Strikeforce's final Welterweight champion, Tarec Saffiedine, is set to make his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut this Saturday (Jan. 4, 2013) against Korean Top Team-trained product, Hyun Gyu Lim, in the main event of UFC Fight Night 34, which takes place at Marina Bay Sands in Marina Bay, Singapore.
Saffiedine made his name the hard way.
The Belgian fought his way to mixed martial arts (MMA) fame by working through the Strikeforce "Challengers" series. After two victories, Saffiedine fought in the main event of a "Challengers" card against fellow future star Tyron Woodley, losing a close decision.
Despite the loss, Saffiedine made his way to the main card of regular Strikeforce events. Across his next three bouts, Saffiedine used his technical kickboxing and improved wrestling to win clear decisions. These victories earned him a fight with then-champion Nate Marquardt, who was a large favorite over "The Sponge."
Saffiedine, ignoring the odds, went after "The Great" to earn the biggest win of his MMA career, brutalizing Marquardt for a decision victory. Does Saffiedine have the skills to continue his win streak against the very dangerous Lim?
Let's take a closer look:
A black belt in Shihaishinkai, Saffiedine is an experienced kickboxer, holding an amateur record of 12-1-1. In addition, Saffiedine has experience with Kung Fu, Karate and Taekwondo.
Saffiedine's preferred style of fighting is from the kickboxing range, where his versatile arsenal of kicks is especially effective. In order to maintain this distance, Saffiedine relies on his excellent footwork to stay away from his opponent. If his opponent rushes in to get close, Saffiedine will meet him with a clinch, another area Saffiedine is very talented in.
Few fighters throw as many types of kicks as Saffiedine. "The Sponge" mixes up his kicks well, changing between roundhouse, front, question mark kicks and more, while working up-and-down his opponents' bodies. Making him even more unpredictable is his love of switching stances, as he is equally talented from both stances. Not only does Saffiedine throw several kicks, but he sets them up very well.
One of Saffiedine's favorite set ups is to follow his straight or overhand right with a right high kick. Since his opponent just slipped, blocked, or was hit by a punch from the right side, he doesn't expect another strike to follow from the same direction. When Saffiedine throws this combination, he prioritizes speed over power, so it often lands without much stopping power.
In particular, Saffiedine has vicious low kicks, which he used to mangle Nate Marquardt in his most recent bout. Marquardt is an experienced fighter; it was hardly the first time a fight tried to kick his leg. However, Saffiedine set up his kicks so well that the Grudge Training Center-trained product was helpless.
Early on, Saffiedine committed to landing leg kicks. In the beginning, Saffiedine did not fully step into his kicks often, choosing to land softer kicks from the outside. To safely land these kicks, Saffiedine mostly relied on his feints. As the fight wore on, Saffiedine switched up his attack.
Once Marquardt was limping, Saffiedine got even more aggressive with his low kicks. Keeping a high guard, Saffiedine would stalk him. Marquardt repeatedly tried to halt Saffiedine's forward movement with a jab, but the Belgian was waiting for that. As Marquardt moved forward with the jab, Saffiedine would step forward and slug Marquardt's leg with a kick. Since Marquardt was already in the process of throwing a jab, he couldn't check or counter the kick, and Saffiedine was happy to trade a partially blocked jab for a hard kick.
Another set up Saffiedine used to land leg kicks was to reach out and control Marquardt's hands as he stepped forward with the kick. Even if he didn't get a grip, Saffiedine would push on Marquardt's arms, preventing most of the champ's punches. Finally, Saffiedine repeatedly finished his punching combos with low kicks.
Saffiedine is a solid boxer as well. He uses the jab nicely from both stances and ties together three punch combinations well. His punches aren't especially powerful, but his volume and footwork make up for it. In the first round of his bout with Marquardt, Saffiedine managed to drop a charging "Great" with a right handed jab while moving backwards, showcasing his footwork beautifully.
When Saffiedine is pushing the pace, he frequently ends his combinations by clinching. Not only does this prevent his opponent from responding, but Saffiedine is a very solid clinch striker. He works knees, punches, and even kicks from the clinch well, and is very good at landing strikes on the exit, such as his high kick.
In addition to prior Judo experience, Saffiedine trains with Team Quest in California, which is historically one of the best wrestling camps in MMA. The particular Team Quest gym Saffiedine works with is also the home of Dan Henderson, an excellent clinch grappler who has worked with Saffiedine extensively.
Outside of a few trip attempts from the Muay Thai plum, Saffiedine relies on his blast double when he needs to bring the fight. Saffiedine managed to double leg and slam a crippled Marquardt in the final round of their bout, but his best wrestling performance was against Tyler Stinson. After getting clipped by an elbow in the first round, Saffiedine controlled the next two rounds by hitting two running double legs on "The Evolution." In both attempts, Saffiedine absolutely ran through Stinson, easily taking him to the mat in an impressive display of speed and drive.
More importantly, Saffiedine's takedown defense is very strong. His hips are excellent, allowing him to sprawl out on most double leg attempts, and his single leg defense is nearly perfect, as he bounces around until he can work his way into the clinch. Once Saffiedine gets to the clinch, all but the best wrestlers are stymied by his defense.
The only fighter to have any substantial wrestling success against Saffiedine was Tyrone Woodley, and even he was stuffed repeatedly. Woodley did not hold a technical advantage over Saffiedine in the clinch, he was just much stronger and able to force a couple of takedowns, although he did little with them.
Once taken down, Saffiedine is excellent at returning to his feet. Using an open guard to push his way to the fence, Saffiedine wall walks as well as anyone in the UFC. He's very good at kicking off of his opponent, which creates the necessary space for him to stand back up. Even if he can't fully break away, Saffiedine is willing to give up underhooks to get back to the clinch, where he's skilled enough to deal with a bad position.
Saffiedine is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and has won five of his 14 bouts via submission. He has yet to submit an opponent in an elite promotion, but has demonstrated some solid skill regardless.
Off of his back, Saffiedine relies on an open guard. By putting his feet on his opponents' hips, he is constantly threatening with a stand up or eventual wall walk. He's also able to attack with an armbar, triangle or omaplata if his opponents' arms are in bad positions, something he repeatedly attempted on Woodley.
One of Saffiedine's favorite attacks is the kimura, which accounts for two of his submission victories. Against Woodley, Saffiedine very nearly countered Woodley's takedown with a kimura. After isolating the arm, the two canceled out in the same position for nearly a minute as Woodley's grip held strong. Then, Saffiedine yanked and broke his grip, landing in a perfect position to finish. However, his own grip slipped as well, allowing Woodley to twist his arm and break free.
From the top position, Saffiedine is constantly looking for the arm triangle choke. Whenever he has an opportunity, Saffiedine thrusts his head underneath his opponent's arm pit. He hasn't locked it up since a regional fight in 2009, but he's still hunting for this choke.
Best Chance For Success
Saffiedine's entire game plan should revolve around tiring out Lim. "The Ace" is absolutely massive and cuts a huge amount of weight, which takes its toll on his cardio. Saffiedine, on the other hand, can fight hard for five rounds. Therefore, he should fight cautiously early on and primarily focus on avoiding Lim's power punches, while landing some of his kicks at range.
If he makes Lim chase him, the South Korean will get tired.
One thing Saffiedine needs to look out for is Lim's stepping knees. Saffiedine likes to close the distance and fight from the clinch, something he must do very carefully against Lim. If Saffiedine wants the clinch, he should only look for it after throwing his own combination, not when Lim is coming forward.
Ducking into a knee can knock anyone out; therefore, Saffiedine must be cautious.
Looking for a finish late should be a priority for Saffiedine, too. The Welterweight division is very crowded right now, and Saffiedine has spent a lot of time on the bench, so he needs to make a statement. To finish Lim, he needs to work his leg hard. Lim stands fairly flat-footed, so Saffiedine will have opportunities. Once Lim is limping and tired, Saffiedine needs to step up his aggression with punches or look for a takedown and attack from there.
Will Saffiedine win his UFC debut or can Lim earn the biggest win of his career?
For a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of Lim be sure to click here.