Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Mixed Martial Arts [Print without images]

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Updated: October 13, 2:35 PM ET
Breaking down the UFC 120 main card

By Tomas Rios
Sherdog.com

My well-known dislike for overhyped main events gets along famously with UFC 120 "Bisping vs. Akiyama" on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London. Unless one is able to alter the fabric of the space-time continuum, the show will air via tape delay on Spike TV.

Now, back to more pressing matters. No glitzy headliner will be found here, but there are five world-class main-card fights over which to gnaw your nails in anticipation.

Michael Bisping versus Yoshihiro Akiyama

The UFC's middleweight title race has become a bizarre drama to follow. Anderson Silva has enjoyed a dominant yet sometimes-odd reign, and we have reached the point where sustained greatness in the division no longer serves as a prerequisite for title contention. Just slap together a few wins against some high-profile opponents, and a contender can find himself more than halfway there.

That brings us to Bisping and Akiyama -- two quality fighters with spotty in-cage histories that the UFC would still love to capitalize on thanks to the followings they have courted in their respective homelands. The winner will undoubtedly be put on a track toward title contention, and the outcome depends almost entirely on Akiyama's ability to show up for a three-round fight. His cardiovascular shortcomings have come to define his Octagon career thus far, and this particular match does not appear to be one he can win in short order.

In many ways, Bisping seems like the worst kind of opponent for the judoka. In stand-up, the verbose Englishman may not have much in the way of knockout power, but he gamely makes up for it with his volume and accuracy. Those skills are heightened by his smooth footwork and overall defensive skills, which are likely to be his best friends against Akiyama.

A fine striker in his own right, Akiyama has been held back by his footwork and the stark size disadvantage he faces against most middleweights. When he does come up against an opponent who will get inside his range, he flashes nice counterpunching skills and an uncommon ability to roll with punches. But trench wars are not Bisping's game, and Akiyama seems unlikely to force him into one.

No one is more aware of Bisping's deficiencies than Bisping himself, and his style is built around minimizing their role in his fights. Of late, he has made a greater commitment to stepping into his punches, which used to be what made his elusive style somewhat ineffective -- because opponents often realized they had little to fear in giving chase. For all his faults, "The Count" shows excellent cage generalship, and by putting an extra bit of power into his punches, he has become a far more effective fighter on offense.

The temptation here is to assume that Akiyama will circumvent these issues by falling back on his judo, but that disregards Bisping's underrated wrestling. Besides his fundamentally sound takedown defense, Bisping's greatest asset remains his ability to escape back to the feet once he's taken down. Few fighters control the head while clearing their hips as well as Bisping, and he uses the cage for leverage as well as anyone else in the sport.

Even if Akiyama can consistently score takedowns, he will put more effort into them than they are worth, given the likelihood of Bisping escaping to his feet. If "Sexyama" could sustain his pace for three rounds, it might be a different story. Past history tells us he can't. A fresh Akiyama can exchange with Bisping on even terms, but once his conditioning wanes, his effectiveness goes with it.

The early going will be interesting just to see if Bisping continues committing to his punches the way he did against Dan Miller. That version of the Wolfslair Academy product should make for an entertaining style clash with Akiyama's fluidity in exchanges. Unfortunately, the style clash will not last long, as Bisping will run away with this fight late en route to a decision win.

Dan Hardy
Dan Hardy's striking skills are well known, but it will be his performance in the clinch that counts most.

Dan Hardy versus Carlos Condit

The importance of the strategic element in fighting is only heightened in a bout as evenly matched as the welterweight duel between Hardy and Condit. Both men bring more to the table than either typically gets credit for, and their strengths lie in areas other than those the UFC's marketing machine would have us believe.

A standing encounter would not be a raucous display of go-for-broke brawling as much as it would be Hardy's composed boxing butting heads with Condit's more versatile kickboxing. If Condit's fight with Rory MacDonald was any indication, "The Natural Born Killer" would do well to avoid an even better boxer this time around. A kill-shot artist Hardy is not, but the Team Rough House disciple has more power in his fists than Condit does, and his hand-speed advantage appears especially marked.

Although Condit can throw his foes different looks with kicks and knees, he doesn't do a good job of dictating distance -- despite having a reach advantage over just about every welterweight. Condit disguises that flaw with strong clinch skills, both in landing strikes and executing takedowns. However, Hardy navigated the clinch quite well against Mike Swick and showed a sneaky talent for landing crisp, hard punches in close quarters.

More importantly, Hardy has proved to be a difficult takedown from inside the clinch. He remains vulnerable to level changes, but Condit doesn't have the sort of explosive shot that usually gives "The Outlaw" problems. A battle of wills from inside the clinch doesn't produce any sort of significant advantage for either man, and the result could end up as a variation of Condit's fight with Martin Kampmann -- a nip-tuck affair that was decided largely in the wrestling battles.

This time, the story will revolve not around who gets top control but around who uses the clinch most effectively. That distinction will likely go to Hardy by way of stopping Condit's takedowns and beating him to the punch from inside the phone booth. The match will hardly be a dominant performance for him, but it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Hardy repeat much of what he did against Swick and take a close but clear-cut decision win.

Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.