This Saturday's UFC on FOX 5 card has been called the best card in broadcast television history, and I'm certainly not going to argue the point. Join me as I examine four big questions looming over what looks to be a spectacular show...
1) Is B.J. Penn biting off more than he can chew in facing Rory MacDonald? OK, I'll admit it. Somewhere along the line I've bought into the narrative that B.J. Penn is motivated and in shape for his comeback on Saturday. His interviews have been absolutely phenomenal at getting across the importance of this fight for him. Despite the fact Penn hasn't beaten an opponent other than Matt Hughes at welterweight since 2005, part of me was even thinking he had a good shot at winning for awhile there.
That is until I saw him square off with Rory MacDonald at yesterday's press conference.
It isn't an exaggeration to say the two men looked at least two weight classes apart, if not three. In Penn's past loses at welterweight, size has traditionally mattered just as much as conditioning. Factor in the knowledge that beneath the Savile Row suit and GQ haircut MacDonald is an absolute killer and you have the makings for a very bad night for the Prodigy.
All throughout the buildup to this fight the eerily monotone MacDonald has had a simple but chilling message. "I'm going to hurt him very badly," he bluntly said at a press conference last July.
His message hasn't changed in the ensuing five months. "I'm focused on hurting him, destroying him...I'm going to annihilate him," MacDonald flatly stated when speaking to MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani, showing all the emotion of a serial killer confessing his crimes under interrogation.
Yikes. MacDonald might have transformed into a flashy clothes hound on the outside, but from the sound of things there's a very dangerous man lurking underneath the suave exterior.
His choice of words when being interviewed isn't the only thing menacing about MacDonald though: so far he's been an absolute monster in the Octagon. What's scariest about him is that at just 23 years of age he hasn't even reached his prime yet.
B.J. Penn has obviously not only already reached his prime, he's on the wrong side of it. The MacDonald fight doesn't make any sense for him on the surface, but considering who Penn is that's hardly surprising. The former two-divisional UFC champion doesn't want an easy out in his comeback fight; he wants the very best. Otherwise how will he know where he stands?
It's that warrior mentality that has made B.J. Penn so fun to watch over the years. The emotional highlight of yesterday's press conference came when a matter of fact Penn said MacDonald better be ready to back up what he's been saying about hurting him. This dynamic pitting the sentimental favorite against the young killer has made Penn/MacDonald by far the most intriguing fight going into Saturday night.
2) How can Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz deliver anything short of a barn burner? Of course the short and sweet answer here is simply "they can't." However, as we've seen so many times before, fights that promise more fireworks than a Chinese New Year celebration on paper can sometimes fail to deliver in the flesh.
Somehow though I don't think that's going to be the case here. Henderson and Diaz both have a history of stealing the show, as the nine Fight of the Night bonuses split between them readily attest to. A glance at how both men stack up with one another gives credence to the idea Saturday night's main event will continue the trend.
There are a number of storylines heading into this fight that make it extra compelling. Will Diaz, with his slick jiu jitsu game, be able to do what nobody has done so far under the Zuffa umbrella and submit the seemingly rubber limbed Henderson? Diaz became the first man to tap the ultra-tough Jim Miller in his last fight which shows he has the potential to get the better of anyone in the lightweight division on the ground, but will he have a chance to make anything happen off his back given Henderson's stifling top control?
Another thing to keep an eye on is whether or not the normally composed Henderson gets lured into a slugfest with the brawler from the 209. The champ has mentioned he had his training partners talk trash during training to get him accustomed to being cussed out in the middle of the Octagon, but there's a world of difference between an opponent flipping you off in front of an arena full of fans in the heat of combat and your buddies play acting in the practice room. If Diaz can get in Henderson's head and throw him off his game like he did against Donald Cerrone there's a good chance the belt is going back to Stockton.
It will also be interesting to see if Diaz is content to work off his back if he gets taken down or if he will work to get back to his feet. He's mentioned lately that he feels he and his Scrap Pack brethren need to finish fights in order to avoid ending up on the wrong side of the judges' decision, but does that mean he risks being seen as losing the positional battle in the eyes of the judges in order to win the war and lock up a submission on Henderson? Or does he play it safe and avoid positions that might be viewed as disadvantageous for him?
Yes, I realize I just used the term "play it safe" when talking about a Diaz brother. No, I haven't just been smoking the Stockton city flower. This is the biggest opportunity in Nate Diaz's life; I'm betting he does whatever it takes to capitalize on it.
3) Will Mauricio Shogun Rua go to war once again when he faces Alexander Gustafsson? Shogun has waged a lot of epic wars over the course of his career, but his past two have been particularly taxing in the context of his UFC run. He's only two fights removed from the absolutely incredible battle of attrition against Dan Henderson at UFC 139 in one of the best fights of all time, and his last fight against Brandon Vera was much more on the slobbernocker side of town than the one sided beating most expected. Rua may only be 31, but considering the punishment he's put his body through in his ten-plus years fighting and you've got to think he's much older in "fighter years" (kind of like dog years, but with shredded knee ligaments and bulging discs taking the place of gray fur and forgetting how to play fetch and as the tokens of encroaching old age).
Whatever the case may be, he's got his work cut out for him in Gusfafsson. Much like Penn/MacDonald, this is another fight pitting an old lion versus a member of the new guard. Gustafsson has been on a tear in the light heavyweight division. Over the past two years he has amassed a five fight winning streak but he's yet to face anyone at Shogun's level.
Although Gustafsson is quite a bit taller than Shogun, the Swede only has a half an inch reach advantage over the Brazilian. Despite this relative parity when it comes to reach, something tells me that Shogun is going to come charging in against Gustafsson and attempt to make it a chaotic fight. Whether or not Gustafsson allows him to do so is another matter entirely.
4) Will Mike Swick return to his old form against Matt Brown? If the Mike Swick of four years ago fought the Matt Brown of today I'd put my money on Swick without any hesitation, but the fact is we still don't know if Swick has recovered - or ever can completely recover - from the string of illnesses and injuries that cost him 910 days of his career (not that he's counting mind you). He won his comeback fight against DaMarques Johnson via a trademark quick knockout in the opening seconds of the second round, but he lost the first round solidly to Johnson. No disrespect intended to "Darkness" but that's hardly the kind of round that builds confidence Swick is back where he once was. It may have been the ring rust that's an inevitable byproduct of such a long layoff, but when Swick faces Matt Brown on Saturday we'll have a better idea of just where he stands in the welterweight pecking order going into 2013.
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