A rematch between former UFC light heavyweight champions Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz will finally come to fruition in the main event of UFC 133 in Philadelphia.
Let’s take a closer look at how this fight came about, what implications it might have and what other fights the UFC has on tap for Saturday night.
MAIN BOUTS (PAY-PER-VIEW):
Rashad Evans (15-1-1) vs. Tito Ortiz (16-8-1)
Four years since their first encounter at UFC 73, which ended in a unanimous draw, Evans and Ortiz collide in a fight that will likely determine the No. 1 contender for the UFC light heavyweight title.
Evans, 31, has been inactive since a closely contested unanimous decision win over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 114 in May 2010.
A former UFC light heavyweight champion, Evans has recorded other notable decision wins over Michael Bisping and Thiago Silva, while registering stoppages of UFC poster boys Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell. Evans’ lone setback was a second-round knockout at the hands of Lyoto Machida, which cost him his 205-pound throne.
Evans was initially hoping to challenge Mauricio "Shogun" Rua for the title earlier this year before being sidelined with an injury, which led to Jon Jones winning the title. Evans was then planning to challenge his former teammate Jones at UFC 133, but an injury forced the champion to withdraw.
Jones has since been rebooked for a title defense against "Rampage" at UFC 135 in September. Rising prospect Phil Davis stepped in and also sustained an injury during his training camp, which led to Ortiz capitalizing on the opportunity as Machida demanded "Anderson Silva money" for a rematch with Evans on short notice.
Fresh off a shocking upset win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132 this past July, the 36-year-old Ortiz claims to be injury-free and insists he’s in the best shape of his career. We’ve heard it all before, but his spectacular performance against Bader could be the start of a possible resurgence.
From 2000 to 2003, Ortiz was the seemingly unstoppable UFC light heavyweight champion. Ortiz defeated Wanderlei Silva at UFC 25 in 2000 to win the 205-pound title. "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" went on to record marquee career victories over Evan Tanner, Vladimir Matyushenko, Ken Shamrock, Patrick Cote, Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort.
Despite taking five years to return to the win column, Ortiz has lost competitive matchups along the way. Ortiz would have prevailed against Evans in their first meeting if he was not penalized a point for grabbing the chain-linked fence. He gave Machida a competitive fight. And his split-decision loss to Griffin in their rematch could have easily gone the other way.
At UFC 132, Ortiz desperately needed to rebound from a winless skid spanning five years and he did so emphatically. A dangerous submission wrestler and collegiate state wrestling champion, Ortiz manages his own camp at Team Punishment, which could be his downfall against a seasoned fighter the caliber of Evans.
Evans, a former NCAA Division I wrestler, has progressed immensely since his promotional debut in 2005. Evans has split with former coach Greg Jackson and moved to Florida where he joined the upstart Imperial Athletics camp, home to Fedor Emelianenko conqueror Antonio Silva and former Sengoku king Jorge Santiago.
After spending years in New Mexico training alongside Georges St. Pierre, Shane Carwin and Nate Marquardt, this move could actually prove beneficial for Evans as he will become familiarized with new techniques and training methods.
Ortiz possesses the size advantage and longtime teammate Ricco Rodriguez insists his submission wrestling is a force to be reckoned with. However, Ortiz is also a talented boxer as long as his gas tank is full. Evans has much better cardio and he is also the quicker of the two fighters. With more tools at his disposal and the wrestling pedigree to dictate where the fight goes, Evans should turn in a fairly dominant performance against the fading mixed martial arts pioneer.
With that being said, this is actually a favorable fight for Ortiz among all the other potential top opponents at 205 pounds. He had Evans’ number once in the past, which could give him a mental edge. Furthermore, his size could be overwhelming if utilized effectively. Finally, Evans has been out of action for over a year and ring rust could be a factor.
But Evans will likely succeed in employing his game as he secures numerous takedowns, something Matt Hamill was able to do successfully against Ortiz, while landing the most significant strikes en route to a triumphant unanimous decision.
Verdict: Evans via decision
Vitor Belfort (19-9) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-3)
The Brazilian "Phenom" looks to rebound from a devastating first-round knockout loss to UFC middleweight titlist Anderson Silva when he tangles with the slick Japanese judoka.
Belfort, 34, was on a roll leading into his fight with Silva as he recorded successive stoppages of Rich Franklin, Matt Lindland and Terry Martin.
Belfort is a true MMA trailblazer as he debuted in 1996 and won the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament by vanquishing bigger foes. He suffered his first loss against Randy Couture at UFC 15 in October 1997 before stopping Wanderlei Silva in his last UFC fight and departing to Japan to compete for the Pride Fighting Championships.
During his Pride tenure, Belfort dropped fights against Dan Henderson, Alistair Overeem and Kazushi Sakuraba, while earning wins over heavyweights Gilbert Yvel and Heath Herring.
Belfort returned to the UFC for four fights between 2004 and 2005, stopping Marvin Eastman before avenging his defeat against Couture. This would lead to a trilogy fight against Couture, which he lost, and another setback to Tito Ortiz ultimately led to him being cut from the UFC roster.
Akiyama, 36, has had a difficult time adjusting to the UFC as he looks to rebound from back-to-back losses for the first time in his career.
A force in Japan, Akiyama defeated the likes of Melvin Manhoef and Denis Kang before eventually making his UFC debut in July 2009. Akiyama was victorious, winning a hotly disputed split decision over Alan Belcher at UFC 100, though he would suffer losses to Chris Leben and Michael Bisping in his next two appearances.
The southpaw Belfort is widely regarded as one of the sport’s most proficient boxers, though he’s also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo. His lethal hands made his clash with Silva one of the most anticipated middleweight fights in history, but the outcome has sent Belfort back to the drawing board. Belfort has been training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, fine-tuning his striking under the watchful eye of K-1 legend Ray Sefo.
Akiyama, meanwhile, is a 3rd dan black belt in judo and one of the most respected practitioners of the martial art in the UFC. His boxing skills are also an asset, though his inability to defend repeated left hooks during his fight with Leben exposed defensive weaknesses. Akiyama’s conditioning has also been the source of criticism in the past. The former K-1 Hero’s champion has split his camp in Japan with some critical training at Greg Jackson’s academy in New Mexico.
After tasting defeat for the first time in five years, Belfort will be hungry for a victory Saturday night. His hand speed, footwork and combinations will take their toll on the durable South Korean, who will eventually succumb to a violent barrage of strikes.
Verdict: Belfort via TKO, Round 2
Dennis Hallman (50-13-2) vs. Brian Ebersole (47-14-1)
Two well-travelled welterweights will collide as the 66-fight veteran Hallman meets the 62-fight veteran Ebersole.
Hallman, 35, is coming off back-to-back wins over Karo Parisyan and Ben Saunders.
The Washington native is perhaps most noted for his two first-round submission wins over legendary welterweight Matt Hughes in a combined 38 seconds. While it’s true those wins occurred over 10 years ago, they remain a career highlight for Hallman.
Throughout his career, Hallman has lost to Caol Uno, Jens Pulver, Frank Trigg, Drew Fickett, Jorge Rivera and John Howard, who knocked him out in the third round of his December 2009 UFC return.
Ebersole, 30, scored a huge upset in his UFC debut as he won a unanimous decision over submission ace Chris Lytle after accepting the bout on short notice. Ebersole has other notable wins over Carlos Newton, Matt Horwich, Nick Thompson and Emanuel Newton with losses to Hector Lombard, Kyle Noke and Ed Herman.
Both fighters are seasoned wrestlers with excellent control and positioning. Hallman has been around for a few more years, while Ebersole is now entering his prime.
We can expect a tooth-and-nail battle that goes three rounds. If Ebersole is more active and he keeps the pressure on from start to finish, he will likely earn the nod on judges’ cards.
Verdict: Ebersole via decision
Jorge Rivera (19-8) vs. Constantinos Phillippou (10-2)
In a middleweight pairing better suited for the preliminary card, "El Conquistador" could enter the octagon for the last time against Philippou, a product of Serra-Longo Fight Team.
Rivera, 39, is coming off a disappointing second-round TKO loss against Michael Bisping at UFC 127 this past February. The proud Massachusetts native saw his career hit a roadblock after suffering a severe broken jaw in his knockout loss to Terry Martin in 2007.
However, Rivera has actually shown marked improvements in recent UFC outings, stopping the likes of Nate Quarry, Rob Kimmons and Kendall Grove. Rivera has fought a number of quality middleweights throughout his mixed martial arts campaign, suffering losses against Rich Franklin, Anderson Silva, Chris Leben and Martin Kampmann, while vanquishing Dennis Hallman, David Loiseau and Travis Lutter.
The Team Sityodtong pupil under Mark DellaGrotte is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, though his muay thai base and furious strikes are the most dangerous weapons in his bag of tricks.
By comparison, the 31-year-old Philippou is still a relative novice to the sport. The Cyprus native lost his UFC debut in March, dropping a unanimous decision to Nick Catone.
Philippou’s background is primarily as a boxer, though his coach Matt Serra has surely improved his ground game since he began training in New York.
A veteran of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series, Philippou should be credited for taking this fight on short notice after Alessio Sakara was forced to withdraw from the fight yet again.
However, the step up in competition will not bode well for Philippou, who will be overwhelmed by Rivera’s pressure before a furious onslaught of punches brings an end to the fight.
Verdict: Rivera via KO, Round 1
Rory MacDonald (11-1) vs. Mike Pyle (21-7-1)
In a spectacular welterweight showdown, the young Canadian looks to continue his ascent up the UFC ladder.
MacDonald, 22, is one of the brightest prospects in the entire sport. The British Columbia native is now a full-time member of Tristar Gym in Montreal, where his training partners include Georges St. Pierre, Miguel Torres and Kenny Florian.
After suffering the first loss of his career in his UFC debut, a late TKO stoppage by former WEC welterweight champion Carlos Condit, MacDonald bounced back with a dominant performance against Nate Diaz at UFC 129 this past April.
MacDonald epitomizes the future of the sport as he excels virtually anywhere the fight goes. Sensing a star on their hands, the UFC is wasting little time matching MacDonald with the division’s elite.
Pyle, 35, is an experienced veteran with quality wins over Ricardo Almeida, John Hathaway, Chris Wilson, Dan Hornbuckle and Jon Fitch. A former WEC welterweight title-holder himself, Pyle is one of the most durable fighters in the division and a crafty submission artist.
A brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Pyle has been a loyal member of Xtreme Couture, training alongside Randy Couture, Jay Hieron, Martin Kampmann and Gray Maynard.
"Quicksand" stunned the UFC brass with a one-sided beating on Hathaway, who was coming off a victory over Diego Sanchez. He can play the role of the spoiler yet again if he halts the youngster’s meteoric rise.
MacDonald will stay composed wherever the fight ends up. Pyle’s best bet is to suffocate the Canadian on the mat. However, MacDonald is too explosive and he will likely outwork Pyle with his striking and wrestling to earn a hard-fought decision.
Verdict: MacDonald via decision
PRELIMERARY BOUTS (SPIKE TV):
Matt Hamill (10-3) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (11-1)
In the first of two intriguing preliminary fights on Spike TV, Hamill will look to turn in an impressive performance after a tough loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson this past May.
Hamill, 34, is the UFC’s most inspirational story as he has competed on a professional level after being born deaf. Hamill has not let it hold him back, however, as he won three NCAA Division III national wrestling titles before embarking on a successful career in the UFC.
After a split-decision loss to Michael Bisping at UFC 75, which is often regarded as one of the most controversial calls in UFC history, Hamill has rattled off wins over Tim Boetsch, Mark Munoz, Keith Jardine and Tito Ortiz.
Gustafsson, 24, is one of the future stars of the light heavyweight class. The Swedish sensation suffered the first loss of his career in his second UFC bout against decorated wrestler Phil Davis, which prompted him to begin training with Davis at Alliance MMA in California.
Since the loss, Gustafsson has back-to-back submission wins over Cyrille Diabate and James Te Huna. With a victory over a recognized name like Hamill, Gustafsson will catapult his career to the next level.
Gustafsson’s primary weakness, the wrestling game, is Hamill’s primary strength. However, Hamill will need to overcome Gustafsson’s sharp boxing and sublime submission game.
When Rich Franklin fought Hamill in September 2008, he broke him down with body strikes. Gustafsson should look to use a similar strategy as he attempts to pick apart the Ohio native over three grueling rounds.
Verdict: Gustafsson via decision
Chad Mendes (10-0) vs. Rani Yahya (16-6)
In a featherweight clash that could determine the next title challenger after Kenny Florian, an undefeated prospect meets a seasoned grappling ace.
Mendes, 26, has an unblemished record with notable wins over Michihiro Omigawa, Javier Vazquez, Cub Swanson and Erik Koch.
An NCAA Division I wrestler and current Team Alpha Male member, Mendes has evolved significantly as a well-rounded mixed martial artist. He no longer relies solely on his takedowns to control opponents, which will be a key attribute in this fight.
Yahya, 26, is a second-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with notable wins on the submission grappling circuit. In MMA, Yahya has submitted Mark Hominick, Yoshiro Maeda and Eddie Wineland, though losses against Takeya Mizugaki and Joseph Benavidez at bantamweight prompted the Brazilian to move back to 145 pounds.
Yahya was positioned as a mere stepping stone for Mike Thomas Brown in their January tilt, but Yahya utilized his grappling to control the former WEC featherweight champion.
A member of the Constrictor Team, Yahya rolls with UFC welterweight Paulo Thiago. But Mendes’ high-level featherweight and bantamweight teammates, including Urijah Faber and Benavidez, will prepare him for the most important fight of his career. After all, Benavidez has already defeated Yahya.
Yahya’s only major threat is his arsenal of submissions. Mendes will utilize his wrestling to keep the fight standing and pick apart the former Abu Dhabi submission grappling tournament winner. If he is selective with his takedowns and effective on his feet, Mendes should turn in a stellar performance to make his case for a future title shot.