Chris Leben has won 12 fights in the UFC. | Photo: Sherdog.com
Kicking off free on Spike TV from the LG Arena in Birmingham, England, UFC 138 on Saturday will showcase a clash of middleweights, as Chris Leben meets Mark Munoz. The bout holds some historical significance, as it will be the first non-title fight scheduled for five rounds.
Chael Sonnen has returned, and champion Anderson Silva’s nemesis is back making expectable noise in his campaign for a second title shot. However, beneath that 1-2 duo at 185 pounds, there is room for maneuvering, and the Leben-Munoz matchup offers considerable possibilities for either man to move up key notches in the divisional pecking order.
In the co-main event, bantamweights Brad Pickett and Renan “Barao” do Nascimento Mota Pegado square off in a contenders bout at 135 pounds. Here is a closer look at the main card matchups, with analysis and picks.
Chris Leben (22-7, 12-6 UFC) vs. Mark Munoz (11-2, 6-2 UFC)
The Matchup: Not many fighters can resurrect their career momentum like Leben, whose ability to deliver thrilling knockouts is matched by few others. Fresh off his 27-second stoppage of Brazilian icon Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132, Leben takes on the tough Munoz, whose steady improvement in recent outings makes him a compelling matchup for “The Crippler.”
There are no mysteries to Leben’s style. The left-handed slugger combines aggression with a big-time belief in his chin and ability to absorb punishment; 2010 was a stellar year for him, as he put together gut-check victories over Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama in a two-week span. Knocked out in a one-round loss to Brian Stann on Jan. 1, Leben was reportedly sick coming into the bout but went ahead anyways, looking somewhat flat and unable to get going. With his showing against Silva, he is back to being Leben, an easy-to-sell product precisely because he will trade shots with anyone, which often makes for an edge-of-the-seat fight.
Style-wise, Munoz has the advantage. The former NCAA wrestling champion at 197 pounds has an outstanding takedown game, combined with an ability to wrest himself out of bad spots on the mat. Munoz’s standup is improving, and it has gone a long way toward helping him set up shots. Early performances in his WEC and UFC career saw him go for long-distance, low-percentage takedown attempts that he either willed himself into finishing or got stuffed on, which was the case in his decision loss to Yushin Okami at UFC Live 2. Munoz will not be stuffed here, as Leben is not a good enough wrestler to stymie him. However, he will have to be careful letting Leben get too many chances to let his hands go. Leben is good from the sprawl position, where he will stuff the head and punish an opponent with his left hand.
The fact that this is a five-round fight is a huge advantage for Munoz. He was buzzed in the opening moments of his close decision win over Demian Maia at UFC 131 but has shown an ability to kill the clock and recover in several bouts. The longer fight allows Munoz more time to gauge distances and Leben’s timing and close the gap for a leg takedown or tie-up. Another small factor in Munoz’s advantage is his ability to fight from the conventional or southpaw stance, which will let him see which angles work best prior to closing for a takedown attempt. Physically, Munoz is the superior athlete, and, if they tie up, watch for him to work a quick takedown. Leben will be looking to land his big left hand, and while he has decent kicks, he probably will not use them much for fear of Munoz catching one and planting him on the mat. This is the kind of fight that Leben could be losing every minute of until he lands his massive equalizer: a crushing left that has rescued him on many occasions.
Munoz has shown maturity in his tactical approach, which has evolved in recent fights. He will switch stances as necessary, finding the distance to close the range and get the fight to the mat. That is where his best asset -- insanely hard ground-and-pound -- comes into play. For various reasons, Leben has not been subjected to a lot of ground-and-pound in the cage, as opponents tend to be negated by his underrated positional jiu-jitsu. However, Munoz is a rare bird, simply too strong to lock up and hold in the guard.
The Pick: Once Munoz gets the takedown, he will work to improve position, possibly threatening with chokes while smashing and passing. In a five-round fight, he simply has too much wrestling and power from top position to be denied, and he will bloody and batter Leben in an increasingly one-sided match en route to a third-round stoppage.
Continue Reading » Next Fight: Brad Pickett vs. Renan Barao