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The main event:

WW J. Shields (26-5-1) vs. J. Ellenberger (24-5): -190 for Shields, +155 for Ellenberger. Though Shields comes in the favourite after coming off a loss to the current MW champ (GSP), the recent passing of his father and manager might negatively impact his performance against Ellenberger. This will be a real test of character, as the UFC didn’t throw Shields the proverbial bone by picking Ellenberger, who stopped his rivals 21 times in his last 25 outings before the 15-minute mark. Ellenberger by stoppage in the third. 

MW bout between Court McGee (13-1, TUF 11 winner) and Dongi Yang (10-1): -175 McGee to Yang’s +145. Looks right. McGee’s grappling will make for a quick submission, but he’ll have to dodge Yang’s fists as he gets to the mat first. But he’ll get there.

FW clash between Jonathan Brookins (12-3, TUF 12 winner) and Erik Koch (12-1): -200 Koch, +160 Brookins. A lot of respect shown to Brookins’ grit in those lines, but they reflect fairly accurately the outcome of this exciting tilt. The expected headline in tomorrow’s Sunday MMAJunkie edition reads “TUF winner uses straw for the next few months”. Koch’s striking will prove overwhelming.

The first televised bout will pit MW Alan Belcher (16-6) against Canuck Jason MacDonald (25-14): -300 for Belcher, +220 for MacDonald. This fight might be MacDonald’s last in the promotion. Notwithstanding the fact MacDonald has been put in this situation before, it doesn’t exclude the possibility that this time his number might be up. For real.

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The UFC’s quest for international markets will bear fruit this weekend in Rio de Janeiro’s HSBC Arena when the promotion returns, arguably, to the sport’s birthplace.

Long time MMA fans will recall the UFC wedged an event between its 17th and 18th galas back in 1998, when the banner wasn’t under Zuffa ownership. In lieu of the various brands since developed by the promotional outfit for their VS or Spike offerings, the event came to be referred to as UFC 17.5. For late comers, they’ll get their bearings if they look up the awesome Belfort finish of Wanderlei Silva. That lightning bolt struck in Sao Paulo.

Media coverage and enthusiasm for the mid-sized event (15 000 seat capacity) reached new heights, surfing on the wave of popularity ensuing from Anderson Silva’s now famous front-kick-to-the-face finish over Belfort last February. UFC honchos witnessed firsthand the fever pitch when yesterday’s weigh-ins gathered more fans than most Fight Night shows.

And to add to the frenzy near the Copa, Yushin Okami’s training partner, Chael Sonnen, has recently taken a liking to talking smack about Brasil. Here’s one guy who won’t be taking a tour of the city’s favelas. Ever.

The top three clashes promise to deliver on the hype, two of those expected to afford the fireworks traditionally associated with rematches (Okami v. Silva and Rua v. Griffin).

Odds for the headlining event, featuring the MW champion Anderson Silva (30-4), are unsurprising as the Spider will enter the Octagon the overwhelming favourite (-500) against his Japanese rival (+350). Following Silva’s near-miss against a dominant wrestler such as Sonnen, it appears odds makers forgot about the lanky athlete’s difficulty to stuff takedowns from capable opponents. This could very well be the champion’s biggest test to date, to quote Yogi Bera who paraphrased the larger lady who ends up singing at the conclusion of all worthwhile ordeals. 

Okami (26-5) is a very technically sound fighter who has learned a great deal since losing to Sonnen nearly two years ago. His fights against feted wrestler Mark Munoz and the not-so-shabby Nate Marquardt showed how much potential Okami possesses.

At +350, Okami constitutes a good buying option. Look for him to close the gap on Silva almost as soon as the opening bell rings, relentlessly pushing the pace and looking for takedowns. There is no other strategy to defeat the best pound-for-pound fighter the sport has seen to date.

The HW bout pitting Brendan Schaub (8-1) to BRA legend, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-6-1-1), remains the only fight on the whole card where the BRA fighter isn’t favoured to win. Somewhat justifiably, after losing two decisive bouts to Mir and current HW champ, Cain Velasquez, Big Nog’s stock dropped. He will be entering the cage the underdog +190 against the recently rebranded “legend slayer” that has become Schaub (-240).

Though Nog’s boxing is better than most, his lack of power will be the determining factor in what will likely end in a TKO or KO climax midway through the bout. Watch for a rare silent moment on the card when the crowd favourite gets felled like a tree. Look for the legend’s chances to improve if the fight drags on.  This clash is a likely candidate for either KOTN or FOTN bonuses.

Lastly, LHW Mauricio Rua (19-5) will face Forrest Griffin (18-6) and attempt to eradicate from recent memory last March’s demolition derby-like loss suffered to current LHW champ Jon Jones. Rua will look to reassert his place among the division’s cream of the crop and avenge the loss that marred his UFC debut, against the same Griffin at UFC 76. Lines have him favoured (-230) against Griffin (+180). Unless Shogun isn’t fully healed from previous injuries, the likelihood of witnessing a UD by the BRA fighter is accurately represented in those odds.

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Fans who have brought back all their empties and looking to invest the loot have a few opportunities on the upcoming UFC card offered on cable this Sunday night.

AMA Fight Club protégé, Jim Miller (20-2), will face Benson Henderson (13-2), with a probable #1 LW contender status on the line for Miller. His only two losses were delivered by the division’s current champion and #1 contender, Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, who are scheduled for a rubber match at UFC 136 in October.

For his part, Henderson debuted at UFC 129 with a strong performance against a tough BJJ practitioner, Mark Bocek, resulting in a decisive UD win. Ante WEC/UFC merger, he successfully defeated the WEC’s top competition before losing his LW title to MMA’s 2010 darling, Anthony Pettis.

Miller is the favourite (-160) against Henderson (+130) in what promises to be a very entertaining scrap that could also earn both fighters additional money due to its FOTN potential. The last 48 hours have seen Henderson’s stock rise proportionately to Miller’s fall, Henderson wagers offered at +145 by mid-day Thurs. while sold Miller sold for -175.

Similar to what happened against Charles Oliveira at UFC 124, Miller seems to be snubbed by odds makers. Not to the same extent, as the BRA fighter stepped in the Octagon the favourite against Miller, who was then on an impressive five-win streak in the UFC, compared to Oliveira’s two.

Miller is consistently ranked in the top six in his weight class, while Henderson still needs one more win against a higher-ranked colleague (such as Miller) to enter the select top-10. While it is true that Henderson shows amazing competitiveness due to his remarkable grit and conditioning, his striking is in need of much improvement and when pitted against opponents with respectable take down and/or wrestling skills, he seems at a loss for answers.

Despite the fact he’s the favourite, the smallish advantage afforded to Miller allows for adequate returns for those inclined to pick the Jersey boy as the only wagering option for that card, and a better one for those developing parlays. A UD win by Miller looks very plausible.

The most advantageous odds afforded by the card are the ones offered for the LW bout featuring Donald Cerrone (15-3-1) and Charles Oliveira (14-1-1). The BRA fighter will be entering the Octagon the favourite (-135) against Cerrone (+105). Cerrone is a strong LW who has developed very effective BJJ offense and defense over at Jackson’s camp in New Mexico, something of an asset considering the quality of Oliveira’s jitz.

On paper, Cerrone appears skilled enough to counter Oliveira’s ground assault and strong enough to bring him down and make him carry his weight, exhausting the lanky Brazilian as he pushes the pace. It is possible this bout might resemble a BJJ clinic. Regardless of the form the fight will take, fans will witness an exciting clash with relative significance in terms of impact for the stacked UFC LW division. Look for a UD by Cerrone as the outcome of a gruelling tactical contest for positioning on the mat.

The headlining bout between MW Dan Hardy (23-9-1) and Chris Lytle (30-18-5) also offers good odds for the slight underdog (-110 for Hardy, -120 for Lytle), provided the fight remain a striking match. Lytle has inched his way to become the favourite in this fight, lines having them even at -130 until Thursday.

 Considering Lytle’s “all-in” ethos, this might be Hardy’s chance to get a HL finish under his belt and avenge his three-fight losing streak. Also, it just might keep him employed with the UFC, as dropping three fights in a row usually earns most fighters a pink slip from the promotion’s management.

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Bonus. The word oozes abundance. Who gets awarded something extra and based on what.

Criteria can be found through the categories elaborated by the UFC, consisting of Fight of the Night, KO of the Night and Sub of the Night. Adding to the prestige of the award, the UFC’s decision process is very impressionistic as announcements typically signal the beginning of the post-event press conference, less than one hour after the main event winner has been named. Almost on par with Crufts’ traditional protocol, which bestows a ‘Best in Show’ purse at the famous international championship conformation show for dogs.

So, who are usually considered top dogs? Salary allocations would suggest main card fighters have a better chance to be awarded bonuses, based on ranking and/or genuine willingness to come to fight intensely every time, sometime recklessly. Yoshihiro Akiyama, Chris Leben and Wanderlei Silva have earned bonuses and allowed opponents to get rich at their expense. They might not be the best, but they show very well for the PPV cameras.

So, who struck it rich at 133? Headliners were awarded the $70,000 FOTN bonus, Tito Ortiz mostly fighting for relevance, while Rashad Evans showcased a new beta version. Ortiz, a top 15 LHW, put in a rare sustained offensive performance. Evans seemed openly irked and surprised by Ortiz’ valiant efforts, notably on the ground. Though the original marquee had advertised a LHW championship bout between the new champ Jon Jones and Evans, both Evans and Ortiz turned in spirited performances, treating fans to an exciting non-championship headliner along the way.

The KOTN purse went to MW Vitor Belfort for the blitz-like annihilation of Akiyama. Fans had witnessed his speed before, but the missile that hit Akiyama at 1:38 in the first round will find most certainly a choice home in the BRA fighter’s HL reel. The punch that landed on top of Akiyama’s forehead was so quick that his legs didn’t give way until he backed up a few steps, following through on his unsuccessful attempt to escape Belfort’s oncoming rush. The mauling that ensued sealed the deal to earn him the extra purse.

Illustrating adequately the impressionistic approach to the matter, Brian Ebersole was awarded the first and last “getting those horrifying shorts off TV as soon as possible” bonus by Dana White for defeating his WW rival Dennis Hallman. The veteran donned very, very tight Speedo-like trunks. A leaf would have barely covered more than what Hallman wore last Saturday evening.

That one-off award replaced the usual Submission of the Night award, as no fighter subbed their opponent for the whole card. The organization’s homophobic stance earned Ebersole an additional 70k. Fortunately for Hallman, the ‘story’ is growing at such a pace that the seasoned veteran admitted he’s considering selling the infamous trunks on Ebay to pad his retirement fund, compensating for the fact the attire didn’t leave much room for sponsors.

Lastly, thanks to Ben Fowlkes, this write-up was made considerably more arduous since the budding MMA pundit stole my idea for the angle on the Hallman bit. Damn you Ben and the easiness of doing video. We can’t all benefit from such looks…

Pics courtesy of Esther Lin,

Zuffa’s farm league puts on its biggest show to date on July 30th when two of the sports most storied fighters clash in Strikeforce’s headlining bout. Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko (31-3) will face Dan “Hendo” Henderson (27-8) in a rare fight that will showcase over 25 years of mixed martial arts experience.

The agreement provided fighters to weigh-in around the 220-lb mark, requiring the bout to be sanctioned at HW. During yesterday’s weigh-ins, Henderson tipped the scale one pound over his predicted weight (207), yielding more than 15 pounds to Fedor (223) who benefits from a sizeable weight advantage.

The fight should be very entertaining regardless of the fact it won’t disrupt either LHW or HW standings, nor serve to boost Strikeforce’s increasingly disappointing HW GP by providing a storied alternate to uplift the lacklustre final four remaining. The latest news is that Daniel Cormier will be subbing for the renegade, and derby favourite, Alistair Overeem… a move that surely won’t increase the organization’s fan base.

Lines currently have Fedor the favourite (-260) over Hendo (+200), with a net wager transfer favouring The Last Emperor over the last week, Henderson ceding 20 dollars (+180) to the Russian’s additional 30 (-230). Buying Fedor lines early proved strategic yet again, name recognition among the average fan resulting in money pouring onto him closer to fight time, decreasing returns for later buyers.

This is the first fight in ages where betting on a Fedor match-up remained reasonable. Suffering two straight losses sobers fans up efficiently. The Last Emperor is, after all, another mortal mammal and fans took notice post Werdum and Silva outings. Gone are the days where Fedor walked in a heavy favourite, reaching stratospheric heights with lines, at one point listed at -1000 to Werdum’s +500, and -500 to Big Foot’s +350.

This time around, lines accurately reflect Fedor’s overall advantage, mainly afforded by his stand-up prowess. The man is still very nimble and lands effectively from a variety of angles that keep opponents on their toes. Months ago in an interview where he discussed his upcoming bout against Fedor, Hendo stated he wanted to make the Russian work early on. That could translate into planning on slowing Fedor down by resorting to his wrestling base and make him carry his (lighter) weight on the ground.

Or press him against the cage and clinch the humility out of the humble Russian fellow. Whatever Hendo’s preference, he should use his wrestling and avoid the stalking strategy employed of late, where he relentlessly follows opponents with his right-hand perennially cocked to deliver a Bisping-like, fight-ending KO.

Fedor’s demise was inevitable. He still has amazing talent, but much like in others sports, athletes in heavier weight classes have gotten bigger without compromising much on speed. The vast majority of his peers have embraced cutting edge diets, conditioning programs, diversifying their training styles and partners, etc., The Last Emperor kept his training routine intact. Why change what ain’t broken?

That can hold true for any machine as long as the latest model doesn’t clearly outperforms it. No amount of Stakhanovism on the part of Fedor could have prevented this. How he chose to meet this challenge gives us great insight as to who the legend really is; a gifted fighter with amazing speed that resists change even after clear shortcomings in recent bouts that he ended up winning (Arlovski and Rogers). Safe to assume he prefers Dostoyevsky over Turgenev.

If logic prevails, Fedor pulls out a UD that puts him squarely outside the frame holding the title picture. Empires come and go, but before they vanish, they shrink substantially. Fedor’s stock has taken a serious beating in the past year, and this bout’s outcome will only serve to hold a price destined for a subsequent decline.

Pic by Dave Mandel,

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Too many superlatives have been used to hype tonight’s UFC 129 main event featuring the current UFC WW champion Georges St-Pierre (21-2) and number one contender, Jake Shields (26-4-1).

“Biggest threat yet” sums up the outrageous rhetoric employed to make the already established “biggest show in the promotion’s history” bigger than it already is. Hyperbole? No doubt. Perusing through GSP’s record shows he has been pitted against better and unmistakably more well-round competitors. 

Names, there are plenty. Two victories over BJ Penn, twice over Josh Koscheck, twice over Matt Hughes, Thiago Alves, and Jason Miller. He has fought top competition in his weight class in the most stacked promotion on the planet for the past 5 years; the better part of these spent defending his title.

Shields’ competition has gradually improved to reach second-tier level in rival promotions such as Elite XC and Strikeforce, to name the most recent ones.  While a Strikeforce fighter, the renowned Cesar Gracie BJJ black belt has chalked up an impressive UD win over Dan Henderson and a controversial UD over Jason Miller, both as a MW.

His UFC debut at WW last October was less-than-stellar, earning a split decision win over Martin Kampmann. Fans will recall for the latter fight that Shields’ weight-cutting strategy had caused him to be severely dehydrated, impacting his takedown capacity and, more generally, slowing him down to the point where his grappling, to repeat his forte, appeared completely ineffective.

GSP’s strength, conditioning and skills should have him dictate the pace of this fight at will. Look for him to utilize his four-inch reach advantage over Shields early, establishing a perimeter to ensure he can defend Shield’ inevitable takedowns and enable him to bring the fight to the ground on his own terms. It is equally expected that Shields will have concentrated his efforts during training camp on avoiding looking overly silly immediately after the bell signals the beginning of a round. At best, his boxing is awkward and his Muay Thai on bended knee, begging to be improved.

Beyond the hype, observers will have noticed GSP is the overwhelming favourite (-450) against Shields (+325). Odds enthusiasts who looked at futures for the projected longevity of the fight inevitably grinned as they saw that fans anticipate as the likeliest outcome (+100) a 5-round decision favouring GSP.

Wagering wisdom thus has GSP retaining both of his current titles, those of WW champion and the other one, shared with UFC WW rival John Fitch, that of decision artist par excellence. Odds for early stoppages run from an unlikely (+375) stoppage in the first stanza to a slightly less unlikely stoppage (+275) in the third.

The upshot to this much expected, bordering on uneventful, successful 6th title defense by GSP might be his increasing willingness to consider moving up a weight class and face Anderson Silva, the current UFC MW champion and arguably the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter.  In an interview given to days ago in Toronto, UFC President Dana White said he wouldn’t shy away from holding negotiations with both fighters were they to win their respective scheduled fights. Silva is tentatively set to defend his title against Yushin Okami at UFC 134: Rio. Futures for that fight are trading at (-400) for Silva and (+300) for Okami.

Looking past UFC 134 at a possible fight between the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, current lines favour Silva (-175) over GSP (+145).

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The UFC has taken every opportunity afforded to showcase Canadian fighters during its biggest event in history, held on Canadian soil this Saturday evening. No less than 10 “Beaver” fighters are billed for the 12-bout soirée. Among these, the number one contender in the promotion’s featherweight division (and London ON native), Mark Hominick, is scheduled to fight the current UFC FW champion, Jose Aldo (aka the Smiling Squirrel). 

Hence, this is the tale of an unlikely event in the animal kingdom. But in MMA the smart, right down to the “able to tie one’s shoe” money, is on the Squirrel as he readies to fight the Canadian fighter. The Squirrel is the overwhelming favourite (-600) against the Beaver (+400). These come real close to Fedor-like numbers, preceding his demise…

Both animals have a great work ethic, which translates easily into great conditioning in this case. Incessant storing of foodstuffs and dam building will inevitably have that effect. Both are nimble, with a slight advantage to the Squirrel.

The Beaver (20-8) possesses effective boxing and Muay Thai, though it has privileged boxing over leg kicks and knees of late. He tends to stalk and cuts the Octagon, as experienced boxers do, forcing opponents on their heels into a defensive stance where the industrious Beaver chooses its shots.

Almost clinical in his approach, the Beaver shows a lot of patience and sticks to its game plan. It goes in for the kill once it has seen or smelled blood. Must be them long winters which make for it to be so cautious, with the exception of its last outing against George Roop (TKO win at 1:28 of the first round).

The dam building critter can defend on the mat, but its record against accomplished grapplers shows a blind spot (cf. Grispi and Yahya fights). Knowing the Squirrel possesses great BJJ, though it has shown a marked preference for keeping the fight standing up, it is safe to assume the Beaver will prefer a stand-up battle where speed will be the deciding factor.

The Squirrel (18-1) is a true phenomenon. The word gets used a lot these days, with the meteoric rise of fighters like Jon Jones and Anthony Pettis. Nevertheless, the smiling Squirrel is one of the most exciting and is consistently listed among the top five pound-per-pound fighters in the sport.

With no less than twelve early stoppages by (T)KO, the Squirrel has signed some of these in the most brutal manner, ending bouts via soccer kicks to the head. One wonders if the Squirrel murmurs his favourite call, “Wheeeeee!” as he aims for an invisible net. Were it not so deadly, one would be tempted to describe it as cute.

The Squirrel is a small specimen with an uncanny ability to unleash an amazing amount of pain. Even when it shows mercy to rivals, it manages to inflict near-irreversible damage that a sadistic manager could parlay into a sponsorship. Say, for stretchers. Doubters should look for images of Faber’s leg post-Aldo fight, swollen to the point of not being able to discern joints almost down to his toes.

Hence, the Squirrel has killer leg kicks but equally devastating flying knees. When it takes flight with its knee cocked, the Squirrel can almost behead other animals, as witnessed against Cub Swanson when it nearly fractured the small bear’s skull with an impeccably timed assault that saw Swanson immediately brace his head with both hands and drop to his knees. All that viciousness within the first 8 seconds of the first stanza.

Rumour has it that Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are expecting their first kit any day. If comfort allows, the missus wishes to attend the April 30th show in TO. For health reasons, their family veterinarian might want to prevent that, stress-induced labour never listed among recommended practices.

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Zuffa’s recent acquisition of Strikeforce didn’t change much in business practices over at the San Jose-based promotion. Judging by the advertising, or lack thereof, surrounding the April 9th bout between reigning Strikeforce WW champion Nick Diaz and MMA’s enfant terrible Paul Daley, word of mouth still appears to be the preferred, if not default, marketing strategy underlying the promotion’s activities. Business as usual, as the now legendary saying goes… 

And ‘tis a shame. The headlining championship bout between two of the sports’ most notorious bad boys could have been amped much more effectively, provided a bit of willingness on the part of Zuffa. It is plausible Zuffa might also be pulling a classic corporate passive-aggressive move, taking into account both fighters’ history with the MMA giant[1].

It is also safe to presume the UFC will not surprise everyone by delaying to institute Fight Night bonuses. Though Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker will eventually have his wish come true, odds are Zuffa is not in a hurry to enact that standard business practice. Again, at least for that card. Call it cauterizing a wound.

Beyond its politics, the fight is expected to deliver fireworks. Diaz, the current champion, will be entering the Octagon the favourite (-220) over his English rival, Daley (+175). ‘Semtex’ Daley (27-9-2) has brutal KO power. The Californian bad boy (24-7, 1 no contest) always delivers exciting performances, whether on the ground or standing up, relying on short shots that eventually take their toll on his opponents. Or at the very least, softens them enough to have the fight go the ground where he uses his BJJ skills to submit them.

Daley gives the impression of being an amazingly powerful one-trick pony, experiencing difficulties when paired against wrestlers and other grapplers. This time around that might not constitute his downfall, barring the fight drags on passed the initial two rounds. If the fight reaches round three, the champion’s odds of winning will increase exponentially, his conditioning outclassing Daley’s and most other MMA athletes.

Diaz, a Cesar Gracie-trained BJJ black belt, is heavily favoured when and if the fight hits the ground. Getting there might prove difficult. He hasn’t improved his wrestling abilities that much. His take-downs are sub-par and pitted against a physically stronger opponent, such as Daley, throws seem improbable.

Diaz has never faced an opponent that hits as hard as the Englishman. As shown during his last outing, his tendency to keep a very low guard makes for an easy target. Santos nailed him with a few good strikes that made him look groggy. Had they been thrown by Daley, it is likely Diaz wouldn’t have made it past the first round in that fight. The champ benefits from having a good chin, but he has never been on the receiving end of Daley’s torque. Nor has he come close to experiencing something similar. 

Daley’s odds give a good indication as to the most popular scenario chosen, that of a fight not expected to go the distance. This will be Daley’s first ever venture into championships rounds, hence for such odds (+175) to be given and hold, lines reflect his ability to win before the allocated time. It doesn’t seem to reflect much the fact that out of Daley’s nine losses, more than half were by submissions. For those lines to hold against a Cesar Gracie student whose hobbies include triathlons…

Past the initial exuberance of those lines, they manage to offer a good return. Lines for Diaz are much more cautious. Blue chips have their price.

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Pictures courtesy of (Dave Mandel)

[1] Daley sucker punching Koscheck after his UD defeat in Montreal in May 2010, prompting UFC management to ban him from the promotion. Diaz is his own man, and his antics in and around the Octagon have (also) irked UFC management for a while.

Stars aligned propitiously for Jon ‘Bones’ Jones on February 5. His horoscope must have read like an oracular zeppelin that day. Before his modified guillotine choke win over TUF 8 winner and decorated wrestler, Ryan Bader, Jones (12-1) was believed to be within a few fights of a championship opportunity. In the MMA promotion possessing the deepest pool of LHW fighters, no less.

Then, hours before the gifted LHW fighter schooled Bader at UFC 126, two events converged to add to Jones’ eventful day. It was reported that the top LHW contender scheduled to face the champion, Mauricio Rua (19-4), had sustained an injury forcing him off the March 19th card. It was expected that Rashad Evans’ strained ligament would keep him on the disabled list for six to eight weeks.

Faced with the possibility of delaying a much anticipated championship bout, the UFC quickly contacted Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson to offer him that opportunity. Jackson (31-8) was the logical default stand-in for Evans, having won against the former LHW champion Lyoto Machida last November at UFC 123.

Citing a lack of prep time, Jackson readily declined the offer. Had he accepted he would have halved his training camp from 12 to six weeks, something the notorious brawler couldn’t afford in light of the high stakes.  Plan B kicked in at that point. Dana White pitched to Rua and his camp the idea of fighting Jones, were he to defeat Bader in the imminent bout. Literally minutes before Jones’ entrance in the Octagon, Rua and his posse agreed to that possible matchup.

In the post-fight interview immediately following his win, Jones fell to his knees upon being informed of the promotion’s plans for March 19th.The rather reserved athlete embraced the challenge and rose back to his feet with a spirited “Let’s do this baby!”, cheered on by the unsuspecting fans in attendance.

The blogosphere was ablaze. Who of Rua or Jones would open as the fight favourite? Betting futures had been heavily favourable to Jones since his second win against Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94, but the size of the challenge afforded until now had never been as high. Surely, being a Pride legend, the current UFC LHW champion, and known as an all-around badass, would cause odd makers to deliberate very cautiously on the value of Mauricio Rua with respect to their initial odds.

The next day, MMAjunkie was the first outlet to take the plunge and declared Jones the favourite (-150) early in the afternoon. Rua, the slight underdog, was valued at +120. From that moment on, money started pouring in on Jones’ lines. A few weeks prior to the event, Jones’ odds currently stand at -210, while Rua’s chances have narrowed down to +165.

Interestingly, money has flowed faster on Jones’ line than out of Rua’s, connoting that fans are wagering on their favourite with confidence, few electing to off-set their possible loss. The widening margin separating the two fighters’ chances can’t merely be rationalized by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response received from Jones’ thriving fan base.

Although Jones’ brand has drastically increased its reach with every spectacular outing since his debut back at UFC 87, his physical prowess and fighting pedigree render him a formidable opponent for anybody at 205. Of note, Jones will enjoy an unfathomable reach advantage exceeding 8 inches when he steps in to fight Rua two weeks from now.

Still, Jones’ fans face a few nagging questions as their great LHW hope readies for his biggest challenge yet. Will his wrestling suffice to neutralize Rua’s effective BJJ? Will his conditioning allow him to compete for twenty-five minutes, if needed? Will Rua’s leg kicks diminish Jones’ ability to throw his unorthodox strikes and kicks from his customary low and wide stance? Can he take a solid punch?

More importantly, will the 23-yr old phenom fold under the pressure? After the much-touted and short-lived “Machida era” that was expected to frame the UFC’s LHW division for years to come, will Jones deliver on all the promise invested in him?

Two weeks prior to that fight, popular wisdom has him winning. Vox Populi, Vox Dei? Jones might not be walking on water yet, but judging by Rua’s receding lines, marginal betters might want to heed that advice. His unpredictable fighting style is really tough to counter. Who knows, MMA’s newest Christ-like figure might just sport boots and walk on a frozen surface.

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Picture courtesy of Dave Mandel,

Saturday’s UFC 127 main card provides two good opportunities for those inclined to wager, or accept beer as payment for picking winners. Both the headlining WW clash pitting BJ Penn to John Fitch and its lead –up MW bout opposing Michael Bisping to Jorge Rivera offer interesting returns for the risk incurred. 

To begin with the blue chip purchase, the WW-fight-that-looks-like-a-top-contender-fight-but-that-isn’t-oh-wait-it-might-be between Penn (16-7) and Fitch (23-3). Fitch will enter the Octagon the favourite (-210) against the Hawaiian prodigy (+165). Lines for the former LW champion have slightly receded in the past 24 hours, stabilizing at +160 for a while before yesterday’s move to 165.

Fitch’s specs are well known, possessing an impressive wrestling base, paralleled by his work ethic and conditioning. He’s also an improving boxer. He’s fought everybody in the division and triumphed, with the exception of his loss to GSP. When he triumphed, he did so with amazing regularity by way of decision, earning his nickname “The Decision” and that record (10) in the UFC along the way.

His reputation aside, he manages to win with a measure similar to that of a metronome. Fitch’s unrelenting style should see Penn pushed to his limit, the wrestler using his weight advantage to suffocate his opponent, as GSP did against Penn two years ago at UFC 94. Even though he’ll enjoy a 4-inch reach advantage over his rival, Fitch’s boxing is nowhere near Penn’s. Fitch’s game plan will consist in taking down the notoriously nimble Hawaiian, dodging Penn’s knees as he attempts to wear him down.

Penn’s recent consecutive losses to Frankie Edgar shouldn’t indicate he’s emulating Fedor and exiting MMA’s main stage. Penn arguably still possesses the best boxing talent in MMA, his takedown defense is excellent and his BJJ is remarkable. A lot of hyperbole still surrounds the former champ.

On the other hand, his determination, mirroring his conditioning, is inconsistent. In addition, Penn will be walking into the cage conceding about 13 pounds to his opponent. Knowing his opponent’s fighting pace and style, Penn should have a difficult time trying to keep the tussle a striking affair. To state the obvious, constantly defending takedown attempts is exhausting. Hence, this match-up doesn’t appear to be the most suited for his style. Fitch is thus expected to extend his winning streak and earn a telegraphed unanimous decision over Penn. At -210, Fitch is a real bargain against Penn.

Fitch’s recent foray into social media, coinciding around the same time Dana White stated the perpetual WW contender had a hard time connecting with fans, should enable him to manage his delicate brand. Look for him to redouble his efforts to explain this 11th variation on the same theme in the days following the Australian event.

The other favourable wager on the main card pits MW comeback-kid Jorge Rivera (18-7) to Michael Bisping (20-3). The Brit is the heavy favourite (-375) against Rivera (+275), though the one-sided support is difficult to fully understand.

Rivera’s skillset isn’t the most elaborate on paper. He uses his right hand very effectively, has improved his conditioning and possesses a decent clinch game. His BJJ enables him to offer offense when on his back. The fact remains, he prefers to brawl and reacts well to charging opponents.

One thing that is frequently overlooked is that he has fought a who’s who of MMA, including Martin Kampmann, Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin. Thus, Rivera has seen better opposition than Bisping in the past.

Among Bisping’s advantages can be counted his improved striking power and footwork, specifically since the Dan Henderson debacle at UFC 100 in July 2009. His conditioning is also constant and he’s effective at neutralizing his opponents on the ground. He has no real offensive grappling ability to speak of, similar to his other prominent Wolfslair colleagues, namely Quinton Jackson and Cheik Congo.

Lines on this one offer a bigger return seemingly due to the fact odd makers have forgotten about Rivera’s experience. His style should prove difficult for Bisping to counter, as he’ll push forward and attempt to derail Bisping’s game plan, consisting of keeping a safe distance from the Boston brawler’s striking range. Odds that Rivera wins a unanimous decision shouldn’t be that undervalued at any rate.

Though guaranteeing a win for Rivera is not advisable, MMA fans should unquestionably nominate his trash-talking leading to the clash in the “best smack uttered” category for 2011.

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Pictures courtesy of (2nd by Daniel Herbertson)