The Staples Center will play host to UFC 104 "Machida vs. Shogun" this Saturday in Los Angeles. More importantly, it will play host to a night likely to decide the future of the light heavyweight division.
Reigning champion Lyoto Machida enters the match undefeated and unquestioned as one of the sport's pound-for-pound best, a lofty status that once belonged to challenger Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. The 2005 Pride middleweight grand prix winner can reclaim his place among MMA's elite by taking out the man leading the renaissance of traditional martial arts.
If that doesn't get you interested in forking over the cash for the pay-per-view, then consider the prospect of watching Cain Velasquez turn heads with his "Brown Pride" tattoo. Throw in mega-athlete Anthony Johnson and his bout with mega-judoka Yoshiyuki Yoshida, as well as the possibility of Joe Stevenson again switching into Ralph Macchio mode, and saving for junior's college tuition suddenly becomes secondary to this live event.
The breakdown: Two years into a UFC run that was supposed to be a cakewalk to title town, Rua has finally earned his opportunity; his timing couldn't be worse. Machida currently wears the light heavyweight gold and finds himself in the midst of an absurdly dominant run that has the world wondering why it took so long for karate to come back in vogue. Setting that aside, if Rua plans on doing more than hitting the mat facefirst, he has to turn the tables on Machida by disrupting the champion's offense before he gets a chance to return the favor.
While Machida's accuracy, movement and defense are the bedrock of his success, his ability to short-circuit opponents by keeping them off balance makes him so much more dangerous. Rua's usual Chute Boxe-bred Muay Thai-meets-taekwondo style won't work against someone who sees the tiniest opportunity as clearly as an owl spots a mouse in the dead of night. The only way Rua can turn this fight in his favor is by controlling distance at all times.
Machida's Willie Pep-level movement effectively masks his short reach, but Rua can expose that flaw by keeping his punches straight and his kicks tight. As soon as Machida tries to rush inside, Rua needs to counter by going to the clinch and controlling the champion before he gets a chance to use trips. It's a nuanced strategy, and considering Rua's go-for-broke style, it may not be one he can implement. Even if he pulls it off, he still walks a fine line against one of the sport's best.
The X factor: Most fans are accustomed to seeing Rua slug it out standing, but "Shogun" was at his best when his ground game was just as dangerous, if not more so, than his striking. Assuming he can outgrapple Machida seems a stretch considering we have seen enough of the champion on the mat to know he's hardly a free ride. Still, taking down Machida remains an approach few have attempted. Even if it means pulling guard, Rua should at least test the waters with Machida on the floor before committing himself to a kickboxing match against a singular breed of striker.
Too many forget that Rua came awfully close to tapping out Ricardo Arona, and before his injury issues all but crippled him, many observers were of the opinion that Rua's jiu-jitsu was his greatest weapon. Rediscovering that part of his game could give Rua the edge he needs; Machida is unaccustomed to being tested by a grappler of his caliber.
The bottom line: It's going to take someone who can outthink Machida to beat him, and Rua is more instinct than IQ after the cage door closes. A valiant effort by the challenger will fall short, with Machida putting away "Shogun" with a clinch combination of knees and a lightbulb-burning left hook.
The breakdown: The latest aftershock of Affliction's Hindenburg re-enactment sees Rothwell moving up from facing a solid prospect in Chase Gormley to co-headlining a bout against arguably the division's No. 1 blue-chipper. Having already failed -- thanks to his slugging mentality -- in past bids to establish himself as an elite heavyweight, Rothwell needs to stay focused on keeping Velasquez at fist's reach and avoiding the top-control special that Cheick Kongo was served at UFC 99. Rothwell has not shown the takedown defense necessary to keep Velasquez upright, but as long as he stays on the defensive against the American Kickboxing Academy disciple and snaps off combinations whenever the pocket becomes compromised, he could easily dynamite Velasquez's flaws wide open.
Even though Kongo dropped him three times, Velasquez dominated the rest of their fight -- and Rothwell is hardly in Kongo's league in the striking department. Rothwell gave the notoriously fragile Andrei Arlovski some of his best shots at Affliction "Banned," but it was the former International Fight League standout who got his jaw inverted, while Arlovski seemed no worse for the wear. Rothwell may not have to worry about getting the face-plant special in this fight, but if he can't stop Velasquez's magical mystery takedown tour, then he might as well not bother to show up.
The X factor: For a guy who looks like he raids going-out-of-business sales at local bakeries, Rothwell has proved himself a surprisingly sound grappler. Consider that the extra dimension he'll need to counter the perpetual-motion machine that is Velasquez's ground-and-pound. However, most of Rothwell's submissions have come from top control, and he seems more likely to discover the universal solvent than outwrestle Velasquez. Just how much of Rothwell's submission savvy translates to his guard will be key, as he has little hope if he can't give Velasquez something to worry about on the mat.
The bottom line: Despite giving up a world of experience and dealing with borderline-insane fans who think getting dropped by one of the division's best strikers means you have no chin, Velasquez is the easy choice here. Rothwell's takedown defense has betrayed him in the past, and he doesn't have the power or technique to take advantage of what little time he will spend on his feet. Expect Wisconsin's favorite son to show his trademark toughness by gutting it out for 15 minutes, but it won't keep the referee from raising Velasquez's hand.
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.