This is a familiar story.
Whether talking about UFC fighters, professional athletes in any other sport or lions on the African safari, it is a reality that every alpha male must face at some point and a challenge that every young buck must take if he is going to emerge as the new leader.
It is the story of old versus young. Muhammad Ali versus Larry Holmes. Larry Holmes versus Mike Tyson. Drew Bledsoe versus Tom Brady. And someday, Tom Brady will ultimately face his successor in competition, just like Brett Favre did when he was forced to take a backseat to Aaron Rodgers.
In a little over a week, the greatest champion in the history of mixed martial arts, Randy Couture, returns to the Octagon following back-to-back losses for only the second time with a series of major questions hanging over his head. Is he finally on the downside of his brilliant 12-year UFC career? Has Father Time finally caught up with the living legend? Has the time finally come for the next generation of UFC stars to use Couture as their stepping stone?
Brandon Vera aims to answer those questions in the main event of UFC 105 when he squares off against Couture in a classic battle between aging ex-champion versus a young, hungry contender. He knows that in order to take the next step in his already successful career and someday fulfill his championship dreams, he must get by Couture.
The UFC Hall of Famer, however, is not ready to be anyone's stepping stone, and he certainly did not take this fight to be a willing participant in the christening of Vera as the next 205-lb title contender. Instead, the 46-year-old is looking to make an example out of his younger foe, proving to the world that he remains an elite-level fighter and rekindling his own championship hopes at 205 lbs in the process.
If Vera wants to score the biggest win of his career, he absolutely must eliminate takedowns from Couture’s game. Removing takedowns from the equation is Vera’s biggest key to victory because Couture’s entire standup game feeds off the threat of taking down opponents.
The former multiple time heavyweight and light heavyweight champion remains one of the most effective ground-and-pound fighters in the sport, even at his advanced age. Mix that with Vera’s poor showings inside the Octagon when fighting from his back, despite having excellent Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills, and both participants know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Couture will control the fight and score big points on the judges’ cards if he is able to secure the top position on the ground.
Because of his elite ground-and-pound attack, Couture’s opponents are often tentative on the feet, focusing their energy too much on keeping the fight standing, instead of letting their strikes flow. Couture might as well be a young Chuck Liddell reincarnated when facing a timid opponent because he picks them apart on the feet.
Without the threat of a takedown, Couture is a very ordinary standup fighter, one that wants no part of a kickboxing-focused match with a striking stud like Vera. Of course, that raises the question of how does Vera remove takedowns from the equation. The answer is simple. He must control the distance.
Vera can control the distance with good footwork and a quick, snapping jab mixed with ever-changing combinations. “The Truth” should look to employ a counter strategy in the opening round where he triggers his strikes early off of Couture’s left foot.
When Couture steps forward with his left foot to close the distance, he does so flatfooted, which leaves him out of position to punch or kick effectively (not that kicking is an integral part of his game, because it certainly is not). He corrects the misstep by sliding his left foot into place. That step-slide progression is both deliberate and time consuming. Vera is quick enough to quickly move to his own right when Couture steps forward, which will open a tremendously wide throwing lane for a lead right hand without concern for effective return fire or a clinch because Couture will be out of position.
If the lead right lands, Vera can follow it up with a cleanup left hook, but he should not stay in that position long, unless Couture is hurt and a swarming attack is appropriate, because there is no need to create openings for Couture to reposition himself for a clinch. Instead, he should circle out, wait for Couture to reset his feet and then look counter off the step-slide progression all over again.
Iconic former 205-lb champion Chuck Liddell followed that game plan with robotic precision in his two knockout wins over Couture. Vera can do the same thing.
Make no mistake about it: Vera is a world-class striker. He has enough power in both hands to leave Couture staring up at the lights in the middle of the Octagon. And that may very well be the result, if Vera can control the distance, avoid takedowns and let his hands go.
Of course, “The Truth” also kicks with the force of an angry mule. In fact, his leg kicks are, in my opinion, the best in the division. That can play a major factor in this fight because leg kicks are one of the most effective ways to sap an opponent of his strength and explosiveness. Watch “Shogun” Rua versus Lyoto Machida for a vivid example. If Vera can pepper Couture’s leg in the opening round, he will severely limit Couture’s movement and his effectiveness standing up, as well as curtail his ability to take the fight to the ground as the fight wears on because Couture will not have a stable base.
The problem, however, is that leading leg kicks, particularly early when an opponent is at full strength, open the door for Couture to catch his leg and take the fight to the ground. That doesn’t mean that Vera should abandon his kicks. Quite the opposite is true, actually. He merely needs to throw them at the end of his fistic combinations, rather than leading with kicks. Even a leg-catching expert like Couture cannot catch kicks thrown after a left hook, unless he wants to leave his hands down during the exchange, something that Couture certainly won’t do.
For Couture to win, he must get put the fear of a takedown into Vera’s head right from the opening bell. Again, the threat of a takedown makes any fighter timid on the feet, particularly when facing a guy with Couture’s ground-and-pound game. And the easiest way to put the proverbial takedown fear of God into someone is by executing a takedown early in the fight.
Vera is an accomplished wrestler who spent time training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but Couture is one of the best in history at applying his wrestling skills in the context of MMA. A Greco-Roman specialist, Couture is a savant at using the cage to assist with high-crotch takedowns and Greco throws, along with the occasional double-leg from the clinch. He is also masterful at executing trips.
Couture needs to use his in-cage wrestling expertise to his advantage, but to do so, he needs to pressure Vera into the cage where he can leverage his advantages. That means coming forward at the start of the fight, cutting off the Octagon by using angles to force Vera’s back into the cage and then initiating a clinch. From there, he can work his magic.
Couture must be careful, though, not to let Vera spin him in the clinch. Couture is a master of taking down opponents from the clinch, but Vera is a master at inflicting pain with his elbows, knees and fists from the clinch. He is as dangerous in that position as anyone in the division, so Couture must be mindful to maintain the dominant position during those moments.
Once Couture gets Vera down, he will begin to work his ground-and-pound game. It’s unlikely that he will worry about trying to pass the guard early, assuming Vera is able to get to the guard during or shortly after the transition. Vera’s ground game is grossly underrated. Couture knows that any mistakes trying to pass open the door for a sweep, escape or possibly a submission. Thus, he will focus on throwing punches and elbows from inside the guard, which will quickly wear down his opponent, making it easier and easier to score additional takedowns as the fight continues.
Once Couture validates the threat of a takedown, the standup game completely changes. Vera will begin to hesitate, opening the door for Couture to land his very good right hand. Granted, he is not going to knock out Vera with a single punch, but he will score with big punches, significantly eroding Vera’s confidence since the standup realm is where he is supposed to hold a major advantage.
The game plan is really that simple for Couture. If he doesn’t score at least one takedown in the opening round, I just don’t see any way that he can win the fight. If he is able to score a takedown and keep Vera on the ground for any length of time, then everything else will become that much easier for him, dramatically increasing his chances of success.
So, how do I see this fight playing out? I’m going to stick with my trend of picking against Couture, which isn’t the popular pick at the moment. I think that Vera will use lots of movement and quick combinations to beat up Couture on the feet, both with punches and leg kicks, possibly scoring a knockout.
If this fight happened five years ago, I’d take Couture without hesitation based solely on his experience and ability to neutralize great strikers. But this is today, not five years ago. Couture isn’t getting any younger. He looked tremendous in his last two fights; age certainly wasn’t a factor in those losses, so there is no reason to believe that Father Time will intervene. Then again, at 46 years old, it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.
With that said, my prediction is not strictly rooted in Couture’s age. Vera was one of the most promising fighters to come into the UFC in the last five years, though he has not yet lived up to his tremendous potential. Part of that is due to the fact that he was fighting far larger men at heavyweight. Part is due to the fact that he just recently got comfortable competing at 205 lbs. The rest is due to the fact that he sometimes fights with hesitation, rather than letting his skills flow with confidence.
When Vera fights up to his full potential, like he did against Frank Mir, he can beat just about anyone and is a possible future champion. The Vera who hesitates…well…to quote that brilliant comical character Borat, “not so much.”
Against a living legend like Couture, Vera has nothing to lose, so he should be able to fight with a carefree attitude and let his game flow. That means fluid movement, punches in bunches, brutal leg kicks, expert takedown defense and ultimately his hand raised in victory.
Of course, my prediction is predicated on Vera avoiding takedowns in the opening round. If he cannot do that, then I don’t see him winning the fight. How is that for hedging my bets?
• 46 years old
• 6’2, 205 lbs
• 16-10 as a professional; 13-7 in the UFC
• 4-3 at 205 lbs; last 205-lb bout was a knockout loss to Chuck Liddell at UFC 57 on February 4, 2006
• Competed as a heavyweight in all four of his fights since UFC 57
• Current two-fight losing streak matches UFC career long
• Current layoff (77 days) is the shortest of the last decade; has not fought in the Octagon more than twice yearly since 1997
• 32 years old
• 6’2, 205 lbs
• 11-3 as a professional; 7-3 in the UFC
• 3-1 at 205 lbs, only loss at 205 lbs was a disputed decision against Keith Jardine at UFC 89 on October 18, 2008
• Last four fights at 205 lbs, competed as a heavyweight in all previous bouts
• Current two-fight winning streak is two shy of his UFC career long
• Current layoff (77 days) more than a month longer than his UFC shortest (42 days between facing Fabricio Werdum at UFC 85 on June 7, 2008, and his 205-lb debut against Reese Andy at UFC: Silva vs. Irvin on July 19, 2008)