UFC 158: Fight card preview
Years of verbal warfare will boil down to a historic fight at Montreal's Bell Centre as UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre seeks another successful title defense in his hometown against former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz.
The fight was planned several years ago, but a number of setbacks have led to Saturday's tantalizing tilt finally coming to fruition.
Diaz has been the center of attention in the weeks leading up to UFC 158, lashing out against St-Pierre and the UFC during the media conference call and final press conference.
If Diaz fails to back up all the hype, this could be the last time we see him in the UFC's Octagon. In fact, the UFC's head honchos could have their fingers crossed for St-Pierre because a champion who fails to show up for media obligations and open workouts could be catastrophic for business.
It's one of the best buildups for any fight we'll see this year, and the lineup is rounded out by two other pivotal bouts in the welterweight division as Johny Hendricks tries to solidify his standing as the No. 1 contender against former interim champion Carlos Condit, while Jake Ellenberger welcomes Nate Marquardt back to the UFC.
Here's a full breakdown of Saturday's blockbuster main card from the fight capital of Canada:
Main Card (PPV)
Georges St-Pierre (23-2) vs. Nick Diaz (26-8) - UFC Welterweight Title
In a long overdue showdown for the UFC welterweight crown, Montreal's beloved sports hero St-Pierre returns home once again to defend his throne against the trash talking former Strikeforce titlist Diaz.
At this stage, St Pierre's reasons for taking this particular fight are clear. He didn't want to jump right into a potential superfight with Anderson Silva, and a title defense against Johny Hendricks wasn't quite the money maker he had in mind.
Despite coming off a loss in his last appearance, the 29-year-old Diaz is indeed the most intriguing opponent for the longtime French-Canadian torchbearer. If Chael Sonnen's upcoming 205-pound title shot against Jon Jones is any indication, marketability goes a longer way than a win-loss record.
The pair was originally scheduled to square off at UFC 137 in October 2011 before St-Pierre injured his knee, sidelining him for over a year. Diaz was actually pulled from the fight for other reasons, notably missing a pre-fight conference and failing to return UFC president Dana White's phone calls. In his defense, when he says he comes to fight, he really means it.
Diaz scored one of the biggest victories of his career, defeating B.J. Penn by unanimous decision to earn an interim title opportunity against Carlos Condit.
In a somewhat controversial decision, judges sided with Condit after five closely contested rounds, but the result was likely a blessing for the UFC since Diaz failed his post-fight drug screening, testing positive for marijuana metabolites. Diaz was subsequently suspended for one year by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Diaz was previously nabbed for pot after his submission victory over Takanori Gomi at Pride 33, which has since been overturned to a no contest.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Cesar Gracie, Diaz is extremely dangerous everywhere. He hones his boxing under unheralded coach Richard Perez, while training alongside world-class wrestlers such as Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez.
The biggest knock on Diaz is his predictability and susceptibility to punishment. Diaz fares well when fighters stand in front of him, but he struggles with elusive styles, competent strikers and strong wrestlers. Armed with a granite chin, Diaz always seems to overcome adversity, but he struggled during his fights with Daley, K.J. Noons and Zaromskis, primarily because he left himself open.
Stylistically, St-Pierre couldn't ask for a better opponent to capitalize on his quickness, physical strength and fantastic wrestling pedigree.
The 31-year-old champion returned from ACL surgery this past November, overcoming a third-round rally from interim beltholder Carlos Condit to retain his title by unanimous decision.
St-Pierre has been criticized for his offensive approach, working behind a stiff jab and securing takedowns to keep his opponents grounded. Say what you will, but St.-Pierre is one of the most accomplished fighters in mixed-martial arts history, having avenged his lone two setbacks and thoroughly controlling every challenger to come his way.
In addition to his assertive striking, St-Pierre's takedowns are the most dominant in the sport. St-Pierre is the record holder for most strikes landed, most takedowns landed, highest takedown accuracy and most overall takedowns in UFC history. He also set records with the best striking defense in welterweight history at 75.6 perecent and most control time in UFC history at 2:22:13, going along with 409 significant ground strikes, another promotional record.
St-Pierre is the quintessential modern mixed martial artist. He's gifted everywhere and rarely finds himself in dangerous predicaments. The middleweight champion Silva is still the consensus pound-for-pound king these days, but he loses far more rounds than St-Pierre.
Diaz is an excellent southpaw boxer, who likes to land a high volume of strikes to systematically break his opponents down. Diaz targets the head and body with relentless combinations, never throwing all his power into a single punch. He holds the record for most distance strikes landed in UFC and Strikeforce history at 912, while averaging 8.28 significant strikes per minute in his last nine fights.
As such, St-Pierre has no intention of standing right in front of him. If he's not going to opt for the traditional takedown approach, St-Pierre could keep his distance and utilize footwork to win the striking exchanges. It's a matter of circling and mixing it up against Diaz. Opponents who get caught up in emotional fights with the Stockton scrapper, who often taunts in the middle of the cage, are playing right into Diaz's hands. The champion is too smart to fall for any traps and he'll resort to what works best for him.
Diaz can always pull off a miraculous submission or rock the champion with a big combination, but it's a long shot. St-Pierre will put his well-rounded arsenal on display, beating Diaz to the punch and battering his legs with kicks. When he's not winning exchanges, St-Pierre will be winning scrambles and blasting Diaz with elbows on the mat. A finish isn't out of the question this time around, but Diaz's durability is second to none, so the probable outcome is a 25-minute pounding.
Verdict: St-Pierre via Decision
Carlos Condit (28-6) vs. Johny Hendricks (14-1)
In a matchup that could finally earn Hendricks a shot at the 170-pound strap, he faces the former interim champion Condit in the marquee welterweight co-headliner.
Condit, 28, defeated Nick Diaz by unanimous decision last February to become the UFC's interim champion. He dropped a hard-fought decision to Georges St-Pierre in the unification bout this past November.
Condit is a true finisher with 26 stoppages in 28 career wins, including 13 by knockout and 13 by submission. When he's not throwing combinations, Condit stays busy with his grappling. He has the second most finishes and fifth most submission attempts in UFC and WEC welterweight history, in addition to setting a record for the most leg kicks landed in a single fight against Diaz.
Hendricks, 29, has been steamrolling his opposition in his past five appearances. After losing his only professional bout in a hard-fought decision loss to Rick Story, Hendricks has earned notable decisions over Mike Pierce and Josh Koscheck, while knocking out T.J. Waldburger, Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann in impressive fashion.
With his 12-second knockout of Fitch at UFC 141, Hendricks set a record for the second fastest knockout in welterweight history. He's impressed in other categories as well, including the fifth-highest significant strike accuracy and third-highest takedown rate in welterweight history.
Hendricks was originally slated to face Jake Ellenberger, but he stepped in for the injured Rory MacDonald to challenge Condit in the co-main event.
Patience, technique and intelligent defense are Condit's keys to victory. He'll always need to be mindful of Hendricks' big punching power, but he has more ways to threaten Hendricks wherever the action spills. As the wrestler, Hendricks can likely dictate where he wants the fight to take place, but putting Condit on his back doesn't mean danger has been averted.
Condit's takedown defense, submission attempts and well-rounded striking could surprise a few people as "The Natural Born Killer" scores an upset on judges' scorecards in a back-and-forth contest, crushing Hendricks' championship aspirations.
Verdict: Condit via Decision
Jake Ellenberger (28-6) vs. Nate Marquardt (32-11)
In a highly competitive welterweight pairing, "The Juggernaut" looks to spoil the return of "The Great" to the Octagon.
The 27-year-old Ellenberger was on a fast track to a title shot after finishing Jake Shields in under a minute in September 2011. Ellenberger followed up the victory with a hard-fought decision win over Diego Sanchez, but he was stunned by Martin Kampmann in the second round of their June 2012 meeting after a series of knees in the clinch.
Most recently, the former NCAA Division II wrestler and Reign Training Center representative notched a decision over Jay Hieron in October.
Ellenberger throws wild shots with bad intentions. He has the third most knockdowns and third best striking defense in welterweight history. He complements his heavy firepower with strong wrestling, successfully earning at least one takedown against all seven opponents he's attempted to get to the ground.
The 33-year-old Marquardt is a former Strikeforce and three-time Pancrase champion whose roots in the sport can be traced back to 1999.
A 2nd degree BJJ black belt under Ricardo Murgel, the Denver-based veteran has competed at 185 pounds for the majority of his career, earning notable wins over Rousimar Palhares, Demian Maia, Martin Kampmann and Kazuo Misaki.
Marquardt made a triumphant welterweight debut in July 2012, blasting Tyron Woodley with a sizzling combination in the fourth round to claim the Strikeforce title. He went on to drop the belt against Tarec Saffiedine in one of his most forgettable career efforts on the final Strikeforce card this past January. Marquardt failed to adequately prepare for Saffiedine's underrated striking and a failure to check leg kicks ultimately cost him the fight.
In many ways, Ellenberger is a close replica of Woodley in that they are both strong wrestlers with knockout power. Marquardt is certainly the more well-rounded of the two, in addition to possessing invaluable international experience. Technique usually trumps power, but the key word is usually.
Ellenberger's Achilles' heel has always been his gas tank. Marquardt's superior conditioning will play a vital role as he forces Ellenberger to work early before capitalizing on his exhaustion at the halfway point of the fight.
Superior technique should shine as the fight progresses. Marquardt's work down the stretch will pay off with the former middleweight title challenger making a triumphant return to the Octagon.
Verdict: Marquardt via Decision
Nick Ring (13-1) vs. Chris Camozzi (18-5)
Former cast members from the 11th installment of the "The Ultimate Fighter" will face off as the 34-year-old Calgary-based Iowa native Ring clashes with the 26-year-old California native Camozzi.
A BJJ brown belt under Roy Harris and muay thai black belt under Mike Miles, Ring last saw action in July 2012, earning a unanimous decision over "TUF 11" winner Court McGee to make a solid case for himself as the best fighter from the season.
Ring has suffered only one professional loss — a unanimous decision against Tim Boetsch in September 2011. He's a well-rounded contender competing in Montreal for the first time in his career, also spending some time with the famed Tristar Gym in preparation for Saturday night.
A BJJ purple belt, Camozzi is always game to trade leather. He's only one of the two fighters in UFC history to land 100 percent of his significant strikes standing. He also has the third highest striking rate among active middleweights, while scoring the second most leg kicks in middleweight history.
The Colorado-based southpaw has also found some rhythm as of late, dispatching Luiz Cane, Nick Catone and Dustin Jacoby to bring his winning streak to three.
Fresh off the biggest victory of his career over Cane in Brazil, Camozzi could surprise Ring with relentless pressure and a strong sprawl, eking out a competitive decision.
Verdict: Camozzi via Decsion
Mike Ricci (7-3) vs. Colin Fletcher (8-2)
"The Ultimate Fighter 16" finalist and "Knockout of the Season" winner Ricci returns to his comfort zone at 155 pounds in his native Montreal for a fight with "The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes" finalist Fletcher.
Ricci, 26, a product of Tristar Gym where he has trained alongside Georges St-Pierre, suffered a one-sided decision loss to Colton Smith in the "TUF 16" final, admitting he should have been fighting at lightweight all along.
The well-rounded Ricci has made a name for himself on the Montreal circuit, beating quality prospects such as Jordan Mein and Jesse Ronson. He first tasted defeat in the 2010 Bellator lightweight tournament as Pat Curran knocked him out in the first round. He also lost a razor-thin five-round title fight with Daron Cruickshank in October 2011.
Fletcher, 30, a Sunderland native who has never fought on North American soil, dropped a decision to Norman Parke in the international "TUF" final this past December.
A submission specialist, Fletcher has submitted seven of his eight career victims. He typically throws many kicks, but Ricci should have the advantage if he wants to play that game.
With the home crowd advantage and a wider array of tools at his disposal, Ricci should dissect the British prospect with superior striking before finishing him off with ground-and-pound.
Verdict: Ricci via TKO, Round 2