Know Thy Enemy: Whittaker v Brunson & Matthews v Holbrook

The biggest MMA promotion in the world makes its highly anticipated return to Melbourne this weekend as the UFC descends upon Rod Laver Arena. From top to bottom the fight card offers a smorgasbord of local talent, pitting Australian competitors against fighters from across the globe.

In the main event surging Aussie star Robert Whittaker faces Derek Brunson in a fight that has profound middleweight implications. Both fighters are on five fight win streaks, with a win set to propel either into the elite echelon of their division. Whittaker has never looked better since moving to 185lbs in 2014, besting the likes of Rafael Natal and Uriah Hall with his crisp and intelligent striking. If the Aussie can get past Brunson he will truly ascend into title contention.

Brunson however will be no easy task. The American has finished his last four fights in the first round, using his powerful striking to blast his opponents in devastating fashion. Brunson shows pretty good fundamentals in his striking. As a southpaw he either throws the jab/cross or explodes in with a straight left hand. He will also turn to pitter-patter inside and outside leg kicks and a left leg teep regularly. And of course let us not forget his powerful left head kick which threatens to flatten his opponents, just watch his fight with Brian Houston if you need reminding.

Yet to see Brunson’s success as simply due to his striking is misleading. Indeed his whole game is predicated on his wrestling skills. Brunson has the ability to beautifully time double and single legs in the centre of the cage, often waiting for his opponent to come forward or throw strikes before blasting powerfully in.

Where his game gets really interesting though is his willingness to throw out lazy takedowns. These work on two levels. Firstly they get his opponents thinking about more than his standup, creating openings for him to land strikes. Secondly, these lazy takedowns disguise his movement into double underhook control. Brunson will lazily shoot in, and as his opponents start to sprawl on him he will transition to underhooks; from there the American will look to take the fight to ground with an inside or outside trip.

Brunson’s top game on the ground is all about pressure and strikes. Most of the time the wrestler will be happy to sit in half-guard and pound away at his opponent. Yet he also excels in his ability to take advantage of opportunities and scrambles. Brunson will readily jump on his opponents back and choke them out or strike for the finish if the opportunity presents itself.

Ultimately it is in the combination of his wrestling and striking that Brunson verges on the elite of the division. Brunson is a great wrestler and a pretty good, if limited, striker. Yet his ability to combine these two aspects of MMA create openings which he readily exploits. His opponent will be thinking about his takedowns, which enables him to sneak through with his devastating strikes or they will be thinking about his striking power, which opens up his grappling prowess. If Robert Whittaker can solve the intricate puzzle that is Brunson, and force the American to kickbox at his pace, he will go a long way to securing a title shot.

In the co-main event of the evening one of Australia’s brightest prospects Jake Matthews takes on Andrew Holbrook. Both fighters are coming of losses and will be looking to bounce back in impressive fashion.

Holbrook started his career in impressive fashion, finishing his first eight fights by submission seven of which were in the first round. While at face value this is impressive, in truth these opponents had a combined record of 54 wins and 75 losses. Holbrook has skills, yet until his fights in the UFC he was never tested at a world-class level.

Holbrook’s first fight in the UFC was a controversial split-decision victory over Ramsey Nijem. While most viewers gave Nijem the nod Holbrook was able to snatch victory by utilising relentless forward pressure and aggressive submission game off of his back.

Holbrook won’t look to get the fight back to the feet if he is taken down. Instead he will constantly throw up submissions and strikes in an attempt to create a scramble. If he is successful in creating a scramble Holbrook will look for a range of front chokes. The American will switch between guillotine and Darce chokes, reveling in the chaos of the scrambles he creates. However Holbrook’s willingness to attack with chokes acts as double-edged sword. If he is unable to catch his opponent in a submission he will normally end up in a disadvantageous position, from here his opponent is able to consolidate his advantage and land strikes.

Holbrook’s biggest deficiency is on the feet. While he has a very aggressive style it leaves him open to a range of strikes from his opponents. Indeed Holbrook’s forward pressure in his second UFC fight enabled Joaquim Silva to catch one of his kicks and knock him out as he attempted to regain his footing.

If Matthews can successfully avoid Holbrook’s submission attempts and forward pressure he will go a long way to earning another UFC victory on Australian soil.

UFC Melbourne takes place this Sunday 27th November at Rod Laver Arena. All the action will be live on FOX Sports.