Fight season is well and truly open as we enter the streak of events which leaves no weekend UFC free until mid-October. This weekend's event in Hamburg is the classic European UFC card—headlined by some decent heavyweights, a couple of big names in uninteresting matches, and a few local guys getting their big break in the UFC because their flights are cheaper. While there is always room to be surprised by a fighter you haven't seen before, the real selling point of this card is the main event between the glass cannon, Andrei Arlovski, and the standard bearer of catch wrestling, Josh Barnett.
Andrei Arlovski is in a rough spot: he has been starched in his last two fights and the most recent victory on his record was the atrocious snoozer against Frank Mir. Arlovski's problem has always been that the unbelievable power of his right hand is surpassed only by the unbelievable fragility of his jawline. Perhaps it is unfair to point to Arlovski's chin as 'weak' because he is getting starched by two hundred and sixty pound men, but it is certainly not sturdy enough to take the heavyweight blows as well as many other men in his weightclass.
The issue is that as Arlovski worked with Freddie Roach and tried to improve himself as a boxer, all that happened was that the right hands came less frequently. Caution on Arlovski's part just gave much less accomplished heavyweights like Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov the freedom to walk in on him without having to worry about being smashed with the right hand. Even the best technical boxer knows that he has to be able to set his feet and punch with some power to keep a man from simply bum rushing him. Arlovski's brief return to prominence in the UFC came as a result of him throwing his right hand more recklessly once again. Unfortunately this opened him up to counters and he was dropped by Travis Browne and starched by Stipe Miocic's favorite counter right straight.
Josh Barnett is one of the most thoughtful fighters at heavyweight and his performances as an infighter along the fence have been nothing short of magnificent. He is better as a dirty boxer than Randy Couture and Cain Velasquez in his ability to change grips, use his head to pin the opponent and strike at the body with both hands and knees. The Jack Johnson uppercut, pushing upwards with the forearm across the throat to get the opponent to fight their head back down, every trick in the book on the inside, Barnett shows it. He's Frank Klaus' Infighting brought into the twenty-first century.
Barnett's other area of strength is on the ground. His guard passing has come on leaps and bounds in recent years—allowing him to get through Dean Lister's formidable bottom game and crush the latter from side control. His use of rides like Minoru Suzuki's famous knee-on-neck to set up kimura grips is vintage catch wrestling, and he's more than happy to take reverse mount to attack the legs with toe holds, knee bars and heel hooks. On the bottom, Barnett's guard isn't especially dangerous but he has been able to get out from underneath opponents as formidable on top as Jeff Monson and Daniel Cormier by chaining the 'post' or stiff arm escape and coming up on the single as the opponent recovers.
Despite being known as a wrestler, Barnett's two recent losses have come in the transition between the standing fight and the ground. Shooting in on Travis Browne after getting clipped with a heavy punch, Barnett found himself under fire from Browne's famous downward elbows. Shooting in on Ben Rothwell, Barnett wound up in the infamous 'gogo choke' guillotine.
For Barnett the gameplan should be to take the fight as long as possible. Arlovski has never looked good in a fight that went to decision and he becomes obviously less active as the rounds progress. Looking to get to the clinch at the first opportunity would be good but being cautious of the big right hand is always important. When Barnett's hands were busted up against Daniel Cormier he began using his elbows to step inside blows and throw kicks or knees after smothering Cormier's offence. Against an opponent who is mad about swinging right hands, getting behind the elbows and deflecting the damage is a valuable method.
As an aside: the heavyweight division is so low on quality kickers it seems like Barnett is one of the few in MMA who could actually benefit from utilizing Archie Moore's infamous cross guard to get to clinches free from damage and land big counter left hooks.
Especially as Arlovski barely uses a left hook, never closes the door with it on his combinations, and eats counters between his right hands.
Arlovski's takedown defence has always been very good—he did have one of the highest takedown defense percentages in UFC history at one point—but he can be held to the fence and that is what Barnett should be looking to do. The usual head post, freeing the hands, working the body. All stuff that will quickly sap Arlovski's tank. Perhaps the takedowns will come later on, but Barnett would benefit from dragging this one as long as possible because as soon as the fast right hand is not a factor, Arlovski is almost helpless.
For Arlovski, holding off on the right hand to avoid the clinches might be a good idea as Barnett isn't the kind of guy to bum rush off the bat. The polished Arlovski uppercut to right straight could be a factor as Barnett bends forwards at the waist when he enters quite often. One weapon of Arlovski's more scientific days which I would like to see return is the inside low kick. Against Roy Nelson and Ben Rothwell that worked brilliantly to break his man's stance and line them up perfectly for the right uppercut or straight. The chances of Arlovski actually developing his left hand into anything decent at this stage in his career are fairly slim but it seems such a waste because opponents know to swing back at him when his right has bounced off their guard. Occasionally he'll substitute closing the door with the left hook with a right back hand, but that has only really worked because of Travis Browne's hands down swinging style.
While most heavyweight fights devolve into an awful display of non-technique after a round and a half, this one has some promise however long it goes as Arlovski excels in quick finishes and Barnett excels in long slogs. What's more you can never sleep on a match in the heavyweight division because title shots are often decided by photos on a dart board. Get back here Monday and we will discuss anything interesting that happened.