This is one of the deepest fight cards in recent memory, with a superb main event and several fights featuring guys making bids for later title shots. It’s so deep, in fact, that there are several big name fighters being relegated to prelim status: Andrei Arlovski, Diego Sanchez and Josh Koschek will all fight on the untelevised portion of the show. Arlovski has been buried because he’s on the final match of his UFC contract and refuses to sign an extension, so he’ll probably be stuck there. Sanchez and Koschek, however, will probably have their fights shown on the televised portion of the card should time allow.
On with the preview.
UFC MIDDLEWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
ANDERSON SILVA (CHAMPION) VS. DAN HENDERSON
Many championship bouts that UFC puts on are designed to draw as many PPV buys from the mainstream audience as possible. Fighters are often matched up without thought being given to actual statistical rankings, mostly because the UFC doesn’t really utilize a statistical ranking system. Typically, you’re going to see championship bouts that will draw the most PPV buys, which is why Tito Ortiz got a shot at Chuck Liddell in late 2006 when there were several others who were far more deserving.
This fight, however, is not one of those fights.
Yes, Dan Henderson was beaten by Light Heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson in the fall of 2007. Henderson still holds the PRIDE Middleweight championship, however, and is considered by many to be one of the best middleweights in the entire world. This is a fight for the hardcore fans, a matchup of two guys many consider to be ranked in the mythical top ten world pound for pound rankings.
Anderson Silva is currently believed to be the top fighter in the world in any weight class. His striking skills, as displayed by his FightMetrics statistics, are without equal. He lands nearly 70% of his blows, while the average fighter’s accuracy stands around 35%. By any measure, he’s a dangerous man, with top-shelf skills standing, in the clinch, on the ground and in the guard. In fact, he may have the most dangerous guard in the entire sport. His clinch is also deadly, as Rich Franklin knows all too well.
Dan Henderson, as mentioned, is the current PRIDE Middleweight champion. He’s also the man who most experts believe has the best chance of anyone in the UFC Middleweight division of unseating Anderson Silva. He’s freakishly strong, even at 185 pounds, and he’s the best wrestler in the UFC. He’s a two time Olympic greco-roman wrestler that also has knockout power in both hands.
Silva’s most lethal move, his Muay Thai clinch, usually proves deadly for opponents (such as Franklin), but Henderson has the strength and wrestling ability to power through it. Silva typically outclasses his opponent in every category, from standing and striking to wrestling and submissions, but Henderson has the edge on the ground in this fight.
In the end, I believe that Henderson’s power and wrestling ability give him an edge in this fight. Typically, I would never predict against Anderson Silva; he’s proven to be a dominant champion, the most dominant in the world at the moment, but he’s never faced anyone with the kind of power, conditioning, rock-hard chin or wrestling skills that Henderson has. In the end, I believe that’s going to be the deciding factor in this fight.
PREDICTION: Dan Henderson by TKO (ground and pound)
HEATH HERRING VS. CHEICK KONGO
This is a fight of two contrasting styles. Kongo is a gifted striker and celebrated kickboxer, and most of Herring’s wins have come on the ground. It’s also a fight of two contrasting story arcs; if Kongo wins this fight decisively, he will likely punch his ticket to a shot at Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera’s heavyweight title later in the year. If Herring loses, there’s a good chance that his UFC days will very nearly be over.
Herring is big, strong and hits very hard, but he also has decent wrestling ability. The only real chance he has to defeat Kongo would be to take the fight to the ground, which is where the weakest part of Kongo’s game lies. If Kongo is able to sprawl and keep the fight standing, he’ll either knock Herring out cold or outstrike him on the way to a three round decision.
PREDICTION: Cheick Kongo (Decision)
YUSHIN OKAMI VS. EVAN TANNER
Evan Tanner is a former UFC middleweight champion, but he’s been away from the octagon for nearly two years. He’s beaten Phil Baroni (twice), David Terrell and Robbie Lawler, but was also soundly defeated by Rich Franklin and David Loiseau. He made his UFC debut in 1999, which makes him a veteran in a sport which is only now starting to receive critical recognition from mainstream sports journalists.
If Tanner doesn’t show up in championship form, he’ll be in for a rough night. Yushin Okami has a reputation as a very boring fighter, but he’s also a formidable opponent. Okami is a southpaw with a great ground and pound and is a highly disciplined fighter, and he’s strong in wrestling and hits very hard. His only hiccup in the UFC was a decision loss to Rich Franklin.
Tanner likes to use leg kicks to set up a takedown, but he’ll have to be cautious if exercising that game plan against Okami. Okami has the ability to control where the fight goes, often wearing down his opponent after a takedown by completely controlling them. Tanner, however, has won 20 of his fights by submission and owns an excellent triangle choke.
I don’t see either one of these guys being able to finish the other. Tanner can submit guys at will, but he’s dealing with a different type of animal in Okami during this fight. Okami, much to the chagrin of the UFC and its fans, is perfectly content to control a fight on the ground and eke out a decision victory, and that’s what I see happening here.
PREDICTION: Yushin Okami (Decision)
CHRIS LEBEN VS. ALLESIO SAKARA
This one has all the makings of Fight Of The Night. Both of these guys love a vicious knockout, and they’ll both be swinging wildly in an attempt to score a huge punch.
Chris Leben has knockout power and a strong chin, and he’s a vastly improved fighter since the time he competed on the first season of the Ultimate Fighter. He’s a very exciting fighter, and his last victory was over Terry Martin at UFC Fight Night 11 in September of 2007.
Allessio Sakara is also an exciting fighter, and this is his first fight in the middleweight division. He’s split his last two fights; in the first, he was destroyed by Houston Alexander in 61 seconds, and he followed that up by defeating James Lee at UFC 80 in January in 90 seconds via TKO. After the Lee fight, Sakara announced that he’d be moving to the middleweight division. He’s a former professional boxer with a very dangerous standup game.
Leben’s strength is in the clinch, and you can expect him to try and keep the gaps between he and Sakara to a minimum. As we saw in his fight against Houston Alexander, Sakara is not great with defense in the clinch, and I believe that’s going to make a difference in this fight. They’ll come out swinging, and then Leben will close the distance, get him in the clinch and finish him. It won’t go past the first round, either.
PREDICTION: Chris Leben (TKO)
JON FITCH VS. CHRIS WILSON
Jon Fitch is one of the most dominant fighters in the welterweight division at the moment, amassing 14 straight victories overall and seven straight in the UFC. In fact, Fitch hasn’t lost in over five years. No other fighter in the world can claim that kind of dominance right now, and a victory over Wilson will almost assuredly guarantee him a title shot at the winner of the Matt Serra/Georges St. Pierre fight next month. He hasn’t faced scrubs, either: his list of victims includes Diego Sanchez, Josh Burkman and Thiago Alves, to name a few. He was originally slated to face Akihiro Gono during this fight, but Gono pulled out on January 19th with a hand injury and Wilson stepped in to take the fight.
Chris Wilson is a newcomer to the UFC. He’s a Team Quest fighter and a very dangerous striker who trains with great wrestlers every day at the Team Quest headquarters. He also happens to maintain a pretty good blog. Wilson did quite a bit of his training for this fight in Big Bear, which means his conditioning should be maxed out despite the short fight notice.
To me, Jon Fitch is one win away from getting a shot at the welterweight championship, and I think that win is going to come this Saturday. Fitch is an amazing wrestler who should be able to take Wilson down (despite Wilson’s training with great wrestlers) and control the fight on the ground. I think Fitch is going to dominate the fight on the ground and submit Wilson, and I think he’ll do it by the end of the second round.
PREDICTION: Jon Fitch (Submission)