The Connoisseur's Guide to UFC 178

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

If you're a fight fan, you can't afford to miss UFC 178 this weekend. Despite the loss of Jon Jones versus Daniel Cormier, the card is looking to be the best show of the year.

In the main event, Demetrious Johnson will attempt to continue clearing out his division against Chris Cariaso. In the co-main we will be treated to the best low kicks and knees in the lightweight division against the best hands, in Donald Cerrone versus Eddie Alvarez. And in “the people's main event”, Conor McGregor meets another non-wrestler in Dustin Poirier—who is certainly game enough to make a fight of it.

But that's not all! Two injured warriors return—both having been struck down at the peak of their craft—Dominick Cruz and Cat Zingano.

There's so much going on, and so many facets to watch out for in each fight, I'm here to give you an abridged run down of how to best appreciate the bountiful evening of entertainment we have been gifted.

Donald Cerrone versus Eddie Alvarez

If you're so caught up in the McGregor hype that you haven't been giving this fight your full attention, you might want to reconsider your priorities. Eddie Alvarez has been one of the best lightweights in the world for a long time, but this is his first fight in the UFC. While Cerrone doesn't necessarily signify a step up in competition, his skill set is completely unique among Alvarez's opponents.

The Cowboy has some of the nastiest low kicks you will see in mixed martial arts. If a fighter starts backing up, Cerrone will make mince meat of their trailing leg. Just look at his fight with Jeremy Stephens. As soon as he had Stephens backing up, Stephens' fight got worse and worse, and Cerrone showed his best stuff since he arrived in the UFC.

Cerrone's main issue is that he likes to run into his kicks—therefore he needs his opponents retreating. Despite his lanky frame—Cerrone loops his punches, making them slower and providing more windows to counter through. The times that he has really been put on the back foot have been when he has started swinging and a tighter, smarter puncher has clipped him through the middle. It happened against Melvin Guillard and Anthony Pettis. Hell, his bout with Nate Diaz was a seminar in why you shouldn't ever let Donald Cerrone push forwards.

In more recent years, Cerrone has expanded his lower limb game and it has worked a treat. I am forever complaining about there not being enough body work in MMA, and Cerrone's last fight—against Jim Miller—demonstrated why. Miller is as tough and as nasty as a sack of badgers, but Cerrone's intercepting knee strikes really took the wind out of Miller, and his willingness to lead.

Additionally, Cerrone showed my favourite kick of all, the front snap kick. For the past few years I have mentioned my love of this kick and how it is beginning to catch on in MMA. Katsunori Kikuno and Semmy Schilt really pioneered it, and now it's making its way into the UFC and causing all sorts of hurt. Cerrone was able to land these repeatedly, utilizing his height and length, and setting up his high kick.

Eddie Alvarez, meanwhile, has come leaps and bounds from his breakout fights in the DREAM lightweight grand prix back in 2008. Alvarez got a reputation for not having the prettiest technique, but hitting as hard as anyone out there. But now, six years on, Alvarez looks completely different. His boxing is as slick as anyone's in the sport, and as fights progress he only gets stronger.

The characteristic motions of Eddie Alvarez are his level changes into strikes—moving up and down the body as his old training partner, Frankie Edgar loves to—and his angling right which Alvarez calls “The Dart”. Alvarez says that he learned the dart from Bernard Hopkins, and it really is a beautiful way of getting in, landing a punch, and getting out to a new angle.

The Key Variables: Range shoulddictate everything in this fight. If Cerrone lets Alvarez into punching range, and Alvarez isn't eating a knee to the breadbasket as he does it, life will not be enjoyable for Cerrone. But we do know that Alvarez has had difficulty with those long, straight kicks—most notably against Katsunori Kikuno. In arguably Kikuno's best performance, the Japanese fighter managed to keep Alvarez from doing his best work through the use of kicks, and Alvarez was forced to take the fight to the mat to pick up the finish.

With that being said, Alvarez has a habit of getting caught early. There is no better argument for the idea of “getting your timing” than Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez in the second round—or even the second half of the first round—is nothing like the Alvarez who gets clipped almost routinely in the first minute of his fights. We know that Cerrone, like all of the old WEC lads, is a master of pouncing on a hurt opponent. With Alvarez's height disadvantage and love of ducking in low, it is also worth noting the danger of the intercepting knee to the dome, or the switching high kick which Cerrone loves so much.

Further Research: It would definitely be worth your time to watch Alvarez versus Kikuno, and Cerrone versus Diaz in order to see both men troubled on the feet and understand how being crowded affects the game of one, and being kept out of range affects the other. Additionally, check out Alvarez's lovely ringcraft as he drew out and exposed the inexperience on the feet of Michael Chandler. Chandler hit hard, but his reactionary defense and charging footwork left him exhausted late in the fight.

Conor McGregor versus Dustin Poirier

Conor McGregor is easily the selling point of this card—having moved an entire nation from complete ambivalence to actual support of the UFC. I don't want to talk too much about The Notorious One's style today, because Iwrote about him at such length a couple of weeks back in an article which everyone and their mum should read.

Crazy stuff to lead, but always back into position to counter.

I'd rather focus on his opponent and the specifics. I don't want to take anything away from Poirier, who is gutsy and entertaining, but he seems to be another opponent lined up to make McGregor look good. His wins on the feet have been fun—and have caused fans to label him a dangerous striker—but there are a number of glaring holes visible in his stand up which seem as though they could be much bigger, glaring targets for Conor McGregor.

The first thing to note is that Poirier does his best striking coming forward, but when he does move forward, he simply follows his opponent around the octagon. There is no ring cutting, or spry footwork, he simply plods around, allowing his opponent complete freedom of movement on the canvas.

When you see a fighter charging past his opponent like this, he is over-committing and is not in control of his weight.

When hedoes step in, Poirier—a southpaw—likes to lead with his left straight and then look for the right hook if he connects. Problem is, his head never moves off line, and he jumps in with his chin up, his lead hand low, and eats punches a good deal of the time. Against Akira Corassani, Poirier provided all the force for Corassani's punches by lunging face first onto them.

His running in on a straight line extends to his kicks. So many men have been knocked out by stepping right onto a straight as they throw a round kick. It is a matter of great importance to “fall off” to the side as you kick, but Poirier runs straight in an eats punches as a result.

Despite being a southpaw with a good left straight, Poirier does almost no hand fighting. His lead hand just sort of dangles like Diego Sanchez's and means that he eats jabs and lead hooks, just as Sanchez does. The handfight shouldn't be as important against McGregor, because McGregor is also a southpaw—making it more like the usual orthodox vs orthodox engagement—but good handfighting is really paramount in a southpaw if he hopes to hit, not get hit, and make the most of his unusual stance. That lead hand being so low means that when Poirier does step in, it's normally straight into a left hand. That, of course, is McGregor's money punch.

Finally, on the defensive, Poirier has a bad habit of simply standing there and covering up.

With all that said, Poirier is a southpaw and so is McGregor. Where both men's left straight is their most valuable punch everywhere else, against a fellow southpaw, their less used lead hand should be key. Both men have shown a decent jab, but never with the frequency that we can draw conclusions over who has the better jabbing chops from closed guard (southpaw vs southpaw or orthodox vs orthodox).

Further Research: Really, Poirier's fight with Cub Swanson pointed to everything which troubles him. He's easy to hit coming in, and he's too slow and rooted to the floor to fight on the counter. A fast in-and-out type fighter, particularly one who excels on the counter, like McGregor, should be able to make Poirier look very bad.

In and out with nothing to worry about.

I pointed out in my study on McGregor that as a cash cow and the gateway to a new market, McGregor has been steered clear of the strong wrestlers and top players who would stylistically trouble him, and more towards men who will stand and swing at him. Poirier absolutely fits that description—this looks like another tailor made match up for the UFC's favourite growing star.

But, of course, the first rule of fight journalism is to never, ever pretend that you know who is going to win. Poirier could fight out of his skin, McGregor could make a mess of it.

For more on McGregor, read that article and watch this short video.

Odds and Ends

Demetrious Johnson seems almost unbeatable in his division at the moment, and in fairness the set up of UFC cards favours him tremendously. People don't want to see flyweights in the main event, so flyweights don't get to have a five round fight until they're challenging for the belt—against Demetrious Johnson, the king of the five round fight. It's a little unfair... but what can you do?

Mighty Mouse remains one of the greatest all around mixed martial artists I have ever seen and continues to make the strong case—started by Dominick Cruz and continued by T. J. Dillashaw—for rapid stance switching and shifts. Johnson's bread and butter is his stepping right hand which is on display in all of his fights, but was most apparent against John Dodson.

Johnson's last fight was a little unspectacular, when he fought a juiced up Ali Bagautinov. “Puncher King” stood with his back to the fence and attempted to swing at Johnson when he stepped in. Johnson was able to out class Bagautinov in all aspects of the game, but an offensive swarmer he is not. Consequently, Johnson would attack Bagautinov along the fence, then back off and let him recover.

What you'll usually see from Johnson is mastery of the clinch and the ability to slap on a double collar tie from most positions.

And an abundance of stance shifting and feints.

These make him unpredictable, but if he gets hit during one, he's probably going to end up falling over. This was the case when Johnson was knocked down against John Dodson.

Elsewhere on the card, the great Dominick Cruz returns. Cruz's lay off has been remarkable—to put it into perspective, in the entire time I have been writing articles, I have never had occasion to write one about Cruz. The requests have been frequent and I have always said “he's coming back soon, I'll get something together for then”. I was genuinely worried that Cruz was never going to come back.

Working in sports journalism, there is something that eats at you about ACL tears. As soon as you hear that an athlete has experienced one, you have a moment of depressed resignation. “Well, that was the best we'll see of him / her” you say to yourself. In any sport where footwork is paramount—and that is most of them—an ACL tear is a career changer. The time it forces athletes to take away from their training just amplifies the damage done.

Now fighting is not like other sports. You can fight in a way that doesn't require much movement (providing your opponent isn't smart enough to make you). If Glover Teixeira, for instance, suffered an ACL injury, I wouldn't expect to see him suffer too much in a return. But Cruz—he's always been about movement. Perpetual motion. Continuous faked switch kicks into running punches. Hell, he even runs into his takedowns. 

Remembering how much more hittable Georges St. Pierre looked in his bout with Carlos Condit than ever before, I worry that we will not see premium Cruz, but rather a shell of his former greatness. That said, I will be rooting for a return of the man who bamboozled so many great fighters, and handed Demetrious Johnson his only UFC loss.

There's so much going on at UFC 178, and I'm already way over my word count talking about it. Watch the fights, then get back here the morning after for the full breakdown!



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