Two talented and entertaining featherweights will meet inside the Octagon this Friday night (Dec. 30, 2011) as The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 12 veteran Nam Phan takes on undefeated submission wizard Jim Hettes in the opening bout of the UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem main card.
Phan, after an onerous start to his UFC career, finally earned his first victory in the promotion in his last bout, a revenge match against Leonard Garcia, which turned out to be one of 2011's most entertaining featherweight scraps. He hopes to even out his UFC record with a victory over a rising prospect.
Hettes is a submission machine, finishing all four of his amateur bouts and all nine of his professional fights via some form of tapout. His undefeated streak includes a rear naked choke over Alex Caceres in his UFC debut this past August after stepping in on short notice. He'll look for the most significant victory of his young career against the veteran Phan.
Will Phan's experience be enough to edge him out over "The Kid?" Can Hettes continue his insane submission streak against a seasoned Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt? What's the path to victory for both entertaining featherweights on Friday night?
Let's find out:
Record: 17-9 overall, 1-2 in the UFC
Key Wins: Leonard Garcia (UFC 136), Cody McKenzie (Ultimate Fighter season 12)
Key Losses: Mike Brown (UFC 133), Michihiro Omigawa (Sengoku 8), Gesias Cavalcante (Dynamite!! USA)
How he got here: Believe it or not, Nam Phan has been fighting professionally for almost exactly 10 years now. While he had a background in karate, what truly brought him into the sport of mixed martial arts was Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Throughouts Phan's career, he's had a history of coming up just short in the big fights. His first loss was to eventual WEC lightweight champion "Razor" Rob McCullough via unanimous decision and he would drop his WEC debut with a split decision. After seven straight victories on the local circuit, he would again get an opportunity against top competition, losing in a Strikeforce lightweight title shot to Josh Thomson and then getting smashed "JZ" Gesias Cavalcante in consecutive bouts.
He would again build himself up and come up short against Billy Evangelista and then top-ranked Japanese featherweight Michihiro Omigawa before earning a spot on season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). On the show, Phan would defeat Spencer Paige and Cody McKenzie before coming up just short against Michael Johnson in the semifinals.
In his UFC debut, Phan solidly outstruck Leonard Garcia on the TUF 12 finale but was the victim of some horrific judging as two of the judges sided with "Bad Boy" in a split decision. Phan then took on former WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown and rebounded from a poor first round to make it a tough fight, again losing a decision.
He earned his revenge against Garcia at UFC 136, thoroughly outstriking "Bad Boy" in the first two rounds to score an emphatic unanimous decision victory plus his second "Fight of the Night" bonus in three fights. He remains incredibly active in the final half of 2011, taking on a tough undefeated prospect in the year's final event.
How he gets it done: Phan has a strong attack in the stand-up department in which he mixes in head strikes and body blows very well. He has some of the best body punches of any featherweight in the UFC. If Hettes has his hands up, he needs to drop for that liver shot repeatedly. Hettes has not been tested in the striking department much in his career as his primary goal is to take his opponent down and submit them. That's what he's been able to do in all nine of his professional fights thus far.
Phan should be prepared to sprawl early and often, stuffing every attempt Hettes throws at him as Hettes is not the strongest wrestler. If he can force the undefeated prospect to have to stand and trade with him, he's going to have a HUGE advantage in the striking as his technique is world's better than the Pennsylvania product.
If for some reason, Phan is put on his back, he should use his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu defensively, doing whatever it takes to avoid submissions and just pop back to his feet because he has such a tremendous advantage in that department.
How he got here: Hettes has been successful on every level. He was a state Judo gold medalist, and truly took to Brazilian jiu-jitsu at 16 years old. After transitioning to mixed martial arts, he went undefeated (4-0) as an amateur, finishing all of his fights in the first round.
His professional career got off to a similar start, winning his first six fights via first round submission before he began to be tested. In November of 2010, he finally entered the second round in a tough scrap with MMA Institute's George Sheppard before eventually submitting him.
He would again be tested by scrappy wrestler Jacob Kirwin before again scoring a second round submission, winning the MASS featherweight title in the process as well as earning an invite to the UFC. In his debut with the big leagues, he battled Alex Caceres in a grueling ground war that saw a plethora of submission attempts before "The Kid" was finally able to overwhelm The Ultimate Fighter season 12 veteran with a rear naked choke.
He's looking to keep his 13 fight submission streak alive, but will have his hands full against veteran Nam Phan.
How he gets it done: Despite having a respectable background in boxing, the stand-up department is not Jim Hettes' world, at least not yet. He needs to do whatever it takes to get this fight to the ground and he needs to be crazy aggressive.
If Hettes stands at all, it should be to set up takedown attempts. Nam Phan doesn't have devastating one-punch knockout power, so he should be safe to strike long enough to get Phan's guard down. If regular takedown attempts don't work, expect Hettes to clinch early and often, hoping to throw Phan around with his judo base as well.
If and when Hettes puts Phan on the canvas, he should mix it up instead of immediately diving for submissions. Phan is well versed in jiu-jitsu and has a black belt so what he should really do is take a page from Mike Brown's book and really open Phan up with ground and pound. Phan was dominated by ground and pound against Brown in the first round and with the way he covered up, it could lead to some huge openings for submissions as long as he can pounce on them quick enough.
If one submission attempt appears to be defended, expect to see Hettes chain them together. He's very good at transitioning to new attacks and keeping up the pressure, eventually hoping to overwhelm his foe. Needless to say, his technique is going to have to be spot on if he wants to tap Phan. If he can't submit him, perhaps he could do enough from top position to earn his first decision victory.
Fight X-Factor: Clearly, the biggest X-Factor for this fight is experience. Phan has battled some of the best lightweight and featherweight fighters on the planet. He fought former WEC champs Mike Brown and Rob McCullough, former Strikeforce champ Josh Thomson, as well as JZ Cavalcante and Michihiro Omigawa in their primes.
His biggest career victory is over current 6-4 bantamweight "Bruce Leroy." This is a HUGE step up for him and it's going to be very interesting to see how he responds to by far the biggest test of his career. If he's not intimidated and fights with his trademark aggressive submission style, he could pull off a huge upset. If he can't get rolling, he could get blown out of the Octagon.
Bottom Line: This bout was chosen as a main card fight for a reason. Phan puts on high quality bouts by pushing a high pace, throwing a large quantity of strikes and landing a significant portion of them. He's well-rounded and dangerous just about everywhere. Hettes likely won't be able to hang with him on the feet, but he's at least Phan's equal if not superior on the ground and if this fight goes to the canvas, expect an incredibly entertaining series of scrambles, sweeps, submission attempts and exchanges. This bout has the potential to be one of the year's most entertaining ground battles of the year so keep your eyes glued to the TV once it goes there.
Who will come out on top at UFC 141? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!