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The Blueprint - Aldo vs. Florian

In the co-main event of UFC 136 in Houston this Saturday night, Jose Aldo defends his UFC featherweight crown against Kenny Florian...
Kenny Florian might be the best 155-pound fighter in the world who hasn’t yet won a UFC championship.

Gray Maynard could certainly take umbrage with that statement, but he will get his opportunity to eliminate his name from the list of eligible “never won a title” fighters on Saturday night. I have a sneaking suspicion that he will do just that, too. But I digress.

Florian has beaten a who’s who of the UFC lightweight division since his run on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Sam Stout. Joe Lauzon. Roger Huerta. Clay Guida. Takanori Gomi. Those are just a few of the lightweight contenders he has conquered over the last few years. Unfortunately for “KenFlo,” his inability to get over the championship hump against Sean Sherk and BJ Penn, followed by his loss in a title eliminator to current number one contender Maynard, left his short-term chance at winning a championship right down there with the Boston Red Sox. And they aren’t even in the postseason.

It suffices to say that KenFlo needed to do something dramatic to jumpstart his golden dreams following his decisive loss to Maynard. He did just that about four months ago by dropping to the then-newly added 145-pound division.

A leaner, meaner version of the lightweight elite stepped into the cage on June 11, 2011 to face highly touted Diego Nunes in his featherweight debut. Florian was as advertised in that bout, scoring a solid unanimous decision win and earning his third opportunity to win UFC gold, though this time, as a featherweight.

It sounds like the perfect plan. Florian dominated at lightweight, but just couldn’t take it to that next level. Never a large 155-pounder by any means, he drops 10 pounds south, where he will surely be even more effective. The first bout suggested that to be the case, excusing, of course, his slight issue with his wind, which is very normal the first time someone drops to a new weight class. Ken-Flo’s championship shortcomings will soon be a thing of the past, as he fulfills his potential by winning the UFC Featherweight Championship this Saturday night.

It all sounds good, right. But, alas, there is one small issue with such an ending. To become champion, Florian must defeat one of the most dominant fighters in all of mixed martial arts. His name is Jose Aldo.

Aldo has been a household name among hardcore fans since his fighting debut on U.S. soil back on June 1, 2008. But he did not arrive in the WEC amidst great expectations. Granted, he held an impressive 10-1 professional record at the time, including three straight wins, heading into his bout with Alexandre Nogueira, a well regarded fighter in his own right. It was the way that he won the bout that left an impression on everyone watching.

Aldo didn’t just stop Nogueira with elbows. He did it in particularly sudden and emphatic fashion. The win sparked a six-fight knockout streak that saw him destroy future TUF12 winner Jonathan Brookins, score one of the most spectacular knockouts in combat sports history against Cub Swanson and win the WEC title by stopping the ultra-tough Mike Brown.

Three fights into his reign as champion, Aldo seems as dominant as ever. Sure, he struggled pretty badly late in his UFC debut against Mark Hominick in April. Fair enough. But Aldo was battling an illness during camp that compounded the normally tough issue of cutting the requisite weight, while still maintaining peak cardiovascular conditioning. And, at the end of the day, a win is a win. For the Brazilian, it was his 12th consecutive victory.

He hopes to make it lucky 13 by disposing of Florian in the main event of UFC 136 this Saturday night.

This fight is all about game plan and execution for Florian, focusing on being very tactical on the feet in search of a takedown where he can leverage his superior Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills. The southpaw is one of the more technically sound strikers in the UFC’s lighter weight classes. He is a master at maintaining proper foot position, and using that position to effectively strike, without taking much in the way of return fire.

Proper position for a southpaw is keeping his lead right foot on the outside of his opponent’s lead left. This creates the optimal throwing lane for a straight left hand. It also puts him in better position to clean up that strike with a left hook, fire inside and outside kicks to his opponent’s lead left leg, hammer kicks to the body, and, of course, come up the middle with a flying knee.

Sounds easy, right? For a tactician like KenFlo it almost always is easy. Indeed, I can only think of one example where he was outclassed on the feet. It was his 2009 loss to Penn. On that night, Penn made masterful use of a jackhammer jab, good one-two combinations and plenty of lead right hands. Penn is simply a superior standup fighter, so Florian didn’t have much of a chance, outside scoring with one of his patented cutting elbows or a wild, one-punch knockout, of winning the fight on the feet.

Aldo is an even better striker than Penn. He is not better in a technical sense. But he is far more explosive, and he is actually more aggressive than Penn with his strikes. Aldo is a good counterstriker, but he is even more ferocious when he is taking the lead. What that means is that Florian needs to get off first. He needs to do that by using good lateral movement, circling more often to his own right than his left, popping the jab and looking for opportunities to land a left down the middle.

Florian needs to make sure not to stand still, unless he is striking. He needs to present a moving target to the champion at all other times. When he does pull the trigger, he needs to fire two- and three-piece combinations. Punches in bunches, particularly from a sniper like Florian, are more difficult to counter than single shots. Immediately upon ending his combination, he needs to either get out of Dodge or step inside for the clinch.

Aldo is a beast in the clinch, but so is Florian. I’m not sure which man is physically stronger, but I’m not counting out the challenger any time soon. He has been fighting bigger, stronger lightweights for years. Facing Aldo, even though he is probably the biggest featherweight in the division, should still seem like somewhat of a reprieve in the strength category.

Florian should be mindful of avoiding the Thai plumb in the clinch, because Aldo has sick knee strikes. To do that, he should quickly force the champion to the cage once in the clinch, ala Randy Couture, and use his dirty boxing to keep things rough. Florian is very effective at infighting, particularly with those elbows. All it takes is one slicing elbow strike and the fight could be over due to cuts, even against a standup monster like Aldo.

Elbows are great, but Florian’s real focus in the clinch should be taking the fight to the ground. Aldo’s biggest weakness is his inability to mount an effective offense from his back. We saw that play itself out in his fight against Mark Hominick just a few months ago. Hominick scored takedowns in the championship rounds, and Aldo couldn’t do anything from his back—nothing at all. He didn’t defend well, and he certainly did not pose any semblance of a submission threat.

Florian is a bigger problem from the top position than Hominick. If he finds himself on top of Aldo, he should hammer away with elbows and punches in search of a stoppage. The challenger should not go completely crazy because keeping the fight on the ground is as important as scoring damage while it is there, but he should be very aggressive with his ground-and-pound attacks. Putting a beating on his foe will open up opportunities for submissions because Aldo will make mistakes from his back while defending strikes.

Trust me on this one. If Florian can score even one takedown, he can very easily win this fight—very easily. If he scores multiple takedowns, he quickly goes from healthy underdog to major favorite, in my mind. If he can avoid getting knocked out and scores at least one takedown in the majority of the rounds, I see him as basically a lock to win.

Aldo’s keys to this fight are to find a rhythm by staying active and looking for any opportunity to explode in search of a knockout. In other words, stand and bang. That is his gameplan each and every fight. I don’t see any reason to change it up on Saturday night.

The Brazilian is the most explosive striker in the 145-pound division, bar none. He has a wide variety of knockout-worthy strikes, including straight right hands, left hooks, leg kicks (yes, you read that correctly, he can stop any opponent with a series of leg kicks), high kicks and flying knees. He is a highly skilled mixed martial artist, who has a black belt in BJJ to go along with his masterful Muay Thai. Yet, his unquenchable thirst for crowd-pleasing knockouts causes him to fight with gladiatorial flair, rather than technical brilliance, most of the time.

The one exception to that statement is Aldo’s use of leg kicks. This guy is a true technician with that particular strike. For example, when he faced Urijah Faber, a former elite-level collegiate wrestler who definitely needed to take him down in order to win, he put on a clinic on how to control the distance with insanely fast, thudding kicks to Faber’s lead leg and body. Those strikes were placed with surgical precision, and they quickly sapped “The California Kid” of his trademark explosiveness and set the fight at a good spacious distance, which, in combination, meant the fight would remain on the feet.

Aldo should do the same thing against Florian. Kicks to the legs and body are his friend in this fight. It is a great way to sap the challenger of any strength advantage that he might have coming into the fight. More importantly, the kicks will set the distance and help ensure that the fight remains standing. Florian is not an elite wrestler. He does not have a great shot from the outside. His best way to score a takedown is from the clinch. If Aldo can keep the fight unfolding at a distance by hammering kicks to the legs and body, it will be very tough for Florian to find the clinch and take down the champion.

My guess is that both men will be looking to finish the fight early and will take chances to do just that, so this has all the makings of a great fight. I really believe that Florian is going to be the toughest test of Aldo’s featherweight career to date. He is a very live underdog, but the smart money is on the champion. There is a reason this guy is considered one of the best fighters in the world, across all weight classes. Let’s see if he can live up to that praise one more time on Saturday night.


QUICK FACTS:

Jose Aldo
•    25 years old
•    5’7, 145 lbs
•    70-inch reach
•    19-1 overall (9-0 UFC/WEC)
•    12-fight winning streak
•    Last loss November 26, 2005
•    Lone career loss by submission
•    3 of 8 WEC fights won Knockout of the Night
•    Fight of the Night in UFC debut
•    3 successful defenses of UFC/WEC title
•    Current layoff is 161 days
•    Longest layoff of career is 347 days

Kenny Florian
•    35 years old
•    5’10, 145 lbs
•    74-inch reach
•    16-5 overall (12-4 UFC)
•    1-0 as a featherweight
•    3-2 in last 5 fights
•    8-2 in last 10 fights
•    0-2 in UFC title fights
•    Last loss August 28, 2010
•    2 UFC post-fight honors (Submission of the Night, Fight of the Night)
•    Current layoff is 119 days
•    Longest layoff of UFC career is 266 days

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