When champions step into the cage or ring to defend their belts, fans love an element of danger. That is precisely what Anderson Silva faces in challenger Vitor Belfort.
Attempting to make the eighth defence of his UFC middleweight crown at UFC 126 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, "The Spider" meets a unique kind of threat in Belfort, whose speed and power are unlike anyone else's in the sport.
The matchup: On paper, the only way you could design a better fighter than Belfort to win this would be by giving him a high-level wrestling pedigree. That is because Belfort has legendary hands, explosive power, and great submission awareness and jiu-jitsu, a skill largely overshadowed by his highlight-reel knockouts. Silva, coming off a miracle comeback win over Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 in August, sits on the longest unbeaten streak in the history of the UFC - 12 bouts and 12 victories - and a record seven defences. Long wanted by fans, this matchup finally comes to fruition. Do not go to the fridge.
Belfort, forever hot and cold in his performances, returned to the UFC with a one-round blitz of ex-champion Rich Franklin, showing the Mike Tyson-esque form that made him a star at 19 years of age. With Silva's modest-at-best wrestling being the only chink in his armour, the champion possesses the ability to stay cool under fire and absorb big shots at will. One might think Belfort's best chance here is to stand, but he might have a better chance using his hands to close the gap and take Silva to the ground, where he can grind him down.
Standing, Belfort's hands are amazingly potent, but over the long haul, Silva has too many weapons and makes too many clever adjustments. He uses range perfectly, delivering numbing counter shots opponents do not see. Plus, he switches from southpaw to orthodox as it suits him, with little drop-off in his effectiveness. Belfort's chances to win this one fade considerably as the fight progresses, and Silva will plant doubt in his head in an extended stand-up fight.
The pick: If Belfort goes for takedowns, he could wear out Silva, as Sonnen did, and then look for a stoppage later in the fight. However, "The Phenom" just is not wired that way. Silva will have some tough moments and then explode, delivering a barrage in the third round to retain his title.
The matchup: This showdown between two former champions is a good one, and the winner will be positioned to vie for a title shot with two or three more wins. The two have a lot in common. Both have had to adjust their games due to a non-wrestling background, and neither is a threat to take down top-level guys. They rely on top-notch conditioning and game planning, and their jiu-jitsu skills are generally overlooked.
Griffin is probably 20 pounds heavier than Franklin between fights, but "Ace" has competed well enough at 205, and Griffin's game is not based on being a weight-cutter and overpowering people. Griffin and Franklin beat opponents through conditioning work in the gym in the weeks before the fight. The stand-up battle should dictate the fight, as they likely will negate one another on the ground, unless someone gets some effective ground-and-pound going. That seems unlikely, given the matchup. Franklin is a sound striker and puts more tail-end power into his shots, while Griffin relies on a keep-busy approach. It was what powered him to his five-round title win over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 86, as he set a fast pace and mixed up his kicks with combinations.
Franklin might have a tough time figuring out the lengthy Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts representative at first, but since he should have time to do so, he will make adjustments. If Franklin can build confidence letting his hands go, that will go a long way toward winning this fight, because he will not be able to plant Griffin on the mat and overpower him. Griffin's best ranges are in the clinch, where his height and natural aggression serve him well. Both have excellent defensive jiu-jitsu on the ground, and they know how to stifle opponents looking to score points with big blows. A submission win, outside of a dazed rear-naked choke, appears highly unlikely.
The pick: Franklin has a big target here, one upon which he should be able to kick and use angles against. Griffin is a toss-up in the striking department but should be stronger in clinches and on the ground. It will be a close fight, and I do not see either man able to overpower the other enough to force a stoppage. Griffin wins by split decision.
The matchup: It would not surprise me to see Bader win this one, and part of me figures Jones has looked so incredible lately that eventually someone will have to make him appear human. Bader can score the upset, so long as he does not get his head handed to him through one of those moves only Jones seems to know how to execute. Bader has a pretty stout punch, to boot.
That said, Jones' otherworldly performances of late suggest a new breed of fighter rising through the ranks. At 6-foot-4, he exhibits freakish coordination and the ability to create something out of nothing. His bottom game, at least in his UFC fights, remains untested simply because nobody can put him on his back.
Bader reminds one of what Tito Ortiz might have been had the "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" developed his striking. His close decision win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 119 was a telling performance. He is an exceptionally strong fighter with a big punch, and it would take only one of them to tell us a lot more about Jones than we currently know.
The wrestling matchup is the driver in this one because Jones is likely to outmatch his foe on the feet, unless Bader's stand-up has evolved to such a degree that he thinks he has a surprise in store. And he might. "The Ultimate Fighter" contestants consistently show new wrinkles in their games, given their development. Bader will have to pick his moment to force a clinch wisely, as Jones' hands and feet come from all sorts of strange angles. If they clinch, the battle there is a toss-up, as both men are explosive, strong and able to toss opponents with ease.
The pick: Jones has been dubbed "the next big thing" in the 205-pound division, and he has earned the hype. This is by no means a lock for him, as Bader is talented, unbeaten and a hard-nosed type of guy. If Bader can avoid Jones' opening-round shock and awe and score a takedown, all bets are off. With that said, Jones does something that seems ridiculously impressive every time out. Hopefully, he will show a new trick or two en route to a hard-fought decision win.
The matchup: The hard-charging Ellenberger was lined up for a match with Jon Fitch on two occasions, only to have them fall through. That is unfortunate, because he is a virtual carbon copy of Fitch, with better striking to boot. Rocha debuted with a gorgeous kneebar submission win over "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 11 finalist Kris McCray at UFC 122, showing the kind of tactical smarts and headiness in a first-timer that prompts high expectations.
With the welterweight division in need of top contenders who have not already been steamrolled by champion Georges St. Pierre, the implications for this match are clear. Rocha is unbeaten and has had only one fight reach the second round, but the combined record of his suspect opposition stands at 31-44-5. Ellenberger is talented, tough and experienced, and came close to beating former World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight champion Carlos Condit in his promotional debut at UFC Fight Night 19. Along with his considerable wrestling chops, his seasoning should prove a key factor here.
The pick: Look for Ellenberger to push the pace, take it to the floor and pick his spots, uncorking a punishing ground-and-pound attack en route to a third-round stoppage.
The matchup: After losing two straight in brutal fashion to Brian Bowles and Joseph Benavidez, former WEC champion Torres scored a much-needed win at WEC 51, as he submitted Charlie Valencia. Whether he continues to rebuild the aura of invincibility he once held is difficult to foresee.
Banuelos, a longtime contender at 135 pounds, will oblige him with willing stand-up and strong wrestling, both of which played roles in Torres' two WEC defeats. With champion Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber sitting atop the division, either guy could position himself nicely for a title run in 2011 by scoring a significant win on the main card.
Style-wise, this is a fight Banuelos can win. If he can land effectively on the feet and get inside Torres' range, it will set up takedowns and dirty boxing, two skills at which he has proved effective. For Torres, it is paramount that he does not get sucked into a headstrong type of bout in which he dismisses percentages and advantages merely to trade shots and get even. Banuelos figures to score some takedowns, but Torres' guard is exceptionally dangerous.
The pick: Expect some rough moments for the ex-champion, as Torres uses sweeps and submission attempts to keep Banuelos defensive on the mat and piles up points on the feet on the way to a third-round submission or decision win.