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Main Event Breakdown - Franklin vs Henderson

Michael DiSanto, UFC - The UFC middleweight division is full of exciting, talented fighters. There is no question, however, that the division’s top three combatants stand well apart from the rest. Two of those three will fight on Saturday night one division north at 205 pounds in a bout that has very real career-altering implications for both men.

By Michael DiSanto

The UFC middleweight division is full of exciting, talented fighters. There is no question, however, that the division’s top three combatants stand well apart from the rest. Two of those three will fight on Saturday night one division north at 205 pounds in a bout that has very real career-altering implications for both men.

Former 185-pound champion Rich Franklin seems like a man without a home at the moment. He has beaten every man standing opposite him inside the Octagon except for one: Anderson Silva. Unfortunately for Franklin, that man is the middleweight division’s champion, and after suffering two technical knockout losses to Silva, it seems unlikely that the Cincinnati native will receive another opportunity to fight for the 185-lb title as long as Silva continues to reign supreme.

Franklin is a smart guy. He understands all of that, so he made the decision to vacate the division, at least for now, and return to the 205-lb division, where he competed with a near-perfect record for the first four-plus years of his career. A win over Dan Henderson, the former PRIDE 205-lb champion, would instantly rekindle Franklin’s title hopes by re-establishing him as a top contender for the UFC light heavyweight crown.

The fight is no less significant for Henderson. The Team Quest standout spent the better part of a decade establishing himself as one of the true pound-for-pound greats while fighting on foreign soil. His successes, which include becoming the first man to simultaneously hold championships in two different weight divisions, went largely unnoticed by most casual American fight fans. Thus, Henderson hasn’t yet become a household name in the US or enjoyed the financial rewards that follow.

All that will change if he is able to beat Franklin because the winner of the bout will be cast as a coach, opposite Michael Bisping, on the upcoming season of the UFC’s hit reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. Thus, millions of fight fans will get to know Henderson over the course of TUF’s 12-week schedule as the show serves as the ultimate marketing event for a pay-per-view bout between the two coaches after the show’s finale.

Suffices to say, both Franklin and Henderson desperately need to win on Saturday night.

If Franklin is to be successful, he needs to remember that he is the more polished striker, and remain committed to a gameplan that allows him to exploit that fact, which means a heavy dose of jabs, constantly changing combinations and fluid movement circling around the cage.

Firing good, hard right jabs will allow Franklin to establish the proper distance for the fight. He wants to stay on the outside with a guy like Henderson because that will help minimize the opportunities for the former Olympic wrestler to take the fight to the ground. In addition, the jabs will keep Henderson off balance, making it difficult for him to accurately fire his devastating overhand right.

Franklin must nevertheless avoid becoming predictable with the jab. He needs to double it up at times and mix in two-, three- and four-piece combinations to prevent Henderson from timing him with a counter right. Throwing punches in bunches will also score big points with the judges, and Franklin needs to assume that he will need to win on the judges’ cards because Henderson has never been knocked out in his illustrious career.

That isn’t to say that Franklin cannot knock Henderson out. He most certainly has the ability to do just that if he can wear down his opponent with combinations and then land a perfectly placed left high kick, one of Franklin’s most underrated weapons, or a series of unanswered blows.

Yet, he needs to be very careful not to get into any sort of a slugfest with Henderson, who has the thicker beard and more devastating punching power. Maintaining good lateral movement off the jab and constantly circling out to his right, away from Henderson’s right hand, after throwing combinations, will help prevent Franklin from being caught in unnecessary exchanges with Henderson.

As for taking the fight to the ground, Franklin can forget about that altogether. The former champion is about as well rounded as any fighter in the world, but he will openly admit that wrestling, particularly takedowns, are the weakest part of his game. That is understandable since Franklin does not have an amateur wrestling background. Henderson, by contrast, is a two-time Olympic wrestler. Needless to say, the fight isn’t going to hit the canvas unless Henderson decides to take it there or Franklin is fortunate enough to score a knockdown.

If the fight does end up on the ground, a submission win by Franklin is not outside the realm of possibility. He is very good at disguising submission attempts from his guard, and Henderson has been caught with submissions in the past, twice by the Nogueira brothers via armbar and once by Silva via rear naked choke. Nonetheless, that is the least likely outcome of this fight.

For Henderson to be successful on Saturday night, he needs to remain focused on his footwork, stay busy on the feet and, most importantly, go back to his roots—wrestling.

Despite his far superior wrestling skills and the fact that his opponent is the more versatile and skilled striker, Henderson is almost certainly planning on standing and throwing hands with Franklin for the majority of the fight. That is easy to predict because Henderson approaches every fight opponent with the goal of winning by knockout. This fight won’t be any different.

To win by knockout, Henderson needs to put himself in the best possible position to land his overhand right. Franklin is a southpaw, so he is more susceptible to right hands, particularly lead right hands, than a guy who fights from an orthodox stance because he cannot protect his chin with his left shoulder.

Henderson can further increase that susceptibility by keeping his left foot outside of Franklin’s right foot. Doing that accomplishes two things. First, he creates the optimal throwing lane for his overhand right because his right side is centered with Franklin’s chest and head. Second, maintaining that foot position leaves him better positioned to cut Franklin off from circling to his own right (Henderson’s left), which forces Franklin to circle into Henderson’s right hand instead of away from it.

Because Henderson carries so much juice in his right hand, he tends to be right hand happy during fights, which makes it more difficult to land the shot because opponents know that it is coming. Of course, Franklin is no backyard boxer. He isn’t likely to be caught by random, telegraphed right hands. He will slip most of those without much worry. Henderson must therefore set up the punch with jabs, straight right hands to the chest and left hooks. In other words, he needs to throw punches in bunches.

Also, if he dials back his right hand just a bit on the power meter, he can finish up his combinations with a left hook, probably his most underrated weapon. Franklin won’t expect many left hooks, so he will likely look to slip and counter Henderson’s right hand. That means he will likely be in perfect position for Henderson to land clean up left hooks, which further increases the odds of him winning by knockout.

Of course, there is an easier way for Henderson to win than relying on a fight-changing right hand or left hooks. As mentioned, the weakest part of Franklin’s fight armor is his wrestling skill and that just happens to be Henderson’s strongest attribute. Thus, at any point in the fight that he so desires, Henderson can take the action to the ground and keep it there. And if we have learned anything in the UFC over the past several years, it is that a fighter who spends the majority of the fight on his back loses on the judges cards far more often than not.