Well this post is less fun than it was when I started it since Aoki vs JZ, the match I was most excited about got postponed to March. But it'll still be a very exciting New Year's Eve weekend for MMA fans, especially those with HDNet.
While I'm looking forward to getting drunk and screaming at the TV while GSP punishes Matt Hughes again and Chuck and Wandy brawl it out those aren't the fights that have my brain tickled right now. I'm more intrigued by the matchups that will show us something new, that point to the future of the sport.
Here then are the matchups that have my mind racing as we count down to the New Year:
Lyoto Machida Vs. Rameau Sokoudjou
Talk about ice vs fire. This match is the starkest collision of styles you could imagine. Machida is the cerebral counter-fighter, the guy who may not look flashy in victory but so far has always made his opponents look worse. He looks to use his speed and well-rounded skill set to force his opponents to miss and then return fire.
Sokoudjou on the other hand is all id, the physical specimen who goes out there and brings it. Coming into PRIDE with a 2-1 record, no one expected that much. But after he required less than a minute to put PRIDE stars Little Nog and Ricardo Arona flat on their asses and out of the top 10 rankings, everyone was watching.
However they have a lot in common as well: 1) Both are fairly unknown to mainstream fans but legends among MMA fanboys like myself. This fight could make one or both of them a breakout star in the UFC. 2) Both have enhanced their impeccable traditional martial arts pedigrees by training with top state-of-the-art MMA camps. Machida trains with Anderson Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and (until recently) Vitor Belfort at Brazil's Black House and has added a BJJ blackbelt to compliment the unique Shotokan karate pedigree he got from studying at the knee of his father Yoshizo.
Sokoudjou comes from a first-class judo background (he won the 2001 US Judo open) and has been training with Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland at Team Quest.
Some commenters think it will come down to whether or not Lyoto can survive Sokoudjou's initial onslaught and pick him apart with precision striking. To me, that's a given. No way Machida charges into one of Sokoudjou's wild hooks. Instead, I expect Machida's guard skills to be severely tested against the GnP skills that Sokoudjou will no dought have picked up at Team Quest.
Mark Bocek Vs. Doug Evans
Matches like this are the reason I pay for UFC on Demand. Sure it's a total rip-off but I personally get my money's worth out of watching the prelim fights the day after the PPV.
In this matchup you've got two guys who came into the UFC as highly touted undefeated prospects. Especially Bocek whose BJJ skillz had Luke Thomas creaming his jeans and predicting a submission upset over Frankie Edgar. Obviously that's not what happened, but Bocek did show some punching power before getting KO'd.
Although undefeated in Alaska, Doug Evans was expected to be more chum fed to golden boy (or should I say "chico de oro") Roger Huerta but proved surprisingly tough before Roger poured it on in round two.
Unless it's hands down "Fight of the Night" this match will leave one of these fighters hanging to his UFC career by the slimmest of threads and the other will get a chance to keep aiming for contention in the crowded light-weight division. Evans probably has the wrestling and power edge, but Bocek has shown more power on the feet and is much more dangerous on the ground. It's a toss up and that's why I'm stoked!
IFL Welterweight Grand Prix Finals:
Delson Heleno vs. Jay Hieron
Ok, I admit I'm a loser. The IFL is pretty much completely a waste of time, but hey, I'm an MMA addict and I've got DVR so the IFLs pile up and I watch them, mostly on fast-forward but I admit I've started following a couple of the fighters. I'm pretty disappointed that IFL lightweight star Chris Horodecki isn't fighting tougher competition, but this welterweight matchup has me intrigued. Heleno has shown up on a couple of lists as a top 10 welterweight and is definitely one of the new generation of BJJ players who are keeping submission fighters relevant in modern MMA. Heiron is no joke -- he's lost some fights he should've won, but the Xtreme Couture fighter is a skilled wrestler and will be a real test for Heleno. If Heleno wins the IFL welterweight Grand Prix, I'll be looking for him to move on to bigger and better things.
YARENNOKA: DECEMBER 31, 2007
Kazuo Misaki vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama
This match has me stoked because Misaki, while perhaps not as good as he has sometimes been ranked, has definitely faced top flight competition in his years in PRIDE and Pancrase. Misaki's fight record reads like a who's who of the middleweight division -- Fihlo, Baroni, Trigg, Marquardt, Ed Herman, he even has wins over Dan Henderson and Dennis Kang. He'll be the second "big name" middleweight Aikyama has faced this year.
Akiyama's other match this year was, of course, his dismantling of the highly-ranked Kang. If Akiyama can win as convincingly over Misaki, we'll have a new top 10 middleweight on our hands for sure.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Mitsuhiro Ishida
I really really really wish Melendez was facing Aoki. But even as is, this is still a very intriguing matchup. Melendez, with his wins over Clay Guida and Kawajiri is definitely in my top 5 at 155. He's the reigning master of the sprawl and brawl style -- coming from a strong wrestling background before joining the Carlson Gracie gym. So it will be very intriguing to see if Melendez will just crush Ishida or if the Japanese fighter will finally rise to the top levels of the division.
Ishida has been highly touted for a while and even beat Marcus Aurelio in 2006 but after being thrashed my Gomi in his last fight is widely considered to have been over-rated. We'll see on New Year's Eve.
Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Luiz Azeredo
This is a comeback fight for both of these highly skilled lightweights. Kawajiri was the Shooto champ who gave up the belt he took from a then-undefeated Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro to chase after the best lightweights in the world. Fighting in PRIDE he gave Gomi a tough match but lost by submission after a brutal back-and-forth war. Then on New Year's Eve 2006, he lost a very tough standing war with Gilbert Melendez. Seeing "Crusher" Kawajiri gather dust all year really made me bitter against Dana and the yakuza who ruined PRIDE. Anyway, this match, against the game Brazilian Azeredo should tell us if the Crusher is back in the hunt or not. Azeredo hasn't been at the top of the division in a while, but he's definitely a tough competitor who's been in the ring with the best in the sport, including beating UFC 185lb champ Anderson Silva.
K-1 HERO'S PREMIUM DYNAMITE: DECEMBER 31
Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto vs. Rani Yahya
Hopefully this match represents the return of Kid Yamamoto to facing top flight competition. After an amazing 2005 that saw him reel off wins over Caol Uno, Genki Sudo and Royler Gracie, "Kid" hasn't really been in the game. He spent most of the last couple years chasing after Olympic glory but injured himself and couldn't make it. Yahya, Rickson Gracie's BJJ protege, recently cut down to 135 to bid for the 135 WEC title but faded in the later rounds and couldn't submit champion Chase Beebe. At his natural weight of 145 he should have better stamina and this promises to be a classic clash of styles. Yamamoto being one of the sport's premier sprawl and brawl craftsmen up against the slickest submission specialist in the game today (Aoki excepted). If Yamamoto wins convincingly expect to see fanboys like me to keep howling for a dream match against Uriah Faber.
Joachim Hansen vs. Kazuyuki Miyata
This is another fight pitting two top talents who are on the edge of falling out of contention. The legendary Hellboy had a rough year -- refusing to sign with Zuffa after the PRIDE buyout and then losing his comeback match in Shooto to the unheralded Eiji Mitsuoka. But Hellboy's young at 28 and could return to the form that got him wins over both Gomi and JZ Calvancanti back in the day.
His opponent, the former Olympic wrestler Miyata, is a classic case of what happens to fighters under Japan's "throw them in the deep end" approach. In his 10 MMA matches, Miyata has racked up losses against some of the biggest names in the sport -- Kid Yamamoto, Royler Gracie, Genki Sudo, Vitor Ribeiro, etc. But he's also shown flashes of the potential you'd expect from a former Olympian. I'll be very interested to see how he handle's Hellboy's full-on assault.
How bout you? What matches have you marking out?