This Saturday night (Dec. 8, 2012) at the KeyArena in Seattle, Washington, UFC on FOX 5 is set to feature a fight card jam-packed with talented and exciting competitors. With a roster lined up from top to bottom with exciting bouts, it's hard to pick a probable winner of the coveted Fight of the Night (FOTN) bonus, but I've decided to take the easy pick with a scrap that is sure to be fireworks.
Headliners Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz are rarely in a disappointing affair, and at UFC on FOX 5, they are very likely to put on one of the best fights of 2012. Neither fighter knows how to ease off the gas, and both combatants have immense skill sets to back their never-ending pressure. When they lock horns this weekend, they will go head-to-head in what may be 2012's most intriguing stylistic match up.
Henderson is one of the lightweight division's most tenacious and powerful wrestlers, but his striking is nothing to be undervalued. Despite a jab that serves nothing more than to show his opponents his striking range, Ben boasts terrific kicks and a cracking left cross which he uses to brutal effectiveness.
His "Smooth" striking isn't exciting in the 'stand and bang' sense, because that isn't how he fights. He patiently awaits openings, then bursts in with a powerful combo or a strong kick. One aspect of Henderson's striking game that I feel is under appreciated is his combination striking.
Each punch is thrown with good accuracy, and as he closes, he lands a final staggering punch before making distance, which serves him very well to keep longer opponents antsy and shorter opponents at bay. Against Diaz, I expect Ben to use these aggressive bursts to frustrate Diaz before setting up clinches or takedowns, which could provide an interesting challenge Diaz has not yet had to face.
Henderson also boasts some very high level kicks, and his massive leg muscles aid him in landing them with big power. Ben has been known to go high with his kicks a lot of the time, but his attacks towards the body and legs tend to be more effective for him.
Against Frankie Edgar, he showed the effectiveness of his leg kicks, as Frankie clearly feared and anticipated these kicks in the later rounds of their second fight. When fighting a leaner fighter in Diaz, these kicks may be an invaluable weapon to slow his opponent's constant pressure.
Nate Diaz's striking is one based on volume, not on power.
Though early on in his career, this may have meant barrages of poorly thrown arm punches, he has developed his striking to a point where it is fairly technical. He still does arm punches a lot of the time, but that is usually when he presses forward. When he has an opponent cornered, Nate really sits on his strikes, landing accurately and doing a lot of damage.
Diaz's footwork is ugly, but effective.
He can be plodding and flat footed, but this flaw tends to be inconsequential as he backs opponents up into the cage. He can rely on his punch volume to fluster opponents as he moves forward, but they definitely have the opportunity to escape this barrage if they circle out, as Carlos Condit did repeatedly to Nate's brother in their UFC interim welterweight title fight earlier this year.
Ben will likely be focusing a lot on circling out to stop Diaz's endless barrages.
At the same time, Diaz may be prepared to cut off the cage in a more advanced manner than he usually does, so it should cause an intriguing clash of intangibles, as we see who is better prepared to take on the other's striking game. Ben would be well advised to use his kicks to slow Diaz's attack, so that he can begin to work his own angles and do damage to Diaz in the process.
When he faces Ben, Nate will have to do his best early to establish his range and enforce pressure right out of the gate. He'll have to avoid Ben's kicks at all costs, and head movement will be a must if he wants to avoid any vicious combinations. Both fighters will likely have a tug of war for cage control as they look for their own advantages, which should lead to some interesting striking exchanges.
Henderson's striking game may be at a high level, but his namesake is in his grappling. Ben combines expert timing and technique with brute force and bad intentions to put opponents on their backs and keep them there. He is a positionally dominant fighter, often advancing position and punishing opponents soon afterward.
One of the most intimidating factors of Ben's grappling is his takedown ability.
There are few fighters that can avoid his takedowns and he can use them from just about anywhere he wants. At a longer range, his shot is difficult to stop and very well set up, and in close, he can bully opponents down, shoot from a clinch, or utilize trips and throws.
When he's on top, Ben attacks relentlessly, as he pounds away at opponents with heavy shots to lead to better positioning. When he has his way with foes, he will put them into uncomfortable positions, even using the cage to keep opponents scrunched up, maximizing his ability to attack and minimizing their ability to escape.
While his ground attack may be a very intimidating part of his game, Henderson's defense on the ground may be the most impressive ability he possesses. When in compromising positions, Ben keeps his cool, takes his time, and either advances his way out or bullies his way to an escape. It has reached a point where Ben seems immune to submissions and that is something that will surely be tested by Nate Diaz.
Diaz's ground game is essentially a polar opposite of Henderson's. His grappling relies very little on a top game, rather more on his aggressiveness with a high output of submission attempts. Against Ben, he may be hard pressed to find success through this method.
Nate is very flexible on the mat, and his long limbs give him many opportunities to snatch up submission attempts from various positions. When he commits to a hold, it is usually game over, even for known submission escape artists like Jim Miller and Marcus Davis. Ultimately, much like his striking game, Diaz's ground game relies on attack after attack to overwhelm opponents and this may be a useful tool against a tenacious grappler in Henderson.
When the striking battle reaches a point that is less than favorable to Henderson, it is almost sure to see him take the fight to the mat. When it ends up there, he will be in a tough battle as he and Diaz struggle for a favorable position. He will have to soften him up with ground strikes, but also be wary of submissions. Even in a fighter with great ground defense like Ben, a Nate Diaz submission is not something you want to deal with.
For Diaz, this fight may come down to his aggressiveness off his back.
While his takedown defense has improved over the years, I am not confident enough in it to say he can avoid matwork altogether and that may cause him serious problems. When submissions present themselves, he should be going for limb holds instead of chokes, because it will be more difficult for Ben to stop his arm from breaking than to fend off a choke. In scrambles, Diaz would be better off to search for a way up than a potential fight finisher, because chances are, he's not going to finish Ben on the ground.
When looking at this fight, it seems like a definite back and forth battle, one that will start on the feet but inevitably end up on the mat. Where Ben's attack may be more conventional in all areas, Diaz's scrappiness is what has gotten him to this point, and he is very good at imposing his will on tough opponents.
As the cage door closes, Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz will have put in a lot of work, all for one fight.
Their preparation for this fight will be extremely important, because they are both very well matched and very aggressive. Neither man can rely on the other slowing down at some point, and this is likely to be a five round battle -- unless one can get an unlikely finish on the other.
Based on what these two fighters bring to the table, I can reach no other conclusion than this fight being an all-time classic.