The world title bout between Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight Champion Ben Henderson against Nate Diaz that takes place later tonight (Dec. 8, 2012) in the UFC on FOX 5 main event at the KeyArena in Seattle, Wash., couldn't come at a better time.
Both men are riding white-hot performances that have showcased considerable improvement and subtle refinements to their mixed martial arts (MMA) game plans.
Once deficient in wrestling to the point that he was consistently held down and ridden to decisions, Diaz's improved takedown defense and sharpened stand up game in recent outings has been nothing short of dramatic. He'll bring the smothering Diaz style in against Henderson, whose impressive blend of top-heavy wrestling horsepower and an underrated stand up game have carried him to five consecutive decision wins inside the Octagon, including two straight over Frankie Edgar.
Diaz and Henderson are two of the most stoppage-proof fighters in the sport, and their mutually aggressive styles -- and stamina -- virtually guarantee this collision to become an instant classic. At their best, both are physically imposing opponents, dictating the pace of bouts and overwhelming foes. Neither is wired to lay back, and both carry a cocksure attitude into fights that they will be the guy deciding how it goes down.
It's the kind of perfect collision you rarely see in any match up at this level.
Check out a complete breakdown of the UFC on FOX 5 main event fight between Ben Henderson vs. Nate Diaz below:
Henderson's success, at least early, will swing on how effective he can compete with Diaz in the stand up game. There's no doubt he should be able to take down Diaz, but given Stockton, Calif., scrapper's excellent jiu-jitsu and submissions, as well as his ability to negate opponents' ability to score from inside his wily guard, Henderson will need to at least score enough on the feet to not get outworked and overwhelmed, forcing him to clinch and try for momentum-changing takedowns.
Henderson should also look at opponents of both Diaz and his older brother, Nick Diaz, who've had some success against the Diaz style: Shooting kicks at the right lead leg, and eschewing low-percentage head shots for solid body blows, is the best way to disrupt Diaz's centerline and keep him off-balance. Standing in the pocket is the most likely way for Henderson to get drilled and look like he's fighting underwater, which is the grim spell Diaz opponents fall prey to.
For Diaz, he could probably benefit from using the jab even more than he already does, as he'll want to keep Henderson backing up and respecting his range. In a five-round fight, that's a huge window of opportunity for Diaz, whose ability to stun and finish off opponents is outstanding.
The real battle will be when the 155-pound showdown hits the mat and how effectively Henderson is able to score while staying active enough to necessitate a referee restart. Diaz's defensive jiu-jitsu is outstanding, and while it wouldn't be surprising to see Henderson pass to half-guard and open up some strikes, he's unlikely to really overwhelm Diaz on the ground. It may be enough to ride out top position, and imitate the strategy of Georges St. Pierre against Carlos Condit:
Shoot takedowns when necessary, pick your posts and leave an indelible memory in the judges' minds while forgetting about the fans who don't like it.
A five-round fight also brings up Diaz's cardio, which may be tested because of the fact that the longer it goes, the more likely Henderson is grinding away from top position, exerting his weight and pressure. Diaz moved up to Welterweight in a four-fight stint, going 2-2, and just wasn't physically strong enough to deny grapplers takedowns. At 155, he's probably already grown out of the weight class, or at least close to it, and Henderson figures to set a fast pace.
For Henderson, he has to mix up combination and be consistently unpredictable with "The Science of Eight Limbs," as the Muay Thai saying goes. Diaz is basically a boxer who rarely, if ever kicks, much less with enough juice on them to really generate respect, and Henderson should take a page from Condit's book by using feints and creative combinations to keep Diaz guessing. Henderson's stand up is a little overlooked, but the guy has a solid grasp of counter-striking, and really hard leg kicks, which will be key to keep Diaz from setting up in the pocket and extracting a toll with his hard-nosed, try-and-punch-with-me style.
This is a truly amazing fight on paper, and it's hard to think of two more capable guys in the division right now.
Henderson has many options and how he reacts in the first round to Diaz's pressure will reveal much. If Henderson can counter effectively, circle and move, then mix in the threat of a takedown (or any actual one) that goes a long way toward making Diaz respect his offense instead of just pushing forward and forcing exchanges. That approach is what turned very talented fighters like Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone into virtually marionettes, as Diaz wore them down and pretty much beat them to a pulp.
Henderson's ability to kick the legs, especially low, and bank on a sharp straight left will have to keep Diaz honest. Throw in a couple takedowns per round, especially some timed late in the stanza to leave an impression with the judges, and Henderson should have enough to survive an early Diaz onslaught. He'll eventually ditch stand up by mid-bout after Diaz thumps him up a bit, transitioning into a grinding, ride-em-from-the-top style bout. Diaz will be unable to escape enough to prevent Henderson from building a solid lead by the fourth round, and "Bendo" will close the show in the fifth with dominant series of takedowns and effective ground and pound as Diaz tires over the final minutes of the bout.
Prediction: Henderson via unanimous decision
Be sure to join MMAmania.com later this evening for LIVE blow-by-blow, round-by-round coverage of UFC on FOX 5: "Henderson vs. Diaz," beginning with the "Prelims" bouts on Facebook scheduled for around 3:45 p.m. ET. In addition, we will also provide LIVE, real-time results of the main card action as it happens throughout the evening this upcoming Saturday, starting promptly at 8 p.m. ET.
See you later!
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst