The most important light heavyweight title fight in recent memory will take center stage this Saturday night at UFC 128 in New Jersey as the destructive Brazilian legend Mauricio "Shogun" Rua returns from a long layoff to defend his crown against Jon Jones, the most highly regarded prospect in the sport.
Meanwhile, former WEC poster boy Urijah Faber will battle hard-hitting former bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland in the most momentous bout featuring WEC veterans since the promotion was absorbed by the UFC.
In other action, the Miller brothers will compete in separate bouts as lightweight contender Jim Miller meets Kamal Shalorus and Dan Miller challenges top middleweight Nate Marquardt.
Finally, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic will get another opportunity to prove he belongs in the UFC as he looks to dispatch NFL veteran Brendan Schaub.
Here’s a closer look at the main card:
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (19-4) vs. Jon Jones (12-1)
Nearly one year since dethroning Lyoto Machida with a convincing first-round knockout to claim the UFC light heavyweight title, "Shogun" is returning to the octagon against an up-and-coming prodigy in the sport.
Rua, a 29-year-old Brazilian with stellar all-around credentials, was one of the original members of the famed Chute Boxe Academy where he trained alongside Wanderlei Silva during his prime. Since the team fell apart, Rua helped found Universidade da Luta, which is now his home base.
During his legendary run for Pride in Japan, which saw him claim the middleweight Grand Prix crown, Rua established himself as the premier light heavyweight in the sport with sensational wins over the likes of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Ricardo Arona and Kevin Randleman.
Rua was heavily favored to trounce Forrest Griffin in his September 2007 UFC debut, but nagging injuries had a profound impact on his conditioning and overall performance. As a result, Rua was shockingly controlled en route to a third-round submission loss. Since that setback, Rua has seemingly returned to top form with emphatic knockouts of Machida and Chuck Liddell.
Rua’s arsenal includes a BJJ black belt and a dangerous Muay Thai base. His craftiness on the mat is underrated as he has submitted only one of his 19 career victims, though his submission techniques remain a legitimate threat. Moreover, "Shogun" utilizes accurate hands, punishing leg kicks and career-shortening knees in the clinch. While the soccer kicks and stomps that he made famous during his time overseas are not allowed under the unified rules implemented in the UFC, "Shogun" remains as dangerous a fighter as ever.
Despite his lack of experience, the 23-year-old Jones, who is the same age as Rua when the Brazilian captured the Pride Grand Prix title, is actually entering this bout as the betting favorite. The former NJCAA All-American and junior college wrestling champion is positioning himself as the future of the division. The New York native trains under Greg Jackson, Mike Winkeljohn, Phil Nurse and Firas Zahabi, many of the same coaches who helped mold current UFC welterweight king Georges St-Pierre.
In seven UFC appearances, Jones has brutalized his opposition. Outside of a controversial disqualification loss to Matt Hamill in December 2009, in which he utilized illegal 12-to-6 elbow strikes on his fallen adversary, Jones has yet to experience a legitimate loss. While decisive wins over Stephan Bonnar, Brandon Vera, Vladimir Matyushenko and Ryan Bader have indeed been impressive, he has yet to fight a striker the caliber of Rua.
Jones could very well be the most physically gifted specimen in the division. His 84.5-inch reach is the longest in UFC history and he effectively mixes in unpredictable striking with his extensive wrestling pedigree. Jones’ coaches cite their pupil’s creativity as one of his best traits in the cage.
Win or lose, Jones will remain a force in the UFC for years to come. However, he could get his first taste of superstardom if he can dethrone the Brazilian torchbearer on Saturday night.
"Shogun" has made no secret about his intention to target the long legs of Jones with constant kicks, but they could also make him particularly susceptible to takedowns. The way in which Rua was able to pick apart Machida in their first bout before knocking him out in their second was truly masterful.
But Jones has indicated that he plans to take Rua down, which is where he will possess his greatest advantage. Rua has been put on his back by lesser takedown artists such as Machida and Griffin in the past, which makes it highly likely that he will end up on the ground at some point in the bout. Throughout his career, however, Rua has typically had little trouble returning to a vertical base.
At times, Jones has utilized thrilling striking. But he would be well advised to avoid trading punches with the Brazilian destroyer. If he is unable to keep "Shogun" down, Jones will be pressured from beginning to end. As such, he will need to be especially sharp defensively. Jones’ raw strength and ability to learn new tricks could also make him a potential threat on the mat, though Rua should possess superior submission skills.
Ring rust could have the biggest impact on this five-round title affair. Rua last saw action in May 2010, while Jones is coming off a win this past February. Rua’s lack of preparation and empty gas tank were key factors in his loss to Griffin. Unless he is in prime condition, Rua will be stifled by the takedowns and positional control of Jones. Conversely, Jones’ gas tank showed signs of slowing down in just his second UFC bout against Bonnar. But Jones has constantly improved in all areas of the game since that fight, so there is no reason to doubt that he will be in the best shape of his life.
The sky is indeed the limit for Jones, but "Shogun" is the ultimate test and the consensus top light heavyweight on the planet. Some oddsmakers are completely discounting Rua’s chances against the fast-rising phenom, which could be a drastic error.
If "Shogun" can survive Jones’ offensive onslaught in the early rounds, the veteran should adjust his game accordingly. Jones’ key to victory is to repeatedly take Rua down in hopes of winning a decision. Meanwhile, "Shogun" will look to get Jones’ timing down before he unleashes a fury of violent strikes to put an end to the fray midway through the contest.
Verdict: Rua via KO, Round 3
Urijah Faber (24-4) vs. Eddie Wineland (18-6-1)
The WEC’s most popular fighter competes for the first time under the UFC banner as he clashes with a dangerous knockout artist in a bantamweight tilt that guarantees fireworks.
Faber, 31, has won over fans around the world with his friendly personality, well-spoken demeanor, inspiring attitude and crowd-pleasing fighting style.
Since bursting on the scene in 2003, Faber won several titles for the Gladiator Challenge and King of the Cage organizations before joining the WEC in 2006, immediately earning a crack at the 145-pound title against submission specialist Cole Escovedo.
Faber stopped Escovedo and went on to defend the title a record five times with key wins over UFC legend Jens Pulver, longtime veteran Jeff Curran and current UFC 135-pound kingpin Dominick Cruz. He also stopped former Dream featherweight champ Bibiano Fernandes before vacating the King of the Cage title.
“The California Kid” would eventually lose to ATT product Mike Thomas Brown. He rebounded with a submission win over BJJ ace Raphael Assuncao before challenging Jose Aldo for the title. Despite displaying tremendous heart in a decision loss to the highly touted Brazilian, Faber decided to drop to bantamweight, where he hopes to make a statement and take the title away from Cruz in a long awaited rematch.
In his first fight at 135 pounds, Faber dominated former title challenger Takeya Mizugaki. Before looking too far ahead to a second bout with Cruz, Faber must be on top of his game against the often overlooked Wineland.
At just 26, Wineland also has a wealth of experience as a professional mixed martial artist, having competed in 25 bouts after debuting in 2003. The former WEC bantamweight champ has amassed quality wins over the likes of Antonio Banuelos, Manny Tapia, George Roop and Will Campuzano, while dropping only two bouts since 2004 against Chase Beebe and Rani Yahya.
Coming off successive fights in which he won a “Knockout of the Night” bonus, the heavy-handed slugger is one solid punch away from starching anyone in the division.
Faber is a flashy striker himself, but the former NCAA Division I wrestler will possess a clear-cut advantage in the grappling department. The Team Alpha Male captain, who is undoubtedly a powerhouse in the division, trains with excellent wrestlers like Joseph Benavidez on a daily basis, and he will look to take Wineland down.
At times, however, Faber has been reckless in his stand-up approach. Evidenced by knockout losses to Brown and Tyson Griffin, Faber would be wise to remain patient and avoid charging in wildly because he could leave himself open to a brutal counter punch.
If Faber succeeds in bringing the fight into his comfort zone on the mat, he should waste little time taking the back of Wineland before sinking in a fight-ending submission.
Verdict: Faber via Submission, Round 1
Jim Miller (19-2) vs. Kamal Shalorus (7-0-2)
In lightweight action, two excellent wrestlers will collide with a title shot possibly hanging in the balance for Miller, who enters this bout on an impressive six-fight winning streak.
Miller, 27, is an NCAA Division I wrestler with a BJJ black belt under Jamie Cruz. Recent victories over the likes of Charles Oliveira, Gleison Tibau, Mark Bocek and Mac Danzig have positioned Miller as a top contender for the lightweight title.
His lone two career setbacks were decisions against Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar, the UFC’s top lightweights.
The AMA Fight Club product stunned critics with a first-round kneebar to vanquish the previously unbeaten grappler Oliveira this past December, and he is often a forgotten contender in the division with Anthony Pettis, Clay Guida and Melvin Guillard also in the mix.
The 38-year-old Iranian Shalorus is a former Olympic wrestler with submission grappling experience and an evolving stand-up game.
Unbeaten in nine pro bouts, Shalorus is coming off a closely contested decision win over Bart Palaszewski and a split draw against Jamie Varner in the WEC.
Despite a wealth of wrestling experience, Shalorus often elects to keep fights standing. Miller’s conditioning, striking, submissions and overall durability will likely be the difference maker.
Shalorus would skyrocket up the lightweight rankings with an upset over Miller. If he relies on his wrestling to control the tempo, he could grind out a win. However, the American will likely pick his spots standing while threatening in the scramble and on the ground en route to a decisive triumph.
Verdict: Jim Miller via Unanimous Decision
Nate Marquardt (30-10-2) vs. Dan Miller (13-4)
The elder of two Miller brothers competing on the card, Dan Miller has stepped in as a late replacement for Yoshihiro Akiyama in a tough match-up against the top contender Marquardt.
Marquardt is coming off an uninspired decision loss against Yushin Okami this past November. The 31-year-old BJJ black belt is a well-travelled veteran with a wealth of international experience and key wins over Kazuo Misaki, Martin Kampmann, Demian Maia and Rousimar Palhares.
Marquardt has evolved under Greg Jackson’s system. The former middleweight title challenger is a conditioning machine with dangerous hands and slick submissions.
Recent losses to Okami and Chael Sonnen have exposed some holes in his wrestling game, but Marquardt will be more polished this time around as he regularly trains with Rashad Evans and Shane Carwin.
A fellow BJJ black belt, the 29-year-old Miller rebounded from a three-fight losing skid with back-to-back wins over John Salter and Joe Doerksen.
Despite struggling against the top-tier middleweights in the UFC, Miller is a well-rounded fighter with improving boxing and an always dangerous ground game.
Although both men are BJJ black belts, the majority of this fight is likely to take place standing. Desperate to return to title contention, Marquardt will need a standout performance against Miller, who has yet to be stopped in his career.
Marquardt could be the heaviest puncher Miller has encountered, but the New Jersey native will keep moving forward. Unless Marquardt pounces on his foe to follow up on a solid strike, expect a hard-fought three-round battle with Marquardt emerging as the clear victor.
Verdict: Marquardt via Unanimous Decision
Brendan Schaub (7-1) vs. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic (27-8-2)
This could be Cro Cop’s last shot at resurrecting an otherwise fading career as he clashes with the up-and-coming prospect Schaub.
The 27-year-old former NFL player Schaub is fresh off the most marquee victory of his career — a dominant decision over Gabriel Gonzaga in October. Since being knocked out by Roy Nelson in the heavyweight final of the tenth season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Schaub has amassed three straight wins.
A student of Greg Jackson and Trevor Wittman, Schaub has no shortage of top talent to push him in the gym. Improving boxing, wrestling and BJJ skills are establishing Schaub as a future contender in the continually expanding division.
The 36-year-old Cro Cop is coming off a lackluster effort against Frank Mir this past September, in which both men were tentative to let their strikes go before Mir caught him with a knee to knock him out in one of the year’s most forgettable main events.
Cro Cop, who defeated Igor Vovchanchyn, Kevin Randleman, Mark Coleman, Josh Barnett and Wanderlei Silva in Pride, has had a rocky run in the UFC. The Croatian legend has defeated less experienced opposition such as Eddie Sanchez, Mostapha al Turk, Anthony Perosh and Pat Barry, while losing to Mir, Gonzaga, Cheick Kongo and Junior dos Santos.
With young guns continuing to develop well-rounded arsenals in the rapidly evolving sport, Cro Cop is seemingly still a one-dimensional striker with lethal kicks, though he has become increasingly hesitant to let his strikes go. Throughout his career, Cro Cop has demonstrated effective anti-BJJ with his sprawl and ability to return to his feet.
A former K-1 kickboxing sensation, Cro Cop still only needs one vicious kick to end a fight. On the other hand, Schaub will have a considerably deeper assortment of tools to put the former Pride open-weight Grand Prix winner away.
Schaub has been offended by Cro Cop referring to him as a "rookie" and he will look to make a statement on Saturday night. The blueprint to beating Cro Cop, which was established by Kongo and Mir, is to overpower him by keeping the pressure on and instigating clinch work against the cage.
While Schaub is adamant this fight will not go the distance, Cro Cop is still extremely resilient. As such, Schaub should establish his gameplan and bully the aging kickboxer, but judges will likely have the final say.