UFC President Dana White prides himself on trying to mold his MMA league into a powerhouse that will be just as popular someday as the NFL. It's not quite there yet, but the momentum and widespread acceptance of MMA is growing more with each day. The UFC is riding the highest crest of that wave.
UFC 126 sets the stage for Super Bowl weekend as one of the best cards we've seen put together by the league in a long while. Sunday might be the best day for football, but this weekend Saturday night's definitely alright for fighting in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. Anderson Silva (27-4) and Vitor Belfort (19-8) face off in the main event with Rich "Ace" Franklin (28-5) and Forrest Griffin (17-6) throwing down against each other in the co-feature. Add to these two potential all-out wars a huge test for Jon "Bones" Jones (11-1) against an undefeated Ryan Bader (12-0).
The stacked undercard of these headlining bouts includes (My Picks starred):
Jake Ellenberger* vs. Carlos Eduardo Rocha
Miguel Torres* vs. Antonio Banuelos
Chad Mendes vs. Michihiro Omigawa*
Norifumi Yamamoto vs. Demetrious Johnson*
Donald Cerrone* vs. Paul Kelly
Mike Pierce vs. Kenny Robertson*
Paul Taylor* vs. Gabe Ruediger
Kyle Kingsbury vs. Ricardo Romero*
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A Breakdown Of The Marquee Match-ups:
Jones vs. Bader
This is one of two bound to be crowd-pleasing 205 pound fights scheduled for this card. Jones has blazed through some of the best fighters in the sport. The Voice of the Octagon Bruce Buffer told me back in August of 2010 he thinks Jon Jones is one of the most promising fighters in all of MMA right now. Technically both Jones and Bader could be going into this contest with matching records seeing as the one loss Jones has is due to being disqualified for illegal downward elbows on Matt Hamill in the closing minute of the first round when they fought in December of 2009. Bader hasn't been around the UFC as long as Jones, but both have recently been fighting the best of the best in the division. Bader's win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira by decision last September is his most significant fight so far, though. Jones has been in with better competition, but Bader's been in the fight game a full year longer. It's a tough one to call on paper, but skill wise and due to the experience factor I think Jones wins this fight. He'll his reach and superior striking to get the job done early.
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Griffin vs. Franklin
Rich Franklin is looking for a fight to bow out gracefully on after his surprise knockout of Chuck Liddell the last time he entered the Octagon. At the time it looked like whoever lost that Liddell fight might retire. Now Franklin's career is sort of stagnant despite getting the big win. Coming back from such an early arm break to knock out the likes of Chuck Liddell only solidified his legend and hall of fame caliber resume. Still, it wasn't Liddell at his absolute best, and it wasn't a fight that got Franklin any closer to fighting for a championship. Fighting Forrest Griffin is Franklin's chance to beat a well-rounded and well-liked former champion in his final fight. The only problem is Griffin is not going to willingly go down as the cherry on the sundae of Rich Franklin's career.
Griffin is coming off a year-long layoff after avenging an early career loss to Tito Ortiz in November of 2009. He's ready to re-invest his life to the fight game and finish his career with a few more strong fights and another run at the division title. Franklin stands in his way.
Since the two are such well known and likeable fighters, they often get confused for each other. Franklin is approaching the end of a storied career and looking for a way out. He doesn't even have to win to go out like a champ. All he has to do is put up a phenomenal fight and the fans will respect his decision to walk away on that note. Still, anything can happen, and anyone who can come back from a broken arm to win a fight is worth giving a fair shot at pulling off the upset. This one is a toss up in some respects but Forrest is the better all around fighter in my eyes and should win it by taking control in the third and finishing Franklin with toe-to-toe striking.
Silva Vs. Belfort
Anderson Silva is facing the test of a lifetime against a re-dedicated and recharged Vitor Belfort. With so much buzz surrounding a potential GSP vs. Silva fight happening if Anderson gets beyond Belfort, Silva could get caught looking too far ahead if he's not careful. A carefully planned attack and the amazing hand speed and unique knee strikes Belfort is capable of could completely negate Silva's best strengths if he does not fight at his best.
This fight is for all the Brazilian bragging rights. Both native to Brazil striking specialists have been in the cage with a true who's who of the sport. Belfort's professional MMA experience dates back to 1996 while Silva debuted in May of 2000 at Meca World Vale Tudo 1 with a disappointing career-opening loss. Both fighters haven't tasted defeat since 2006. Both these guys have spent time in both PRIDE and the UFC.
The real difference between these two fighters is the level of recent competition. Silva's fought the bigger names and better fighters in recent years. Belfort's been working his way back into the spotlight of the main stage. He's been in other leagues fighting less than stellar talent while Silva's been mowing down every opponent put in front of him on a 13-fight winning streak. It's hard to imagine Belfort not competing and putting on a show, but beating Silva will still be an upset for him. Silva has to use his long frame and reach with his leg kicks and wild flying knees to keep Belfort from wading in and putting those piston-like fists to work on Anderson's face.
I still like Silva to win by knockout. He's had way more fights in the past few years against competition that pales in comparison to the likes of who Belfort's faced. All the biggest names Belfort's been put in the cage against have beaten him handily, right up to his last PRIDE fight when Dan Henderson took him to a unanimous decision loss in October of 2006. Belfort fought only five times since that 2006 loss while Silva's fought a baker's dozen worth of opponents and mowed them all down since getting bested by Yushin Okami due to a disqualification back in January of 2006, also in a PRIDE match. Silva's only other two losses since that debut defeat have been due to submissions. Belfort's a striker at heart and will have a tough time submitting Silva. This one could be fight of the year though if both come in at their best and it goes all five rounds.