The UFC will cap off a dynamic 2011 calendar year at the MGM Grand Garden Arena December 30 with UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem. The titular marquee fight pits two of the biggest heavyweights against each other in a title eliminator as Brock Lesnar (5-2) returns from longstanding medical issues to battle former Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion, “The Demolition Man” Alistair Overeem (35-11). Nate Diaz (14-7) will try to stop “The Cowboy” Donald Cerrone’s (17-3) emphatic rise up the lightweight ranks in a sure-fire thriller. Long-reigning #2 welterweight Jon Fitch (23-3-1) takes on Johny Hendricks (11-1) in a match that will propel either fighter into contention talk. Nam Phan (17-9) looks to put a win streak together as he faces young submission ace, “The Kid” Jimy Hettes (9-0). The lone light heavyweight tilt on this card gives up-and-comer “The Mauler” Alexander Gustafsson (12-1) a stern test in grinding veteran “The Janitor” Vladimir Matyushenko (26-5). Should Alex pass this test, he will likely draw much stiffer competition on his way up the UFC ladder.
At First Glance: This fight was likely put in motion for one good reason: both men needed a match-up relative to their current position in the UFC’s 205lbs. division. Alex brings a three-fight win streak – all finishes – into this contest. His most recent win came at UFC 133 where he eviscerated “The Hammer” Matt Hamill (10-4) to the point that Matt called it a career after the fight. The impressive win likely had UFC matchmaker Joe Silva scratching his head to find Alex an oppenent that isn’t currently tied up in contendership fights and yet isn’t too high profile so as to risk either fighters’ momentum; enter “The Janitor”. The weathered Matyushenko finds himself coming off two (T)KO finishes against light heavyweight prospects with his lone loss in six fights coming from current champ “Bones” Jon Jones (15-1). Both men are in need of a test that will determine their place in the crowded mix at light heavyweight. Can Vladimir continue to show relevance by defeating another fast rising fighter or will “The Mauler” claim yet another victim, proving foes of all styles are little match for his ruthless kickboxing and new found submission prowess?
In Depth: Stylistically, this fight is defined as striker versus grappler. Gustafsson is a prototypical European kickboxer, holding his hands more traditionally and using a lead-leg-forward approach indicative of strikers. He is constantly using his range and height to feint and jab, setting up classic 1-2 punching combos. Any given fight he also uses much of his 6’5” frame to sprawl on shooting opponents and is happy to sit in their guard, picking off shots with his massive reach. If a scramble occurs, Alex will look to maintain back control, throwing hooks to open his opponents up to chokes. Much like welterweight “Diablo” Nick Diaz (26-7), Alex’s punches appear less than dramatic until his opponents are seen reeling from a shot, flailing around to stay conscious and out of the way of heavy fire. Also similar to Diaz is Gustafsson’s passion for a brawl. He never shies away from opponents gunning for his head and happily obliges a pocket exchange while maintaining power, something taller fighters tend to lose in these scenarios. “The Janitor” is no stranger to kickboxers. In his storied 31-fight career Vladimir has fought decorated stikers from many different disciplines and beaten them with vicious wrestling. His freestyle approach has made for very effective MMA wrestling. Vladdy uses leaping jabs and wild hooks to keep opponents off-balance and the second they give up a single or double he is right on top of them, looking to transition to some of the heaviest side control in the game. “The Janitor” can keep fighters down for as long as he sees fit, using heavy chest pressure and short, busy strikes. And if he can’t take side control he will gladly hang out in half guard or full guard and fire away, keeping a constant forward pressure the way only high-level wrestlers can maintain. Vlad however, has shown that he can throw heavy leather and most recently dealt “The Hitman” Jason Brilz (18-5-1) a knockout loss at UFC 129.
Alex often keeps his hands low and could very well leave an opening for Vladimir’s thunderous overhand punches. Alex may be able to withstand a heavy shot, but the second he loses balance Vlad will pounce for a takedown. “The Mauler” has struggled with wrestlers before, like “Mr. Wonderful” Phil Davis (9-0) who has since taken Gustafsson under his wing and improved his wrestling defense. Matyushenko will use his wrestling any chance he can get and will mirror the more relentless style of Davis. Alexander will likely train hard to keep the fight on his feet, but he will need the cardio to do it for 15 minutes. For Vladimir’s part he will need to watch out for uppercuts and fast hooks as he rushes in. He will have to close the distance any chance he gets; not an easy feat against Alex’s range. Vladdy is hot and cold on taking heavy shots, and has crumpled under the pressure of heavy strikers in the past. Also, look for Gustafsson to find high-crotch takedowns of his own, keeping Vlad working hard and looking for a finish similar to the quick win “Bones” secured over Vlad last year.
Wild Card: Cardio may be the biggest question mark in this fight. “The Janitor” is no spring chicken at 40-years-old, but his wrestling has brought him to winning decisions in the last two years against opponents who were much younger. Alex has only seen the judges’ scorecards once in his career and looked winded doing it. His conditioning has likely improved since the 2008 bout, but if he’s unable to keep “The Janitor” from dragging him to the floor for the first ten minutes of the fight, he could find himself spent in the third round and behind on points.
The Verdict: Many rely on MMA math to come to the conclusion that this fight is an open and shut case. Gustafsson beat Hamill, a heavy-handed wrestler, so he should be able to do the exact same against Matyushenko, whose style is very similar to Matt’s. However, MMA has proven time and again that this math doesn’t always equal out. Hamill became more and more comfortable in his career using his hands and paid dearly for it against Alexander. Vlad has rarely strayed from his style and will likely look to wrestle his way to a decision or TKO stoppage. Gustafsson has shown marked improvement since his lone loss and seems to be more vicious and determined each outing. Expect to see “The Mauler” sprawling early and often and looking to light up Matyushenko at every opportunity, eventually catching Vlad flush and finishing him off after a feeling-out period. Gustafsson via (T)KO, Round 1