AFC 92: Best of the Best 8 is set for Wednesday, May 16th, and it looks to be a doozy. In addition to serving as the AFC's annual anniversary extravaganza, it will also close out the 2011-2012 season and represent the promotion's centennial event (including a few tournaments, and a handful of unnumbered cards in the Mat-Su and the Egan Center).
The landmark night is headlined by not one but two title fights, and the undercard features a slew of veterans and fan favorites. Scheduled fighters with experience in championship bouts include Brian Ryan, Nic Herron-Webb, Terrance Mitchell, Josh Branham, and Tommy 'The Pot-Bellied Assassin' Ide. Let's break down some of the major fights on the card.
MAIN EVENT: Heavyweight Championship Bout
Brian Ryan vs. Rod 'Short Notice' Pucak
Pucak, true to his nickname, is a late replacement challenger, hoping to upset the most dominant fighter in Alaska history and take his heavyweight championship belt.
Can he do it? Don't hate me, but sometimes you've got to shrug your shoulders and say, "Ehhh, I guess everyone's got a puncher's chance, right?" And that is being generous to Pucak's odds here.
I'm grateful to Pucak for stepping in, as watching Ryan fight is one of the best, unadulterated pleasures the AFC can offer. But I've been over and over all the arguments for Pucak and it looks bleaker than an Edvard Munch painting (anyone? Any art history majors out there? No? God, he did The Scream. Read a book people, sheesh!).
Pucak did circle title contention last year ... at middleweight, his natural division. His last lost was to a welterweight, who out-wrestled him, and he's never performed well against the big boys.
'Short Notice' has an iron chin ... but Ryan eats chins for breakfast. The only person who could stand the unbridled power in Ryan's fists was Joe Fonoti, who doesn't feel pain like a normal person.
Ryan did get submitted in his last fight ... to Tony 'Kryptonite' Lopez. No offense, but Pucak is nowhere near the current King of the Cage champ when it comes to submission skills. The only person who's even gotten Ryan down to the ground in years is jui-jitsu wizard Seth Hildrebrande. I don't think Pucak's half-way decent double-leg is going to cut it.
Honestly, I'm left wondering why the AFC didn't set up a far more marketable super-fight between Ryan and light-heavyweight champion Stephen Waalkes, who racked up quite an impressive resume at heavyweight.
Ryan is getting up there in years, and now sits in his late 30s. This could be one of his last fights, as rumors have been flying that he's been considering retirement. That alone is reason to watch this scrap.
I expect a vintage Ryan knock-out, where he uses his excellent boxing footwork to stay out of trouble, punishes Pucak's body with body shots, all setting up a one-punch KO blast in the first round. Thanks in advance to Pucak for sacrificing his brain cells for our amusement.
CO-MAIN EVENT: Welterweight Championship Bout
'Naptime' Nic Herron-Webb vs. 'The Amazing' Joe Murphy
Murphy has been impressive in his short career, undefeated in his three wins by submission. Most impressive, he hasn't been touched. Less impressive is the quality of opposition he's faced. However, in the barren landscape of welterweight, all but empty since Herron-Webb swept it clean in 2010, Murphy has quickly risen to the top of the class.
Murphy has shown a level of creative jui-jitsu matched only by, well, Herron-Webb. He strings together submission attempts with fluidity, all while maintaining dominant position and softening his opponent up with vicious blows. The brief time we've seen him engage his opponent with striking was equally impressive. His hands were smart and lightning quick.
However, I keep coming back to the experience level. 'Naptime' has tangled with the best the state has to offer over his 15 fight career. Murphy has not been tested. He hasn't been hit, taken down, or had to fend off a submission attempt, and it's almost impossible to guess how this fight will go without knowing a damn thing about Murphy's defense. As a fan I am excited to see how he responds to what will easily be the hardest fight of his life.
I would be remiss not to mention that momentum is firmly in Murphy's corner. Herron-Webb has been having a bit of a hard time of late. After locking down the 170 lbs division Herron-Webb looked like he was going to steamroll right to a second belt at 185 lbs. That dream came to a screeching halt when he dropped a heart-breaking decision to middleweight champion and Murphy teammate Andy Enz. He followed that with a less than perfect performance in the Great North Grand Prix, a tournament he was heavily favored to win. Win it he did, but only after getting a second-life filling in for an injured Gary D'Hue, who defeated him in the first round, and then earning a razor-thin and controversial decision against lightweight Scott McAfee in the final.
In other words, Nic hasn't looked like his old self in his recent fights, the 20 year old wunderkind who plowed through four former champions with a mix of smart striking, good kicks, great wrestling, and phenomenal submissions. It's possible that his performance in the Grand Prix resulted from dismissing his first opponent, and his loss to Enz was partly due, by his own admission, by a lack of cardio training.
If Herron-Webb's complacency issues linger, Murphy could well capitalize here. Murphy has the reach advantage, as well as four inches in height. While some people (including me) would have preferred Murphy win a proper contendership match before getting this title shot, he cannot be counted out of this fight. Of course, that might totally change if it turns out he can't take a punch. The fact is, we just don't know for sure.
My gut is telling me to expect a helluva fight between these two. Murphy is hungry, dedicated, and talented. He'll look to use his range to wear the champ down, as Enz did. However, most fighters instinctively return to their base when rocked, and for Murphy that is jui-jitsu. The first solid combo that 'Naptime' lands will send Murphy shooting for a takedown or pulling guard. From there we will bear witness to one of the greatest grappling displays ever seen in the AFC. I've got to believe that after his last few displays Herron-Webb returned to training seriously, and his wrestling chops will help him stay on top and rack up points. Murphy will provide some oh-so-close submission attempts, but the champion will ride them out while dishing out ground'n'pound to take the decision in a tense battle fought mainly on the ground. And while Murphy may lose, it will be precisely the kind of fight, the kind of trial-by-fire learning experience, that makes him come out a better fighter.
OH, DON'T FORGET ABOUT ...
Terrence 'Tear-Bear' Mitchell vs. Josh Branham
Speaking of fighters under performing in recent bouts, former featherweight titlist Branham. Making his bantamweight debut, he's coming off of two embarrassing submission losses and looking to right his ship. The winner of this bout will be well-positioned for a shot at the belt, raising the stakes further.
Unfortunately, this is a terrible stylistic match-up for Branham. Mitchell, like his brother, interim featherweight champion Maurice, fights like an egg-beater from hell. His rangy limbs can keep Branham at bay, and if he manages to obtain top-control his ground'n'pound is liquifying.
Branham is no slouch, of course, but his strength of submission-savvy doesn't match-up well. Most likely he'll be trying to throw up sub attempts while Mitchell rocks his skull from a million miles away (the approximate length of Mitchell's arms). His striking is okay, but perfectly tuned for Mitchell to pick apart.
Branham's best bet will be to clinch and get on top, where he can control the match relatively out of danger and hunt for the tapout. I can see Branham pulling off the victory this way, but more likely I see Mitchell sticking and moving, breaking his opponent down and finishing him with strikes or ground'n'pound in the second or third round.
AFC 92: Best of the Best 8, is set for Wednesday, May 16th, at 7:30 pm at the Sullivan Arena. Be sure to check back right here for fight results and recaps, analysis, awards, and full coverage of all the regional MMA action!