The month of March has finally arrived. Buckle your seatbelts, it's going to be a crowded highway. After a very busy weekend of notable regional action and UFC 127, the UFC starts the month off strong on Thursday, March 3rd from the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky with UFC on Versus 3. The card will feature a main event welterweight battle between Diego Sanchez and Martin Kampmann with a supporting cast of C.B. Dolloway vs. Mark Munoz, Alessio Sakara vs. Chris Weidman, and Brian Bowles vs. Damacio Page. Tune into Versus at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT. The event will be the first UFC card broadcast in 3D. Join us here at BloodyElbow.com for live results and commentary.
There are a number of intriguing do-or-die showdowns along with a headlining bout between former UFC lightweight contender Joe Stevenson and WEC transplant Danny Castillo. Check out an entire breakdown of all the action below. According to the UFC's Facebook page, fights will air for free through the site, but they have yet to announce how many of these fights will make the free stream.
Lightweight: Joe Stevenson (31-12, 8-6 UFC) vs. Danny Castillo (10-3, 5-3 UFC): With his career at a crossroads, former UFC lightweight contender Joe Stevenson needs a victory. Losses to Mac Danzig and George Sotiropoulos have put some doubt as to whether the 28-year-old Judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt can continue to perform at the highest level. Previous victories over Spencer Fisher and Nate Diaz seemed to be signs that Stevenson could be returning to form under the tutelage of Greg Jackson. Can Stevenson steer himself into the right direction on Thursday night?
WEC import Danny Castillo will serve as Stevenson's litmus test. Castillo, who has rattled off two straight wins in his final performances under the WEC banner, trains out of Team Alpha Male with Urijah Faber and company, a team who has made waves in the mixed martial arts scene for their huge success in the lower weight classes. Castillo hasn't had the same success, however, as he's faltered in the face of better competition. Both Shane Roller and Anthony Pettis were the most recent obstacles that he couldn't overcome, but he currently has momentum riding into Thursday night's battle with Joe Stevenson.
Can the WEC's best lightweights compete in the UFC? We haven't had many opportunities to find out. Donald Cerrone was successful in his UFC debut by defeating Paul Kelly, but Cerrone was considered one of the top lightweights in the WEC. Castillo wasn't able to attain that level of praise. Furthermore, Stevenson's victories over Diaz and Fisher suggest that he is the better overall fighter despite losing to a potential contender in Sotiropoulos and being knocked out cold by Mac Danzig. Castillo's striking in combination with his solid wrestling skills could give Stevenson problems, but Joe "Daddy" has the superior skill-set in this match-up. Barring a sudden knockout blow to the temple, Stevenson catches Castillo in a submission to keep his UFC career alive. Stevenson via submission.
Light Heavyweight: Steve Cantwell (7-3, 4-3 UFC) vs. Cyrille Diabate (16-7-1, 1-1 UFC): The UFC has been adamant about trimming their roster, and both Cantwell and Diabate are on the chopping block in this light heavyweight showdown. Cantwell has lost two straight, dropping decisions to Brian Stann and Luiz Cane at UFC Fight Night 19 and UFC 97 respectively. Diabate was overwhelmed by Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 120, succumbing to a rear naked choke in the second round of action.
The smart gameplan for Cantwell involves a relentless takedown game as Diabate isn't a master in ground defense tactics. Unfortunately, Cantwell, despite being a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, has a propensity to try to stand and bang with his opponents, a poor decision against a taller, lengthier power striker like Diabate. Normally, I'd believe that Cantwell would be eying a knockout of the night honor, but his UFC career is on the line on Thursday night. Cantwell smartly takes Diabate down and finishes him inside the fifteen minute time-frame. Cantwell via submission.
Lightweight: Thiago Tavares (15-3-1, 5-3-1 UFC) vs. Shane Roller (9-3, 6-2 UFC): By far one of the best match-ups on the UFC on Versus 3 undercard, lightweights Thiago Tavares and Shane Roller will clash in what most fans would consider a classic wrestler vs. grappler match-up. Tavares enters the contest unbeaten in his last three appearances with wins over Manny Gamburyan and Pat Audinwood and a draw versus Nik Lentz. Roller most recently dominated former WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner in three minutes and fifity-five seconds at WEC 53 in December, and he's only lost to eventual champions Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis during his eight-fight career with the promotion.
Roller's wrestling credentials are some of the best in the sport, and he's proven time and time again that despite a deficient striking game -- he can find a way to bring a fight to the mat and impose his will quickly. Conditioning has been a consistent knock against Roller however, and Tavares won't quit easily. Tavares will give up some size to Roller, but he has invaluable experience and has only been finished once in his career. Unless Roller has become a competent striker over the last couple of months, I think Tavares maintains distance and bounces punches of Shane's face for the majority of this fight, eventually submitting Roller after landing a stunner. Tavares via submission.
Bantamweight: Takeya Mizugaki (13-5-2, 2-3 UFC) vs. Reuben Duran (7-2-1, 0-0 UFC): After bursting onto the American scene in a back-and-forth war with Miguel Torres at WEC 40 in April of 2009, Takeya Mizugaki didn't fair so well against other upper-echelon talents in the WEC bantamweight division. Losses to Scott Jorgensen and Urijah Faber derailed any ideas of another run at the title, but in retrospect -- both defeats were at the hands of two of the WEC's best bantamweights.
Mizugaki is one of the few Japanese fighters who has proven himself to be a difficult task for his counterparts stateside. A solid wrestler who possesses above average striking, Mizugaki may be one of the few Japanese competitors left who can shed some of the assumptions that imports from the country can't compete at the highest level. Duran isn't an opponent that will prove such a theory, but it's a fight that Mizugaki must win in order to stave off the threat of being released from the promotion.
Duran comes in on two-weeks notice after Mizugaki's original opponent, Francisco Rivera, suffered an injury. That doesn't bode well for Duran, but he does possess the proven knockout power and submission game to be a threat. Regardless, I still have to go with Mizugaki. He's still one of the better bantamweights in the division despite being crushed by Faber. Mizugaki via decision.
Middleweight: Rob Kimmons (23-6, 3-3 UFC) vs. Dongi Yang (9-1, 0-1 UFC): Kimmons and Yang are both on the chopping block in this middleweight contest, a place that Kimmons has been in two previous appearances. This time, Kyle Noke's rear naked choke submission at UFC 122 put him here while Yang dropped a split decision to Chris Camozzi at UFC 121.
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure if Kimmons can deal with Yang's power. I'm also not sure if Yang can find a way to land "The Hammer". Kimmons has historically been tough to finish, and his grappling ability has allowed him to escape certain unconsciousness in many encounters. I'm not particularly confident in my pick, but I can't go against my ancestors. Dongi Yang via TKO.
Middleweight: Rousimar Palhares (11-3, 4-2 UFC) vs. Dave Branch (8-1, 2-1 UFC): Grapplers clash as Brazilian leg lock specialist Rousimar Palahares battles Renzo Gracie black belt Dave Branch in middleweight action. Palhares was defeated by Nathan Marquardt at UFC Fight Night 22 in September in a strange incident in which he stopped fighting due to what he believed was illegal use of a substance on Marquardt's legs. Marquardt took advantage of Palhares' surprise by punching him out at the 3:28 mark of the first round. Palhares has since rescinded his comments that Marquardt greased his leg, but the failure of seizing the opportunity to defeat one of the division's best fighters has placed him a few steps back in his progression to eventually become the UFC middleweight champion.
Branch was spectacularly slammed onto ESPN's top ten plays of the day by Gerald Harris in his debut at UFC 116. Since the loss, he's rattled off two straight wins, defeating both Rich Attonito and Tomasz Drwal via unanimous decision. While Branch hasn't faced comparable competition to Palhares, his lengthy frame and grappling acumen should cause some problems for a much smaller framed fighter like Palhares.
The disparity in their grappling styles ultimately leans me toward Palhares along with Branch's lacking strength of record. Sure, his win over Drwal was impressive, but Drwal is well-known for his aggressiveness and tendency to brawl. Not exactly a formula for success when you're facing a fighter with the ground skills that Branch possesses. Palhares, on the other hand, is a better grappler than Branch, and he fits comfortably into the power grappler category as a man who will destroy your knee or arm quickly and brutally. And perhaps illegally. Palhares powers Branch to the floor and has some problems passing guard, but eventually rolls to the leg and catches a visibly fearful Branch as he cranks the heel under his arm. Palhares via submission.
Light Heavyweight: Igor Pokrajac (22-8, 1-3 UFC) vs. Todd Brown (15-2-0-1, 0-1 UFC): Another loser-leaves-town showdown within the confines of the crowded UFC light heavyweight division as Igor Pokrajac squares off against Todd Brown. Pokrajac was the victim of a severe beating at the hands of Stephan Bonnar in his last outing at The Ultimate Fighter 12 finale while Brown dropped an unanimous decision to Tim Boetsch in a fairly uneventful encounter at UFC 117. Neither fighter has been impressive inside the Octagon, although Pokrajac has faced better competition over the course of his career and in the UFC.
Pokrajac is the more well-rounded fighter as he's proven over the course of his career that he can finish fights both on the feet and on the ground. That hasn't been a trend inside the Octagon however, mostly due to the fact that the competition he's faced is flat out better. Fortunately for Igor, Todd Brown isn't a fighter who embodies the description of being an elite fighter. Brown has enough skill and experience to make this a contest, but I think Pokrajac's striking ability and proven submission game will be good enough to win inside three rounds. Pokrajac via TKO.