Breaking down three key fights on Saturday’s card
HeavyMMA is back with another installment of our new feature, THE STAKES. For each big event, we'll take a look at a few fights on the card and what's on the line for the fighters. Someone in danger of getting cut? We'll take a look. Someone have a chance at a title shot with a win? We'll talk about it. It'll be just one more way for us to help you break down Fight Night before the first bell rings for UFC on Fox: Diaz vs. Miller.
Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller
The Stakes: Diaz could wind up with a title shot at lightweight – though he'd have to sit on the sidelines for a long stretch until Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar settle things in their August rematch. Miller could foil those plans and wind up one step closer – again – to a shot at the belt.
Duane Finley's Analysis: The UFC lightweight division is so stacked up. Every fight in the upper tier holds tremendous importance. Since the backup that occurred when Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard locked up the title picture for the majority of 2011, a handful of contenders have risen and dropped back down. With the traffic toward the top of the weight class slowly reopening, every opportunity counts. The matchup between Miller and Diaz is a highlight of this exact circumstance. Both fighters are considered to be potential contenders and whether or not the winner receives a title shot, the victor will take his place at the big table while the loser will ultimately be reshuffled in the competitive deck at 155. The stakes are high for both and here is why. While Edgar and Maynard were slugging out epic battles, Miller was putting together one of the most impressive runs in recent history. The AMA Fight Club product notched seven consecutive victories, and while he seemed to be on the outside of media fanfare, the UFC brass took notice. Miller appeared to be one win away from getting the shot he had long been seeking until he ran into Ben Henderson last August in Milwaukee. The fight didn’t go his way, and Henderson would later go on to become the new UFC lightweight champion by defeating Edgar in Japan. In an effort to stop himself from sliding down the rankings, Miller took a fight no one wanted with lightweight powerhouse Melvin Guillard in Nashville. Despite a rough start that saw Miller get dropped from a heavy shot, he quickly recovered and submitted Guillard via rear naked choke. The victory kept Miller in the title picture, but a loss to Diaz would undoubtedly push him several fights away. UFC president Dana White said this week that Miller would probably still need another win if he beats Diaz, but one step closer is much better than six steps back. As for Diaz, this is the closest he’s ever been to a UFC title. The Season 5 TUF winner has competed in multiple weight classes, and while he’s found some success at both lightweight and welterweight, that success has come in streaks. The younger Diaz made his return to the lightweight division after suffering a lopsided defeat at the hands of rising star Rory MacDonald at UFC 129. With his brother Nick sitting at the top of the welterweight division, a return seems highly unlikely. And with the impressive performances he’s put on display since returning to 155 pounds, it appears Diaz made the right decision. Rather than rely on his slick ground game, Diaz has begun to adapt a similar striking style to brother Nick. He has used his length and accuracy to pick apart Takanori Gomi and Donald Cerrone, and it was on the strength of those wins the fight with Miller materialized. Should he defeat Miller on Saturday, Diaz should claim the next spot to contend for the title. But if he comes up short, being pushed down the lightweight ladder could be devastating to his title hopes.
Josh Koscheck vs. Johny Hendricks
The Stakes: Similar to Diaz-Miller, the winner might be in good position for a title shot – if the belt wasn't on hold. Hendricks could get himself into a No. 1 contenders fight with a win, and Koscheck could put himself a couple fights away from another shot at the title.
Matt Erickson's Analysis: Not all things are equal in fights like this one and the Diaz-Miller main event. Sure, it's easy to call these "top contenders" fights – but are they really? Even Dana White said this week that if Hendricks wins, he very well might be next in line – but a Koscheck win might still have him a couple fights away. The most important thing, though, is that the winner isn't going to go backwards – and the loser is likely going to have a lengthy climb back up to a fight like this one that would put him closer to a title shot. With welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre on hold until at least November, and interim titleholder Carlos Condit content to sit back and wait for a unification bout, the winner of Koscheck-Hendricks probably will want to take another fight, anyway – and that could be timed to be close to the GSP-Condit fight in a true top contenders bout. Much has been made of Koscheck's age – though he probably drew more attention to it himself than what was really being talked about it. And while I don't believe that's a big deal at all – he's 34; so what?!? He's not a running back in the NFL where you become a senior citizen when you hit 30 – the fact remains that a loss on Saturday gets him sent back in the pack, and the climb back up could have him hitting 36 before he'd get another shot at the belt. And maybe THEN age is an issue. It's crucial for Koscheck to have an impressive performance on Saturday. I realize he knocked out Matt Hughes last fall, but it's not like he demonstrated much dominance before he ended the fight. You have to go back two years to his win over Paul Daley to find his last truly dominant performance. That may mean there's more on the line for Koscheck on Saturday than for Hendricks, who it seems could lose, but get back into contention a little faster than Koscheck.
Pat Barry vs. Lavar Johnson
The Stakes: A quick rise to contender status for Johnson with a win, but almost certain lengthy gatekeeper status for Barry with a loss.
Matt Erickson's Analysis: With a couple submission losses in a row in Strikeforce in 2011, it looked like Johnson was just another big man who would settle into the middle of the pack. But he changed all that in Chicago in January when he shut down the previously un-knockout-able Joey Beltran, and did so in a big way. His reward? He went from the second non-televised fight of the night on a Fox card to the opener on the main card, nationally televised. He's still a decently sized underdog to Barry, but both of these guys have plenty on the line. If Johnson can pull off another highlight-reel knockout win like he did in January, he'll have done it over a higher-profile opponent and on a national stage. It won't catapult him into line behind someone like Cain Velasquez, but I can promise you it will get him a fight with a top-tier heavyweight to see just what he's really made of. And it will have people wondering just how crazy a fight between he and Junior dos Santos could be – since they may be the two hardest-hitting heavyweights in the world. Barry's stakes are much different. He's so hard to get a read on. One fight, he looks amazing – like in his win over Christian Morecraft in January. And in others, like losses to Stefan Struve and Cheick Kongo, he looks great – and then falls apart at just the wrong time. It's just as easy to picture him kicking the daylights out of Johnson and winning a decision like he did against Beltran a while back as it is to picture him kicking the daylights out of Johnson – and then eating a right uppercut and going to sleep. The one thing you can be guaranteed is that Barry will go all-out and he'll give you a fun fight, and he'll have fun with you before and after. A loss probably isn't going to get him cut, even though that would be three setbacks in his last four fights. But it will almost certainly make him a permanent gatekeeper in the heavyweight division – someone who is always a threat to beat the top talent, but who never quite gets to the top of the ladder.