Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight veteran, Rafael Natal, looks to break into the Top 10 conversation with a victory over former 185-pound Strikeforce title contender, Tim Kennedy, this Wednesday (Nov. 6 2013) at UFC Fight Night 31: "Fight for Troops 3" at Fort Campbell military base in Kentucky.
After a successful start on the international mixed martial arts (MMA) scene, Natal's Octagon entrance was less than spectacular. He followed up a decision loss to Rich Attonito by going to a draw with Jesse Bongfeldt. His next match up was a must win if he wanted to remain employed by the world's premier MMA organization.
Luckily for the Brazilian, he did just that, improving his wrestling and striking enough to out-point Paul Bradley. A second decision victory -- this time over Michael Kuiper -- earned "Sapo" some job security, which was tested by a second round knockout loss to Andrew Craig.
Then, Natal took on short notice replacement Sean Spencer, choking him out with a head-and-arm choke. Natal went back to his home country of Brazil for his next two bouts, winning both (decisions) and earning a "Fight of the Night" bonus against Tor Troeng.
Now, Natal faces the toughest opponent of his career, military veteran Tim Kennedy. If he can defeat the American, Natal's ranking will skyrocket and move him closer to a title shot in 2014.
Can he advance up the ladder?
Let's find out:
Natal is not a polished striker, but he moves fast and hits hard. The fiery Brazilian is often the aggressor, chasing his foe until he drops.
The most frequent combination "Sapo" throws is the one-two. When using the one-two, he does a fair job controlling distance and can land with some force. He will also switch to the southpaw stance and use his right hand to jab. For a fairly green striker, Natal's movement isn't bad, doing a good job staying off the fence.
Coming from a capoeira background, Natal has some solid kicks. He likes to throw leg kicks as he switches stances, but will also techniques like the side and front kick. Natal does well when he mixed his kicks into his combinations. One flashier combo in his arsenal is the spinning back fist to leg kick, which he effectively landed on Sean Spencer multiple times.
One of Natal's best techniques is the right hand. Regardless of whether he throws it straight or as an overhand, it packs serious power. In his last bout against Tor Troeng. Natal was able to seriously hurt "The Hammer" more than once with hard lead rights.
Natal loves trying to overwhelm his opponents with a mad flurry of looping shots. He frequently mixes these bursts of aggression into his otherwise standard offense. Often beginning with a wide overhand, he'll chase his opponent around with a nasty group of hooks.
Striking defense may be the biggest hole in Natal's game. His hands are rarely high, which is acceptable when a fighter has excellent footwork and head movement, of which Natal has neither. That's not to say Natal has bad head movement, it's actually decent, but it fades as he gets tired, leaving him open to shots.
The best example of this is his fight with Andrew Craig, which he was winning handily on the feet. In the second round, Natal's low hands and stationary head made it simple for the Texan to land a powerful head kick, knocking the Brazilian out cold.
Despite his improving striking, dragging the fight to the mat is still Natal's main game plan. For a jiu-jitsu based fighter, Natal has rather effective takedowns.
From range, Natal has a decent blast double and nice single leg. He prefers to work for takedowns in the center of the Octagon, rather than against the fence, as running through a shot is one of his strengths. However, he was willing to tie up Michael Kupier against the fence to avoid the Judoka's power punches.
Natal does a very good job transitioning between his shots and trip takedowns. Even if his initial drive fails, he switches to a trip, Many fighters can do this, but Natal will follow up that failed trip attempt with a switch in direction, or change the type of shot. Natal continues to switch up his attempts until he finishes the shot, or his opponent gets complete separation.
Natal's takedown defense how been pretty impressive throughout his UFC career. Thanks to his movement and kicks, Natal largely stays out of his opponent's wrestling range and his sprawl is quick enough to avoid telegraphed shots. He's also quite talented from the clinch, meaning his opponent rarely is at an advantage from that position.
In his fight with two-time NCAA All-American wrestler Paul Bradley, Natal proved just how good his takedown defense is. Bradley wasn't very successful on the feet, making him desperate for a takedown, but Natal consistently stuffed his attempts. Of Bradley's 12 takedown attempts, he only succeeded on three.
Natal is a black belt under former UFC veteran and submission wrestling extraordinaire Vinny Magalhaes. Additionally, he has taught at Renzo Gracie's academy and won multiple grappling titles.
From the top position, Natal is a very smooth grappler. His pressure passing is very impressive, as he refutes all of his opponents attempts to create space. While passing, Natal lands small shots, which serve the purpose of distracting his opponent.
Once Natal gets a dominant position, it's nearly impossible to remove him. He won't go for any risky submissions, but he will posture up and deliver heavy ground and pound, or search for a choke. Being active with ground striking until his opponent's defense falters is exactly how he arm triangled Sean Spencer.
In his back and forth ground battle with Tor Treong, we got to see a little bit of Natal's bottom game thanks to his willingness to dive for guillotines and a couple of Treong sweeps. Overall, Natal seemed to prefer half guard and excelled at elevating his opponent from there.
On one such occasion, Treong was on top of Natal in half guard, flattening him out while holding a cradle. Natal slowly rolled onto his own shoulder, slight off balancing the Swede. Then, he completed the roll, landing on top of Troeng's half guard. The cradle is specifically used for control, yet Natal was able to easily reverse it.
Best Chance For Success
Natal absolutely has to avoid being taken down by Kennedy. Despite his jiu-jitsu advantage, Kennedy is really good at avoiding submissions and escaping bad positions. Just ask "Jacare" Ronaldo Souza and Roger Gracie, who both failed to finish Kennedy.
Being the aggressor will be important for Natal, too. It is not clear who has the striking advantage, so whoever can quickly establish their rhythm is at a big advantage. If Natal can force Kennedy to be cautious on the feet to avoid power punches, there's a good chance he can win on the feet. In addition, Kennedy's striking defense is nothing special, meaning Natal should be able to land fairly often.
Natal has done a good job so far in his career avoiding the fence and it's especially important here. Kennedy is gritty grinder and the fence is one of his biggest allies here. Should Natal stay off the fence, his chance of victory increases greatly.
Does Natal have what it takes to upset Kennedy or will the former Army sniper score one for his home crowd?