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Big Fight Breakdown: Liddell-Shogun

Michael DiSanto, UFC - Few fighters arrived in the UFC amidst more hype and expectation than Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

The Brazilian superstar was fresh off a 13-fight run in PRIDE Fighting Championships that saw him skyrocket to the top of virtually every 205-lb ranking by buzzsawing through some of the world’s best 205-lb’ers en route to winning the 2005 Grand Prix.

By Michael DiSanto

Few fighters arrived in the UFC amidst more hype and expectation than Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

The Brazilian superstar was fresh off a 13-fight run in PRIDE Fighting Championships that saw him skyrocket to the top of virtually every 205-lb ranking by buzzsawing through some of the world’s best 205-lb’ers en route to winning the 2005 Grand Prix.

Shogun’s sole loss in PRIDE occurred during a heavyweight matchup one fight removed from the Grand Prix, though it was anything but a pecking order altering occurrence. Mark Coleman, Shogun’s opponent on that fateful night, executed a beautiful takedown in the opening minute of the bout. When Shogun put his arm down to brace himself against the fall, he suffered a broken elbow, instantly halting the action.

Not to be deterred, Shogun returned to his more natural 205-lb home six months later and ran off a series of four one-sided wins to reaffirm his place atop the division. Shogun was then 12-1 in PRIDE and undefeated in the Land of the Sun in the 205-lb division. He was the future of the sport in the eyes of many and its present ruler in the eyes of more.

Unfortunately, Shogun fell woefully short of those expectations when he finally arrived in the UFC.

He was thoroughly spanked by Forrest Griffin in September 2007. Many pointed to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament as the reason for Shogun’s poor performance that night. Others questioned whether he would be able to perform to the same level using North American MMA rules, which ban soccer kicks and stomps to the head of a downed opponent, two techniques Shogun used liberally in PRIDE.

Whatever the case, the hype machine hit a brick wall with the loss to Griffin. Shogun had the opportunity to right the ship in a proposed bout with Chuck Liddell at UFC 85 back in June 2008. But a second ruptured anterior cruciate ligament derailed that fight. And his lethargic effort against Mark Coleman in his January comeback fight did nothing to derail his critics. In fact, the technical knockout win over Coleman raised further questions about his ability to return to greatness following two knee surgeries.

Those questions and more will be front and center on April 18 when Shogun and Liddell finally get it on in UFC 97’s co-featured bout .

For Shogun, this fight is all about proving to the world that he remains the same ultra-athletic alpha male who wreaked havoc in Japan, a man capable of dominating in the UFC the same way he dominated in PRIDE. The first step in proving that he is that same monster is to stop Liddell on April 18.

Shogun is not a home run hitter like Rashad Evans or Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. There is no doubt that he is capable of dropping Liddell with a flying knee or a crazy high kick. But he isn’t going to drop him with a single punch like Liddell’s two knockout losses over the last two years.

That means Shogun needs to be very careful standing in the pocket and trading shots with Liddell, who has the sort of punching power that can end a fight in an instant with a less than pinpoint blow. Instead, his game plan should be to dart in and out with crazy attacks in the style of his old team, Chute Boxe, temporarily putting Liddell on the defensive so that he can score and retreat.

Crazy attacks mean just that: throw caution to the wind and strike aggressively with flying knees, kicks, and punches in bunches, but he needs to circle out before Liddell can set his feet and counter. In other words, Shogun needs to return to his PRIDE fighting roots and fight with the same unbridled assaults that elevated him to the top of the 205-lb world just a few short years ago.

He can rely on his extreme athleticism and explosiveness to temporarily overwhelm the 39-year-old Liddell with quick, all-out frontal assaults. But the former UFC champion isn’t known as a guy who covers up for long. His longtime trainer, John Hackleman, constantly preaches that guys who cover up become nothing more than punching bags, so he trains his fighters to slip punches and fire back in the face of an attack. That is why Shogun needs to get out of Dodge long before Liddell is able to set his feet to uncork fighting ending counters.

If Shogun is able to score with repeat furious attacks, particularly as the fight extends past the opening round, Liddell will grow frustrated. His mind will start to question whether this is going to be his fourth loss in his last five fights. He will start to wonder if his better fighting days are now behind him. He will ask himself if he is too long in the tooth to compete against top fighters in their prime.

Questions lead to doubt. Doubt leads to hesitation. Hesitation leads to losses.

Liddell doesn’t embark down that mental slippery slope unless Shogun shows up in great shape. If he starts sucking wind in the second round like he did against Coleman, Liddell will feed off that sign of weakness and those questions will quickly be replaced with confidence and determination, and a tiring Shogun doesn’t want to face a confident, determined Liddell.

Fans who are new to the sport probably don’t fully appreciate how dominant Liddell was during the three year stretch that started with his technical-knockout win over Tito Ortiz at UFC 47. He didn’t just beat guys during that stretch; he scored seven consecutive knockouts. That is almost unheard of in the UFC.

Think about that for a moment. Seven consecutive wins by knockout (or technical knockout, if one wants to be precise). The winning streak alone is only one shy of the UFC record, currently held by Royce Gracie, Anderson Silva and Jon Fitch. Of course, Silva will attempt to set a new record for most consecutive wins inside the Octagon on the same night as Liddell-Rua, but even if he is able to stop Thales Leites with strikes, his longest knockout streak will remain less than half the number Liddell was able to rack up.

That means Shogun doesn’t want to stand in front of Liddell and let his chin answer the question of whether Liddell, who is definitely in the twilight of his amazing career, still has the same sort of punching power that he had in his prime. If George Foreman was able to maintain his instant stopping power into his 40s, it isn’t difficult to assume that Liddell’s punches carry the same wrecking power that they did just two short years ago.

No, the UFC is not boxing, but punching is punching, whether in a boxing ring, the Octagon, a hockey rink or the neighborhood watering hole. And punching power is the last thing to leave an aging fighter, particularly when the fighter is a natural puncher like Liddell.

“The Iceman” is well aware of Shogun’s past history of unleashing crazy attacks early in a bout, and he is undoubtedly well aware that Shogun ran out of gas very early against both Griffin and Coleman. Thus, his plan will be to start out somewhat cautiously to make sure he doesn’t get caught by anything silly early in the bout. Once the fight moves into the second round, Liddell knows that he will have a distinct advantage if his opponent hasn’t dramatically improved his conditioning. That is when he will begin pressing for a knockout. And believe these words: if Shogun is standing on dead legs in the second and/or third round like he was against Coleman, he is going to sleep. That is a guarantee.