I've gotten a lot of e-mails and tweets complaining about the quality of the lineup at this Saturday's UFC 115. Allow me to say that all you complainers are crazy.
Every single human being complaining about this card is crazy, and I wish you all get stuck in a time machine and end up living through the UFC of 1998.
The saner folk among us know that the latest card, while perhaps not God's gift to MMA fans, is still a worthwhile block of violence for anyone purporting to enjoy the sport. With quality fighters such as Rich Franklin, Paulo Thiago and Carlos Condit involved in potential make-or-break fights, there is no reason your evening should be spent doing anything but ignoring the outside world to focus on some quality fisticuffs.
Prepare yourself for the entertainment to come with another round of crackpot ramblings and occasional insight courtesy of me, the same guy who really thought Darko Milicic would pan out.
Thanks to Tito Ortiz's achy-breaky neck, longtime company man Rich Franklin gets the task of taking on Chuck Liddell, who has set the Internet on fire with recent photos of him rocking a six-pack instead of his usual beer gut. Still, wise men won't put any stock in the notion that noticeable abdominal muscles will cancel out Liddell's obvious physical degradation. Miraculous renaissances by aging fighters seem to be a Randy Couture-owned monopoly.
It almost goes without saying that Franklin isn't some 21-year-old freshly pulled from the genetic superfreak petri dish, but he has retained enough of his physical skills to remain a relevant fighter. Beyond that, Franklin is a cerebral tactician who can pick apart one-dimensional opponents such as Liddell -- a fighter almost entirely dependent on landing single power shots and blitzing for the finish. It does need to be noted, however, that Franklin's beard won't take well to Liddell's power: His arsenal of fundamental skills and strategic savvy have been negated by a clean shot to the chin before.
Franklin has begun to account for that fact in his fighting style, as evidenced by recent bouts with Dan Henderson and Wanderlei Silva, in which he scored effectively with quick combinations upstairs and used his body kicks to control distance. Many fighters have used a similar strategy to great effect against Liddell. The most notable among them was Keith Jardine, who scored a mammoth upset at UFC 76. Since that bout, Liddell's feet have only gotten heavier, and that flat-footed fighting style makes him vulnerable to opponents who can create angles with their footwork.
Angles have never been Liddell's friend. He prefers cutting off the cage, squaring up and uncorking power shots. That won't work well against Franklin, who has no qualms about jumping on the horse and who also has the diversity of striking techniques to keep Liddell guessing. An old-school headhunter, Liddell is effective only when collapsing the pocket with strikes. Franklin has the kicks to work outside and -- maulings by Anderson Silva aside -- the clinch game to suck opponents in and score effectively.
The blunt truth is that any opponent willing to work around Liddell's power is halfway home to a win, and Franklin is probably the last guy who is going to stand in front of him. The other truth about the current version of Liddell is that he can't bank on winning those trench-war exchanges. His chin isn't what it used to be. Watch Liddell's fight with Wanderlei Silva and it becomes obvious that he's trying to be more cautious about initiating exchanges.
It's essentially an identity crisis for Liddell. He has fought one way for his entire career and is trying to adapt to his growing limitations and the perpetually evolving nature of MMA. Meanwhile, Franklin has always been aware of his weaknesses and has a style designed to minimize them. That will shape this fight from the opening bell, leading to Franklin taking a spirited and well-deserved decision win.
This fight is basically the final referendum on Filipovic's UFC career, which has been a massive disappointment to this point. That's likely the reason he's being paired up with ninja-in-training Pat Barry. A loss here, and the history books will remember Filipovic just as much for his disastrous Octagon run as his PrideFC KO spree.
That makes Barry's role in this play all the more bizarre. He grew up an unabashed Filipovic fan and has declared his desire for the Croatian Jack Bauer to sign his face should Barry end up laid out on the canvas. It's an unlikely end game, as Barry is precisely the sort of striker Filipovic has struggled with dating all the way back to his K-1 days.
Filipovic is a somewhat unusual striker in that he's a smallish heavyweight who uses a stalking style and rarely strings together more than two strikes at a time. He has never done well against fighters who can step inside his range and beat him with speed. Barry not only has the hand speed to touch up Filipovic but the power to finish the job as well. Mix in Barry's leg kicks, and the fight really starts to turn on Filipovic, who fights heavy on his lead leg, making him more vulnerable to getting chopped down. Further adding to that vulnerability is Filipovic's footwork, which worsens with every fight and will make it that much harder for him to get after more nimble opponents such as Barry.
No matter how you look at this fight, it comes down to this: Time and injuries have practically crippled Filipovic, and Barry has all the tools to pick him apart. If there is something to look out for that favors Filipovic, it's Barry's admittedly poor diet and lack of a killer instinct. Eating like a frat boy does one's cardio no favors. If Barry passes up an early chance to finish, his gas tank may hit zero before he can get another clean shot at Filipovic's chin.
Sooner or later, Barry is going to learn why eating a box of pizza bagels isn't something professional fighters do, but Filipovic is several years removed from being the sort of fighter who can teach him that lesson. It still sounds weird to be so dismissive of the guy who used to be the most feared striker in the sport, but time spares no man, and it has been especially cruel to Filipovic. Barry might not be quite so heartless, but his skills are too great for him to do anything but run through Filipovic.
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.