The UFC finds itself in Saitama, Japan, on Saturday, with a heavyweight main event between Josh Barnett and Roy Nelson. This marks the fourth consecutive year the UFC has made the trip to Saitama Super Arena.
As always, I'm here to break down the main event, as well as a co-main middleweight bout between Gegard Mousasi and Uriah Hall, plus give my picks for the rest of the main card. Don't agree with my predictions? Let me know (nicely, of course) on Twitter: @bokamotoESPN.
Josh Barnett (33-7) vs. Roy Nelson (20-11)
Odds: Barnett minus-270; Nelson plus-230
There is a tried and true blueprint for defeating Nelson, and that's avoid the right hand.
This poor dead horse gets beaten every time "Big Country" fights, but the fact is, it will continue to be that way because Nelson doesn't really change. If there's one thing we know about Saturday's main event, it's that Nelson will headhunt, primarily with his right hand. He has won seven fights in the UFC, and all but one were finished as a direct result of his overpowering, bombshell of a right. In the seven fights he lost, he went down swinging with that same punch. He's defined by it.
It's probably safe to say Barnett, one of the sharper minds in the sport, is on to this blueprint. And he should have the technical know-how to avoid Nelson's haymaker. For one, he has pretty decent head movement -- especially when opponents throw only one or two strikes at a time, which Nelson tends to do. He's extremely comfortable in a dirty, mean type of fight, where he can press into a clinch, take advantage of his size and strength and manipulate positions to throw knees to the body. Nelson is susceptible to this sort of game plan.
Some of the worst beatings Nelson has taken in his career have been against opponents who effectively use that clinch. Alistair Overeem turned Nelson's midsection into one giant welt with knees. Fabricio Werdum busted Nelson's nose in the opening minute from this position. Barnett isn't quite as dangerous as either of those two, but he's capable of similar body work in close, which will wear Nelson down.
However, the thing about Nelson -- and we all know it by now -- is that he doesn't stop coming. You think about all the damage he has absorbed and you'd think he'd be reaching some kind of scientific, biological limit. But every fight, he continues to come out and plod forward -- even as he's eating punches at a UFC record-setting rate. That's an interesting ability to have in this matchup against Barnett, who is still durable despite a long career, but is coming off a first-round knockout loss to Travis Browne and a nearly two-year layoff. How will he hold up in the fourth and fifth rounds, if Nelson is still coming?
This fight could absolutely hit the floor at some point, although I believe it will be late if it does. As he gets older, Nelson almost never attempts to take an opponent down, and when he does, typically it's a telegraphed single-leg that has a very low chance of success. At the same time, Nelson's defensive grappling is underrated. He has good hips and works hard to get back to his feet when he does allow a takedown. If Barnett has success on the floor, it won't be in the early rounds while Nelson is fresh.
Expect a strong performance by Barnett, mixed with flashes of a real knockout threat by Nelson. They each have a willingness to engage and that will create openings for Nelson to land the right hand, but Barnett brings a high pace for a heavyweight and that's going to make Nelson work. When Nelson works, he gets tired -- and when he gets tired, that haymaker is easier to pick off defensively. There is always a chance of a Nelson knockout, but Barnett is the pick.
PREDICTION: Barnett by third-round stoppage via ground and pound.
Gegard Mousasi (37-5-2) vs. Uriah Hall (11-5)
Odds: Mousasi minus-470; Hall plus-375
This is the fight for Hall to finally live up to all those "The Ultimate Fighter" expectations. He's 4-3 overall in the UFC. You might say he has been spectacularly average. The potential still lives, but it has been bogged down by several letdown performances. A win over Mousasi would be somewhat career-defining for Hall, up to this point.
Hall best classifies as a counterpuncher. It's why he so often fights with his hands low. He wants opponents to make the first move. His timing is usually pretty good and he is so, so very fast. That has to get into the head of Hall's opponents a little bit, that any offense thrown will likely be answered immediately with a counterpunch. At the same time though, when Hall can't pick up an opponent's rhythm, he doesn't look real good. Many have chalked these slow, offensively void performances on Hall being "too nice," but the reality is that it has had a lot to do with his inability to counter effectively on certain nights.
On paper, Mousasi is a tough matchup for the counterpunching Hall. His striking defense is one of the most applauded aspects of his game. He's patient on the feet and he rarely gets caught reaching. Despite all his athleticism and tendency to move around the cage, Hall frequently hangs out at a range that offers his lead leg to kicks, which I expect Mousasi to take advantage of. Mousasi's offensive wrestling has improved in recent years as well, and it wouldn't completely surprise me if that turned out to be a major difference-maker in this fight. Hall has solid takedown defense but Mousasi's timing and setups are better than what Hall has seen in the UFC thus far.
All that said, let's not forget about what drew so much attention to Hall in the first place: those karate/Capoeira influences that can change the momentum of a bout at any moment. Mousasi does not rely on a lot of lateral movement. He'll change distances, but he's comfortable standing in front of opponents, which might place him at a higher risk for something like Hall's spinning wheel kick.
Look for a closer fight than the odds suggest. The only way I see a blowout is if Mousasi's grappling proves capable of taking over. More likely, I think it's relatively even on the feet, with a small but clear edge to Mousasi. Sprinkle in a few key takedowns and we're looking at a three-round decision victory.
PREDICTION: Mousasi by unanimous decision.