Matt Mitrione (4-0) vs. Christian Morecraft (7-1)
It may sound crazy to some, but the winner of this fight climbs to the fringes of contention in the UFC heavyweight division. While they won’t be alongside Junior dos Santos or Frank Mir, they’ll at least be in Ben Rothwell/Dave Herman territory, which could make for an entertaining fight or two.
Morecraft has shown good hands and great potential in his two trips into the Octagon. He dominated Sean McCorkle last time out, choking “Big Sexy” unconscious at Fight Night 24 in Seattle. It was a solid rebound win after being knocked out by Stefan Struve seven months earlier.
The loss to Struve contained positives as well. Morecraft had the lanky Dutchman on the ropes in the first, catching him with a couple power shots and working frantically to finish. He came up short, but it was a glimpse into what could be in store for Mitrione here and what to expect from Morecraft in the future.
Say what you will about Mitrione, the former NFL defensive lineman turned TUF 10 cast member, but give the man his due. Since coming off the Spike TV staple, “Meathead” has won all four of his fights and shown continued development each time. He is a natural athlete, and far more talented in the cage than many give him credit for, and has the potential to develop into a dark horse contender by the end of the year.
Matt Brown (11-10) vs. John Howard (14-6)
This is the first time in a long time I can remember having a potential “loser leaves town” match on the main card of a UFC event.
Both fighters come in on losing streaks; Howard’s sits at two, while Brown does him one better — or worse, depending on how you want to look at it. That puts both fighters in a corner, desperate for a win, and has them each predicting an epic encounter on Sunday night.
After winning four straight to start his UFC career, Howard dropped back-to-back bouts to Jake Ellenberger and Thiago Alves. While losses to top 15 welterweights is somewhat excusable, Howard hasn’t ever dominated in his four wins, and needs to do so here. Howard was beaten to the punch in each of his last two outings, a dubious sign considering the stout Massachusetts native is known as a striker.
Brown is in even more serious jeopardy, having been submitted in three consecutive bouts. He should have to worry about that here, but he needs to show the toughness and heart that made him a cult hero during Season 7 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Normally, being the guy who gets bumped up the card and does the UFC a favor helps, but with Brown’s track record of late, I don’t think that is the case here. There are too many fighters to give a guy with four straight losses another shot, so Brown needs to end his winless drought here or he’s going to find himself on the outside looking in.
Cheick Kongo (15-6-1) vs. Pat Barry (6-2)
Pat Barry might be the most popular fighter with a 3-2 record in the Octagon to ever live. I completely understand why that is the case – Barry’s hilarious — but the time has come for the charismatic kickboxer to prove that he’s capable of rising above the middle of the pack.
You can argue away his loss to Mirko Cro Cop at UFC 115; Barry broke both his hand and his foot in that fight. But then you realize that he’s the lone win in Tim Hague’s otherwise unsuccessful stints with the organization, and you see the reason for concern. Barry has shown no semblance of a ground game, and while he may not have to do so here, Kongo is still his toughest test yet.
There is reason for optimism. Barry has been training extensively with the DeathClutch team of late, and nothing teaches you how to be comfortable on the ground than going head-to-head with a pack of heavyweight wrestlers every day.
Kongo is a much more proven commodity. He’s solid, but unspectacular; he’s the quintessential lower-end gatekeeper for the heavyweight division.
After battling Travis Browne to a draw at UFC 120, which came about after Kongo lost a point in the third, the French kickboxer had surgery to repair lingering issues with his back. Barry is a hard to handle at optimum health, so it will be interesting to see how Kongo looks after eight months away from the cage and coming off surgery.
The winner of this one puts themselves a notch about the Morecraft-Mitrione winner; somewhere closer to Nelson and Mir, but not quite there, if that makes any sense.
Nate Marquardt (31-10) vs. Rick Story (13-3)
If this fight were a Black Eyed Peas song, it would have to be “I Just Can’t get Enough,” at least for me. Yes, that just happened.
While I was already excited to see Marquardt’s debut at welterweight, the fact that he’s now facing Story seriously ups the ante. Nothing against Anthony Johnson, but his fight with Dan Hardy was underwhelming, while Story’s win over Thiago Alves last month made me a fan.
After a number of years spent near the top of the 185 pound rankings, Marquardt says he’s moving down because it feels like a more natural fit for him. I call shenanigans, but still accept the decision since he has a different set of skills than many of the elite contenders in the welterweight ranks.
What makes this fight even more cooler is that Story has the kind of approach that has been poisonous to Marquardt in the past. Chael Sonnen dominated him with a heavy top game and decent hands, so there is nothing to say Story couldn’t do the same here; if anything, his performance against Alves makes it all the more likely.
This one also piques my interest because there is a possibility that whoever emerges victorious could end up challenging Georges St. Pierre once he’s done with Nick Diaz. Yes, GSP is going to beat Nick Diaz. Accept it now.
For Story it would further the Cinderella run he’s been on, while a win for Marquardt would bring another awkward teammate vs. teammate fight featuring the Jackson camp come to a head.
Even without the potential shorelines, this is a solid welterweight tilt and a deserving moment in the spotlight for Story. Now we’ll just have to see if Marquardt makes the memory of his first UFC main event a painful one.