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UFC 129 match-by-match preview

Special to FOX Sports The Fight Network, Ariel Shnerer
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The biggest event in North American mixed martial arts history and perhaps the most significant card ever assembled takes place this Saturday night at Toronto's Rogers Centre as Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields will go battle for the UFC welterweight championship in front of 55,000 fans.

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In other pivotal fights, Ontario's own Mark Hominick can realize his dream when he challenges Brazilian wrecking machine Jose Aldo for the UFC featherweight title, and legendary UFC Hall of Famer Randy "The Natural" Couture will have his last professional fight against former champion Lyoto Machida.

Here's a closer look at the matchups on tap for this historic event:

 

Main bouts (on pay-per-view):

 

Georges St. Pierre (21-2) vs. Jake Shields (26-4-1)

In one of the most significant welterweight clashes in mixed martial arts history, the pound-for-pound king St. Pierre must overcome one final roadblock before a potential superfight against middleweight champion Anderson Silva can come to fruition.

Since emphatically avenging his two career losses against Matt Hughes and Matt Serra, the 29-year-old French-Canadian has been flawless in performances against the UFC’s premier welterweight contenders, including Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn, Thiago Alves and Josh Koscheck.

The lone criticism of St. Pierre would be his lack of finishes against seemingly overmatched adversaries. However, his consistency, gameplanning and strategic dissection of top-matched foes have already cemented his spot among the sport's all-time elite competitors.

On his feet, St. Pierre is a tactical machine, who utilizes crafty footwork and effective combinations to stifle his opponents with a diverse offensive attack. Firas Zahabi and Phil Nurse have worked with the champion for years, bringing his Muay Thai skills and kickboxing to an elite level. For recent fights, the Kyokushin karate black belt has sharpened his boxing under Howard Grant and Freddie Roach, the man behind boxing's pound-for-pound sensation Manny Pacquiao. The training paid off immensely in his most recent title defense against Koscheck at UFC 124 this past December. St. Pierre broke Koscheck's orbital bone and punished him with a stiff jab throughout 25 minutes to earn a one-sided unanimous decision victory.

Also a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, St. Pierre is an excellent grappler who has refined his craft under John Danaher at Renzo Gracie's Academy in New Jersey. While the champion's technique has been scrutinized due to his inability to finish Dan Hardy after locking in what appeared to be a tight kimura, St. Pierre's submission skills continually enhance. For this training camp, St. Pierre enlisted the help of BJJ world champions Roger Gracie and Braulio Estima in order to prepare for a man many consider the biggest submission threat he has faced.

St. Pierre is often credited for being the smartest fighter in the sport. He rarely deviates from his calculated gameplans as he exposes his opponents where they are most vulnerable. Under the guidance of strategist extraordinaire Greg Jackson, St. Pierre will enter this bout with a clear blueprint as he will look to expose the most glaring weakness in Shields' arsenal — his unpolished stand-up game.

The decorated Cesar Gracie BJJ black belt Shields is unbeaten in 15 straight fights. Shields has been on a tear since vanquishing Hayato Sakurai to claim the Shooto middleweight crown in 2002. The 32-year-old NCAA Division II wrestler has won gold in virtually every promotion he has called home, including Rumble on the Rock, EliteXC and Strikeforce.

Perhaps most impressive of all is Shields’ ability to dominate opponents in two weight categories. St. Pierre has already crushed Penn, a man who has made a career out of bouncing between weights, but Shields' key victories over Yushin Okami, Robbie Lawler, Jason Miller and Dan Henderson have established him as a force in the middleweight division. At 170 pounds, Shields holds victories over Carlos Condit, Mike Pyle, Paul Daley and Martin Kampmann.

A winner of several major grappling tournaments, Shields is one of the most dangerous submission specialists in the division. The former Pan American BJJ gold medalist has rolled with Marcelo Garcia in preparation for the biggest fight of his career.

Unlike St. Pierre, Shields must rely on his grappling to emerge victorious, which certainly puts a limit on the fight-ending tools at his disposal. This matchup is particularly favorable to the champion St. Pierre because he possesses an excellent wrestling pedigree, which he used to take down and outgrapple the likes of Fitch, Penn and Koscheck.

On paper, Shields' wrestling credentials are superior. But recent outings involving St. Pierre and more accomplished amateur wrestlers have gone the champion's way, which is indicative of the Montreal resident's evolving takedowns and positional control on the mat.

But Shields' slick submissions could still pose the biggest threat to St. Pierre's title reign. While the grappling ace Penn had little to offer the champion off his back, Shields is a much larger athlete with more strength, better wrestling and superior strategy.

With that being said, Shields typically excels in top position, which reiterates the importance of succeeding with takedown attempts. Pulling guard on St. Pierre could be a recipe for disaster if the champion manages to hold the position and pummel away with ground-and-pound. Shields' training partner, Nick Diaz, is a particularly dangerous BJJ player off his back, while Shields prefers to utilize a suffocating guillotine choke when he is not improving between positions on top of his opponents.

Conditioning will be a paramount factor on fight night. St. Pierre is always in immaculate shape and Saturday night will be no exception. Conversely, Shields gassed heavily in his last bout against Kampmann after undergoing a difficult weight cut. This time around, however, Shields has vowed not to make the same mistake. Anyone who has followed Shields’ career knows that his UFC 121 promotional debut was not characteristic of the California native at his best.

The crowd could also have an impact on the fight as St. Pierre will feed off the energy of 55,000 partisan fans cheering him on. Shields is mentally strong and he is unlikely to deviate from his gameplan as a result, but the home-field advantage lies in the court of the torchbearer.

Both fighters benefit from some of the best training partners in the sport. With a number of teammates on the preliminary card, St. Pierre’s training camp has coincided with Ivan Menjivar, Sean Pierson, John Makdessi and Yves Jabouin. Additionally, St. Pierre trains with Miguel Torres, Kenny Florian, David Loiseau and Jackson’s squad in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Shields is a member of the “scrap pack” alongside Strikeforce champions Gilbert Melendez and Diaz, both of whom are coming off spectacular victories earlier this month.

In breaking down the skillsets of both combatants, it becomes abundantly clear that Shields does not want to keep this fight standing. Many observers predict he will be unable to take down St. Pierre, which could translate to a long night for the challenger. However, Shields possesses one of the best single-leg takedowns in the game, which he used repeatedly to put Henderson on his back last April. If Shields comes in shape, it would be unsurprising to see him take St. Pierre down, but it comes down to what he can accomplish once he gets there.

Shields’ only other hope is to sink in a surprise choke. If anyone in the division is capable of shocking the champion with a submission, it would be Shields. At this stage, however, St. Pierre may be too skilled on the mat to succumb to the American Jiu Jitsu specialist.

Look for St. Pierre to set the pace with his jab, sprawl and constant pressure, which should overwhelm the highly touted challenger. Shields is as durable as they come, so expect him to survive the beating for five rounds. The result will likely be consistent with the French-Canadian phenom’s recent outings as he controls the action from bell to bell en route to a successful unanimous decision triumph.

Verdict: St. Pierre via unanimous decision

Jose Aldo (18-1) vs. Mark Hominick (20-8)

In the second championship tilt, the Ontario native Hominick looks to fulfill a lifelong dream by winning the UFC featherweight title on the biggest card of all time in his home province.

Since his debut in 2002, the 28-year-old “Machine” has become one of the most entertaining and dynamic featherweights in the game.

Hominick actually made his UFC debut in March 2006, entering his bout with then-No. 1 contender Yves Edwards as a 6-to-1 underdog. Hominick, who went up to 155 pounds for the opportunity to compete in the UFC, shocked the world when he submitted Edwards in the second round. Hominick followed that victory with a unanimous decision over Jorge Gurgel, improving his UFC record to 2-0 before deciding to stick to his natural weight of 145 pounds, which led to his departure from the promotion.

FIGHT CLUB

Peter Berg and Freddie Roach hit on 'Friday Night Lights' and Manny Pacquiao.

Hominick’s journey eventually landed him an opportunity to compete for Zuffa’s former partner promotion World Extreme Cagefighting in 2007. Hominick suffered submission losses against Rani Yahya and Josh Grispi before returning to the promotion last year. This time around, Hominick won three fights in a row, including a spectacular TKO win over UFC 129 preliminary fighter Yves Jabouin in a “Fight of the Year” candidate.

Now riding a five-fight winning streak and coming off an immaculate performance against George Roop in January, the Shawn Tompkins pupil is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime against a man widely considered to be one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Hominick’s strength is his crisp striking technique, but the former TKO featherweight champion has also improved his ground game considerably. He will look to keep the fight standing and persistently move forward on the champion, which should translate to a thrilling fight.

Aldo, meanwhile, burst onto the WEC scene in 2008, amassing eight straight wins to claim his spot atop the featherweight division. An eight-second knockout of Cub Swanson earned the 24-year-old Brazilian a crack at the title held by Mike Thomas Brown. Aldo completely dominated the American Top Team standout before winning his next two fights against former champion Urijah Faber and UFC veteran Manny Gamburyan.

Carrying an 11-fight winning streak into his UFC debut, the Nova Uniao member has his work cut out for him against the most talented striker he has ever encountered.

The BJJ black belt has overcome humble beginnings in Manaus, Brazil to become one of MMA’s most feared combatants.

A stellar ground game and vicious array of strikes rounds out Aldo’s multi-dimensional game. The last-reigning WEC 145-pound titleholder has yet to showcase much of his ground game, primarily because he massacres opponents standing, but taking Hominick down could be a vital element in his gameplan on Saturday night.

As the odds suggest, Aldo comes into this fight as a massive favorite, and rightfully so. However, Hominick is a legitimate threat to his throne as he could potentially pick the Brazilian apart if he can keep this fight upright. With that being said, Hominick rarely checks leg kicks. As we witnessed in Aldo’s beatdown of Faber last April, the confident Brazilian possesses lethal power in his kicks and the wear and tear could eventually take its toll on the Canadian challenger.

Hominick has a great chin and the will of a champion, so I expect him to survive five rounds of whatever Aldo can dish out. Quite simply, however, Aldo is the better-rounded fighter and he will likely exploit any weaknesses he can find.

55,000 fans will be solidly behind the challenger, but the seemingly indomitable titlist is focused on the task at hand. With a resounding victory on Saturday night, Aldo will further prove his worth as one of the world’s preeminent fighters.

Verdict: Aldo via unanimous decision

Lyoto Machida (16-2) vs. Randy Couture (19-10)

In a compelling light-heavyweight showdown, the 47-year-old UFC Hall of Famer Couture enters the octagon for what he says is the last time against the former champion Machida.

Couture has enjoyed one of the most storied careers in MMA history, winning UFC titles in the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions.

The former NCAA Division I wrestler is a Greco-Roman specialist who suffocates opponents with a grinding style. After founding Team Quest alongside Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland, Couture opened his own chain of gyms under the “Xtreme Couture” banner.

Key wins over Kevin Randleman, Pedro Rizzo, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Tim Sylvia highlight Couture’s legendary career. On paper, Couture does not possess the most impressive record or winning streak, but with the exception of his easy victory over boxer James Toney, he has always sought out the highest caliber opponents in their primes. Issuing a challenge to Machida is proof of that fact.

In 2009, the previously unbeaten 32-year-old Brazilian appeared to usher in a new era in the sport, which was prematurely dubbed the “Machida era.”

However, the Shotokan karate and BJJ black belt met his demise against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 113 last May before losing a closely contested split decision to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in November.

From the best light heavyweight in the sport to a two-fight losing streak, Machida’s momentum has come to screeching halt.

Machida’s victories over Rashad Evans, Thiago Silva, Tito Ortiz, B.J. Penn and Rich Franklin are too often overlooked due to disappointing efforts in his last few fights. Nonetheless, the Team Black House member is still a top 10 light heavyweight who can reclaim some of his lost mystique by spoiling Couture’s last stand in the octagon.

Stylistically, Couture actually matches up well with “The Dragon,” as he can fluster the southpaw with his wrestling and steadfast pressure. But Couture’s chin is not what it once was and his striking is unremarkable when compared to that of the Brazilian.

Machida, a practitioner of urine therapy, the act of drinking your own urine, is a dangerous striker who utilizes his elusiveness, speed and vast arsenal of kicks to his advantage.

Five years ago, this would have made for an evenly matched fight. However, given Couture’s age, Machida must be considered the heavy favorite. If Couture underestimates Machida’s power and accuracy, it could be a short night for “The Natural” in his last UFC bout on the biggest stage of all time.

Verdict: Machida via KO, Round 1

Vladimir Matyushenko (25-5) vs. Jason Brilz (18-3-1)

In an odd fight the UFC has opted to place on the pay-per-view card, two rugged wrestlers will face off to prove their relevance in the talent-rich 205-pound division.

Matyushenko, 40, has competed professionally since 1997, earning notable wins over Pedro Rizzo and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira along the way. The Belarusian is coming off a first-round stoppage of Alexandre Ferreira at UFC 122 last November.

The former IFL light heavyweight champion comes from a freestyle wrestling background, although his boxing has improved considerably over the years.

Brilz, 35, has enjoyed success over the course of his 18-fight campaign, though he has never defeated a top-ranked opponent that would catapult his career to the next level.

Coming off a hard-fought split decision loss against the aforementioned Nogueira, a fight that many pundits thought he won, Brilz needs a solid showing to prove he still belongs in the UFC.

The former Division II wrestler and three-time Academic All American is tackling a similar type of fighter in Matyushenko.

Though both men match up evenly, Matyushenko’s edge in experience, power and striking will likely seal Brilz’s fate as he records a late stoppage or convincing decision win.

Verdict: Matyushenko via TKO, Round 3

Ben Henderson (12-2) vs. Mark Bocek (9-3)

Two fast-rising lightweight contenders will collide as Toronto’s own Bocek tries to spoil Henderson’s UFC debut.

The 27-year-old Henderson amassed a stellar 10-fight winning streak before dropping a competitive decision to Anthony Pettis at WEC 53 last December, the now-defunct organization’s final event.

Henderson, who captured the WEC lightweight title with a victory over Donald Cerrone, also defeated Jamie Varner, Shane Roller and Anthony Njokuani during his WEC tenure.

The MMA Lab product is a well-rounded customer with excellent wrestling, striking and submissions. Despite possessing a lethal guillotine choke, the BJJ brown belt would be well advised to avoid going to the floor with the Canadian submission specialist.

Bocek, a 29-year-old BJJ black belt under Joao Roque, is 5-3 in the UFC. His record does not do him justice as the American Top Team member has dropped bouts to current lightweight king Frankie Edgar, as well as durable contenders Mac Danzig and Jim Miller.

Bocek’s submission wizardry was put on display when he trapped fellow black belt Dustin Hazelett in a beautifully set up triangle choke this past December.

Armed with a style often compared to Clay Guida, Henderson maintains a relentless pace. If he can keep moving forward and avoid any reckless positions on the mat, he should outwork Bocek over 15 minutes. However, Bocek’s striking continues to improve and his submissions are among the best in the lightweight class.

While Bocek has a clear path to victory if he turns this match-up into a grappling contest, Henderson’s frantic pace should overwhelm the hometown hero if it goes the distance.

Verdict: Henderson via unanimous decision

 

Preliminary Bouts (on Spike TV):

 

Nate Diaz (13-6) vs. Rory MacDonald (10-1)

In a tremendous welterweight pairing on the Spike TV prelims, Jake Shields’ teammate Diaz meets the bright Canadian prospect MacDonald.

Diaz, 26, has performed well since moving up in weight to compete at 170 pounds. The Stockton, Calif. native, a BJJ brown belt under Cesar Gracie, stopped both Rory Markham and Marcus Davis before losing a close decision against Dong Hyun Kim.

Despite spending most of his career competing at lightweight, where he holds marquee wins over Melvin Guillard and Kurt Pellegrino, Diaz appears equally comfortable in the welterweight division.

Diaz’s fighting style is very similar to that of his older brother Nick Diaz in that he peppers his opponents with his hands, landing a high volume of strikes. On the mat, Diaz is a BJJ virtuoso with nine of his 13 career wins coming by way of submission.

MacDonald, 21, is the youngest welterweight in the company with one of the most promising futures ahead of him.

Despite a TKO loss to Carlos Condit last June, MacDonald showed true heart and exhibited his stellar technique.

Since the setback, MacDonald decided to focus all of his energy on training and wisely opted to move from Toshido Fighting Arts in British Columbia to the famed Tristar Gym in Montreal, where he now trains with Georges St. Pierre, Kenny Florian and a who’s who of other top contenders.

MacDonald excels both on his feet and on the mat, which makes him a well-rounded adversary for anyone at 170 pounds.

This explosive tilt has all the makings of a “Fight of the Night” candidate as both men are expected to go toe to toe in a heated battle.

Ring rust could have a substantial effect on MacDonald, as the former King of the Cage champion has been inactive since his loss to Condit nearly one year ago.

With the respective training partners of both men headlining UFC 129, Diaz and MacDonald are looking to make a statement with a victory.

The versatile skillsets of both men makes this a difficult fight to call, but the older and more experienced Diaz should have an edge if he can successfully employ his aggressive style.

Verdict: Diaz via unanimous decision

Jake Ellenberger (23-5) vs. Sean Pierson (11-4)

Stepping in on short notice for the injured Brian Foster, the top contender Ellenberger will take on the Toronto native Pierson, a pioneer of Canadian mixed martial arts.

Since his razor-thin split decision loss to Carlos Condit in his September 2009 UFC debut, Ellenberger has been on a tear, earning victories over Mike Pyle, John Howard and Carlos Eduardo Rocha.

The 26-year-old “Juggernaut” is anchored at Reign Training Center in California, where his teammates include Mark Munoz, Jason Miller, Muhammed Lawal and Renato Sobral.

The heavy-handed wrestler can move one step closer to an eventual welterweight title shot if he can vanquish the crowd favorite in his own backyard.

Pierson, a staple of Quebec’s MMA scene since 1999, was victorious in his UFC debut as he outpointed Matt Riddle this past December.

A Greco-Roman wrestler and BJJ purple belt, Pierson left his job at the Toronto police force to pursue his aspirations of competing at the highest level in the UFC.

The 35-year-old now splits time training under Ryan Grant in Toronto and Zahabi MMA in Montreal, which has paid off immensely.

However, Pierson is fighting a much more skilled opponent this time around. Ellenberger should have an edge as he possesses knockout power and superior wrestling skills, but Pierson will surely give him a tough fight before succumbing to strikes late in the fray.

Verdict: Ellenberger via TKO, Round 3
 

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