fighters in the division takes an extraordinary amount of ability in a division that’s long been the premier weight class in MMA.

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For those fighters who are potentially fringe top-10 contenders and not massively built for the division, middleweight has become a fertile ground for talent to shine. And that’s where Chael Sonnen and Brian Stann find similarities in their careers: former light heavyweights who dropped down to middleweight and found remarkable success.

That’s about the only thing they share in common.

Stann is a recruiting-poster Marine, a Silver Star-winner and Naval Academy graduate, who left the Corps to pursue a full-time career as a cage-fighter. When he speaks people listen, and everything about him just seemingly makes one think that this is the kind of person you could follow anywhere. He’s a leader of men and in a sport filled with some characters he’s the guy you’d want your child to be like because of his character. When his opponents regularly discuss how wonderful a guy he is, one can’t dismiss it as mere showmanship or bravado. In a testosterone-heavy sport like MMA, where trash talk rules the day, when fighters discuss how good of a person their opponent is it says a lot. There’s an inherent goodness to him that has made him a near-universal fan favorite and it’s supplemented with some devastating skills inside the cage.

Known for his lethal hands and surprising submission skills off his back, Stann is coming off three straight stoppages with the past two coming by way of knockout. He’s stopped Chris Leben, who previously had only been knocked out by reigning middleweight king Anderson Silva, and ended the winning streak of a resurgent Jorge Santiago in brutal fashion. You could argue that Stann is due for a shot at Silva without this, but the UFC and its matchmaker Joe Silva have given him the ultimate final exam to graduate to contender status with an All-American wrestler in Sonnen.

While his NCAA credentials may not be as prolific as some fighters in the world of MMA, Sonnen was a staple on the Greco-Roman wrestling scene for some time after an All-American career at the University of Oregon. While he may never have had the success of someone like Matt Lindland (a Silver medalist), Sonnen was an Olympic alternate and has a room full of trophies and medals to his credit via wrestling career. And while he may be known recently for his antics, he has one feather in his cap that no middleweight in the UFC has; he was within two minutes of winning the title in dominating fashion.

After giving Anderson Silva a hellacious beating a year ago, and losing in the final minutes, Sonnen’s personal life has kept him out of the cage since and a rematch with the champion was taken off the table. Now to get another shot at wresting the title from “The Spider,” Sonnen has to go through a man for whom he has said he would vote for President of the United States if he ran. But his game plan for Stann will bear striking similarities to his Silva plan, because it doesn’t vary depending on the opponent.

Sonnen’s bread and butter is a relentless pace through supreme conditioning, strong boxing and the best wrestling in MMA. Sonnen may not have invented ground-and-pound, but he’s certainly elevated it to an art form. He wins by taking down guys and grinding them down him. But he’s got a glaring hole in his game: submission defense. Sonnen’s been submitted by a lot of guys, including his loss to Silva, and it’s the only way he’s been beaten in his career since losing to Jeremy Horn via cut and Keiichiro Yamamiya by split decision in 2004.

Sonnen’s submission losses have come to elite names like Silva, Paulo Filho, Jeremy Horn, Renato Sobral and Forrest Griffin, among others. He gets tapped enough that it can be considered an issue, but it is generally done by the best submission artists in the game. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be submitted by the best of the best, and against lesser submission artists Sonnen has been able to defend well enough to avoid the tap. Stann’s not an elite-level fighter in that aspect, but he’s steadily improved over the years enough to be dangerous off his back.

The measuring stick of the fight will be Sonnen’s submission defense and Stann’s takedown defense. Sonnen goes for the takedown and then unleashes devastation once he gets in control. It’s his bread and butter, and yet when Sonnen wants the fight to go to the ground it gets there with a high level of proficiency. His key in the ground-and-pound is that he’s not the type to “lay and pray” to victory; he postures up a lot and is remarkably aggressive in trying to finish a fight with strikes from that position. It also is the reason he gets submitted as often as he has; aggression has a price in MMA if you’re not careful.

Stann’s key to the fight is to stay on his feet, where he has an advantage over Sonnen. Stann has power in both hands and more finishing power on his feet. Sonnen uses his standup to set up his takedowns but is effective when he counter-punches, especially out of the clinch. He rocked Silva a handful of times with punches, no easy feat, and if Stann is overconfident in his chin Sonnen can and will make him pay for it. Stann is going to have to stay off the ground as much as possible; he’s going to get taken down in this fight and Sonnen will grind him down in this position. We don’t know if he’s good enough to submit Sonnen on his back and odds are he probably won’t be.

Stann’s key is to get up off his back quickly and turn this into a game of scrambles. If Stann can remain standing up he’s going to have to take a page out of the Chuck Liddell playbook to win. “Sprawl and brawl” will win him this fight in the same way that Sonnen’s key to victory is to make this a wrestling match. Sonnen will push a relentless pace and bring the fight to Stann. Stann is known for being in remarkable shape and he’ll need it if the fight goes the full three rounds.

If Stann can make this into a boxing match and keep Sonnen off the ground for most of it, he should be able to notch the decision. If not, Sonnen-Silva 2 will be in the books for early next year.

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