Strange fight this heavyweight tilt on Saturday night. Very strange. If you dwell on Randy Couture's return to the UFC against Brock Lesnar long enough, you can drive yourself into a low-speed pursuit. I'm just about there.
To start, there are way too many variables to assume the veteran champion will just waltz over the inexperienced challenger. Not only does Couture face a significant size deficit, but he returns to the sport's biggest stage at the age of 45 with the impact unknown of having taken 15 months off to wage a legal dispute with the UFC.
Should Couture (16-8) add yet another victory to his Hall of Fame career, no one will be shocked. However, Couture supporters might find it a struggle to identify ways in which their man has a better than 50-50 shot of winning UFC 91's main event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
It's not so much that Couture-Lesnar is an even fight. On paper, it's not. One man has more than a decade's worth of championship experiences to call upon. The other is preparing to enter just his fourth bout.
Outside a set of impressive physical stats, nothing is quite so simple in either corner. Is this the moment when Couture finally fights like a middle-aged man? Will Lesnar's size prove to be an asset or liability for him?
In instances like these, it's best to focus on the basics rather than intangibles, which we will do here.
There's no reason to believe Lesnar is the better puncher and kicker. He's shown himself to be instinctual and aggressive, but three fights are hardly enough to build a reservoir of experience that could help him against someone as savvy as Couture.
"The Natural" walked into MMA with some boxing in his toolbox, and over the years he's honed it to work for his game. Mixing it up on the inside is a Couture specialty, and he must stay active in the clinch if he stands any chance of breaking Lesnar.
Though he's still a raw striker, Lesnar has reach and power. There were flashes of competence against Frank Mir and Heath Herring, but unless he surprises Couture with an early shot, Lesnar could be required to use a more sophisticated attack on the outside. I'm not sure he's capable of that quite yet.
On the canvas he'll need distance to effectively ground-and-pound. Sure, he's big enough to smother and land short, ham-fisted shots, but Couture will limit those chances by locking up, working his under-hooks and constantly providing a moving target.
You can be sure that, unlike Mir, who was blasted with chopping punches and elbows as he went after Lesnar's legs, Couture won't do the same if he's on the bottom.
Lesnar's confidence can be shaken if he takes a few jabs off his nose, and the champion is more than capable of finding the proper range. Couture's biggest edge would come if Lesnar, 31, were forced to fight from his back. Ground-and-pound with Couture's precision or force, and the champ will find a sure path to victory.
Couture has never offered much of a submission threat, so Lesnar can be comfortable in the knowledge that long stretches on the ground -- with him on top, of course -- aren't to Couture's benefit. Similarly, it's doubtful Lesnar can offer Couture anything he hasn't seen or defended a million times before.
The best chance for a submission? Couture lands some heavy leather on a grounded Lesnar and, like many inexperienced fighters, the former pro-wrestler gives up his back. It wouldn't be surprising to see a rear-naked.
Biggest question in the fight: Who will be the better wrestler?
There's no doubt that Couture must make it tough to secure takedowns. To do that, he needs to be efficient in his wrestling and avoid matching power for power. Technique is paramount when the two lock up, because if Couture expects to push around the 280-pound Lesnar for five rounds, he might be playing right into his challenger's meaty hands.
Lesnar can dictate how the fight unfolds if he concentrates on wrestling, and so long as he avoids obvious mistakes, the powerful grappler should have an early advantage.
Couture could swing things in his favor if he manages to stand up early -- it would force Lesnar to work, and it might bring about a more cautious approach as he looks to control the champ on the canvas instead of attack him.
It's been well-documented that Couture dropped out of the heavyweight division because of consecutive losses against grapplers Josh Barnett and RiccoRodriguez. Both men were more skilled than Lesnar is today, but he is the more imposing figure. Couture will need to manage this area of the fight and hope for no worse than a wash if he hopes to win.
Lesnar hasn't been pushed in an MMA fight. Yes, he went the distance against Herring, but at no point was his offensive plan disrupted. Couture, traditionally one of the fittest fighters in the sport, needs to break Lesnar's rhythm and push the pace if he's going to make the big man's size sway from positive to negative.
We know Couture is very difficult to break. We could soon learn where Lesnar falls on that scale.
Couture is a master strategist. Lesnar will rely on being physical and overwhelming, but if that doesn't hold up, expect Couture's game plan to manifest itself starting in Round 3.
Pay close attention to who's controlling the pace -- at every stage. Couture needs to pressure Lesnar, make him work, think and be reactive. If he does, Lesnar won't be as much of a threat, his energy will diminish and he won't be the one dictating the terms of the fight.
PREDICTION: Couture, by a late-stoppage or close-decision that he pulls out by taking the later rounds.