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UFC 116 Preview: Can Chris Leben Regain MW Relevance at Yoshihiro Akiyama’s Expense?

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When Chris Leben (20-6) knocked out the highly touted Aaron Simpson (7-1) two weeks ago at the Ultimate Fighter 11 Finale, it was viewed as a good win for a fighter who hadn’t been near the top of his division since being annihilated by Anderson Silva in 2006. Little did Leben know that victory would find him poised for his biggest fight since that very night some four years ago.

With Wanderlei Silva sustaining rib injuries in preparation for his fight against Asian sensation Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-1), in stepped Leben to replace the Axe Murderer. At first glance, it’s a less tantalizing affair simply because Leben has none of the legend that Silva carries. But, upon further examination, it might just be a very interesting stylistic affair.

Let's break it down after the jump.

Akiyama's American debut at UFC 100 was a thrilling contest with Alan Belcher that found the Japanese fighter's hand raised, victorious by decision. From that we saw that he could take a solid shot from a big American fighter, if stern meetings with Kazuo Misaki and Melvin Manhoef in Japan left doubt. His good chin makes up for a rather stiff defensive posture, but he throws straight punches and fast combos with good power off his rear foot.

All UFC fans are familiar with Leben, a mainstay of the organization for the last half-decade. The TUF 1 alum has amassed a 10-5 record in the company and is on a two-fight winning streak (the KO of Simpson and a unanimous decision over Jay Silva). We all know Leben's gameplan in every contest: rely on a stout chin, shrug off takedowns, and wing punches. It's the very definition of Sprawl ‘N Brawl. What he'll have to depend on most in this fight is the second part of that blueprint-defending Akiyama's takedowns.

Leben is a decent wrestler, but he's far from elite. Simpson's biggest flaw was his gas tank, which left him with virtually nothing to get Leben down after the first round. Akiyama has a world-class Judo pedigree and I suspect we'll see a lot more of that than he showed us against Belcher. Whereas Belcher is a big tall fighter who could keep Akiyama at range, Leben needs to wade in the pocket and throw hard to be effective.

If Leben can defend the takedowns, which will be steadily coming his way via trips and throws, he could rattle Akiyama enough to get a stoppage. But I think Akiyama will be a very unfamiliar kind of foe for Leben and will get him to the mat eventually, at which point the submission seems all but inevitable.