Two recent finalists of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) will collide this Saturday night (March 16, 2013) as TUF 16 runner-up Mike Ricci battles TUF "The Smashes" finalist Colin Fletcher in the opening bout of the UFC 158 main card in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Ricci is a top prospect out of Tri-star gym and he showed glimpses of his potential on TUF 16, but he failed to fully realize it as he wound up in second place, losing a decision to Colton Smith. "The Martian" has some serious fight-finishing skills and he'll be looking to showcase them on the feet this weekend.
Fletcher is in the same boat as Ricci, a champion out of the UK with some solid grappling credentials, but he was unable to win his season of TUF in Australia, getting ground out by Norman Parke in the finals. He'll be entering hostile territory this time around and will be looking to impress a significantly larger audience.
Will Ricci be inspired by his hometown fans? Can Fletcher rise to the occasion and put on a "Freakshow?" What's the key to victory for both men?
Record: 7-3 overall, 0-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: Jordan Mein (Ringside MMA 4)
How he got here: Ricci got off to a very promising start in his MMA career, winning his first four fights all via stoppage on the local Canadian circuit, but it was his decision victory over top Canadian prospect Jordan Mein that really opened some eyes.
The Tri-star fighter was invited to the Bellator season two lightweight tournament where he was expected to easily handle late replacement Pat Curran in the quarterfinals as he was hailed as one of Georges St. Pierre's proteges. Instead, he was brutally knocked out by Curran, who would go on to become the Bellator featherweight champion.
Ricci took a year off after his first loss and returned to score a first round knockout victory but he couldn't keep his momentum, losing a decision to current UFC lightweight Daron Cruickshank. After bouncing back with a decision victory, he was invited to season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter where he would advance all the way to the finals as a member of Team Carwin, knocking off the likes of Jason South, Michael Hill and Neil Magney along the way.
In the finale, he was completely dominated by Colton Smith's superior wrestling and was smothered to a unanimous decision loss. He announced a drop back down to lightweight and he might be fighting for his job this weekend.
How he gets it done: Ricci is all about his stand-up skills in the pocket. He's got some serious power and he showcased that on The Ultimate Fighter with his "Knockout of the Season" over Neil Magney.
His goal will be to utilize footwork to keep this fight standing while also connecting in the pocket with his straight punches. He can't afford to hesitate on the feet or Fletcher will start to get comfortable with his kicks and jabs on the outside, even potentially throwing spinning of flying attacks to close the distance.
Look for Ricci to really pump his right jab and try to fluster Fletcher with his southpaw style and once he's really found his range, he'll try to start throwing with power. As we've seen in his recent performances, he's very capable of dishing out some serious punishment if he connects with that left hand.
Record: 8-2 overall, 0-1 in the UFC
Key Wins: none
Key Losses: Norman Parke (UFC on FX 6)
How he got here: Colin Fletcher has always been about the spectacle, but don't think he doesn't have some skill to back it up. "The Freakshow" is a bit new to martial arts, having only begun training in 2007, but by his third professional fight, he was already fighting for and winning a local welterweight title.
He followed up his victory by winning the Total Combat lightweight title and after his first defeat at 170 pounds, he dropped down to lightweight permanently. Fletcher defended his lightweight belt two more times via submission before he was scooped up by BAMMA and given a bit more exposure. He made the best of it by winning both of his fights under the promotion's banner which made his inclusion in "The Smashes" season of The Ultimate Fighter a no-brainer.
On the show, Fletcher's size at 6'2 in the lightweight division was very difficult to deal with and he defeated Ben Wall and Richie Vaculik to advance to the finals. Just like his opponent Mike Ricci, he had serious problems dealing with a superior wrestler in Norman Parke and was taken down repeatedly for a unanimous decision defeat.
He'll get a chance to redeem himself this weekend.
How he gets it done: Despite Fletcher's physical strengths due to his long and lanky frame, he isn't much of a threat on the feet barring the occasional wild kick or punch. He is strongest on the canvas, where he's scored seven submissions in his 10 professional fights.
"The Freakshow" needs to close the distance in the clinch where he can get a grip on Ricci and try to either score a trip or somehow drag this fight to the ground. Pulling guard is even an option as long as he's confident in his sweep game.
Ricci showed he was vulnerable to a strong ground fighter against Colton Smith, who was able to take him down at will and also take his back for extended periods of time. If Fletcher gets in a situation like that, he really needs to go on the offensive and try to not only gain the dominant position but also to score a finish. This is a pay-per-view main card fight and he wants to make a good impression.
While on the feet, look for him to keep his distance by utilizing his length with jabs and kicks from the outside until he can find an opening to get inside and work for takedowns. He doesn't want to screw around with Ricci in the pocket and trade punches.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest factor for this fight will be Fletcher's ability to take the fight to the ground. We've seen Ricci have trouble against a talented wrestler like Colton Smith, who outweighed him and manhandled him in the cage.
Fletcher is a better grappler than Smith in terms of jiu-jitsu, but his wrestling is nowhere even close. If he can get the fight to the ground against Ricci, he should be able to win every scramble, but it will all come down to whether or not he can actually get the fight on the canvas. Ricci has flaws that are exploitable, but if he doesn't put himself in a position to actually capitalize, then they won't matter.
Bottom Line: This is an interesting match-up between two lightweights who are hungry for their first UFC victory. Both men have serious finishing potential should the fight remain in their realm for a considerable amount of time as Ricci has superior power and technique on the feet while Fletcher is a very solid grappler on the canvas. Whoever can impose their will has a serious shot of scoring an exciting stoppage in front of a huge pay-per-view audience.
Who will come out on top at UFC 158? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!