After a solid UFC Fight Night card on Wednesday night that saw favorites Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz come away with wins in the face of some stiff competition, we'll now move on to Saturday night's UFC 103 taking place in Dallas, Texas from the American Airlines Arena. The main event will feature the return of Vitor "The Phenom" Belfort after a lengthy foray outside of the UFC. He'll be taking on former UFC middleweight champion Rich "Ace" Franklin in what should be a formidable test for not only Belfort, but for Franklin's stand-up skills. The event will also feature a heavyweight tilt between former PRIDE fighter and devastating striker Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and up-and-comer Junior Dos Santos.
The preliminary card will feature eight total bouts featuring a number of newcomers to the organization that were transfers from the now-defunct Affliction promotion. While it isn't a stacked undercard by any means, there are a number of interesting bouts that fight fans should be looking forward to potentially seeing make the main card. Here's a look at UFC 103's preliminary action:
The Ultimate Fighter Season 8 winner Efrain Escudero (11-0) will take on The Ultimate Fighter Season 5 contestant Cole Miller (15-3) in a lightweight match-up that will surely be a tough test for both fighters. Escudero hasn't fought since September of last year as he pulled out of a UFN 18 match-up with Jeremy Stephens with a rib injury, so ring rust could be a significant problem for him in this bout. He brings a 2005 Arizona State wrestling title and collegiate NJCAA All-American honors to the cage coupled with a seasoned submission game on the ground. Efrain has been training out of Southwest MMA in Tempe, Arizona with Santino DeFranco, Danny Martinez, and Dave Farias. Efrain states that it isn't about where he trains, but about how he trains. With a limited quantity of quality training partners, it's tough to fathom Efrain having the experts in-house to truly push him.
Miller will bring his black belt level jiu-jitsu into the Octagon against the decorated wrestler, and he has more than enough experienced training partners at American Top Team to fill the role of "wrestler". The real problem for MIller is that he hasn't faced a stiff top controlling wrestler like Escudero in quite some time. Browning was much more focused on striking while we all know how Gurgel likes to punch himself into Fight of the Night honors rather than actually use his jiu-jitsu techniques. This could be a very different fight than some of Miller's most recent battles.
Nover didn't offer any real jiu-jitsu threat to Escudero despite being highly-decorated, but Miller has actually shown that he can submit opponents with his adept skills on the floor. Even with that said, I find it hard to pick Miller here for the fact that Escudero could potentially use the same gameplan he implemented against Nover to win this fight. While Miller has a solid chance to win, I'll take Escudero via his wrestling credentials and likely improvement since his last performance.
In middleweight action, heavy-handed strikers Drew McFedries (8-5) and Tomasz Drwal (16-2-1) will square off in a match-up that could produce a "Knockout of the Night" honor. A glance at the records would indicate that Drwal is much more likely to have the edge here, but he's faced less than stellar competition early in his career. He lost to Thiago Silva in his UFC debut, but came back with a win over Ivan Serati at UFC 93 and a victory over Mike Ciesnolevicz at The Ultimate Fighter Season 9 Finale.
McFedries has faced some stiffer competition in his career. He lost to eventual contenders Patrick Cote and Thales Leites while also dropping bouts to Martin Kampmann and Mike Massenzio. His most recent win came at UFC 98 against Xavier Foupa-Pokam in which he unleashed a barrage of devastating strikes that ended Pokam's night inside :40 seconds. There's no mystery to what McFedries will bring to this fight, and there's no mystery as to why the UFC pitted these two punchers together.
Look for fireworks here. Drwal has never impressed me with his punching as he seems to be a bit more wild than most of the guys within the division, but McFedries isn't exactly the most technical striker either. One thing is for certain, one of these guys is going to sleep in the first round. I'd give McFedries the slight edge.
Seasoned veteran and New Jersey-native Jim Miller (14-2) will take on UFC newcomer Steve Lopez (12-1) in a lightweight battle that seems to be somewhat of a squash match for Miller. Lopez comes in after a lengthy layoff of nearly a year without fighting, and he's coming in on short notice after Thiago Tavares was hurt. He'll likely be looking to grind out a victory over the very tough Miller, but it'll be interesting to see how the Bulldog Fight Team member looks considering his roots are in the Indiana area. Most of his wins recently have been way of decision, which doesn't exactly bode well either.
If Lopez is a "grinding" type of fighter, Miller is the epitome of that style of fighting. A solid wrestler coupled with a good striking game, Miller can bring the fight to any area of the Octagon. He's been known to pull off some stunning submissions in tight spots, and his overall game can give nearly anyone a run for their money within the lightweight division. Lopez will have his work cut out for him, and he's hopefully not relying on a grinding style to win him this fight. Miller will likely impose his will on Lopez from the beginning. With losses to only top lightweights Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, it's tough not to pick Miller here.
Affliction-transplant Rafaello "Tractor" Oliveira (10-1) will battle Nik "The Carny" Lentz (16-3-1) in a match-up between UFC newcomers. Lentz trains out of Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, and as you probably guessed it... he's a wrestler. Training with the likes of Brock Larson and Sean Sherk, Lentz will probably have some ability in punishing Oliveira from top control. Oliveira is feeding off the fact that Lentz is fairly one-dimensional in his gameplan, and the BJJ black belt will be looking to take advantage of that style in order to look for the submission.
Oliveira has had a tremendous amount of hype brewing around him ever since he was tabbed to take on Takanori Gomi at Affliction: Trilogy, but this isn't exactly an easy fight for him. Dan Miller had to pull out due to a back injury and that was definitely a tougher battle, but wrestlers in top control with submission defense can really smother better fighters.
Oliveira has been training with B.J. Penn, and he has stated that he's done some amateur boxing in order to improve his striking base along with a lot of wrestling training in order to stay away from the forementioned outcome. He was actually defeating lightweight prospect Lyle Beerbohm at a ShoXC event back in October of 2008, but received a nasty cut that eventually stopped the fight after one round. Ultimately, Oliveira is the better fighter here, but don't be surprised if Lentz lays out a decision.
In the first of two light heavyweight bouts on the undercard, The Ultimate Fighter Season 8 contestant Eliot Marshall (8-1) will take on UFC veteran Jason Brilz (17-1-1). BJJ vs. wrestling should be the story in this fight as Marshall is a black belt under Amal Easton, and the first American to win gold as a blue, purple, and brown belt at the Pan-American Games. Brilz was a Nebraska Class A state champion back in '93 in wrestling, and he also wrestled for four years at the University of Nebraska-Omaha compiling a record of 63-34. While he isn't the most accomplished wrestler, he has managed to find success in the sport.
This should be somewhat of an interesting battle. Marshall is obviously going to bring a BJJ game to this fight along with some range in his 6'3" frame. Brilz will have a wrestling background, but he's also been training out of MidAmerica in Omaha, NE with names such as Ryan Jensen, Jake Ellenberger, and Jeremy Horn. He's defeated a plethora of better names than Marshall as well with his most recent coming against Tim Boestch at UFC 96 and prospect Brad Morris at UFN 15. Can he avoid Marshall's jiu-jitsu techniques on the ground? I think Brilz might be powerful enough to punish Marshall to a victory here.
In the second light heavyweight match-up, Croatian fighter and Cro Cop student Igor Pokrajac (21-5) will battle Belarussian wrestler and former IFL light heavyweight champion Vladimir "The Janitor" Matyushenko (21-4). Matyushenko comes into the bout at 38 years of age, but he still presents a tough challenge in the wrestling department for many of the mid-level talents in the UFC. Does he still have enough in the tank to make a run at the top? Probably not, but he could be a stiff test to some of the better fighters in the UFC.
Unfortunately for Pokrajac, this doesn't look like a winning match-up for him. His primary style seems to be wrestling as he's won most of his bouts via TKO on the floor, but Matyushenko is still very good at rolling around on the ground and controlling his opponents to win fights. If Pokrajac wants to shoot on "The Janitor", be assured that Matyushenko will be able to gain top control and eek out a decision victory. Also worth noting, Pokrajac's steps up in competition resulted in losses, both Assuerio Silva and Mamed Khalidov defeated him.
Pokrajac has since went on a 8-fight winning streak, but the strength of his competition is lacking. While Matyushenko may be getting a bit old for this sport, he has still remained a solid opponent for upper-echelon competition. He should defeat Pokrajac here.
The Ultimate Fighter Season 5 contestant Rob Emerson (8-7-0-1) will take on Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Rafael Dos Anjos (11-4) in lightweight action. Dos Anjos is riding a two-fight losing streak, although he was doing fairly well in both battles. Most notably, he nearly tapped Tyson Griffin with an extremely deep calf slicer. The UFC must have thought enough of Dos Anjos' tactics to give him another shot, and Emerson isn't exactly a huge threat here.
Emerson is a guy who's been a scrappy fighter for his entire career. Anyone who fights Jens Pulver, Javier Vazquez, and Dokonjonosuke Mishima in three out of his first four fights without being finished can, at the very least, earn a little respect for his determination in the cage. He's only been finished once... by Kurt Pellegrino in his most recent battle inside the Octagon at UFN 17. He shockingly upset Manvel Gamburyan at UFC 87 and defeated Keita Nakamura at UFC 81 in a close split decision.
Tough fight to call considering Emerson's track record of being elusive to the submission, but Dos Anjos has the submission skills to give Emerson a hard time. The problem here is that Emerson's style is advantageous as he moves around, throws flurries, and he can be pretty accurate. It should be a classic striker vs. grappler match-up. Pick your horse.
In welterweight action, UFC newcomer Brian Foster (12-3) will take on Rick Story (7-3) in what could end up being a wrestling match inside the Octagon. Foster trains at H.I.T. squad in Granite City, IL with Matt Hughes and Robbie Lawler, and he's likely gained some solid wrestling skills with the instruction of such an elite UFC fighter like Hughes. From some of the video I've seen on Foster however, he loves to throw leather. He'll likely use a wrestling base to stuff Story and work for the knockout.
Story is primarily a wrestler who trains out of Braveheart Fight Club in the state of Washington. His primary training partner is last night's winner over Brock Larson, Mike Pierce. He's managed to defeat some notable names such as Ryan Healy, Jake Ellenberger, and Brandon Melendez in his career, but his wrestling ways could ultimately be his downfall against better competition. Foster doesn't represent unbelievable competition at this point, but he's certainly made a name for himself as a knockout fighter. Foster may have upset potential written all over him in this one.