UFC 128 Preview & Predictions

Urijah Faber UFC

Urijah Faber

Previewing tonight’s big UFC 128 card in Newark

Lost in the excitement of the UFC’s impending debut in Toronto and the series of high-profile match-ups scheduled for the spring and summer, UFC 128 might be the best card from top-to-bottom that we’ve seen in some time.

All 12 of the bouts scheduled for Saturday night at the Prudential Center are even affairs, contests where you could reasonably see each competitor coming away with the win. That doesn’t happen very often.

In addition to potentially delivering the next #1 contender in both the lightweight and bantamweight divisions, UFC 128 has the potential to be a historic event, depending on the outcome of the fight that tops the marquee.

After bringing “The Machida Era” to an end just over a year after it began, light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua puts his title on the line against Jon “Bones” Jones, a fighter many believe is destined for a lengthy reign as one of the best in the sport. Will this be the night that Jones ascends to the throne as the ruler of the 205-pound division or will Rua defend his crown and remind everyone that the division is already under his rule?

My thoughts and prayers go out to Yoshihiro Akiyama, his family, and everyone dealing with the devastation of last week’s earthquake.

Nick Catone (8-2-0) vs. Constantinos Philippou (7-1-0)

After original opponent Dan Miller climbed up the card as a late replacement for the withdrawn Yoshihiro Akiyama, New Jersey native Catone will now face former TUF 11 hopeful Philippou in the night’s opening bout instead. The contest will be fought at a catchweight of 195-pounds.

Catone kept his job with the UFC by defeating Jesse Forbes at Fight Night 20 back in January 2010, but has been dealing with a lingering back injury since. Finally healthy, he gets the chance to fight in front of his hometown fans on the biggest stage of them all for the first time. While the shift in opponents changes the gameplan and preparation, at this late stage, the real work is already done and, truth be told, Philippou is a much more favorable foe than Miller.

Fans of Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter will remember Philippou from the elimination round of the show, where he was upset by Jospeh Henle. A product of the Matt Serra-Ray Longo team in New York, Philippou has rattled off seven-straight wins since losing his pro debut to UFC light heavyweight Ricardo Romero. The last time a Serra-Longo fighter took a UFC opportunity on short notice, Chris Weidman upset Alessio Sakara, a win that should give his teammate Philippou some added confident heading into this one.

Eric Koch (11-1-0) vs. Rafael Assuncao (16-3-0)

The fact that this kind of high-caliber featherweight fight comes as the second fight on this card shows just how impressive the line-up is for UFC 128.

Koch is a fast-rising prospect, a product of the Roufusport Gym in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that has produced Pat Barry and Anthony Pettis in recent years. Like his lightweight training partner, Koch is a well-rounded fighter whose skills seem to improve by leaps and bounds every time he takes to the cage. The lone loss on Koch’s record came at the hands and wrestling ability of current #1 contender Chad Mendes, and his first round, highlight reel finishes of Francisco River and Bendy Casimir show that “New Breed” belongs in the discussion of 145-pound fighters to watch.

While Koch is one to keep an eye on moving forward, Assuncao is a proven commodity; a perennial top 20 competitor who has only ever lost to the division’s elite. An outstanding grappler with good hands, Assuncao staved off a three-fight losing streak by defeating LC Davis in his final WEC appearance, and is a big step up in competition for his young opponent. Having competed against the likes of former champions Urijah Faber and Jeff Curran, as well as current contender Diego Nunes, the Brazilian has the experience and all-around skills to hand Koch a second career loss.

Joseph Benavidez (13-2-0) vs. Ian Loveland (14-7-0)

While I think it’s a shame that the #2-ranked bantamweight in the world is relegated to one of the two unaired preliminary fights on the card, it only furthers the argument that this card is stacked. Oh, and it serves as motivation for Benavidez as well.

The Team Alpha Male standout and creator of Joe Jitsu intends on making his way into the broadcast portion of the UFC 128 programming by quickly finishing Loveland in his UFC debut. Benavidez is currently stuck in “The Rich Franklin Zone,” having twice lost to divisional champion Dominick Cruz and needing to put together an impressive win streak if he wants to get a third crack at becoming the division’s best.

For Loveland, this is an opportunity to put himself on the map. A victory over Tyler Toner in his UFC debut should have shaken the jitters out of his system, but facing Benavidez is a big step up in competition. The 27-year-old Team Quest product has put together a solid seven-fight winning streak heading into this bout, but has yet to face a fighter as talented as Benavidez.

For the MMA mathletes out there, Loveland dropped a 2007 IFL fight to Wagnney Fabiano in just 59 seconds, while Benavidez defeated the Brazilian by second-round submission in his most recent outing.

Kurt Pellegrino (16-5-0) vs. Gleison Tibau (21-7-0)

After having major knee surgery following his UFC 121 loss to George Sotiropoulos, New Jersey native Pellegrino makes his return to the cage in front of his hometown in this one.

A fighter who is always on the fringes of contending in the lightweight division, the 31-year-old Pellegrino’s black belt pedigree often takes a backseat to his overall scrappiness in the cage when guys like me break down his game. The truth of the matter is that Pellegrino is a BJJ standout who earned a come-from-behind submission win the last time the UFC ventured to New Jersey, and he’ll look to repeat that feat against the tough Tibau in this one.

This will be the 13th time Tibau has competed inside the Octagon, a testament to his competitiveness in the always dangerous lightweight division. A massive man for the 155-pound ranks, the 27-year-old Brazilain relies on his tremendous takedowns and brute strength to bully opponents inside the cage. He’s faced some of the division’s elite over the years, and while he’s come out on the losing end of those struggles more often than naught, Tibau remains a threat to topple anyone in the lightweight ranks on any given night.

This bout will be aired as the first of two fights available via the UFC Facebook page.

Ricardo Almeida (13-4-0) vs. Mike Pyle (20-7-1)

Not to belabor the “how stacked is this card?” point, but a fight like this is more than capable of serving as the kick-off to a pay-per-view broadcast or at the top end of a Fight Night card on Spike or Versus. But here it is, resting in the second position on the Facebook stream, the fourth fight of the night. Awesome.

Almedia comes into this fight off an uneventful unanimous decision win over TJ Grant at UFC 124, a bout that put him back in the win column after his surprising first-round submission loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 117. The BJJ standout is 2-1 since making the move to welterweight, having defeated Matt Brown in his debut when the UFC last touched down in New Jersey.

After upsetting rising welterweight prospect John Hathaway in his own backyard last October, Pyle has a change to add a third-straight win to his resume and keep climbing the 170-pound ranks here. While his training partners have always raved about his performance in the gym, Pyle hadn’t been able to put it all together on a consistent basis inside the Octagon, but that appears to be changing.

This is a pivotal bout for both fighters. A win for Almedia removes all the doubts that creeped into the conversation following his loss to Hughes, while a loss leaves him 2-2 and “0’fer” against better-than-average welterweight competition. For Pyle, this is a chance to show that he has taken the next step and become the viable contender many have long expected him to become.

Edson Barboza (7-0-0) vs. Anthony Njokuani (13-4-0)

Barboza’s debut in the UFC went largely unnoticed by most fans, which is why he’s getting prime real estate on the Spike TV Prelims Live broadcast this time around.

The 24-year-old Brazilian is a legitimate prospect in the lightweight division, having won all seven of his bouts by stoppage, only twice needing more than one round to finish his foe. Back in November, Barboza chopped down late replacement Mike Lullo with an onslaught of leg kicks, his second win in a row as a result of his vicious Muay Thai attack.

A pairing with Njokuani has the potential to produce fireworks, as the Nigerian-born kickboxer likes to stand and deliver as well. Prior to hitting a rough patch in the middle of 2010, Njokuani had collected three-straight Knockout of the Night awards under the WEC banner, an indication of his striking talents if ever there was one. He rebounded from a two-fight losing streak with a win in his final WEC appearance, and has the chance to make a splash in his UFC debut in the opening bout on Spike.

Luiz Cane (10-3-0) vs. Eliot Marshall (10-2-0)

It’s funny the difference a year makes.

This time last year, Cane was in just about everyone’s top 20 in the light heavyweight division, and Marshall had emerged from TUF 9 to put together a three-fight winning streak inside the Octagon. A year later, Cane is battling for his job, looking to stave off a three-fight losing streak and Marshall is returning from to the UFC as a last minute replacement for Karlos Vemola.

Cane rose in the rankings with a second-round TKO of Sokoudjou at UFC 88, a scenario that seems almost laughable now, considering the African judoka’s precipitous fall from contender status. While he followed it up with a win over former WEC light heavyweight champ Steve Cantwell, loses to Rogerio Nogueira and Cyrille Diabate have him on the cusp of being out of the 205-pound picture entirely.

Despite posting a 3-1 record through his first four UFC appearances, Marshall was released after a split decision loss to Vladimir Matyushenko last March. Marshall has made the most of his time away from the sport’s premier organization, earning a trio of victories since being released. Answering the injury replacement call gives him the chance to return to the win column in the UFC and resume fighting at the highest level.

I wonder where each will be this time next year?

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