If UFC 190 represented the worst use of Ronda Rousey, UFC 207 represents the absolute best use of the UFC's biggest female star. UFC 190 played on Rousey's star power to match her against a no name opponent, Bethe Correia, atop a card of old timers with few relevant or interesting fights and it still sold well above most UFC events ever will. Unfortunately it did nothing to help the sport or the UFC brand to simply use Rousey to hide a lazy card. UFC 207 is using Rousey's appeal in the way it always should have been—to get the punters in the door and then force them to 'sit through' the best fighters on the planet in relevant and exciting match ups. Amid the accusations of a shift in focus towards meaningless titles and carefully built 'stars' in the WME-IMG era, the UFC is hiding the nutritional goodness of Dominick Cruz, TJ Dillashaw, Louis Smolka and Tim Means among others at the bottom of the KFC bucket that is the promise of Ronda Rousey fighting again.
Half of the fights on the UFC 207 card would make excellent headliners for a Fight Night card and yet here they all are under one roof. We will have a few Tactical Guides coming out in the week up to the event, but today we'll focus on the second bout of the main card. This pits the consensus number one contender at bantamweight, TJ Dillashaw against the enigmatic man-without-a-weight, John Lineker.
Were John Lineker anyone else, he would probably have received his walking papers from the UFC by now. No one has failed to make the contracted weight quite as often as Lineker, who holds the notorious record of missing weight five times in the UFC. Nobody wants the headache of a fighter earning his way to a title that he might not even be able to win or later defend because he can't actually make the weight with any consistency. Lineker was made to move from flyweight up to bantamweight because of his consistent weight cutting woes and he still missed the new weight.
But Lineker has a quality that makes him, for the time being at least, worth the hassle. He can starch men outright. A very rare quality down that end of the weight spectrum. Even when seemingly dwarfed by Michael McDonald, Lineker was able to lay the bigger man out.
Lineker's game is fairly predictable at this point, but knowing the problem doesn't make it easy to solve. Lineker walks forward constantly, attempting to cut the cage, and swings his straight arms in—almost invariably starting with a long right hook to the body and following with the left hook to the head. If an opponent shoots in on him, he'll grab a hold of a guillotine choke and attempt to squeeze their head off. It's not the most nuanced game in the world but so far the men who have stood still long enough for him haven't been able to handle the blows.
TJ Dillashaw is in the awkward spot where he has defeated Renan Barao twice, then lost a close and incredibly entertaining Fight of the Year contender to the great Dominick Cruz, and is now knocking off contenders and trying to stay at the top of the heap while Cruz takes on Faber of the month, Cody Garbrandt. Any card with Cruz and Dillashaw in separate fights, however, has tremendous potential to show a casual MMA fan something wonderful about the science of fighting. The two are among the most active feinters, stance switchers, and shifters in the business.
For Lineker the case seems simple. TJ Dillashaw likes to move on diagonals and show different stances every engagement, dancing around the cage in between. The closer Lineker can keep the fight to the fence, the less canvas Dillashaw has to paint on. Furthermore keeping Dillashaw on the back foot and crowded will do much to mitigate the danger of the kicking game, something which Dillashaw uses extensively in his bouts and an area where Lineker is notably lacking. Body work along the fence is Lineker 101, but it is never going to be a bad idea against any opponent.
While the head can still be moved evasively even when the butt is flat to the fence, the body can only move through a certain amount of space as soon as the fighter starts getting pushed towards the fence. It is a predictable target, and the effects of banging the body compound—slowing the feet and work rate of the receiving fighter so that he is easier to trap and hit in the body again. If Benjamin Graham were a fighter, he'd have been a body puncher.
But cutting the cage has always been the big question mark with Lineker. Whether it is Demetrious Johnson or Dominick Cruz, he's not winning a title unless he can get them in front of him long enough to lay hands on them. Against John Dodson and Ian McCall, Lineker's shortcomings were shown up pretty well in this regard.
No one will argue that Lineker's pantomime against Dodson wasn't funny, but if that was his frustration at a little defensive ringcraft it bodes especially badly for a bout with someone of Dominick Cruz's ability. A fighter who will abandon his effective gameplan when called a few names and goaded a little is not likely to get to the point where we call them a defensive great. Appealing to an opponent's machismo is not a viable back up plan.
Lineker worked at a pretty unimpressive 28% connection ratio in that bout while Dodson out landed him and worked at a considerably higher percentage. The most obvious flaw in Lineker's ring cutting is in his engagements. When he slowly works his way towards the opponent and gets in range first, he's terrific. But a fighter can't always do that, especially against a fresh opponent, sometimes he has to make a lunge for that last step. Many good ring cutters will try to get a read on where their man is going and put a lead on him, stepping across to meet him on a forty five degree angle with a stepping hook or a nice round kick or something similar. Lineker will often move straight towards the fence from wherever he is, leaving a side step to either side as a very reasonable possibility of escape.
Late in the Dodson fight, Lineker tried his luck with a shifting right hook (an old George Foreman favourite) and demonstrated exactly why it is so valuable to make a go of getting a lead on the opponent.
One particular habit of TJ Dillashaw's which Lineker could look to make good use of is Dillashaw's tendency to throw up left high kicks a little too frequently and often to kick without a particularly deceptive set up. Through two bouts with Rafael Assuncao, this saw Dillashaw get his leg caught repeatedly, and the same happened with naked low kicks against Dominick Cruz.
While Dillashaw is one of the division's better wrestlers and is often able to fight off the takedowns, dealing with punches coming back while on one leg can be a little more troubling.
For Dillashaw's part that left kick could be incredibly valuable. Every time an opponent steps in on Lineker, he swings in the right hand to the body. The opponent gets winded every time they open up and rapidly fades. It helps that Lineker has an iron jaw so he will happily take a left hand to the head in order to land his right on the exposed ribs underneath. The flip side of this is that every time an opponent even looks to be stepping in, Lineker's right hand drops and begins winding up. Now if anyone understands the value of feints in dealing with a big counter puncher it is Dillashaw, whose work against Renan Barao should be kept on DVD in every gym and shown to young fighters whenever the subject of feinting comes up.
Getting Lineker to swing at nothing seems as if it would be a sound idea, he loads up and throws so hard that if he doesn't tire himself out there's at least a decent chance of him suffering a herniated disc. But the left kick has proven an issue for Lineker time and time again. John Dodson did a great job of landing high kicks as Lineker dropped his hand to swing. Lineker's iron jaw held up to a couple. But then finding out that your fighter can take flush kicks to the face is like finding out your spouse can handle themselves in a knife fight—you would rather not have had cause to learn that.
But more valuable than the free head shots are the counter body kicks which can be landed on the trigger happy Lineker. Getting the elbows away from an opponent's body is a hard task in itself, if you watch a high level Muay Thai bout body kicks are like gold dust. They will pound the arm, but an unprotected body is a rare sight. As soon as the elbow moves away from the ribs even for a moment a top Nak Muay's shin will be sucked into the opening before he even knows he's kicking.
Another factor to consider when talking about a fighter with an iron jaw is that a knockout is not always the objective of striking the head. Cutting and swelling are extremely valuable investments against a granite chin. Half of the nebulous idea of 'the chin' seems to be anticipation, fighters are almost always hurt by the shots that they do not see coming. Once Lineker's right eye had swelled shut against John Dodson he was suddenly stumbled by the left hand he was eating without difficulty earlier in the fight.
Working with elbows and especially building off the jab that he showed in the second Barao fight could be worthwhile investment for Dillashaw, but that sort of cumulative damage is inevitably more valuable in a longer fight. Lineker seems to be a fighter made for three round bouts, and the advantage of having so many high profile bouts on one card is that plenty of these UFC 207 fights could benefit enormously from being five-rounders.
Dillashaw is typically decent at setting up his shots with his boxing so it seems unlikely that he will dive head first into a guillotine, at least while fresh.
But in the interest of avoiding that it might be interesting to see Dillashaw attempt to work trips and throws from the clinch instead of shooting from out in the open or dropping for the hips along the fence as he most commonly does.
Whether or not you think Dillashaw is being unfairly held out of the rematch with Dominick Cruz, this matchup is undoubtedly a treat. As predictable and plodding as Lineker is, not many have been able to get the better of him. What's more Lineker is the sort of opponent who it seems unlikely even the top fighters will be able to simply run through even in a case of an extreme skill disparity. His physical power and durability ensure that he will always be a threat to even the best fighters of the division. But those are the fights which bring out the best in a top flight fighter—the ones where he has to admit that he doesn't have the physical edge and in which he cannot afford to make mistakes.