For the last few years, the UFC’s bantamweight (135 pound) division has been living in the past. Since it’s inception one name has dominated the landscape of the second smallest weight class in the world’s premier fighting organization: the first ever UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Even when he became so injured and was replaced by not one but two legitimate title holders, fans were constantly looking back to Cruz, awaiting his recovery so that the division could get a move on again. Now that Cruz is finally (touch wood) back on the mend and defending his title, fans can start to look elsewhere in the division for talent. What you’d be surprised to find is that the bantamweight, more so than any other division in the UFC, seems to be full of young, hungry, skilled up and comers just clamoring for a shot at the old man Cruz (who is only 31 by the way). Aljamain Sterling, John Lineker, Michael McDonald, Jimmie Rivera, and of course Thomas Almeida and Cody Garbrandt; are all men under the age of 30 who have shown some serious ability to make waves in the UFC. The men with undoubtedly the most potential in terms of star power, Almeida and Garbrandt, face off on Saturday night in what is a real rarity in the UFC today: a non-title fight under 170 pounds that is scheduled to headline the card.
Between the two of these men, they have a combined record of 29-0 (21-0 for Almeida, 8-0 for Garbrandt), with 27 wins coming by stoppage. People say that the lack of interest in the smaller divisions is due to the lack of finishing power, so you can see why the UFC is eager to display two of their youngest prospects, at just 24 a piece, who have finishing rates that put heavyweights to shame. An interesting topic I shall touch on in this article throughout is that Almeida and Garbrandt are so alike in so many ways, superficially at least. On paper they are eerily similar, but at the core of their fighting styles they are bizarre mirror images of each other, each lacking in areas where the other excels. Both men could be summed up using the phrase ‘technical aggression’ and we could leave it at that, but their styles employ different aspects of technique and aggression and they fuse them in a way that creates two completely unique styles. The term ‘combination striker’ could also be used to describe each man soundly, but the methods of Almeida and Garbrandt are as far removed as their birthplaces: same land mass, very different neighborhoods.
Thomas Almeida is the more experienced of the two in terms of MMA fights, and has racked up a staggering 21 fights in just 4 1/2 years since turning pro in 2011. For a man who has clearly been very well trained in the science of striking, Almeida seems to be allergic to the idea of taking a step backwards. Often times when a striker becomes technical they acknowledge the advantages of cutting angles and giving ground as a way of disarming their opponents and putting themselves in a position to fulfill the age old adage of what makes a good boxer: hit and don’t get hit. Almeida however chooses to eschew such things as evasive footwork and controlling the octagon, and instead chooses to focus his feet on the task at hand, namely bringing him closer to his opponent. It is very rare in an Almeida fight to see him take a step in any direction that does not bring him closer to his man, and with that he often makes for a predictable line of attack. He makes up for this by having a huge arsenal of weapons to attack with. When you watch a couple of a any fighters fights back to back, you often see patterns emerge in their striking; even so called ‘diverse’ strikers have favorite techniques that work best for them and when you sample a large body of their work you can see it very clearly. You only need to watch a compilation of Conor McGregor knockouts to see how much he loves the left straight; almost every single finish he has had in his entire career has come as a result of his lancing left straight.
Thomas Almeida is one of the few fighters who shows a truly deep tool box when it comes to strikes. He likes the 1-2, almost every fighter on the planet does, and in the early going of a fight he normally tests the range with single jabs and leg kicks, but once he finds his rhythm he is truly unpredictable. Its not often you get to see a leg kick, bicycle flying knee, body punch, double collar tie knee combination. Definitely not something you drill on the pads. What allows Almeida to land these types of combinations is his insane instincts for judging distance and his timing, both of which are things required in no small amounts to land one of Almeida’s favorites; The rear elbow lead. This is a very difficult one to pull off because the range is so short yet as it is a rear hand shot it takes a while to reach its target. It works best as a counter, and Almeida has used it to literally floor many opponents as they attempt to time him coming in, most notably Brad Pickett.
The fight with Pickett is interesting because it highlights both the problems and advantages of Almeida’s style. Because he is constantly walking forwards and staying balanced, Almeida keeps a rod up his spine, standing upright and rarely moving his head too far off the center line. This was capitalized on in a big way by Pickett, one of MMA’s most avid proponents of both evasive head movement and the counter left hook. Dipping his head to avoid Almeida’s shot, Pickett caught Almeida mid combination and rocked him to his boots. The fact that Almeida leaves his head on the center line while he throws his combinations is a necessity if he wishes to use all his weapons; after all it is very difficult to throw a kick or knee if you are already leaning to one side. This means that if he is caught mid combination his chin is there to be hit, however to get to it his opponent must navigate their way through his combinations to do it. This is where that unpredictability with his strikes and his incredible timing again becomes an advantage to Almeida. After surviving the knockdown (and another one to boot), Almeida opened the second round with a fresh head. After catching Pickett with a clean jab, Almeida immediately moved to close the distance, and Pickett began to duck his head in anticipation of another jab, or some other form of punch. Instead, he was greeted by the touch of Almeida’s hand on his head to guide him into one of his bicycle knees, leading to one of the most dramatic knockouts of the year. This is the problem with head movement outside boxing. When knees and kicks are involved, you walk the tight rope between slipping a punch or catching a face full of leg every time you duck your head, and if your opponent is as capable with both arms and legs as Almeida is, betting on slipping his punches to break his combinations will more than likely see you waking up with the doctors face uncomfortably close to yours as you try to work out where you went wrong.
So there you have Thomas Almeida: if you allow him to get comfortable and begin to chain together his strikes, he becomes a nightmare to try and stop. Dangerous from any range, he uses his grappling mainly to keep the fight on the feet and has shown himself to be an adept scrambler when it comes to getting up when taken down, although as of yet he has yet to wow anyone with his submission skills. As a combination striker, he connects all 8 limbs of Muay Thai constantly, and he is as unpredictable as it is possible to get, though like everyone else he has his favorites, namely the bicycle knee, the rear hand elbow, the jab-cross-left hook to the body combination. What makes him dangerous is that he masks these very well with other moves, he isn’t afraid to try something new, and most importantly he constantly changes his combinations: if he hits a jab cross, next time he will jab low kick. If he lands a roundhouse to the body, the next one will be high or low. The only thing you can count on with him is that the next technique to come at you will be different than the last one, narrowing the possibilities by exactly one. This makes him an exceptionally difficult person to try and counter.
His flaws are his feet. While technically brilliant in his combination building and set ups, Almeida is somewhat limited in his footwork. The times you see him try to move around or corner his man on the fence are also the times where he seems the least effective, and most vulnerable. He stands very wide at times, limiting his lateral movement, and we have yet to see him against anyone who places any importance on ring generalship (where they are in the cage in relation to the edge). He is effective at following, he never breaks stance and runs after his opponents, but we have not seen him in with anyone who would cut angles and keep him from planting his feet and throwing out those combinations.
Enter Cody Garbrandt. While he only has 8 professional MMA fights, Garbrandt has trained for a long time at Team Alpha Male, a fight camp famous for its lower weight class talent. He also has an extensive amateur boxing background, with a reported record of 32-1. Garbrandt is in some ways very similar to Almeida, and in other ways he is the polar opposite. One one hand he fights very upright, just check out how much his head moves in his knockdown on Marcus Brimage. He likes jumping knees, although he favours a straight knee over Almeida’s bicycle switch, and he has a lot of knockout power. The big difference is in the feet and the tactics. Garbrandt is much more of a lateral mover. Rather than take the center of the octagon he will often circle the outside and look to land 1-2’s from the outside. When advanced upon, he will retreat, then circle off to avoid being trapped on the cage. He also enjoys using hand traps to catch opponents punches, slapping their punches down to disrupt their movement and break their rhythm. In this regard he is very much like a karate fighter, constantly circling, using his feet to ferry himself away from danger rather than taking him too it, engaging when he feels he can do it and move out before the retaliation lands. Also like a certain karate fighter by the name of Lyoto Machida, once Garbrandt has his opponent convinced that he will retreat, he will plant his feet, dip his head, and meet them with a big right hand as they step after him. He has done this numerous times, it’s how he gets a lot of his knockouts.
He also has one other very recognizable habit. with 30 seconds left in every round, Garbrandt will plant his feet again and swing for the fences. There is no particular craft to it, he simply stands his ground with his head up straight and throws bombs at his man. Its how he knocked out Marcus Brimage in their fight, after two rounds of little effect. This strategy highlights perfectly what catches people about Garbrandt: he is great at changing his tempo. He will dart in and out a few times with 1-2’s, retreat three or four times, then just when they grow comfortable with it he stands his ground and catches them sleeping. If they expect him to stand there, he moves off and avoids the exchange. He also has some pretty nice kicks for a boxer/wrestler,with very little wind up and some nice snap to them, but much like Conor McGregor these are just bait to get the opponent to rush him.
His takedowns are well timed, and he has a very high success rate in securing them, but I have yet to see him maintain top position for very long before his opponent gets back to their feet.
Garbrandt’s issue is (paradoxically) his striking. He hits hard, no question about it, and his 1-2’s are crisp, but when he commits to combinations, be it at the end of a round for effect or if he has his man hurt, his hands come down to his chest and he stands right in front of his opponent, counting on his power and reflexes to protect him. When he plays the outfighting game, Garbrandt can show the look of a real talent. When he tees off on someone, he exposes himself to danger he would otherwise avoid. He also has a strange habit of throwing his hands out to goad his opponent into an exchange when they refuse to rush him, but then immediately retreats when they come after him. A nice mind game if it works, but I have yet to see him pull any meaningful offence from this tactic.
This fight is being seen by many as a clash of two young up and comers who are going to do great things in the future, and to be honest, it is, but both men are very much unfinished products. Almeida is the more seasoned and versatile on the feet and is therefore the favorite, but Garbrandt absolutely has the tools to pull off the upset. The question is whether or not he can use them. While his footwork could spell trouble for Almeida, he is not as disciplined in moving off after a retreat as he could be. His habit of dropping his hands and swinging in exchanges is exactly the kind of thing that could catch Almeida sleeping, or it could provide him the opportunity to exploit Garbrandt’s defensive flaws and shut his lights out.
Similarly Garbrandt’s ability to move could frustrate Almeida in to running on to a counter, or at least prevent him from getting off his wicked combinations, and at least on paper Garbrandt has the wrestling to test Almeida on the ground, though we have yet to see him make full use of it in the cage. Much like his former teammate TJ Dillashaw’s title shot against Renan Barao, Garbrandt is being given an opportunity here to fulfill his incredible potential, while Almeida is being given the opportunity to knock a fellow contender back down the rankings and bring himself closer to that title shot.
This fight could play out in a thousand different ways, but I expect the decision to be made by the feet. If Garbrandt can keep Almeida turning and keep his back off the fence, it will be interesting to see how Almeida adjusts to fighting a more conservative fight, out in the open where he has seemed more vulnerable and Garbrandt has proved so adept at landing his 1-2’s and that counter right hand. But if Almeida can cut the cage off on Garbrandt and trap him against the fence expect to see some wild exchanges as these two unleash combinations on each other in an attempt to part the other with their consciousness.
Irregardless of who wins, expect to be hearing more from both these guys in the coming years. At only 24 years old each, both men have a lot of time ahead of them to round out there games and regroup from what will be their first loss as a professional. This fight is promising fireworks, and I would be very surprised if these men don’t deliver.