After a solid performance by Strikeforce this past weekend, the UFC fires back with one of the best cards, top to bottom, that we've seen so far this year. Headlining the card, UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva returns after his miraculous come-from-behind victory over Chael Sonnen in August to defend his belt once again as he battles speedy Brazilian striker Vitor Belfort. The card will also feature a light heavyweight tilt between Forrest Griffin and Rich Franklin, and another battle near the top of the division in Ryan Bader vs. Jon Jones.
Before the main card begins, the UFC has put together an equally enjoyable preliminary card featuring two free bouts that will air live on Spike TV one hour before the pay-per-view broadcast. Furthermore, Dana White has stated on Twitter that Yamamoto vs. Johnson will be accessible to fans.
Lightweight: Donald Cerrone (17-3-0-1, 6-3-0-1 UFC/WEC) vs. Paul Kelly (11-3, 5-3 UFC): Headlining the free Spike TV broadcast on Saturday night, three-time WEC lightweight contender Donald Cerrone makes his first appearance inside the Octagon as he battles British UFC veteran Paul Kelly. Cerrone's last fight saw him dominate the smaller Chris Horodecki, eventually sinking in a triangle choke in the second round.
Kelly should provide a respectable step in progressing Cerrone's UFC career as he's a middle-of-the-road fighter trying to find a way to crack the upper echelon. Unfortunately, Kelly's somewhat one-dimensional skill-set hasn't matched up well against the better strikers, or even average strikers that the division has to offer. Anyone showing that they can neutralize his wrestling has a good chance at derailing his momentum in a fight. Cerrone should be able to do that, and put Kelly in serious danger in both the striking department and the ground game. He should finish inside three rounds, more than likely on the ground.
A win for Cerrone should begin the process of getting him into some bigger fights. Cole Miller's recent destruction at the hands of Matt Wiman could provide Cerrone with a fight he truly wants, and the UFC isn't shy about banking on a brewing animosity.
Featherweight: Chad Mendes (8-0, 4-0 UFC/WEC) vs. Michihiro Omigawa (12-8-1, 0-0 UFC): The first bout being featured on the Spike TV preliminary card is one of the most interesting of the evening as Japanese featherweight kingpin Michihiro Omigawa makes his long-awaited return to the UFC. Ten pounds lighter and eight wins heavier, Omigawa has improved dramatically and proven it by toppling some of the best that Japan has to offer. While some of his wins have been marred by controversy, there is no doubt that Omigawa is one of the best in the world in the weight class.
Mendes may very well be a future champion in the division. Tremendous strength and technically sound wrestling is a combination of skills that opponents have found very tough to expose, and Omigawa will have those same difficulties. But I'm not going to fall prey to the exaggerated notion that Japan has nothing to offer American fighters. LC Davis, who's known for his wrestling ability, was completely nullified by Omigawa at Sengoku 7 and succumbed to Omigawa's Judo skills and overwhelming strength. What's to say Omigawa doesn't surprise us once again?
While I do hold that obscure interest in Japanese mixed martial arts, I'm not going to blind myself by my bias. Mendes is stronger in the wrestling department than Davis, and that makes me very reluctant to pick Omigawa. There are, however, other areas that I think Omigawa can exploit, most notably Mendes' submission defense and technique on the floor. Vazquez certainly had an advantage in terms of technique, but Omigawa combines both technique and strength into his grappling.
This is a difficult fight to predict. The safe bet is obviously Mendes via a blanketing brand of wrestling with some mean ground and pound as his primary weapon, but Omigawa's grappling could be the game changer. Omigawa's striking may not be as crisp as it could be, but I'm not confident in Mendes holding Omigawa down for three rounds. The man is a bona fide beast in the gym who will expect that type of gameplan. Omigawa wins.
Bantamweight: Norifumi Yamamoto (18-3-0-1, 0-0 UFC) vs. Demetrious Johnson (8-1, 2-1 UFC/WEC): Remember the days when fans clamored for the Urijah Faber vs. "Kid" Yamamoto match-up to happen to determine the #1 featherweight in the world? Things have changed quite a bit. Faber is now making a run at the UFC bantamweight title while Yamamoto has fallen off the wagon slightly with losses to Joe Warren and Masanori Kanehara in two of his last three performances.
I wouldn't put it out of the realm of possibility that the fight eventually happens as a super fight of some kind, but that would suggest that Yamamoto returns to form, a tough proposition when he'll turn 34 in March. Demetrious Johnson has some input into whether that's possible as well. Coming off of wins over Damacio Page and Nick Pace, "Mighty Mouse", as he's been affectionately monikered, has proven that despite his small size -- he has all of the skills to be a top fighter in a division that he probably doesn't belong in.
Wrestling will be a major focal point in this showdown, and most fans are predicting a blanket performance by Johnson. I'm not an easy taker to that prediction, especially considering some of the analysis I've read that suggests Warren vs. Yamamoto proves this fight will run parallel with that outcome. The problem is that Warren was a legitimate gold medal favorite Olympic-level wrestler while Johnson has never achieved that level. Furthermore, Yamamoto has a knack for throwing precision, power punches with blazing speed. He hasn't been that successful in landing those blows lately, but I think he's due. I'll show some nostalgic bias and go with Yamamoto via KO.
Lightweight: Paul Taylor (10-6-1-1, 3-5 UFC) vs. Gabe Ruediger (17-6, 0-2 UFC): A lot of fans have taken a cursory glance at this fight and deemed Ruediger an instant loser based on his performance against Lauzon. In reality, this is a decent lightweight scrap that could be a fun fight for fans to digest later in the week. On the other hand, it could be a blowout depending on how prepared Ruediger is to stand with Taylor, who has a propensity to deliver exciting performances on the feet.
Taylor's performance against Sam Stout was enough to win on most scorecards, but he was, as we've seen frequently in recent months, robbed by the incompetence of bad judges. It was reason enough for Dana White and the UFC to continue using Taylor despite his poor record in the promotion.
Taylor's stand-up should give Gabe problems, especially considering the improvement we've seen from Taylor. While it isn't overwhelming improvement that puts Taylor on a different level, it's enough for me to believe he can beat Ruediger. If Gabe can tangle up Taylor on the ground, it'll be a different fight altogether. I'll bank on Taylor avoiding that game and peppering Ruediger with blows over the course of three rounds.
Light Heavyweight: Kyle Kingsbury (9-2-0-1, 2-1 UFC) vs. Ricardo Romero (11-1, 1-0 UFC): Romero's wrestling background would suggest that Kingsbury will have problems in this match-up. After all, Kingsbury wasn't able to hold off Tom Lawlor in his debut fight at The Ultimate Fighter 8 Finale in December of 2008. That was over two years ago however, and Kingsbury's progression under the tutelage of the American Kickboxing Academy has improved his overall game.
Romero isn't the type of relentless wrestler that constantly applies pressure, and that may be his undoing in this match-up. Kingsbury, despite losing to Lawlor, was able to use his jiu-jitsu skills off his back, and he did manage to overcome Lawlor's wrestling toward the end of the fight to win, at the very least, one round. I think his continued progression and ability to take on wrestlers of high regard will help him prevail here over three rounds.
Welterweight: Mike Pierce (13-3, 3-1 UFC) vs. Kenny Robertson (10-0, 0-0 UFC): Pierce's brand of fighting might not be enticing to your average casual fan, but the constant pressure, powerful wrestling, and relentless pace that he brings to the table makes him one of the more complete fighters in the division. He's far from an elite striker, but it's difficult to count him out of a stand-up war when the thought of him blasting through a double leg and burying an opponent is always a possibility. Surprisingly, he isn't getting the fights I think he deserves at this point.
Robertson comes from an area I know very well, the heart of the Midwest here in Central Illinois. I've been very critical of my own local scene for quite some time, and it may not end with Robertson. The sole problem is the lack of top notch training facilities and trainers in the region. Robertson seems to be an outlier as he's performed admirably over the course of his career.
Pierce should topple the newcomer with consistent pressure and powerful takedowns. As we've seen in the past, Pierce doesn't shy away from what he knows is effective despite it being a bit boring for the crowd watching. For me, I enjoy what Pierce brings to a fight, and he should bomb Robertson early and often with a mix of striking and takedowns, eventually finishing him via submission.