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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
The UFC's historic return to Brazil is finally upon us, as UFC 134 comes to the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro this Saturday night on pay-per-view. With Anderson Silva back in action for the second time in 2011, the UFC is hoping for a hugely successful event in what many consider the birthplace of the sport. This huge event features a number of very big fights, along with some exciting preliminary card action and a card full of Brazilian talent. Here's what's on tap for Saturday's card:
Anderson Silva vs. Yushin Okami (UFC Middleweight Championship)
There's a reason Anderson Silva is considered perhaps the greatest fighter of all time. With 13 wins in 13 appearances in the UFC, nine of which have been title fights in the organization, the results he's had in the UFC speak for themselves.
He's won just about every type of fight in just about every fashion, giving fans a range of emotions with his incredible comebacks, insane knockouts, exciting submissions and frustrating decision victories.
Heading into this rematch with Yushin Okami, which technically counts as Silva's last loss due to a disqualification, Silva is at a high point in his career. His star has never shined brighter, as his front face kick knockout of Vitor Belfort in February exploded his popularity in Brazil and earned him some high profile endorsement deals as well.
Okami enters his first shot at the UFC title on a three fight winning streak, and having won six of his last seven. The 30-year-old is one of the most successful Japanese fighters to ever fight in the UFC, and he's long been considered one of the best middleweights in the world. Decision losses to Rich Franklin and Chael Sonnen were definite setbacks, but the resilient Okami continued to work his way back up the ladder, and finally gets his opportunity to capture the title.
The first matchup ended when Silva delivered a brutal kick from his back while Okami was postured up in his guard and on his knees. There's really no question that Okami can bring this fight to the ground if that's the gameplan he wishes to employ, and he may be able to have success in the grappling game for a time, but as Silva has shown time and time again, he can find a way to win.
This won't be a five round borefest with an opponent clearly outmatched that Silva can just toy with. Okami's striking isn't elite, but he's got enough that he's not going to be too wary of being on his feet for parts of the fight. But his bread and butter is his grappling, and if he can bring Silva to the ground and control him, he can do damage in close in the clinch and on the ground.
That brings us back to Silva, who again is one of the sport's greatest fighters for a reason. He's faced the pressure in every fight he's had in the UFC, and he's won every time out. With the stakes the highest they've ever been, especially with the fight taking place in his home country, there's no reason to believe he won't rise to the occasion.
Okami's going to give him a fight, and he's going to be a worthy challenger to the title, but ultimately this is Silva's fight to win, and I think he'll come up with another big finish to add to his record.
PREDICTION: Silva via KO in the third round
Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (Light Heavyweight)
The first fight between these two was "Shogun's" welcome fight to the UFC in 2007. At the time, Rua was widely considered one of the best, if not the best, light heavyweight fighters in the world, and Griffin was seen as a solid test for him, but not necessarily a challenge. Griffin had lost two of his previous three, including a first round knockout loss to Keith Jardine, and Rua was expected to come in with a big win over an established name.
But the season one Ultimate Fighter winner had different plans, and brought the fight to "Shogun" from the outset. He wore the Pride star down and ultimately submitted him at the end of the third round. It was Griffin's coming out as an elite light heavyweight, and he'd go on to capture the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in his next fight.
Rua made a comeback of his own, capturing the title himself before losing it to Jon Jones in March, and the two now look to get back into contention with this rematch.
As with a lot of Rua's fights in the UFC, there are questions about his health coming into the bout. He was out of action for nearly a year after capturing the belt in 2010, and was taken out by Jones in dominating fashion in March. If his knees haven't fully recovered from the several surgeries he's undergone, his cardio will again be a problem.
Griffin's had some injury issues of his own as of late, and because of that he's fought just three times in the last three years. That said, Griffin's been very much underrated over the years. He's a very big 205 lb. fighter, and he knows how to use his size advantage with a good grappling game and a striking game that doesn't get its respect, mostly because of how his fight with Anderson Silva played out.
This is a fight that is most likely to end in one of two ways. "Shogun" either bull rushes and takes Griffin out in a first round flurry, or Griffin survives Rua's opening attack and controls the fight from then on out. It's possible for Griffin to get another stoppage in this fight, just as it's possible for Rua to take him out. That said, I think we'll get a good round out of Shogun, and Griffin will be the stronger fighter down the stretch to pick up the win.
PREDICTION: Griffin via unanimous decision
Brendan Schaub vs. Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira (Heavyweight)
Schaub, a former practice squad member of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, has absolutely found his niche as an MMA fighter. A supremely talented athlete, Schaub has been able to translate his natural athletic ability and sports acumen into becoming a fairly well rounded MMA fighter. His four straight wins in the UFC have seen him take out two overmatched opponents in quick fashion and two veterans in impressive performances as well.
Nogueira marks his third veteran opponent, and the second Pride legend he's faced in a row after his knockout of Mirko Cro Cop in March. Nogueira is only 35 years old, but this will be his 41st time stepping into a cage or ring. However, it's also his first fight in 18 months, and his last win came two years ago.
Nogueira's last two losses came against faster fighters with power that were able to knock him down and hurt him in Frank Mir and now Heavyweight Champ Cain Velasquez. Schaub is a faster fighter with power coming into this fight, and regardless of his recovery, until he can show otherwise, Schaub is the favorite because of that. While it would be a great story for Nogueira to return to the win column, this fight is poised to be Schaub's launching point into the next level in the heavyweight division.
PREDICTION: Schaub via TKO in the second round
Ross Pearson vs. Edson Barboza (Lightweight)
As the season nine winner of The Ultimate Fighter, Ross Pearson has gotten more exposure than most lightweights on the UFC's roster, and he's delivered a mostly positive string of results. His one slip up in the Octagon came against Cole Miller, when he was knocked down and choked out, but he's put on some really good striking performances in fights against Andre Winner, Aaron Riley, Dennis Siver and Spencer Fisher.
25-year-old undefeated Brazilian Barboza has been very impressive in two fights in the UFC. His leg kick clinic against Mike Lullo in his UFC debut was fantastic brutality, while his overall performance against Anthony Njokuani was fun to watch as well.
Barboza is a bit of a heavy favorite coming into this one, but Pearson absolutely has the ability to strike with him and give him problems. That said, we've seen Pearson get rocked, and if Barboza gets an opening he's going to pounce on it.
PREDICTION: Barboza via TKO in the third round
Luiz Cane vs. Stanislav Nedkov (Light Heavyweight)
Nedkov is an undefeated Bulgarian fighter making his UFC debut on this card, while Cane comes in after rebounding from consecutive losses with a knockout of Eliot Marshall in March.
Having not seen much of Nedkov's fights in Bulgaria and Japan, it's hard to gauge just where he's at as he comes into his first UFC fight. He holds wins over longtime veteran Travis Wiuff and former UFC Heavyweight Champ Kevin Randleman, but those both came in 2009 when neither was at the height of their careers.
Cane, on the other hand, was a one-time fringe top ten fighter before being taken out by Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Cyrille Diabate in consecutive fights. Nedkov can certainly come in and take Cane out, but in front of a home country crowd in Brazil I think Cane will be up to the task.
PREDICTION: Cane via KO in the first round
======SPIKE TV PRELIMINARY CARD======
Thiago Tavares vs. Spencer Fisher (Lightweight)
Tavares and Fisher have both been longtime members of the UFC's roster, and both sport almost identical records over their last eight fights.
Tavares has been up and down, posting a 3-4-1 record over those eight fights, while Fisher has been brought down to 4-4 in the last eight after losing three of his last four fights.
Fisher is the more experienced fighter, but he's also nine years the senior of Tavares, and with the Brazilian fighting in his home country, he's the favorite into the fight. That said, Fisher is in desperation mode, and Tavares was knocked out in vicious fashion in his last fight. If there are any lingering effects from that loss it could spell a rough night for the 26-year-old.
However, Fisher hasn't stopped an opponent with his strikes since 2006, and Tavares had a few very solid performances before the loss to Shane Roller in March. Because of that, I'll take him to edge out the fight in a solid performance on Spike.
PREDICTION: Tavares via unanimous decision
Rousimar Palhares vs. Dan Miller (Middleweight)
Palhares is one of the most vicious submission specialists in the UFC. What "Toquinho" lacks in stature he makes up for with brutality, and his mean streak equals bad news for any limb he gets a hold of on his opponent.
Miller is one of the UFC's work horses, and unsurprisingly he's stepping into this fight on short notice as a late replacement. Miller's tragic personal story has become part of his background over the last several years, and though he's just 2-4 in his last six fights, he remains a capable fighter with a good ground game of his own.
Palhares, however, enters the fight with submission wins in three of his last four fights, and a 5-2 record in the UFC overall. Those losses came to Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt, long considered to be top level middleweight opponents. Palhares will be threatening Miller with submissions throughout this fight, hoping to catch the New Jersey native in something, but Miller is resilient, and no opponent has ever finished him.
This could be a good ground battle, or could turn into a bad kickboxing fight, but either way it's a big hill for Miller to climb to pick this one up.
PREDICTION: Palhares via unanimous decision
======FACEBOOK STREAM QUICK PICKS======
* Paulo Thiago over David Mitchell via submission RD 2
* Raphael Assuncao over Johnny Eduardo via DEC
* Erick Silva over Luis Ramos via submission RD 2
* Yuri Alcantra over Felipe Arantes via submission RD 1
* Yves Jabouin over Ian Loveland via TKO RD 1
======CONFIDENCE AND BETTING CONTEST PICKS======
12 - A. Silva - KO RD 3
11 - Schaub - TKO RD 2
10 - Griffin - UD
9 - Palhares - UD
8 - Thiago - SUB RD 2
7 - Assuncao - UD
6 - Tavares - UD
5 - Barboza - TKO RD 3
4 - Cane - KO RD 1
3 - E. Silva - SUB RD 2
2 - Jabouin - TKO RD 1
1 - Alcantra - SUB RD 1
Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
STAFF COLUMNISTS: Shawn Ennis - Jason Amadi
Frank Hyden - Rich Hansen
Chris Park - Matt Pelkey
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