No. 10 ranked Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight, Costa Philippou, looks to upset former Strikeforce champion, Luke Rockhold, this Wednesday (Jan. 15, 2014) night in the UFC Fight Night 35 main event from The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia.
Thanks to his boxing background, Philippou brought some hype into his mixed martial arts (MMA) career. His Octagon debut, where he was out-wrestled on short notice, was fairly disappointing, and he followed it up with an exciting, but rather sloppy, brawl with Jorge Rivera. After his first two Octagon appearances, it didn't seem like Philippou would be entering the Top 10 anytime soon.
However, five straight victories, including finishes over Jared Hamman and Tim Boestch, pushed the "Cyprus Slugger" toward the top of the 185-pound division. Closing in on a title shot, much of Philippou's momentum was derailed when he was soundly defeated by Francis Carmont. If he can defeat Rockhold, Philippou will regain much of that momentum and move further up to the contender ladder.
But, does he have the skills to do so?
Let's take a closer look.
Philippou has professional boxing experience and has competed in the Golden Gloves, losing a split decision in the finals. Additionally, UFC commentator Mike Goldberg mentioned that Philippou nearly made his country's Olympic boxing team, although I'm not confident in that statement's accuracy.
Regardless, Philippou moves very much like a talented boxer. Generally, Philippou likes to circle around of his opponent and look to pick them apart. An important part of Philippou's success is his ability to simultaneously move, slip, and punch without getting off-balance or out of his stance. Philippou, no matter what direction he's moving, does a very good job staying composed and keeping his feet under him, which helps him control distance and striking exchanges.
As Philippou moves around the Octagon, he'll open up his attack by flicking out occasional jabs and left hooks. Once he's found his rhythm, he'll begin to add in the straight right hand, which he frequently leads with. For the most part, Philippou, despite his power, does not load up on his punches. Instead, he lands damaging shots from the outside and frustrates his opponent until they make a mistake, or he wins a decision.
Most of Philippou's opponents are looking to take him down, so Philippou enforces a range where his foe must close the distance with punches before he can shoot. As his opponent tries to set up his takedown with punches, Philippou will land one or two hard counter punches while circling away, effectively stopping the takedown before it starts and doing damage. When Philippou counters, he often catches or parries his opponent's punch and throws a check hook. If he follows up the hook, it will almost certainly be with his right hand.
If Philippou's opponent is frustrated, aggressively attempting to close the distance, or just has terrible defense, Philippou may start to commit more to his strikes. The most recent example of this would be his vicious uppercut counter against Tim Boestch. At the time, Boestch was handily winning the round, successfully pressuring Philippou with punches and takedowns. Ray Longo, Philippou's former boxing coach, called for the uppercut, which landed flush when Boestch tried to burst forward. This was a solid power punch and clear reminded "The Barbarian" of the dynamite in Philippou's fists.
Another example, which also demonstrates Philippou's habit of countering knee and leg strikes, is his brutal knockout of Jared Hamman. Hamman has this bizarre style of Muay Thai that involves keeping his chin high, head stationary, and charging in with leg kicks. Philippou switched it up a bit to counter this, stepping forward with hard overhands and left hooks as Hamman came running in. After getting Hamman's timing, it was only a matter of time until "The Messenger" took a nap.
Overall, Philippou has very nice striking defense. He controls range very well and smoothly slips punches, two factors that put him well above the average UFC striker. However, He does seem to have issues with kicks, as Boestch managed to drop him with a front kick, and Fukuda repeatedly landed hard leg and body kicks. Part of this is due to his movement heavy style, but he could still work on recognizing and blocking kicks.
Unless Philippou's offensive wrestling has vastly improved since his fight with Rivera, he's not much of a takedown threat to elite opponents. Against "El Conquistador," Philippou hit a double and single leg against the cage, but his technique was far from perfect in both, as he just muscled the smaller man to the man. Outside of this fight, Philippou has yet to take a fighter down in his UFC career.
Originally, Philippou's takedown defense appeared quite weak, as Nick Catone was able to control him in his debut. However, Philippou's defensive grappling has greatly improved since, something he demonstrated during his five fight winning streak. The final three opponents of that win streak -- Court McGee, Riki Fukuda, and Tim Boestch -- are all primarily wrestlers, but the "Cyprus Slugger" was able to stay on his feet.
Much of Philippou's defensive grappling comes from his style of striking. Since Philippou can control the stand up from the outside so well, his opponent is forced to try to close the distance. If his opponent has inferior striking technique, then he'll be at risk of counters as he tries to get in close, causing hesitation. The only alternative is to shoot from far out, which Philippou's excellent sprawl cancels. Additionally, it's harder to shoot on a constantly moving target than a flat-footed one.
Philippou often relies on the cage to supplement his defense. If he can reach the cage, Philippou can force his opponent off of his legs and into the clinch, where his physical strength is especially useful. He's also very comfortable wall-walking back to his feet, meaning takedowns alongside the cage are almost useless.
In his most recent bout, Francis Carmont fully utilized his length and a smart game plan to grind Philippou for a decision. Carmont's lanky build allowed him to contend with Philippou from the Cypriot's preferred range without much difficulty, as well as partially eliminating the need to close the distance. Finally, Carmont repeatedly blasted double legs in the center of the Octagon, where Philippou couldn't easily return to his feet.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Philippou's jiu-jitsu game is a bit of a mystery, but I'm not very impressed with what little I've seen. In terms of his offensive ability, Philippou has half-committed to a couple of guillotine attempts and a rear naked choke. He also locked up an omoplata on Rivera and was in a great position to finish, but he either didn't know how or was too tired to complete the move.
Off of his back, Philippou is not very effective. He doesn't move well and was thoroughly controlled by Carmont, never threatening the French Canadian and rarely getting back to his feet. In fact, his few submission attempts allowed Carmont to pass his guard. Outside of his wall-walk, which is great, Philippou is not particularly good at getting back to his feet, a very important skill for strikers.
Best Chance For Success
Philippou is facing a difficult style match up in Rockhold. The former Strikeforce champ has the kicks and length to give Philippou the same trouble as Carmont ... and he's likely an even better grappler.
To defeat Rockhold, Philippou needs to be the aggressor. Trying to box from the outside against a tall, effective kickboxer like Rockhold just won't work. Instead, Philippou needs to trust in his head movement to avoid counters and pressure Rockhold. If he can cut off the cage and pin Rockhold against the fence, he's at an advantageous position.
While pressuring, Philippou needs to be wary of Rockhold's right hook counter, which he's used across his entire career to catch fighters coming in. Additionally, he needs to be prepared to launch a punch whenever Rockhold goes low with kicks. If he can deter Rockhold from kicking, the fight becomes much more even.
Does Philippou have what it takes to upset Rockhold or will Rockhold get back on track for a title shot?