Brian Stann (10-3-0) vs. Jorge Santiago (23-8-0)
This is a fight I’ve been waiting to see since it was announced back in February.
A former WEC light heavyweight champion, Stann has earned back-to-back impressive wins since making the move to middleweight, knocking out notoriously hard-headed Chris Leben in his last trip to the cage on New Year’s Day. That win followed a third round submission of Mike Massenzio and continued to show the development of Stann’s skills inside the cage.
A life-lomng athlete and competitor, Stann has the athleticism to excel, and his decorated military background provides him with the structure and framework to focus on what needs to be done and not stop working until the goal is reached. The daily grind of going to the gym and drilling the same techniques is nothing new to Stann, and that will only help him continue to get better.
While Santiago has been in the UFC before, the man who will stand opposite Stann on Saturday night is not the same fighter who last competed inside the Octagon at Fight Night 7 in December 2006.
Since losing back-to-back bouts to Leben and Alan Belcher and being released by the UFC, Santiago has developed into one of the best middleweights in the world, going 11-1 while holding the Sengoku middleweight title and earning Fight of the Year for his second fight with Kazuo Misaki in August 2010.
Santiago has finished all but one of his fights since departing the UFC; he earned a unanimous decision win to avenge a prior loss to Mamed Khalidov at Sengoku 12. Equally dangerous standing and on the ground, the former American Top Team member believes he has the talent to beat Anderson Silva one day hold the UFC middleweight title, and welcomes the opportunity to show North American fans how much he’s improved since he last fought in North America.
With the middleweight division lacking top end opposition that Silva hasn’t already beaten, the winner of this contest could find themselves closing in on a title shot. While I don’t see this as a title eliminator, this fight is definitely a step in the right direction for both men, and should earn the winner a high profile fight later this year.
Thiago Alves (18-7-0) vs. Rick Story (12-3-0)
With Edgar-Maynard 3 falling victim to injury, Alves and Story make the move from Spike TV to the pay-per-view broadcast.
See what I mean about this card having been stacked and remaining pretty solid? When’s the last time Alves didn’t fight on PPV?
Despite the fact that he had no problem making weight and thoroughly dominated John Howard in his last appearance, there are still those who remain skeptical of Alves.
At his best, the American Top Team standout is a perennial title contender and mainstay in the top 5 of the welterweight division; a devastating striker with the size and strength of a middleweight. Unfortunately for Alves, his successes are not as well remembered as his failures, both on the scale and in the cage.
He’s dogged by missing weight against Matt Hughes and Jon Fitch, and though he’s only lost twice in the past four years, those losses to Fitch and Georges St. Pierre have left Alves unable to climb above #3 in the welterweight rankings. Don’t expect Alves to miss weight this time, but do bank on seeing a very determined “Pitbull” walk into the cage on Saturday night.
This is a golden opportunity for Story, a grinder who has predominantly used his wrestling to carry him to five-straight wins inside the Octagon. Alves is by far the biggest test of the Brave Legion fighter’s career, and a win would certainly push him to new heights. While Story enters the bout as the underdog, he has the skills to pull off the upset.
Over his last two fights, Story has shown continued growth and evolution. After earning a pair of tight split decision wins over Jesse Lennox and Nick Osipczak, the 26-year-old dropped Dustin Hazelett at UFC 117 and followed it up with a unanimous decision win over Johny Hendricks at the Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale in December. Combine those performances with his impressive arm triangle choke win over Bria Foster from UFC 103 and you see that Story has the potential to be a complete threat in the welterweight division.
Every young fighter and future contender needs their breakthrough fight, and this could be Story’s moment. Alves is a known commodity within the welterweight ranks, and an upset win is just the ticket to take Story from developing prospect to bona fide contender in just one fight.
Stefan Struve (21-4-0) vs. Travis Browne (10-0-1)
While Struve and Browne may not be the biggest names in the heavyweight division, do not use this fight as your bathroom break. Both fighters have serious knockout power and prefer to go toe-to-toe, so you might want to make sure you catch this one.
Browne escaped UFC 120 with his undefeated streak still intact thanks to Cheick Kongo’s insistence on grabbing his shorts. The massive French kickboxer lost a point and cost himself the win in the process, as he had won the second and third rounds by all accounts. That being said, Browne lived to fight another day and has the power to put another tick in the win column at any time.
The Alliance MMA trainee made very quick work of James McSweeney in his UFC debut, and took the opening round from Kongo before fading back in October. Though he’ll be the smaller of the two competitors in the cage this time around, Browne is a mountain of a man himself, something that should come in handy against his lanky Dutch opponent.
To be successful here, Browne needs to turn this into a grimy battle along the fence and on the ground. If given space, Struve has the ability to finish on his feet and off his back, so Browne should look to keep close and do all kinds of dirty work inside.
The future is exceptionally bright for Struve; a championship run somewhere down the line is not out of the question. Though he’s just 23-years-old. Struve has already racked up 25 professional MMA fights, including a 5-2 record inside the Octagon, and there is a lot to like about what he brings to the table.
At 6’11” with an 83″ reach, Struve presents a host of problems with his size alone. In addition to being able to keep opponents at the end of a lengthy jab or space-creating push kick, Struve has serious knockout power, as he showed against Christian Morecraft and Sean McCorkle. On top of that, he has above average jiu jitsu; two-thirds of his victories have come by way of submission.
Interesting anecdote: Struve also holds a win as a result of his opponent being disqualified for fish-hooking; that’s awesome.
What puts Struve ahead of most other heavyweight prospects is his heart and ability to take punishment and keep coming. He was a bloody mess in the opening round of his UFC 99 victory over Denis Stojnic, a massive gash on his head giving him a crimson mask, and Morecraft had him on the ropes early in their battle before Struve rebounded with a massive right hand early in the second.
His youthful exuberance and willingness to take punishment has proven to be his downfall in the past, as both Roy Nelson and Junior dos Santos took advantage of Struve’s desire to trade punches and laid him out. Browne doesn’t quite have JDS power or boxing acumen, but he’s got the hands to end a fight in a hurry, so Struve will need to be a little more careful this time around.
Somehow, I doubt that will happen, which is why I told you up-front not to leave your seat when these two hit the cage.
Frank Mir (14-5-0) vs. Roy Nelson (15-5-0)
Do you ever get the feeling that you’re about to watch something that dispels a bunch of beliefs a lot of people hold true? That’s the feeling I get when it comes to this fight.
A former two-time UFC heavyweight champion, a lot of people describe Mir as the best jiu jitsu practitioner in the big boy division, and see him as having the edge in the stand-up department heading into this fight. Personally, I’m not sold, and that’s why I’m so interested in this contest.
I know that a grappling competition and jiu jitsu inside the Octagon are two different things, but Nelson got the best of his fellow Las Vegas lifer back in the day at a Grapppler’s Quest tournament, and I can’t shake that from my memory. Two other things jump out at me here:
1. It’s not like there is a laundry list of elite grapplers in the heavyweight ranks, so the competition for the title of the best of the bunch really comes down to Nelson, a rapidly aging Rodrigo Nogueira and the aforementioned Stefan Struve.
2. Is submitting Antoni Hardonk and Cheick Kongo really that big of a deal? As nice as Mir’s kneebar on Brock Lesnar was, he got smashed by the mammoth heavyweight prior to that and again in the rematch, so I call it a wash. Plus, a BJJ black belt and former heavyweight champion submitting an MMA neophyte shouldn’t be that unexpected.
In the striking department, I’ll give Mir credit for rounding out his skill set. He’s looked much better in the stand-up department over the last two-plus years, but Nelson has proven he too has power in his hands, as well as the ability to hang in there and take a punch. When it comes to the latter, Mir can’t rightfully say the same.
Mir’s late knockout of Mirko Cro Cop at UFC 119 can be countered by Nelson’s one-punch knockout of Struve at Ultimate Fight Night 21, his beatdown of Nogueira weighed against Nelson’s TUF 10-winning blasting of Brendan Schaub. Meanwhile, while Mir wilted under the force of numerous bombs from Lesnar and Shane Carwin, Nelson took three rounds of punishment from Junior dos Santos – on a blown-out knee no less – and kept smiling.
Of course, he also got starched by Andrei Arlovski prior to moving to the UFC, so maybe I’m just looking at Nelson in a favorable light.
Either way, this fight will confirm which of these two is truly the better man inside the cage, and position the winner in the thick of the heavyweight title hunt.
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (31-8-0) vs. Matt Hamill (10-2-0)
As with every “Rampage” fight in recent memory, everything about this contest hinges on which version of the former light heavyweight champion shows up on Saturday night. Actually, we’ll know on Friday afternoon when he steps on the scale.
If Jackson is in shape, on weight and focused, Hamill’s first trip to the main event could become a very bad memory. For all the grief Jackson takes and all the doubters, myself included, who wait with trepidation for an unmotivated Jackson to walk onto the stage at the weigh-ins, he’s lost just twice in nearly five years; once after more than a year away from the cage, and the other being a debatable decision that cost him the 205-pound title.
He was the first man to hold both UFC and Pride belts simultaneously, unifying the straps by beating Dan Henderson at UFC 75 prior to Anderson Silva doing the same six months later. He holds a pair of wins over Chuck Liddell, avenged two previous losses to Wanderlei Silva in dramatic fashion and has been a top 10 light heavyweight for the better part of the last decade. Jackson is a tremendous talent, and that deserves to be said more often. It also makes me nervous for Hamill.
As successful as the former TUF 3 standout has been, he hasn’t done very well when asked to take the next step. Even if you dispute his loss to Michael Bisping as a bad decision and count Hamill as the victor, his DQ win over Jon Jones has the opposite impact. Though he survived into the third round with Rich Franklin, Hamill was behind on the scorecards before “Ace” dropped him with a kick to the liver.
While his wins over Tito Ortiz and Keith Jardine were solid victories, and his headkick knockout of Mark Munoz at UFC 96 was impressive, Hamill appears to be best suited for a gatekeeper role, not elite status.
He could prove me and a lot of other people wrong with a victory here.