Another Fight Night is coming up and curiously the UFC has opted to put the spotlight on the prospects, relegating former champion Renan Barao to the co-main event. It doesn't really matter that much but it’s good to see the UFC using its Fight Night events to advertise the young bloods in a division which would otherwise be in danger of becoming like flyweight—where no one is invested because they never see anyone but the champion on main cards. In the 'featured prelim' we see the return of one great bantamweight prospect, Aljamain Sterling against the stalwart grappler, Bryan Caraway, but in the main event we see a meeting of two unchecked hype trains as the undefeated Cody Garbrandt meets the also undefeated Thomas Almeida.
If you have followed my writing you will have heard me sing Thomas Almeida's praises. Even if you don't there's a great chance this isn't the first you're hearing of Almeida, which is a feat in itself for a bantamweight. Fans adore this guy for the simple reason that he gets the job done and has a habit of making a spectacle of it. Almeida was picked up by the UFC after amassing a 17-0 record stacked with knockouts in Brazil, all over guys with no Wikipedia pages of course. When he made his debut in the UFC he won his first fight and looked decent, but went to the decision for the second time in his career—the first being in his professional debut. So far, so normal—a step up in competition and suddenly the human highlight reels are just decent. Except, since that UFC debut, Almeida has had three more fights against more respectable opponents and has starched each and every one.
Cody Garbrandt, meanwhile, did not have to build that extensive record against unheralded opponents that so many Brazilian talents seem to before the UFC calls them up. A talented wrestler and a successful amateur boxer before the transition to MMA, Garbrandt has the kind of comfort in those individual disciplines that you won't see as often in the coming generations of fighters now that 'MMA' is available as a discipline so readily. Going 5-0 with five knockouts before the UFC gave him the call, Garbrandt is now 3-0 in the UFC with two finishes. All of this is added to by the constant praise of his Team Alpha Male coaches and teammates—veterans of the lighter weight classes who consistently assert that Garbrandt is likely to be the team's next world champion.
Garbrandt's last fight was a disappointment from a lot of angles. He was scheduled to fight John Lineker in what would have been an incredibly stern test of his game, but Lineker was forced out due to sickness. The last minute replacement was Augusto Mendes—the great 'Tanquinho' of Brazilian jiu jitsu fame—but Mendes was far from prepared and his young MMA career did not need him to be thrown to the wolves this quickly. So Garbrandt got the knockout but no one was really impressed. Everyone was just sad for what they missed out on. Meanwhile Almeida seems capable of knocking out the best fighters thrown at him, but also seems capable of being dragged into sloppy brawls and getting hurt against almost anyone. As gifted as the young Brazilian is offensively, he is a shambles defensively much of the time.
Let us be clear then, these men are prospects but not unstoppable. Each shows a lot of exploitable habits and shortcomings in the cage. But each also brings his own flair and on any night could have what it takes to trouble the true greats of the division.
A-Games and Habits
The go to game of Cody Garbrandt is pretty simple to describe, he leads with his right hand and follows with a left hook. Almost every time he steps in. Spare the odd telegraphed kick or cartwheel kick attempt. Or to look at it another way: he's got Glover Teixeira problems.
His square, upright stance means that when he is stepping in to throw his right, he is often an easy mark for his opponent's jab. Henry Briones (sometimes listed as Enrique Briones) didn't have anywhere near the same economy of motion or speed with his hands as Garbrandt, but by standing more bladed and jabbing whenever he saw Garbrandt step in, he was able to jack Garbrandt's head back with jabs a dozen times in that bout.
And remember: if you throw out your hands it's like that punch to the face never happened.
His low hands and absence of head movement often don't help his case. Against Marcus Brimage, Garbrandt was lunged face first onto a couple of left straights.
The issue is not that he doesn't possess a decent jab though. When he has actually opted to use it his jab has looked crisper, sharper, and less strained than all of his opponents'. The problem is that it seems to lack context in his game. He doesn't use it at all until he's run out of ideas, and then when he does it is as a stand alone weapon. Where a good jab serves to pick at the stitching of the opponent's defense so that you can worm a finger into the cloth and start ripping it apart, Garbrandt's jab is a set up without pay off.
But Garbrandt's money punch is the left hook and when that is your party trick you often don't need that much else. The left hook is the king of counter punches. If you trade blows for even a moment with someone who has a tighter, slicker left hook you are playing with fire. Garbrandt's hook is at its best when his opponent is lunging after him. His checking, retreating hook has wobbled a great number of his opponents and facilitated knockouts.
Here's the great Lucian Carbin favourite (and now a Demetrious Johnson staple), using the low kick to bait an opponent onto a checking left hook.
Thomas Almeida, meanwhile, has always been about forward movement. A Chute Boxe alumni he is notable firstly for his variety in attack. Body shots, elbows, knees, low kicks, high kicks, spins. Here's what I wrote about Almeida last time we talked about him, ahead of UFC 189:
What makes me tout Almeida so highly? He's just a dream-like patchwork of all the things you ever hear a coach despairing that his fighter doesn't do. He goes to the body as well as anyone in the game, the left hook to the body being considered his money punch. He grapples excellently and every time he leaves the clinch, he throws out an elbow (the discovery of this method alone turned Carlos Condit into the biggest elbow fetishist at welterweight).
And he has a near perfect sense of appropriate range. Not in terms of getting away from punches—he's pretty hittable—but in terms of bringing the right tool for the job. He doesn't waste his time throwing easily deflected or missing hooks when he can be dropping elbows, any time his opponent's head dips for a moment he's throwing up a knee. I enjoy watching his flurries far too much.
He'll even step in and throw the right elbow as a sort of inside right as he slips to the inside of a jab.
Now since that article, Almeida bested Brad Pickett and Anthony Birchak but he looked as hittable as ever. Pickett's better head movement—less thought about and more instinctive—allowed him to catch Almeida clean with left hooks in close. One of the key issues in Almeida's game is his weird guard with both hands in front of him and close together. He will often open the right hand to palm jabs but however he fights his right hand is often forward of his jaw line, making him incredibly susceptible to left hooks even in his regular stance—once he starts swinging his hands this flaw becomes even more dangerous as he cannot consciously mitigate the flaw in the middle of a fire fight.
Not what you want to be your main flaw if you're fighting Garbrandt.
One of Almeida's great strengths is that he gets hurt and recovers quickly, all while keeping the pace high. I don't know if it is a trait which will serve to give him career longevity against the caliber of opponent who will hurt him for his defensive flaws and do it regularly but that is a question for further down the line. The difference is that when Almeida hurts his opponents, they stay hurt and the fight gets finished because of his constant pressure and refusal to take a step back. Against Yves Jabouin, Almeida was on the rough end of some slick counters but kept changing targets, sinking in the odd shot and eventually hurt Jabouin with a left hook in an exchange. It was only then that you saw Almeida at his best as Jabouin covered up and pushed off, working intelligently on defense, while Almeida hammered his head just long enough to expose the body and sink in a good shot before reversing the process to expose the head. Bodywork is an important part of Almeida's game and it serves to make the opponent feel more the torrid pace of his fights, but also to expose them to the short elbows and long overhands upstairs.
Yves Jabouin folds behind his right elbow just a little too late and the Almeida pace picks up.
Returning to that elbow, you don't see them used often enough in MMA and you don't see them used enough as part of a boxing arsenal anywhere. Nate Corbett—one of the best elbow fighters on earth—said that he gravitated to elbows because he realized they were so powerful, but stressed the importance of using them as if he was boxing. So Corbett uses his hands to set up a perfect elbow where a right hand would have been, or he'll use them in place of counter punches and suddenly he's dropping opponents left right and center while many even at the highest levels of Muay Thai are hammering elbows ineffectually into their opponents' forearms and guards. When Almeida found his mark on Pickett, it was with the inside right elbow:
Pickett never really recovered and the end game courtesy of a beautiful bicycle knee as Almeida threw his lead hand out over Pickett's head to encourage the ducking that Pickett had been using throughout the bout.
Many point to elbows being ungloved for their effectiveness but really that just means they are more likely to open cuts. The reason that they are so powerful in MMA is that they are so stable. When you hit a left hook in a similar plane, there is give in not only the connecting surface—the many small bones of the hand shift around like gravel in a sock on impact—but in the joints of the arm. A left hook can come out a slappy mess and be thrown off line by connecting sooner or later than expected because there is give at the wrist, the elbow and the shoulder. An elbow is fool-proof: it completes its path no matter what point in the motion it meets resistance.
An additional benefit of the elbow is that it can more readily be folded behind—linking it in with traditional boxing defese even better than the traditional hooking punches. I sing Jon Jones' praises every time we talk about this but watch Jones land an elbow and immediately convert it into a 'folding' guard, hiding his jaw line and sometimes whole head below his arm and shoulder. That in itself could prove important.
From Garbrandt, the counter left hook can continue to play a central role against Almeida perfectly. Almeida is the perfect mark for it. All of his aggression and defensive flaws play perfectly into it. But the job is in getting Almeida to open up without being on the receiving end of it. I would love to see Garbrandt neglect everything else for the first two minutes of the bout and just jab. He has the jab, he just doesn't use the jab very often. Quick, flicking jabs to make use of Almeida's tendency to always throw big strikes. Lots of movement and lots of jabs for just two minutes of the fight could more than bait the trap for the left hook counter as Almeida inevitably begins stepping in with his left hooks to the liver and his exposed right hands.
For Almeida it would be good to see him lean more heavily on his decent kicking game. I don't think I've seen Garbrandt check a single low kick, but I've seen numerous instances of them breaking his balance by everyone from Marcus Brimage to the ludicrously clumsy striker, Augusto Mendes. Where I could see Almeida doing his best work is in crowding—not rushing—Garbrandt. It would take some restraint because Almeida so often likes to throw his hands and step in afterwards but I would like to see Almeida work his kicks and force Garbrandt towards the fence while Almeida's guard remains tight.
While Garbrandt's left hook is exceptional at catching opponent's coming in, he tends to open himself up and stand too tall when he exchanges in close—often eschewing the idea of tying up in order to throw back. If Almeida could force Garbrandt into the same exchanges along the fence that Marcus Brimage did, and utilize his elbows while crowding out Garbrandt's right straights and hooks and folding behind his elbows after he throws them, Almeida could rough the Team Alpha Male product up something awful. If that is, he can do it without exposing himself to counters en route, which has never been his strength.
Then there is the grappling which is easy to forget because both men have so much success on the feet. But Garbrandt's takedowns have seemed well incorporated with his striking. And Almeida's ground game is one which has the spinning D'arces and ninja choke attempts, but which also emphasizes getting back to the feet, with a healthy use of upkicks and elbows throughout.
It could turn out to be a stinker, of course, but it is just so hard to see that happening. You have an all out swarmer with a habit for getting clipped on the counter, against a counter puncher who struggles under pressure. Both men are stubborn enough to force their own game against an opponent who seems perfectly fitted to make their life difficult. It might not be a fun match up for either man involved but it stands to be a great one for us, the fans. Get back here Monday for the breakdown and don't forget to catch Caraway versus Sterling on Fight Pass because that could be terrific too.
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