For the third consecutive year, the UFC will head back to Chicago to bring fight fans the first Fox card of the year.
Headlined by a matchup between two former lightweight champions in Benson Henderson and Josh Thomson this card may not be all that intriguing for the casual fight fans of the world, but the for the die-hard fans this a matchup years in the making, which will undoubtedly reshape the top of the 155-pound for the foreseeable future.
Henderson, the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion who will be competing in his sixth consecutive five-round main event under the UFC banner, is coming a off a first round submission loss to rival Anthony Pettis in their championship fight at UFC 164. Now, eager to regain his belt look for Henderson to put on the performance of his life with the hopes it will be enough to earn his avenge his loss and recapture UFC gold.
Thomson, who is coming off a spectacular second round head kick knockout victory over Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 7, was originally scheduled to challenge Pettis for the belt in the main event of UFC on Fox 9 back in December. But after it was revealed Pettis would require surgery on his injured knee causing him to miss several actions, Thomson was pulled from the card. So while this may not be the matchup the former Strikeforce champion was hoping for it is undoubtedly the next best thing as a win over Henderson will not only secure his number one contendorship but also prove he belongs in the top five of the division.
This is essentially a matchup between two different, but world class, striking attacks.
Henderson, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, will most certainly look to keep his distance against Thomson and use his unpredictable stand up game to keep his opponent guessing for the entire 25 minutes. While the Arizona native has proven he can brawl when he needs to Henderson tends to rely on throw a high volume of technically sound kicks and punches. Just look at his unanimous decision victory over Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 5 where fans saw "Smooth" land 124 significant strikes, the fifth most in UFC lightweight history.
But even though Henderson won his fight against Diaz it was Thomson who finished him when he landed his vicious headkick knockout as he became the first man to finish the Stockton native.
With years of work under the tutelage of American Kickboxing's head trainer Javier Mendez, "The Punk" has emerged as one of the more underrated strikers in the division. While he does tend to do his best work on the ground his ability to switch stances and land kicks at will has made him a tough matchup for anyone in the lightweight division.
Slight Edge: Thomson
As good as the lightweights are with their striking attack, they are equally as talented in the wrestling department. Since making his UFC debut back in 2011, Henderson, a two time NAIA All-American at Dana College, has scored 21 takedowns in eight bouts to bring his total to 41 takedowns under the WEC/UFC banner, the fifth most in the combined history of both organizations. Combine this with a takedown accuracy of 53.9-percent, fifth most amongst active UFC lightweights, and Henderson has shown he has no problem nullifying his opponents striking attack with world class grappling. However Henderson has shown to have a difficult time defending the takedown against fighters with a wrestling based attack. In both fights against former champion Frankie Edgar secured seven takedowns to Henderson's one. This should bode well for Thomson, who has completed 23 takedowns during his Strikeforce career, the third most in organizational history and has secured at least one takedown during his last four UFC fights.
While neither fighter will have a particular easy time bringing the fight to the canvas it will be particularly interesting to whether they will attempt to secure a takedown from the clinch or by way of single/double leg takedown. With Henderson being the more athletically gifted and physically imposing fighter the slight edge has to go to him.
Slight Edge: Henderson
Both men enter this bout as black belts in their respective jiu-jitsu styles. Henderson, a practioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, holds eight career submissions in his MMA career and is a regular competitor in grappling tournaments. But while 2010 Arizona State Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation MVP may have stumbled in his last submission loss to Pettis he has emerged as one of the most difficult fighters to submit in the entire organization as seen in his fight against Clay Guidia back at UFC on Fox 1. Escaping countless of guillotine attempts and securing top position every chance he got Henderson's submission defense has emerged as one of his dangerous weapons.
In similar fashion Thomson, a practitioner of Guerilla jiu-jitsu, has yet to be submitted in his 13 year career and chances are that won't change on Saturday. While he does have eight submission wins in his career and has attempted 23 submission attempts while fighting under the Strikeforce banner, the most in company history, don't expect him to try to secure the victory via tapout against a fighter with Henderson's skills.
If this was strictly a grappling competition I would have to give the edge to Henderson but since we have to take into account punches and elbows on the ground this matchup becomes a toss up.
For fans hoping for a highlight reel finish that many became accustomed to throughout 2013 this fight will surely end in disappointment. Henderson's averaged fight time inside of a UFC octagon is 18:43, the second longest amongst active UFC fighters and he has not stoppage victory since his submission win over Donald Cerrone at WEC 48 back in 2010. Prior Thomson knockout of Daiz he too hadn't had a stoppage victory since submitting Pat Healey at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum back in 2010. If history repeats itself this will most likely come down to a nail biting. If this is the case look for Henderson to have his hand raised in the end as securing close decisions seems to be his area of expertise.
Henderson via Split Decision
Here are the rest of my predictions for the main card and preliminary bouts:
Main Card (FOX, 8 p.m. ET)
· Stipe Miocic def. Gabriel Gonzaga
· Donald Cerrone def. Adriano Martins
· Jeremy Stephens def. Darren Elkins
Prelim Card (FOX Sports 1, 5 p.m. ET)
· Sergio Pettis def. Alex Caceres
· Eddie Wineland def. Yves Jabouin
· Chico Camus def. Yaotzin Meza
· Hugo Viana def. Ramiro Hernandez
· Daron Cruickshank def. Mike Rio
· Mike Rhodes def. George Sullivan
Digital Prelim Card ( UFC Fight Pass, 4:30 p.m. ET)
· Walt Harris def. Nikita Krylov