The MGM Grand Arena is the chosen battleground for the latest high profile UFC Pay-Per-View. In the Octagon this Saturday, current heavyweight king Brock Lesnar (4-1) will defend his belt against interim champ Shane Carwin (11-0) and Japanese-Korean Olympic Judo prodigy Yoshihiro Akiyama (14-2) will face late replacement and middleweight TUF alumni “The Crippler” Chris Leben (20-7). Originally slated to face “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva (34-10-1), this bout was almost scrapped when Akiyama took slight at what he viewed to be an inferior replacement for the injured Brazilian brawler who pulled out of the bout due to several injuries including damaged ribs and a knee injury. The UFC was, however, able to persuade Akiyama to take the fight anyway and the bout was made official. An odd stylistic clash between the hard nosed brawling of Leben and the refined premeditated and technically exquisite Shotokan karate/Judo attack of Akiyama, this fight is definitely one of the more difficult pairings to predict with any certainty. This is due in part to the less concrete variables of Leben’s condition going into this fight just two weeks after a come from behind KO of Aaron Simpson (6-1) and weather or not Akiyama is writing Leben off as a sure thing. At UFC 116 we will find out just how much that fight took out of “The Crippler” and just how much respect Akiyama will show his opponent.
At First Glance: This fight has record padding stamped all over it. While Chris Leben’s combination of raw power, outstanding luck, and a granite chin prove that he is far from being a tomato can, there are several factors that work against “The Crippler” in this match. Leben has made a career out of the lucky punch; he swings wildly and often isn’t even looking in his opponent’s direction when he connects. Where Leben finds victory is when his opponents over commit trying to finish him when they have him on the ropes (or against the cage as the euphemism applies here) and he connects with one of the many haymakers he windmills at them. The more perfect references of this are the Mike Swick and Terry Martin fights. Akiyama’s technically disciplined style doesn’t play into that wheelhouse. Add to this Akiyama’s advanced Judo clinch game and the fact that win lose or draw there is definitely some where and tear on Leben from the Simpson fight and a win doesn’t appear to be in the cards for the TUF charter member.
Inside and Out: Akiyama holds almost every advantage in this fight. His technical and disciplined approach is the perfect foil for Leben’s unrefined and chaotic brawling style. He has proven his abilities as a striker against foes like “The Talent” Alan Belcher (16-6) and Melvin Manhoef (23-7-1) and he simply doesn’t make the mistakes Leben relies on to win. Akiyama’s Shotokan karate stand-up is a perfect style match to avoid the wide looping punches of Leben and his world class Judo clinch game places him far out of “The Crippler’s” league in the grappling department as well. Leben is coming into this fight just two weeks after a two round firefight with Aaron Simpson and hasn’t had sufficient time to recover from strain that a high profile main card fight puts on a fighters body were as Akiyama has had almost a year to recover from his last fight and prepare himself for the rigors of a co-main event fight. The only factors in Leben’s favor are the fact that it’s difficult to plan for his predictable yet unpredictable style, especially in just two weeks, and that even when gassed he is almost immune to the punishment his opponents not named Anderson dish out.
The Wild Card: The wild card in this fight may well also be the factor that has the greatest impact on any fight of this nature: Has Akiyama already written this fight off in his own mind and mentally checked out? Leben is a very dangerous opponent to face when you don’t treat his power and ability to continue fighting even when beaten and gassed with respect. If Akiyama comes after Leben in a lackadaisical manner and doesn’t respect Leben’s power by using the discipline he’s founded his career on, he could find himself the victim of a Chris Leben falling zombie punch KO upset.
The Verdict: Akiyama should easily defeat “The Crippler.” His style is a perfect foil for Leben’s brawling and he is certainly the more skilled of the two fighters. It’s interesting that Leben has publicly stated that an Olympic Judoka hasn’t got the tools to take him down and that he will have the advantage in the clinch department. That statement alone tells me that Yoshihiro Akiyama isn’t the only person potentially writing off his opponent as not a threat and that is definitely a mistake Leben can’t afford to make. “The Crippler” has made a career of scoring KO wins after being knocked completely senseless for two to three rounds and there is always a chance Akiyama will suffer Swick’s fate of being victimized by the infamous lucky punch of Leben, but don’t count on it. Look for Akiyama to pepper Leben with lightning fast strikes while easily evading the slugger’s retorts before tossing him on his head in route to a one-sided decision.