With the title on the line, UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar's defense against Cain Velasquez at UFC 121 on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., represents everything we want combat sports to be about.
It's only the biggest title in sports, folks, and while the fans in California and on pay-per-view will no doubt be focused on the main event, there are some solid fights in this lineup beyond the Lesnar-Velasquez showdown. Let's break it down.
UFC heavyweight championship
Brock Lesnar versus Cain Velasquez
The matchup: Lesnar's performance against Shane Carwin was a quantum leap. He overcame adversity in the cage and survived a big-time threat to his championship via second-round submission of an unbeaten challenger. It was the kind of victory -- and humble postfight interview -- that went a long way toward reshaping Lesnar's image and fans' opinion of him.
Enter Velasquez, another unbeaten challenger, with the mojo and intensity to match. Everything Lesnar is -- a big heavyweight, brash and seemingly a target of fan resentment merely because he's famous -- Velasquez is not. The challenger is just a tough fighter with a blue-collar approach who has steadfastly worked himself into a title shot thanks to increasingly impressive performances.
What makes Velasquez most interesting is how he fights -- more like a lightweight than a big man. He mixes up punches and kicks, with little tip-off to either, and blends the striking-to-grappling game with seamless ease. His work rate at the American Kickboxing Academy is a thing of legend, and that kind of long-run conditioning is what he will need to stay afloat against the bigger Lesnar, who will be 20-plus pounds heavier come fight time.
The pick: On the UFC "Countdown" preview showcasing this fight, one of Lesnar's trainers asserted that his stamina was not a problem and that people should stop questioning it. That's a well-meaning point, although likely a moot one, because Lesnar is not likely to go five rounds in a fight for several years.
He's too big and strong, and if you don't get to him early, as Carwin attempted, you're probably not going to be around long anyway. Lesnar's performance in the Frank Mir rematch was a terrifying revelation of what a man of his size and athleticism can do. He scuttled our perceptions of what a heavyweight on the bottom could reasonably be expected to do, and he'll be a destructive force against anyone unfortunate enough to be caught underneath him.
To survive, Velasquez will have to either catch Lesnar early or go through hell and escape some bad spots in a titanic struggle. This is what heavyweight championship fights are all about, and the guess here is that Velasquez is game and wily enough to either step to Lesnar early, stun him and set the tone for a stoppage or hang tough in the critical first two rounds and rally.
The key for Velasquez is to switch angles, circle away from Lesnar and deny him the setup for his classic power double-leg takedown, which seems virtually unstoppable. Unless he scores a quick stoppage, Velasquez is inevitably going to end up on his back, where he will need to force scrambles and keep moving. Staying in a static position, as Mir was forced to, dooms one to certain defeat against Lesnar.
Velasquez will also have to plant seeds of doubt in Lesnar's head early by putting leather on him in the first round to force takedowns and clinches. For his part, Lesnar is exceptionally athletic, and his stand-up is improving. Forget about how he covered up and pretty much ran away when Carwin buzzed him -- anyone would. Lesnar has huge power even in glancing blows, and that will be a threat if Velasquez doesn't keep him off-balance with movement and astute timing.
Either way, the pick here is Velasquez in a high-octane, back-and-forth heavyweight classic. He'll win in three, by knockout.
Jake Shields versus Martin Kampmann
The matchup: A long time coming, Shields' debut in the UFC will be watched for several reasons: Hard-core fans have followed him for years after his work in Rumble on the Rock, Shooto, EliteXC and Strikeforce; casual types welcome anyone who can emerge as a viable threat to welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.
Kampmann is a good start to that conversation, as he brings a perceived advantage in stand-up and a game with no glaring weaknesses. His ground chops are exceptionally strong for a kickboxing-based fighter, but Shields' are better, which should negate a critical advantage Kampmann usually exploits to beat his opponents.
Shields excels at forcing people on the defensive with his grappling game. His timing is what makes him so effective, as he will drop down seamlessly to grab a leg while opponents are swinging at his head or improve position while they look to strike on the ground. What Shields' game comes down to is highly refined nuts and bolts, as opposed to flashy moves and verbal panache. He simply out-positions and outworks you, which is why he beat Dan Henderson in a bout in which few gave him a prayer.
The fight also laid the foundation for his entry into the UFC. Dropping back to welterweight, he will be in a talented division that, promotion-wise, is sorely in need of a fresh face for GSP.
The pick: Shields' chin should carry him through if Kampmann connects, and that will prove enough to allow him to force it to the ground. Kampmann is no slouch on the mat and will find himself battling Shields' onslaught of top pressure, strikes and a grind-'em-down approach. Shields also has an excellent defensive guard and submissions in case he winds up on his back. He will put those together for a third-round submission or strike-induced TKO on the ground.
Tito Ortiz versus Matt Hamill
The matchup: The teacher-versus-student battle is always a fun one, and we get that in Ortiz-Hamill -- along with both men hoping to prove the point that they're still relevant amid the top cadre in the 205-pound division.
Let's face it: There's nothing like a battle between two wrestlers, because you know someone is going to end up on his back and at a disadvantage. These matches often come down to who has the better stand-up to dictate range and events, and the edge here goes to Hamill, who gets more heft and juice into his shots. Dogged by years of injuries, Ortiz's performances of late make one wonder what he has had to overcome physically just to get into the cage.
The pick: Less experience doesn't sound like a great thing -- until you factor in the years of training, injuries and general mileage on the body that experience brings. Ortiz has probably forgotten more about MMA than most guys will ever know, and his takedown-based style overshadowed a chronically overlooked jiu-jitsu game.
The clinch work and duels for takedowns will be high-level stuff, as neither fighter will want to cede one. Ortiz's excellent guard and MMA savvy should be enough to get him out of some bad spots early, unless Hamill pushes such a relentless pace that Ortiz can't keep up. In a battle of the young lion versus the old one, Hamill should bring enough to take a decision.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.