Chuck Liddell vs. Rashad Evans
Like anything ultra-competitive, mixed martial arts is a no frills proposition: If something works, it's studied, dissected and adopted because margins for error are slim and the desire to win large.
Truly great fighters will be remembered as much for their victories as for their innovations along the way. While it's been several years since Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz could stomach one another long enough to share a workout room, the pair did manage to discover, and refine, a technique that has become germane to MMA in a cage. "Wall walking," so-called when the fence is used as a tool to counter being taken down, has become a staple alongside rudimentary jiu-jitsu, wrestling and Muay Thai
Liddell, of course, won plenty, and he can credit some of that to being one of the best wall-walkers the sport has ever seen. In fact, the former UFC light heavyweight champion is so good he doesn't need a fence these days. But given a chance to use the chain link, the grapplers he's faced had a nearly impossible time holding the "Iceman" down.
This is the reality facing Rashad Evans when he fights Liddell at UFC 88 on Saturday in Atlanta.
Like many of Liddell's previous opponents, Evans is a good wrestler who developed an affinity for striking. Time and again, Liddell neutralized fighters like Evans by counterpunching while moving backwards and stopping takedowns when he needed. Even if opponents could get past Liddell's heavy hands, there was no guarantee a takedown would follow.
Though he lost to Randy Couture, one of the best wrestler-turned-mixed martial artists in the game,. Liddell proved he was a formidable fighter on the canvas. His elusiveness has made him one of the most frustrating mixed martial artists in the world to fight, which is why so many ex-wrestlers lost their patience and attacked wildly. It's also why so many were knocked out for their effort.
Undefeated in MMA competition, Evans obviously doesn't intend on being Liddell's next victim. Training out of the same camp as Keith Jardine -- the last man to defeat Liddell -- perhaps the former Michigan State Spartan wrestler has every right to be confident heading into UFC 88's main event. Looking at their accomplishments and their strengths, however, it's hard to argue in support of Evans. Ignore, for a moment, a style matchup that favors the Iceman. Evans' 13-0-1 record (his only loss was a draw against Ortiz 14 months ago) shows he's never met an opponent on Liddell's level.
Unlike Jardine, who managed to out-point Liddell (21-5) on what was clearly an off night for the former champion, Evans is not a big, aggressive light heavyweight. Rather, Evans has appeared to be the kind of fighter more concerned with avoiding mistakes than delivering a potent offensive threat.
Based on previous performances, Liddell-Evans feels like its tailor-made for a slow, counter-striking fight. Assuming Evans opts against pressuring Liddell for fear of eating a right hand, it seems all too possible that both men will dance and move and feint. But not much else.
Despite being the younger man here, don't expect Evans, 28, to enjoy any kind of wrestling edge. Yes, he's a former heavyweight that's taken down larger foes, but Liddell, like a ship's keel, almost always manages to right himself.
The reason Liddell has won two-thirds of his fights by knockout: he simply doesn't concede takedowns. If Liddell's torn hamstring, which prompted a postponement of this bout from June to September, doesn't do much to change that, the former champion should have enough to win.
At 39, the Iceman has sunk himself into plenty of ice baths. He'll have to hope that his body is as willing as his mind. Expect Liddell to hand Evans the first defeat of his career by unanimous decision.
Rich Franklin vs. Matt Hamill
At one point, Franklin was one of the best light heavyweight prospects in the sport. But it's been nearly three years since he debuted at middleweight, and the choice to bulk up 20 pounds and return to 205 seems like an odd choice. Franklin (23-3, 1 NC) said he moved up at the request of the UFC, which didn't want to see Franklin pick off possible middleweight contenders only to fall short when it came time to fight Anderson Silva again.
Against Hamill, Franklin has a tougher test than some might think. Hamill is an aggressive and large wrestler who won't fatigue as the fight moves into its latter stages. The additional weight could prove to be Franklin's detriment, and he'll have to hope his skill makes up for what will be a physical deficit.
If Hamill (4-1) can handle the step up in competition -- and I think his size aids him there -- he can win a decision.
Dan Henderson vs. Rousimar Palhares
Henderson (22-7) has long been one of the best competitors in MMA, and Palhares provides the former two-division Pride champion a stiff test as he looks to stop a two-fight skid in the UFC. Henderson defeats Palhares (8-1) by frustrating the aggressive Brazilian submission expert and landing plenty of right hands. One should hit the mark, causing the fight end sometime in the second or third round.
Nate Marquardt vs. Martin Kampmann
This is the best match on the card. You can go down any kind of checklist you want and it would show an even fight between two excellent mixed martial artists. The difference here is Marquardt's size. Kampmann (13-1) is dangerous, but it feels like Marquardt (25-8-2) just has a little too much for the Dane. Enjoy what should be a highly technical bout.