In what could be one of their finest efforts to date, Saturday's Ultimate Fighting Championship card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas appears primed to deliver not only a hotly anticipated rematch with a belt on the line but a card full of interesting match-ups.
On this night alone we have the return of the Chute Boxe academy to the UFC, pivotal main card showdowns in the welterweight and middleweight divisions, and we'll probably get to see Keith Jardine punt Houston Alexander's head into the stratosphere.
Sports Illustrated may see the UFC as possibly being the future of American sports but the present is certainly a good time for mixed martial arts fans. So sit back, step away from the keyboard and get set to make a mental note of all my picks so you can make fun of me for them at a later date.
Sean Salmon vs. Alan Belcher
The short notice special on the undercard this time around will be middleweight Alan Belcher stepping up to face light heavyweight Sean Salmon, who was originally slated to face late scratch Eric Schafer.
If moving up a weight class to take on a tough opponent on short notice while coming off a loss sounds crazy to you that's because it is. Luckily, a little bit of craziness seems to come in handy in MMA. Just ask Joe Son wait, bad example.
Regardless, Belcher will look to rebound from his one-sided loss to Kendall Grove at UFC 69 by moving up in weight to take out Salmon, who is perhaps best known for outwrestling Rashad Evans for five minutes before being removed from consciousness for five minutes courtesy of a high kick.
Given the ever-changing cast of characters that make up the UFC's roster, back-to-back losses are something that neither man can afford right now if they are to remain in the UFC.
While Belcher (9-3-0) is more indicative of the general direction the sport is headed in, that is well-rounded fighters with a grasp of all facets of MMA, Columbus, Ohio's Salmon is something of a project. Still very much a wrestler in the process of converting to MMA, Salmon's bout with Evans proved that he has the talent to develop into a fine competitor but still has a long way to go towards becoming a true mixed martial artist.
Although Salmon (9-2-0) hasn't quite made the transition yet, Belcher is at a distinct disadvantage trying to take on a far superior wrestler who will undoubtedly hold the edge in the strength department.
Belcher, who fights out of Biloxi, Miss., will need to use his striking whenever he can and force Salmon to work on the ground instead of simply allowing him to ride out a decision. In that regard, Salmon would be unwise in repeating the mistake he made against Evans of trying to ride out a decision for Belcher is a talented striker who could send Salmon to the grey room all over again.
While Belcher, 22, holds the edge on the feet and is probably more competent when it comes to submissions, the fact that he is moving up in weight to take on a talented wrestler simply does not bode well for him.
I could see Belcher occasionally mounting some offense against Salmon, only to find himself back on the ground trying to keep the 29-year-old wrestler from neutralizing his offense. Try as he might, Belcher won't find much success fending off Salmon's attack. It won't be the most aesthetically pleasing fight you'll ever see but expect Salmon to walk away with an uneventful decision win.
Thiago Silva vs. James Irvin
With the PRIDE Fighting Championships now operating under the Zuffa umbrella of organizations, it seems as though the UFC is set to cash in on a wealth of Brazilian talent that, up until now, had been unavailable to them.
One of the first examples of this sudden shift is premier Chute Boxe prospect Thiago Silva, who will make his UFC debut against the dangerous James Irvin. For Silva, however, this is more than just a debut; this fight marks the return of the Chute Boxe academy to the UFC after an absence of more than seven years.
Just how well Silva responds to being the standard bearer for Chute Boxe in the UFC remains to be seen, but make no mistake, he has at his disposal all the tools he needs to succeed.
The Department of Obvious Information tells me that Silva has the eyes of a serial killer and the offense to match. In particular, Silva has shown a knack for striking not only on the feet, but on the ground as well. While Silva is lacking in hand speed, he seems more than content to merely close the gap and bludgeon his opponents with a steady mix of knees, kicks and punches.
Like most young strikers who rack up knockout wins, not much is known about the 24-year-old Silva's ground game. But from what we've seen thus far, Silva does know the basics of takedown defense and ground control. Any deficiencies Silva may have on the ground are masked by his rabid approach to ground-and-pound -- reminiscent of stablemate Mauricio "Shogun" Rua's unorthodox but accurate style, a style that has played no small part in Silva's success thus far.
If Silva's career has been marked by dominance, maddening inconsistency has marked James Irvin's career. Originally one of the Capital City Fighting Alliance's top heavyweight prospects, Irvin made a name for himself by plowing through the California MMA scene and earning himself a UFC invitation.
That UFC invitation would not serve as a coronation for Irvin. Instead a first-round knockout loss to Mike Kyle at UFC 51 proved to be the impetus for Irvin's move to the light heavyweight division. Despite a spectacular come from behind knockout victory over Terry Martin at UFC 54, Irvin's career soon entered a tailspin, as he suffered back-to-back losses to Stephan Bonnar and Lodune Sincaid. The loss to Sincaid was particularly damning, as up until that point Sincaid was best known for his bizarre spin on psychological warfare on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Instead of walking away from the sport, Irvin, now 28, simply went back to the drawing board and made his return to the UFC against Hector Ramirez at UFC 65. A trying first round left Irvin with his back against the wall but he rebounded in the second to notch his second come from behind KO in the UFC.
Against Silva, giving away the first round might leave Irvin (12-3-0, 1 NC) in no shape to mount any sort of comeback. Should Irvin derail Silva's hype, he'll have to do it by taking advantage of his edge in explosiveness while putting pressure on the relatively inexperienced Brazilian.
Conversely, Silva will have to keep himself out of any extended exchanges with Irvin given Silva's habit of standing upright and leaving his chin exposed. Silva's best bet is to crowd Irvin, keep him from landing anything fight changing and wear him out with accurate strikes. Ideally, Silva would take this fight to the ground after wearing out Irvin a bit since the Californian has proven himself to be an easy mark on the ground. Whether or not Silva takes that option is rather unlikely given his style, and that is precisely why Irvin is such a live underdog.
For all the knocks on Irvin -- and there are plenty of them -- he has proven his willingness to take some damage to give some back in return. While Silva has garnered quite a name for himself, let's not forget the lesson we all learned the last time a Chute Boxe prospect emerged seemingly overnight. It wasn't that long ago that many a MMA fan was convinced Helio Dipp would be the next Chute Boxe phenom and as of right now, he rates out as a Sam Bowie on the great Bust-O-Meter.
The key difference here is that Silva (9-0-0) is a more composed fighter than the overtly macho Dipp, who was almost entirely reliant on hulking out and physically overwhelming his opponents.
Silva knows how to pick apart an opponent and Irvin being the slow starter that he is, finds himself at a distinct disadvantage facing a fighter who thrives on dragging opponents into the trenches. Irvin's only real chance for victory here is an all too familiar standby: landing a big strike and ending matters right then and there.
Against Silva that won't be a terribly sound strategy and it will lead to yet another UFC loss for Irvin. Look for Silva to rough up Irvin from the clinch and put him away with knees late in the first round.
Din Thomas vs. Jeremy Stephens
With the UFC's increasing emphasis on loading up the lightweight division with young talent, Din Thomas stands out as one of the few members of the old guard who has managed to remain relevant in the modern MMA world. However, MMA fans have a short memory and Thomas, 30, is fully aware that winning is the only way he'll keep getting his ticket punched by the UFC.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is 20-year-old Jeremy Stephens, a new recruit to the UFC who is faced with the prospect of taking on a far more experienced fighter in his UFC debut.
Hailing from the MMA factory that is Iowa, Stephens comes in with the prerequisite wrestling background that seems to be the calling card of so many Midwest MMA fighters. But thanks to his training at the Des Moines Mixed Martial Arts Academy, Stephens has developed into more than your standard issue converted wrestler.
Never content to ride out decisions, Stephens (8-1-0) is known for using his surprising striking power, whether standing or on the ground, to take control of his fights. That and a solid knowledge of submissions has gone a long way towards establishing Stephens as one of Iowa's top lightweight prospects, as evidenced by his run of success through the Midwest MMA scene.
Against an opponent like Thomas, local accolades and hype won't do much. What really makes this a tough debut for Stephens is the fact that Thomas' style is tailor made for frustrating overanxious youngsters.
Although Thomas (19-6-0) trains with the American Top Team, he does not conform to the Southern Florida-based academy's mold of Brazilian jiu-jitsu based fighters. Instead, Thomas compliments his excellent takedown defense with a long reach and disciplined boxing style, which allows him to rack up points and force opponents to fight on his terms.
It is that patient, disciplined approach to MMA that has left many a wrestler on the receiving end of Thomas's almost impossibly long jab.
While Stephens will come in looking to take Thomas out of his comfort zone by planting him on his back, the veteran lightweight will no doubt anticipate this approach, which will make his job even easier. Stephens should know that he is no match for Thomas on the feet and that any illusions of trading blows should remain illusions. The problem for Stephens lies in the fact that in committing himself to taking down Thomas, he is merely allowing Thomas to work his game plan.
Expect a frustrating night for the UFC newcomer, as he spends the night on the receiving end of jabs for three rounds. Thomas takes this one via unanimous decision, but not for lack of effort on Stephens' part.
Wilson Gouveia vs. Carmelo Marrero
With Chuck Liddell having already wiped out most of the UFC light heavyweight division, the opportunity is there for new faces to step up and claim a spot for themselves.
Two such fighters will look to take advantage of this opportunity when Wilson Gouveia and Carmelo Marrero put fist to face in an undercard bout. Although both fighters aren't quite household names yet, they should ring a bell with any MMA fan.
After all, it wasn't that long ago that American Top Team's Gouveia took TUF alumni and rising star Keith Jardine to the limit in their clash on the finale of TUF 3. Although the fight ended in defeat for Gouveia, 28, he made his presence known and, if not for a suspect gas tank, could have launched himself into the upper echelon of the division.
Regardless, Gouveia has rebounded nicely from that initial disappointment and dispatched fringe UFC fighters like Seth Petruzelli and Wes Combs with little difficulty. Whether or not Gouveia (8-4-0) can make the move from glorified can opener to legitimate contender is a question that his bout with Marrero will go a long way towards answering.
No stranger to disappointment himself, Marrero enters this fight coming off the first loss of his MMA career, an absolute drubbing at the hands of Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga. It was after being manhandled by Napao that Marrero decided to drop down to light heavyweight and try his luck against fighters his own size.
Although the Pennsylvania-based fighter no longer have to worry about being dwarfed by his opponents, the 6-1-0 record he currently sports is somewhat misleading, since he hasn't beaten anyone of note.
Looking at Marrero's record, you know something is awry when the most impressive win he holds is an almost unbearably boring unanimous decision over the living embodiment of the one dimensional striker that is Cheick Kongo. That fight was essentially Marrero, 26, declaring that he is a wrestler who has nothing but a passing knowledge of MMA. The talent strapped heavyweight division is a place where one dimensional wrestlers and strikers can earn a living, but once you move down in weight you're not likely to find many easy marks in the UFC.
Gouveia certainly has zero interest in being Marrero's grappling dummy and he presents a laundry list of problems for anyone looking to simply muscle him around on the mat. Marrero will have to score the takedown early and often, otherwise he'll find himself taking the stinging leg kicks that Gouveia used to great effect against Jardine. Either way, should Marrero score that all-important takedown he'll find himself on the mat with a guy who trains at one of the premier grappling oriented MMA academies in America.
In other words, Marrero can't possibly win this fight on the feet and if he does get it to the ground he'll have to contend with someone who won't play dead the second it gets there. The only way Marrero can take this one is if Gouveia's gas tank fails him yet again, or if he barters his soul to Satan in exchange for victory. Neither one of these scenarios is particularly likely, although I do hear Satan is looking to replenish his collection of souls.
A note for all you prospective fighters out there, when selling your soul sounds like the only way you can win a fight: it might be time to reconsider your approach. Gouveia will pepper Marrero with strikes early on before surrendering a takedown and slapping on an armbar without much resistance in the first round.
Chris Leben vs. Kalib Starnes
In a battle of TUF alumni, Chris Leben and Kalib Starnes will look to come back from uninspired performances that have left their status in the UFC very much up in the air. Leben in particular finds himself at a crossroads in his UFC career, having lost two of three, and enters this match knowing he can ill afford another loss.
If nothing else, Leben's UFC career thus far has been marked by the same kind of drama that defined his time on TUF. A mildly controversial split decision win over Canadian brawler Patrick Cote failed to impress his horde of fans, but a surprising submission win over Edwin Dewees and an even more surprising first round KO of Jorge Rivera had Leben looking like a potential championship contender.
That was until Leben ran into the human buzzsaw that is Anderson Silva and found himself in the unfamiliar position of being on the receiving end of a KO. It appeared as though Leben would regain his footing in the UFC after a KO victory over Jorge Santiago, but a disappointing submission loss to Jason MacDonald has put Leben in the position of having to earn his spot in the UFC all over again.
While there is no question that Leben's desire to win is second to none, his opponent, Kalib Starnes, appears to be the classic example of top shelf talent and bottom drawer motivation. Undeniably skilled, Starnes entered the third season of TUF as one of the favorites to walk away with the contract, but eventual winner Kendall Grove derailed any hopes of that happening by scoring a big upset win.
Although Starnes did suffer a legitimate rib injury in the bout that caused him to verbally submit, questions began surfacing about his desire and willingness to fight through adversity, questions that continue to this day thanks to Starnes' loss at UFC 64 to Yushin Okami. It seemed as if the second Okami laid hands on Starnes he sapped the young Canadian of any desire to actually fight. As the bout wore on, it became obvious Starnes was convincing himself that to even try and fight back would be pointless.
Against a fighter like the 26-year-old Leben, who thrives on crowding his opponents and bringing the fight to them, Starnes will need to overcome his own confidence issues more so than any stylistic problems.
In fact, Starnes (7-1-1) has the skills to give Leben serious pause considering his far superior ground game, a facet of the sport that Leben is still vulnerable in. Leben is not going to stand idly by and let Starnes, 32, work him over on the ground, and considering Starnes mediocre wrestling skills, he'll have a hard time trying to take Leben down while avoiding the middleweight's aggressive striking.
If, and we're talking about a big if here, Starnes comes into this bout motivated and confident, he could repeat what MacDonald did to Leben. However, Leben (16-3-0) has always shown a knack for rebounding from adversity and Starnes seems ready made for the Gresham, Ore. fighter.
While I doubt this will degenerate into a replay of the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura "fight," don't count on the Canadian Starnes doing much other than absorbing a ton of punishment while desperately seeking a takedown. From there, it becomes a matter of time before Starnes begins doubting himself and Leben takes over.
This one could be interesting early, but the longer it goes, the more it favors Leben. So look for the Smasher of Cats to put this one away late in the second round via ground-and-pound.
Keith Jardine vs. Houston Alexander
On what is one of the more competitive fight cards in recent memory, the pairing of Keith Jardine and Houston Alexander sticks out like a sore thumb.
Much like an episode of World's Wildest Police Chases, the appeal of this one seems to be rooted more in the potential for physical devastation than true competition. Then again, the UFC has shown a penchant of late for unearthing previously unknown talent and while one can question Alexander's credentials, his work ethic is beyond reproach.
A single father of six, Alexander spends his days balancing his fatherly duties with his fistic duties and thus far, has found success in both. Having originally made his debut in 2001, Alexander went on an extended hiatus in early 2005 that lasted all the way into 2007. Making his return barely a month and a half ago, the East. St. Louis-born Alexander certainly isn't short on bravery and he'll need plenty to handle one of the UFC's premier light heavyweight contenders.
Jardine, like Alexander, made his initial foray into the world of professional MMA in 2001 but has enjoyed the luxury of training with what has become one of the elite MMA academies in America, Jackson's Submission Fighting.
The net result has been a much more active fight schedule and with the popularity Jardine gained from his run on TUF, he saw his star rise to new heights in 2006 thanks in no small part to a stunning KO victory over one of TUF's most recognizable stars, Forrest Griffin.
It was a sudden and unexpected blitzkrieg of punches that Jardine (12-2-1) used to dispatch Griffin in the first round, and it's that killer instinct that many have felt the Greg Jackson-trained light heavyweight was lacking. In three prior UFC contests, Jardine, 31, went the full time limit, and in his bout against Stephan Bonnar it cost him dearly as he dropped a hotly disputed unanimous decision.
That night is way off in the rearview mirror for Jardine, who seems focused on building off his most recent success instead of being dragged down by past failures.
Much as one may try and find a scenario where Alexander, 35, pulls off the upset of upsets, it's hard to imagine him doing so considering he's in the UFC only because he was one the few fighters out there willing to fight Keith Jardine on short notice. I'll give the man credit for bravery, but Jardine is far more experienced and is coming off the best performance of his career.
The potential for a let down is always there with any fighter (*cough*Georges St. Pierre*cough*) but Alexander's standard-issue moderately well-rounded style isn't going to get him anywhere against Jardine. There is no place that this fight can go where Alexander, who now fights out of Omaha, Neb., can put Jardine in danger. "The Dean of Mean" is simply better on the ground, in the clinch and on the feet.
When you take into account Jardine's newfound aggression and the potential for a quick night's work, a KO of the Night award is on the table. Alexander (6-1-0, 1 NC) won't roll over, but he will find himself grossly outgunned and the victim of a KO midway through the first round.
Ivan Salaverry vs. Terry Martin
In what is one of the more interesting style clashes of the evening, the flamboyant Ivan Salaverry makes his return to the UFC against rising middleweight contender Terry Martin. While Martin has made a name for himself with a no-nonsense, workmanlike style, Salaverry is known more for slick technique that was often overshadowed by his own complacency in the Octagon.
Indeed, this will be the 36-year-old Salaverry's third run in the UFC and if he is to find a permanent home this time around, he'll have to learn how to put it all on the line.
The great irony of Salaverry's past UFC fights is that he has shown a penchant for the spectacular; his absolute thrashing of Andrei Semenov at UFC 37 remains one of his more memorable performances, but that was followed by what could only be described as a display of sporadic narcolepsy against Matt Lindland.
This pattern would continue in Salaverry's second UFC stint, as he scored a pair of spectacular submission wins over Tony Fryklund and the incredible shrinking man known as Joe Riggs.
Yet again Salaverry (12-4-0) positioned himself as a contender in the middleweight division and yet again he would throw it all away with an uninspired performance, this time against Nate Marquardt.
While Salaverry has shown that he can rebound from such disappointments, in Chicago's Martin he'll face a man who has gone through the same lows and is hell bent on never revisiting them.
For a while there, it looked like Martin (15-2-0) would never notch a win in the UFC. Starting out as a light heavyweight, the squat fighter squandered a dominant first round against James Irvin by falling victim to a spectacular flying knee KO in the opening moments of the second round.
Unfazed by the lost opportunity, Martin made his return to the UFC against Jason Lambert, and once again fell to pieces in the second round after jumping out to an early lead.
At that point, Martin had proven he was a viable fighter, albeit one prone to making fight-ending mistakes. Instead of dwelling on his defeats, Martin simply changed up his game plan, beginning with a move down 20 pounds to the middleweight division. Revitalized by the change, Martin came into UFC 67 slated to face Jorge Rivera, knowing full well that a loss would mean the end of his days in the UFC.
If the burden was as heavy as one would think, Martin certainly seemed to carry it with ease as he scored a stunning KO just 14 seconds into the opening stanza. With one massive overhand right, Martin exorcised the demons of his past UFC performances and emerged as a legitimate contender in the stacked middleweight division.
While no official announcements have been made, the winner of this fight could find themselves in position to jockey for a UFC middleweight title shot, and that is an opportunity that could go a long way towards helping either man put to rest any lingering doubts about their place in the sport.
Martin, 26, will no doubt come in looking to pressure Salaverry, though he'll have to be wary of Salaverry's knack for taking advantage of his opponent's aggression. At times it seems as though Salaverry allows his competitors to dictate the terms of the fight, but because the Seattle-based fighter is so well rounded, he often finds himself more than capable of countering and taking over with his own offensive arsenal.
Keeping that in mind, Martin would certainly be best served avoiding any action on the ground with Salaverry, who is at his best twisting his opponents into pretzels. At the same time, Martin must pressure Salaverry on the feet and keep him from getting comfortable in the pocket and firing away with leg kicks. Disciplined aggression should be the name of the game for Martin -- but he has never faced someone who thrives on his opponent's aggression like Salaverry does.
While Martin is the more powerful striker of the two and would do well keeping it on the feet, Salaverry is notoriously difficult to hit and has the patience to peck away at a distance while racking up points. At some point I expect Martin to revert to his wrestling background in search of a ground-and-pound victory. Instead, what he'll find is a far superior grappler who knows how to avoid punishment and work the guard to his advantage.
This will be an interesting fight to watch unfold, but I expect Salaverry to frustrate Martin every step of the way and eventually take advantage of Martin's less than stellar grappling skills en route to a submission win late in the second round.
Karo Parisyan vs. Josh Burkman
With Matt Serra's Buster Douglas-esque upset of Georges St. Pierre having thrown the welterweight division into total disarray, both Karo Parisyan and Josh Burkman are looking to rise above the fray and establish themselves as possible challengers to the throne.
The opportunity is there for the taking; all one of them has to do is beat out the other in a match that has "fight of the night" written all over it.
It seems like all Parisyan has done lately is put on wars in just about any card he is a part of. At the tail end of 2006 we saw the 24-year-old from North Hollywood, Calif. put on a pair of instant classics, first in a decision loss to Diego Sanchez and then in a decision win over Drew Fickett. It is the all-out style that has come to be associated with the Hayastan Fight Team member, and it is a style that he seems comfortable using.
Combining a mind-bending array of judo throws with a cagey grappling style and a willingness to throw haymakers like they're jabs, it seems like Parisyan (16-4-0) is perpetually dipping into his energy reserves and coming up with that little bit extra he needs.
While Burkman has shown a predilection towards the exciting, thus far it has been more of the one-sided variety. Upon leaving TUF due to an injury sustained in his win over Melvin Guillard, Burkman quickly racked up a pair of stunning "blink and you'll miss 'em" wins over Sam Morgan and the previously mentioned Fickett.
Of late, however, Burkman seems to have lost his magic touch as he was outmatched by Jon Fitch and has gone on to score a couple of decision wins over Josh Neer and Chad Reiner. Certainly nothing to sneeze at but a far cry from the war engine that Burkman appeared to be upon his UFC debut. While the Salt Lake City-based welterweight would love to devise a return to form against Parisyan, the gutsy Armenian is a tough match for anyone.
Of particular interest will be how Burkman's straightforward approach to wrestling will clash with Parisyan's flashy judo throws. We've already seen Parisyan employ his throws against explosive wrestlers like Sean Sherk and Georges St. Pierre, so Burkman (8-3-0) will be hard pressed trying to bully Parisyan around the Octagon with wrestling alone.
In fact, it might be wise for Burkman, 27, to avoid the ground altogether considering Parisyan's submission skills and sweeps. Burkman certainly has a strong enough base to corral Parisyan on the ground, but just how long he'd be able to keep that up against a superior grappler is anyone's guess. While both men have shown no fear of the stand-up, their grappling backgrounds often result in them taking matters straight to the ground when things don't go their way. And it is likely that this fight will be decided on the ground.
Burkman will find winning this fight on the ground to be a tall task, as Parisyan's active style will keep Burkman from simply unloading and overwhelming him. How well Burkman will handle working from the bottom should Parisyan manage to land a throw or two will be critical, since Burkman did not do well when Fitch managed to gain the top position against him.
It is that critical weakness that swings this fight in favor of Parisyan, as he will eventually get on top of Burkman and force him into a tight spot. Burkman is far from easy tappings on the ground, but he will be fortunate to come out of such a situation unscathed. Parisyan has had trouble finishing opponents of late and Burkman won't hand him the victory on a silver platter, so look for "The Heat" to outwork his way to a decision win.
Chuck Liddell vs. Quinton Jackson
I don't know if any of you are aware of this, but apparently Chuck Liddell has an obsession with revenge that would make you think he started out as a member of the Gambino crime family.
Having already avenged past defeats to Jeremy Horn and the ageless Randy Couture, all that stands in the way of the UFC's light heavyweight champion's quest for true Mafioso redemption is Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Given Jackson's personality, don't think for a second that he has allowed Liddell to forget their clash at PRIDE "Final Conflict" 2003.
In what was one of the first UFC-PRIDE super matches, it was Jackson (26-6-0) that held his company's banner high and proud as he fought a perfect fight against Liddell, imposing his own style while neutralizing Liddell's. That would go down as one of Jackson's last great triumphs in PRIDE, as his career fell into seeming disarray after a loss to Wanderlei Silva that same night.
A sudden and unexpected commitment to Christianity as well as an odd change in his once ebullient personality had many fans wondering just what had happened to the "Rampage" they once cheered for. While Jackson has yet to rediscover his old form, his UFC debut against Marvin Eastman at UFC 67 was a definite step in the right direction.
Showing off his sharp striking and underrated defensive skills, "Rampage" had Eastman swinging at air most of the night before dispatching him with a vintage volley of punches. While the 28-year-old Jackson, originally from Memphis, Tenn. but currently fighting out of Irvine, Calif., appears to be on the road to rediscovering his former self, Liddell hopes never to be in the same position he was against "Rampage" the first time around. Tired, bloody and injured is no condition to be in when you're trying to win a fight.
Try as he did, there would be no valiant come from behind victory for Liddell, only the unfamiliar sting of defeat. It was in defeat that Liddell, who currently holds rank as the most popular mixed martial artist on the planet, found the resolve to improve and become the fighter that he is today.
Gone is the awkward balance and dependence on the overhand right, replaced by smooth footwork, unique angles and a more varied attack. The headfirst aggression that "Rampage" so effectively countered is still there though and that remains Jackson's best hope for victory.
While bringing the fight to the Liddell only plays into the 37-year-old champ's hands, Jackson must force "The Iceman" to come forward, keeping him off balance with the threat of a takedown. Fighting out of his hometown of San Luis Obispo, Liddell is at his best when he can stalk his opponents without fear of reprisal.
Liddell, meanwhile, must not fall into the trap of wasting energy in search of an early KO, and instead rely on using his newfound preference for body punches and leg kicks to keep Jackson from counterpunching him into submission.
Also of great importance is just how prepared "Rampage" is to take this fight to the ground; in their first bout he had great difficulty doing so until Liddell eventually tired out, and this time around he may not have the luxury of simply being able to out-strike Liddell.
The pivotal difference in the rematch could be the fact that Liddell has fixed holes in his game that "Rampage" so deftly took advantage of the first time around. The same cannot be said of Jackson, who has had difficulty getting his life in order, never mind his career.
"Rampage" enters this fight, at best, the same fighter he was the first time around -- and he might not be as good as he was then -- while Liddell comes in with some new wrinkles to his game that have proven to be wise additions.
As he so eloquently puts it, "Rampage" wants that paper. But Liddell (20-3-0) is all about his legacy right now and having come so close to cementing his status, it would be hard to imagine him falling short of his goal at the finish line. Liddell takes this one via KO early in the third.
Tomas Rios covers mixed martial arts for Sherdog.com