The Ultimate Fighting Championship makes its sixth trip to Germany, and its second to Hamburg, continuing a somewhat frustrating relationship that the promotion seems to have with the country. When the UFC set out to expand into Europe roughly a decade ago, they targeted two areas: Germany and the United Kingdom. Their UK efforts were a great success, as fighters like Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy quickly became top draws and regular visits to Britain did quite well, but in Germany, things never quite got off the ground. Unlike Bisping and Hardy, German signings such as Dennis Siver and Peter Sobotta washed out in their initial UFC stints -- though both eventually developed into solid veterans upon returning to the company -- and when combined with a sometimes-frosty local attitude towards mixed martial arts, the promotion seemingly pulled the plug on its German aspirations after UFC 122.
After UFC 122, it would be four years before the Octagon returned to Germany, and while it's been a near-annual occurrence since, skipping only 2017, it still feels as though UFC's attempts to gain a foothold in the country have been half-hearted. 2014 through 2016 saw three cards that aired on UFC Fight Pass, and the UFC booked them accordingly, as none of those cards were particularly deep and had main events that were middling at best. And while the initial lineup for UFC Fight Night 134 wasn't particularly amazing, it did seem as if the UFC was attempting to put a good foot forward with some interesting matchups that actually had contendership repercussions at light heavyweight. So naturally, three important fights on the card saw late changes. First, there was the main event. Mauricio Rua was slated to face Volkan Oezdemir in a fight that was initially scrapped from a Chile card in May, thanks to outstanding assault charges from a bar fight that Oezdemir was allegedly involved in last year.
The UFC stated it was confident those issues would be resolved by the time this card rolled around, and while they were, things were cut close enough that UFC saw fit to rebook Oezdemir in a fight against Alexander Gustafsson next month. Add in injuries to Ilir Latifi and Alan Jouban, which took them out of the co-main event and the most interesting fight on the rest of the main card respectively, and this year's edition of UFC Hamburg has taken more hits than it could probably afford. On the plus side, UFC did well as far as finding replacements that should provide some action, so at the end of the day, this is a fun six-bout main card with some interesting fighters on the prelims. It just doesn't feel nearly as essential as it could have.
Let's get to the analysis and picks for UFC Fight Night 134: Shogun vs. Smith:
FS1 Main Card
Rua (25-10) vs. Anthony
Odds: Smith (-240), Rua (+200)
When Anthony Smith made his short-notice return to UFC, stepping up to face Leonardo Guimaraes on a card in early 2016, the main hope was just that Smith could outdo his first, forgettable UFC stint. Smith was one of the more anonymous fighters to come over when UFC absorbed the Strikeforce roster in 2013, and his first UFC run was strict "blink and you'll miss it" stuff; Smith opened up the streaming prelims of a Fuel TV card against Antonio Braga Neto, was submitted in under two minutes, and then given his walking papers. After losing his first post-UFC fight to Josh Neer, hopes for Smith to even return to the Octagon didn't look great, but Smith soon reeled off a seven-fight winning streak, culminating in a revenge win over Neer that earned Smith a return to the big time.
After beating Guimaraes via clear, if not particularly impressive, decision, Smith's next bout saw him get firmly out-wrestled by Cezar Ferreira, more or less pigeonholing Smith as a flawed action fighter with a clear ceiling going forward. But once again, Smith was able to rebound from a loss in impressive fashion, this time a string of sudden comeback finishes, as Smith weathered early storms from Elvis Mutapcic, Andrew Sanchez and Hector Lombard, only to score three straight late knockouts. Smith's winning streak came to an end this past February against Thiago Santos, though not before the two put on an excellent brawl, and Smith -- always giant for middleweight -- announced his intentions to move up to light heavyweight in his next fight. That next fight came at UFC 225 this past June, where Smith ran through former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. Coming out of that fight, the read was mostly that Smith just served as a benchmark to show how much Evans had fallen from his championship peak, but as it turns out, the win also set Smith up for a big opportunity. Smith, naturally, had an eye for a spot on the UFC's upcoming card in his native Nebraska, but instead, he steps in on late notice and gets a shot at becoming an unlikely light heavyweight contender, provided he can beat Rua.
We're over a decade removed from Rua's UFC debut, where the Pride Fighting Championships 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix champion stunningly lost to Forrest Griffin, which, as it turns out, portended an up-and-down UFC career. After the Griffin loss, Rua disappeared for roughly a year and a half due to injury, but upon his return, quickly made his way up UFC's light heavyweight ladder, eventually unseating Lyoto Machida to become light heavyweight champion at UFC 113. But Rua lost his title to Jon Jones in his first defense, and after narrowly losing a legendary five-round war to Dan Henderson at UFC 139, Shogun entered the roughest stretch of his career. The UFC 139 loss started a run where Rua lost five of seven, with his wins coming over faded versions of Brandon Vera and James Te Huna, and his losses mostly coming in one-sided fashion; October 2014 was certainly the low point, with Rua suffering a 34-second loss in a main event slot opposite Ovince St. Preux.
But Rua has, somewhat amazingly, managed to revive his career. He's obviously not the same “Shogun” he was at his peak, and since the St. Preux loss, he's only fought once per calendar year, but he's become more adept at slowing things down and fighting a smarter fight against some flawed opponents. Wins over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Corey Anderson were narrow affairs won at the margins, but Rua's third-round finish of Gian Villante last year showed that, while he got cracked a few times, Rua is still capable of winning a brawl. Which is good news, because he'll probably have to win a brawl here. And as Rua has slowly put together his winning streak, the light heavyweight division has continued to fade around him, making Rua an unlikely title contender at this stage of his career. With a win here, he figures to factor into the title picture come 2019, even if it's unclear exactly what that picture looks like.
Smith's name came somewhat out of nowhere as far as getting a big opportunity such as this one, but this sets up to be a fun fight that can go either way. Smith's fights tend to devolve into brawls at some point, even if it's after his opponent has gassed after beating Smith up, and Rua's coming off a fight where the same happened, so I'd be shocked if these two weren't swinging wildly at each other by the time this fight hits the third round. And from there, it comes down to which flaw in each fighter's game holds up best: Smith's porous defense or concerns about Rua's durability. Smith's there to be hit, but I'd still have to favor him if both guys just decide to trade blows, given that Rua is still not that far removed from a point where his chin appeared to betray him. The X-factor is Rua's wrestling; it's been a while since we've seen the Brazilian purely rely on that aspect of his game, but it's an obvious hole in what Smith brings to the table, so if Shogun wants to take the safe approach, the possibility appears to be there for him to grind out a win over 25 minutes.
Still, I expect this fight to mostly take place on the feet, and once again, I favor Smith there. He'll be dangerous for the entire fight during every moment he's not on his back, and he's shown enough durability that I'd lean towards Rua being unable to put him away early in the bout. So from there, I expect this to look a lot like Smith's last few wins at middleweight, at least in a macro sense; Smith either gets outwrestled or picked apart, but at some point turns things up or finds an opening for a big blow that gets things rolling towards the finish. It feels odd to pick Smith here, given that seemingly every prospect at light heavyweight gets turned away by the old guard, and most of them are more talented than Smith, but this sport comes down to matchups, and Smith looks to have gotten the right one to get a breakthrough win. My pick is Smith by knockout, sometime around the third or fourth round.
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