One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s feature focuses on the upcoming UFC 166 fight card, which is slated to take place on Oct. 19 in Houston.

Whilst the main event of the night is the third fight between the two best heavyweights in the world, the odds for that fight are so close to the point that neither fighter could accurately be described as an underdog. However, the co-main event features another pair of top heavyweights, and the odds couldn’t be much further apart.

As such, this week’s subject is Roy Nelson, who squares off with Daniel Cormier in the co-main event at UFC 166.

Cormier enters this fight with so much hype for a fighter with only a single fight inside the Octagon. It’s hype of similar proportions to that which Connor McGregor experienced earlier this year. Cormier enters the cage against a “Big Country” who, despite not being a favorite amongst UFC brass, has delivered some impressive performances since his arrival from realms of The Ultimate Fighter reality show.

This fight perhaps holds strange consequences in that if Cormier can find a way past Nelson, he may well be catapulted to the front of the queue for a title shot at the champion one weight class down at light heavyweight. Whereas, for Nelson, he has asked for a title shot in the past only to be overlooked. But if he were to find a way through Cormier, he would be well-positioned in a division that can only be pulled along by so many fights between the two fighters in the main event before it becomes stale.

The Breakdown

Cormier is a highly decorated wrestler who has developed his game dramatically in his time training alongside the UFC heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez, at the American Kickboxing Academy and has made significant strides in competition in the four years he has been competing in mixed martial arts.

Cormier has evolved into a well-rounded fighter who, despite wrestling being a primary skill set, doesn’t need to endlessly shoot for a takedown without thought. Cormier now has the ability to engage in all areas of MMA with top-level competition.

In Nelson, he faces a deceptive opponent who might not look like much of an athlete on the outside, but looks can be deceiving. Nelson has some serious knockout power in his hands, power which has made quick work of some of his previous opponents. Of his last 10 wins, all have come by knockout or TKO due to strikes.

Despite the apparent danger that Nelson provides from a standing position, he is also well-versed in the submission game, having been awarded his black belt by Renzo Gracie. Nelson also competed in the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) Submission Wrestling World Championships in 2003.

The Strategy

For Nelson to overcome the rather discouraging odds, he will have to engage Cormier from the very beginning and at times suffer through in order to pick his moments to go for the knockout, which is likely to be his best chance of winning. Despite Nelson’s confidence in his chin and overall stand-up ability, it is Cormier who would be expected to have the speed advantage, and so you would expect him to test the chin of “Big Country” at several times throughout the fight.

Although Nelson has respectable submission skills, it would be best for him to keep the fight standing. Cormier’s elite-level wrestling skills have the potential to smother even the best submission grappler in the world. To do so, Nelson must ensure that Cormier is always on the outside and unable to get a hold of him, especially up against the cage. One advantage in Nelson’s favor is that he has trained with those who possess elite wrestling against the cage, so he will be no stranger to that type of strategy. But Cormier is another animal altogether, and Nelson would be best served to not stay in this position for prolonged periods. He must look to spin off the cage where possible, throwing hooks and uppercuts as he goes to ensure Cormier is pushed back at the same time.

Leg kicks could be a useful weapon for Nelson to utilize in order to keep this distance, although this is a technique that Nelson is not particularly known for. The leg kick is often used in MMA to keep distance, but these could also prove fruitful in setting up the trademark overhand right which has successfully dispatched many of the aforementioned knockout victims in Nelson’s recent past.

The best chance that Nelson has is to land the overhand right at some point during the scheduled 15 minutes, as the odds favor Cormier for a reason. If the fight were to go to the scorecards, it is likely that Cormier has too much for Nelson, at least from a scoring perspective in the judges’ eyes. Nelson must continually look for the knockout blow, but try to avoid becoming predictable with it.

If Nelson goes out from the opening bell like a windmill looking for the overhand right, then Cormier will become acutely aware of his intentions and use his wrestling ability to keep the fight away from this realm. Instead, Nelson must play a waiting game of sorts to lure Cormier into the fight before unleashing his right hand.

Cormier has the potential to grind out a victory against any man actively competing in the UFC heavyweight division with his Olympic-level wrestling, and it is Nelson’s responsibility to ensure that a comfortable space is kept between the two to ensure that Cormier cannot impose his will onto Nelson and negate “Big Country’s” attacks.

Photo: Roy Nelson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.