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UFC 173 Preview: Renan Barao vs. TJ Dillashaw, Henderson vs. Cormier

By Jaime C. Feal

Tomorrow night, from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and live on Pay-Per-View, Renan Barao puts his UFC bantamweight title on the line once again, and a #1 contender’s match in the light heavyweight division between Dan Henderson and Daniel Cormier is the co-main event. Also on the card is a welterweight clash between Robbie Lawler and Jake Ellenberger, one that figures to be a stand-up war loaded with fireworks.

Welterweight Division (170 lbs.):

“Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (22-10, 7-4 UFC) vs. Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger (29-7, 8-3 UFC)

Lawler is coming off a very close decision loss to Johnny Hendricks in which he showed tremendous heart and striking power. He had the champion Hendricks rocked and hurt several times, clearly winning 2 rounds of the 5-round battle. Lawler showed cardio throughout 4 rounds, and only gassed after a Hendricks takedown in the final round. This being a 3 round fight against Ellenberger, Lawler should have no cardio problems whatsoever. Lawler has really evolved and improved each time we see him in the Octagon.

With a win Lawler could get back into title contention, but to do so he must beat another former contender, Jake Ellenberger, who is also coming off a loss. Ellenberger has faltered every time he gets close to a title shot, suffering a devastating loss to Martin Kampmann in a fight that would have earned him the #1 contender spot. He rebounded nicely with 2 wins, then lost an extremely boring decision to Rory MacDonald. Ellenberger has tremendous punching power and great wrestling, but when he faced Kampman, the better striker, he got stopped in the 2nd round.

Lawler and Ellenberger are in a lot of ways mirror images of each other: Powerful welterweights who use their wrestling skills to keep the fight standing and swing for the fences. One advantage Lawler may have is his chin. He took the best Hendricks had to offer, and the last time “Ruthless” Robbie suffered a knockout loss was 2004 at the hands of Nick Diaz. Lawler proved that he has advanced his game with a win over Rory MacDonald, and the razor-close decision loss to the champion Johny Hendricks. Ellenberger faltered against MacDonald, and while it is proven that MMAth doesn’t add up, there is not much to differentiate the two other than current form and the perceived chin advantage that Lawler has.

Prediction: Robbie Lawler wins by TKO, Round 1.

Light Heavyweight Division (205 lbs.):

Dan “Hendo” Henderson (30-11, 7-5 UFC) vs. Daniel “DC” Cormier (14-0, 3-0 UFC)

This fight could be either an absolute snooze fest, or a barnburner. It really depends how cautious Cormier is of Dan Henderson’s infamous “H-Bomb” punch. The hellacious right hand, which most recently destroyed Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, is by far Henderson’s most potent weapon. No doubt Cormier will be looking for it, the question is whether he can avoid it.

Both men are Olympic-caliber wrestlers, with Cormier a former competitor in Freestyle for Team USA, and Henderson a former medalist for Team USA in Greco-Roman. The edge either has in wrestling is very small, if any, but Freestyle wrestling does seem to apply to MMA better than Greco-Roman. That said, this fight is highly likely to take place on the feet, and if it does go to the ground it will be because Cormier wants it there. Remember, Cormier is in his prime, and while Dan has defied his 43 years of age with his powerful right hand, he undoubtedly is at a strength disadvantage against the bigger, younger Cormier. In fact, Cormier used to fight at Heavyweight, so he really is as big as they come for the Light Heavyweight division. This matchup is therefore a nightmare for Dan Henderson.

Henderson will not be able to take down Cormier, and will be slower and more plodding in the striking game. He always has a puncher’s chance, more so than the average man, and you can therefore never count Dan Henderson out of a fight. All that said, “DC” has the tools, coaches, training partners, and game plan to neutralize Henderson and control the fight.

Prediction: Daniel “DC” Cormier wins by unanimous decision

UFC Bantamweight Championship (135 lbs.):

Renan Barao (32-1, 7-0 UFC) vs. TJ Dillashaw (9-2, 5-2 UFC)

Renan Barao, the UFC Bantamweight champion, looks simply unstoppable. Barao is currently on an unfathomable 33-fight unbeaten streak, his last loss dating back over 9 years. During that time he has dispatched noteworthy foes Brad Pickett, Scott Jorgensen, Urijah Faber (twice), Michael McDonald, and Eddie Wineland. Now he faces Dillashaw, a surprisingly low-ranked contender and Team Alpha Male member. Dillashaw trains with Urijah Faber at Team Alpha Male, so he may have somewhat of an advantage in having a training partner that has fought Barao twice. Then again, Faber is likely better than Dillashaw, and has a very similar style with his wrestling base.

Barao possesses all the tools necessary to dictate the terms of the fight, including great takedown defense. While Barao may not have the offensive wrestling capability of Dillashaw, he is better everywhere else, and this fight is not close. Dillashaw’s striking is rudimentary by comparison. In fact, Dillashaw got clobbered and stopped in the Ultimate Fighter Finale against the smaller John Dodson, who now fights in his more natural Flyweight division. Dillashaw is always going to look to take the fight to the ground against a diversified Muay Thai striker like the caliber of Barao. The problem for him is that Barao has some of the best takedown defense in UFC history, and is just so adept at controlling range, and using his speed and timing to control the ebbs and flow of the fight. Barao is athletic enough to scramble to his feet from difficult positions, and if he ever gets put on his back, he has a black belt from Nova Uniao to fall back on. Simply put, there are not many ways for TJ Dillashaw to win this fight, and he is outgunned everywhere. The best he can hope for is to take down Barao and stall him out enough in top position to earn a judges’ decision. The much more likely scenarios entail Barao stuffing his takedowns, punishing him on the feet, and getting his hand raised via stoppage, or judges’ decision if Dillashaw shows incredible grit to survive 5 rounds with Barao.

Prediction: Renan Barao wins by TKO, Round 3.

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