As mixed martial arts has gained popularity, the amount of MMA action we have easy access to has increased substantially. Gone are the days of weeks of inactivity. Right now we're in the midst of a week-to-week run of events featuring Bellator, Strikeforce, and the UFC. While the UFC scored low with fans at UFC 119, Zuffa did manage to win big among hardcore fans at WEC 51. Strikeforce had a surprising showing this last weekend, and Bellator's most anticipated events are this week and next.
While we wait for the culmination of Brocktober with UFC 121, we can keep our eyes on UFC 120, taking place at the O2 Arena in London, England. The show will air for free on tape delay on Spike TV, and it will be headlined by a middleweight showdown between Michael Bisping and Yoshihiro Akiyama. Before we scrutinize the main card, here's a look at the dark matches taking place on the UFC 120 preliminary card.
Light Heavyweight: Cyrille Diabate (16-6-1, 1-0 UFC) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (9-1, 1-1 UFC): Highlighting the UFC 120 preliminary card, French striker Cyrille Diabate aims to continue his impressive streak of ten wins in eleven fights as he battles Swedish standout Alexander Gustafsson in a clash of towering giants. Diabate is fresh off a TKO victory over Luiz Cane in his UFC debut at UFC 114 while Gustafsson lost via anaconda choke to NCAA wrestling champion Phil Davis in his second appearance in the Octagon in April.
Fireworks will fly in this match-up as both men are known for their striking prowess. Diabate certainly holds the edge in experience, and his 37 years don't seem to be hindering his skills. Gustafsson is only 23 years of age, but his knockout power has made up for inexperience and kept him mostly on the winning side. The question is whether that limited experience will be exploited by the more experienced Diabate.
It's a tough call, but my answer to that question leans toward the Swede. I think his training with Team Alliance along with his attempts to improve his strength will have a positive effect on him in this fight. He's obviously gifted in finishing his opponents, but he was also surprisingly game for Phil Davis in the early moments of their fight at UFC 112. Heading to the training camp of the man who defeated him should give him the edge he needs to step up his game.
In the end however, I think Gustafsson's boxing will catch Diabate. While Diabate did manage to defeat Luiz Cane impressively, fans often forget the fact that Diabate did have to survive a near knockout in the first round. I'll take Gustafsson via TKO.
Heavyweight: Rob Broughton (14-5-1, 0-0 UFC) vs. Vinicius Queiroz (5-1, 0-0 UFC): Queiroz is one of the more interesting newcomers the UFC has signed in quite a long time. He's relatively unknown, a very lanky 6'7" fighter who tips the scales in the lower half of the heavyweight range, and trains out of the famous Chute Box Academy. Decent Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, improving stand-up, and big power. Some would compare him to a Junior Dos Santos type of brawler, but I'm a bit suspicious of that comparison. I'd also be surprised to see anyone truly "giving" this fight to Queiroz.
Broughton, while being mostly successful in the British MMA scene, has the tools to derail the small bit of hype surrounding Queiroz. Height is certainly a problem, but Broughton will tip the scales around 260-265 pounds while Queiroz may have added a bit of muscle to put him at 230-235. Queiroz's reach is a huge concern as Broughton likes to aggressively go after his opponents, and that type of clashing style match-up on the feet makes this a toss-up. Who will land first? Gut says Broughton, but objectivity makes me believe Queiroz's reach prevails. Gotta go with the gut. Broughton via decision.
Light Heavyweight: Steve Cantwell (7-3, 1-2 UFC) vs. Stanislav Nedkov (11-0, 0-0 UFC): Injuries have been the story of Cantwell's career for the last year as he hasn't fought since September of 2009. He pulled out of his UFC 108 bout with Vladimir Matyushenko after a career-threatening medical issue was discovered. He was miraculously cleared to fight again in May of 2010, but his condition was never disclosed. Strangely, he was replaced at UFC 116 by Seth Petruzelli. Third time's a charm?
Not only has Cantwell had a tough time returning to the Octagon, but his two-fight losing streak probably puts him on the verge of being cut by the UFC. Joe Silva hasn't given him an insurmountable challenge in his return, however, as he battles Bulgarian wrestler Stanislav Nedkov. Nedkov's most notable wins came last year as he pounded out Travis Wiuff and edged out UFC and PRIDE veteran Kevin Randleman under the Sengoku banner.
Nedkov's wrestling is solid enough to blanket opponents, and he has some real power from top control. Unfortunately, it was pretty apparent in his battle with Kevin Randleman that conditioning can be a problem. The stand-up game is also an area in which he could improve, although his strength provides the chance of a flash knockout. Cantwell should be able to out strike him in this battle, but Nedkov's constant pressure and wrestling will make this very interesting. Nedkov is a live dog here, especially with Cantwell's lengthy layoff. I'll take Cantwell via decision, but don't be surprised if I change my mind.
Lightweight: Paul Sass (10-0, 0-0 UFC) vs. Mark Holst (8-2, 0-1 UFC): Undefeated British prospect Paul Sass should feel pretty good about his upcoming match-up with Canadian Shotokan Karate black belt Mark Holst on Saturday night. Not only will Sass have the opportunity to impress in front of a massive crowd of countrymen, but he'll also have the edge in skill and experience.
Holst's questionable takedown defense will once again provide his opponent a means to victory. While John Gunderson wasn't able to inflict significant enough damage to stop Holst at the TUF 11 Finale, he was able to take down Holst frequently and effectively enough to score points with the judges. Holst did threaten from the bottom, but Gunderson's defense was simply too tough.
Sass is much more dangerous, mainly due to his lengthy frame and guard-pulling tactics. He beat a very game prospect in Jason Young via a slick heel hook, and even won eight straight bouts via triangle choke, earning him the nickname "Sassangle". Sass will be the slightly better grappler on the ground in my mind, and he's actually a pretty decent takedown artist when he can gain the advantage in the clinch. I'll take Sass via submission.
Lightweight: Spencer Fisher (23-6, 8-5 UFC) vs. Kurt Warburton (6-1, 0-0 UFC): Normally, a veteran like Spencer Fisher battling a newcomer, a British fighter with seven fights under his belt, would be a fairly easy pick. Historically, British fighters haven't fared well against their American counterparts with the exceptions of a few above average fighters. We've talked in great lengths about the availability of top notch trainers being a problem in Britain along with the lack of an amateur combat sports tradition to provide the same disciplined background support that wrestling provides in the United States. All of those issues create a steep climb for British fighters, and as we saw most recently in Ross Pearson -- even the more impressive prospects out of the country have met their match in low-to-mid echelon UFC competition.
But Fisher's recent run of bad luck in combination with his rising age is a concern in this match-up, and it could create an outcome that is against the historical precedence. How long does Fisher have left before he needs to think about walking away from the sport? Can he still remain a challenging opponent in the middle of the UFC lightweight division?
While Warburton certainly has the camp to progress his skills to the next level, his inexperience against even middle-of-the-road competition puts him at a severe disadvantage in this fight. He defeated Ross Pearson early in his career, and he's 1-1-1 in a three-fight trilogy with The Ultimate Fighter winner... but that doesn't give me confidence in picking him over Fisher. Fisher still has a long, long list of consecutive battles against much better competition than Warburton. Fisher should win via decision.
Light Heavyweight: James McSweeney (4-5, 1-1 UFC) vs. Fabio Maldonado (17-3, 0-0 UFC): James McSweeney's tenure with the UFC will likely come to a close on Saturday night as he battles Team Nogueira-trained professional boxer Fabio Maldonado in the opening bout at UFC 120. Maldonado sports an impressive 22-0 boxing record along with a 17-3 mixed martial arts record that includes wins over Jessie Gibbs and former K-1 fighter Vitor Miranda.
While an undefeated boxing record is fairly common place for above average boxers moving up the ranks, the interesting appeal here is that Maldonado has chosen to pursue a MMA career as well and receives training by two of the very best in the business in the Nogueira brothers. With a devastating base in the art of pugilism, Maldonado could become a very threatening opponent in the landscape of the UFC light heavyweight division. He'll need to push through McSweeney first, but that shouldn't be a tough task as McSweeney remains sloppy in his technique and rather lacking in the conditioning department. Maldonado should dispatch of McSweeney quickly in the first round.