A pair of exciting light heavyweight battles top the bill of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return to FOX Saturday in Los Angeles.
Former UFC light heavyweight champions Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Lyoto Machida look to prove they deserve the next crack at Jon Jones as they take on prospective contenders Brandon Vera and Ryan Bader, respectively.
In other action, Joe Lauzon meets Jamie Varner in a lightweight tilt, while Mike Swick makes his long-awaited Octagon return against DaMarques Johnson.
Here’s a closer look at the Main Card:
Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (20-6) vs. Brandon Vera (12-5)
Coming off losses in three of his last five appearances, the Brazilian berserker "Shogun" can re-establish himself as a viable title contender with a strong showing against the Filipino-American Vera.
Rua, 30, last saw action in November, dropping a highly competitive five-round decision to Dan Henderson in a fight widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
Despite assuming control in the latter stages of the contest, Rua showed visible signs of slowing down since his heyday in the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships, where he established himself as arguably the premier light heavyweight in history.
Under the Pride banner in Japan, Rua defeated the likes of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Ricardo Arona and Kevin Randleman, also claiming the 2005 Grand Prix title along the way.
Rua was upset in his September 2007 UFC debut, succumbing to a third-round submission at the hands of Forrest Griffin. He rebounded with knockouts of Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell, which earned him a shot at the 205-pound title.
Many observers thought "Shogun" did enough to dethrone Lyoto Machida in their first bout at UFC 104, but a highly contentious decision for Machida led to an immediate rematch, which Rua won in resounding fashion with a brutal first-round knockout.
Seemingly back to top form, Rua’s title reign was short-lived as he was brutalized by current champion Jon Jones at UFC 128, ultimately submitting to a barrage of strikes in the third round.
After rebounding with a first-round finish of Griffin in their rematch at UFC 134 in Brazil, Rua went toe-to-toe with Henderson over five entertaining rounds. Both fighters put on an unforgettable show, transitioning between positions on the ground and engaging in heated striking exchanges. The result was not favorable to Rua, but his gutsy performance already has him on the verge of earning another crack at the title.
Rua has been the subject of recent criticism from UFC president Dana White after turning down a proposed fight with Brazilian prospect Glover Teixeira. However, Rua insists he’s ready to take on all comers and he’s looking to jumpstart his path to the title with a resounding victory over the seemingly overmatched Vera.
Vera, 34, seemed destined for greatness in the UFC after winning the WEC heavyweight tournament and finishing his first four UFC foes, including former heavyweight champion Frank Mir.
Vera announced his intentions to go after both the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles, but those dreams were cut short after successive setbacks against Tim Sylvia and Fabricio Werdum, which prompted his permanent drop to 205 pounds.
Vera has struggled since the drop, losing fights to Keith Jardine, Randy Couture and Jones, while racking up a few wins over Reese Andy, Mike Patt and Krzysztof Soszynski.
In his most recent outing, Vera notched a competitive decision over Eliot Marshall, though his performance was not indicative of a fighter who’s ready for a huge step up in competition.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt under Lloyd Irvin, the Alliance MMA student possesses an underrated ground game to accompany a strong muay thai base.
Stylistically, Rua, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and muay thai powerhouse under Andre Dida and Rafael Cordeiro, should be the superior tactician wherever the fight goes.
Vera has the power to change the landscape of a fight with a single shot and he could take advantage of wear-and-tear endured by Rua from years of fierce competition. However, the determined Brazilian possesses all the critical advantages and his striking is some of the best the division has ever seen.
With his sights set on redemption against Jones after the most brutal loss of his career, Rua will capitalize on his superiority in all the aspects that comprise mixed martial arts as he finds an opening to unleash a ferocious combination, putting an exclamation mark on a victory that could propel him back to the championship.
Verdict: Rua via KO, Round 1
Lyoto Machida (17-3) vs. Ryan Bader (14-2)
In the co-feature, another former Brazilian champion hopes to re-emerge in the 205-pound title hunt as Machida battles "The Ultimate Fighter 8" winner Bader.
Machida, 34, challenged Jones for the light heavyweight title this past December, losing by submission in the second round.
It’s worth noting Machida probably turned in the best performance against the dominant champion as he won the first round with more accurate striking before being overpowered and finished in the second.
At one point, Machida was considered the future of the division. Victories over the likes of Stephan Bonnar, Rich Franklin and B.J. Penn earned the Brazilian karateka a shot in the UFC, where he tore through his first six opponents, including Thiago Silva and Tito Ortiz, to earn a title shot.
Machida brutally knocked out Rashad Evans to win the top prize in 2009, leading to UFC commentator Joe Rogan prematurely announcing the commencement of the "Machida era."
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Shotokan karate black belt won a controversial decision to retain his title against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 104. In the rematch, he was knocked unconscious in the very first round, signaling the official end of his reign atop the division.
Machida dropped a split decision to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in his next fight before ending the career of Randy Couture with a dazzling front kick knockout at UFC 129 in Toronto.
While Machida fell short against Jones in December, he could have the best style to beat him. The southpaw utilizes an elusive striking approach, frustrating his foes with constant movement and sharp counterstriking.
Bader, 29, is coming off the biggest win of his career this past February as he won a convincing unanimous decision over "Rampage" in Japan.
Additionally, since winning the eighth season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Bader has recorded impressive knockouts of Jason Brilz and Keith Jardine, as well as a hard-fought decision over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
A former NCAA Division I All-American and three-time Pac-10 Conference champion, Bader is well-equipped with the wrestling base to give most light heavyweights fits in the cage. His striking continues to improve, but swift takedowns remain the key anchor to his offense.
In Machida, he will encounter an opponent who is especially difficult to take down. Machida’s movement and sprawls are highly effective, evidenced by Evans, Couture and Jackson all struggling to put him down.
Even if Bader initially fails on a shot, he will need to stay persistent, constantly moving in on the evasive Brazilian. Meanwhile, Machida will rely on his footwork and kicks to discourage Bader, nullifying his wrestling game and tactically picking him apart.
UFC president Dana White has stated whoever has the most impressive performance on Saturday night will be most likely to earn a title shot. With that in mind, Machida will look to make a statement as he’s been criticized in the past for playing it safe in decisions.
But Bader is a durable wrestler with a solid chin, so putting him out cold could prove easier said than done. Nonetheless, Machida will have his way with the rudimentary striking of his adversary, picking his shots carefully over the course of three rounds to win a convincing decision.
Verdict: Machida via decision
Joe Lauzon (21-7) vs. Jamie Varner (20-6)
In a compelling lightweight pairing, the submission specialist Lauzon battles the resurgent wrestler Varner.
The 28-year-old Lauzon first turned heads in the UFC with a surprising knockout of Jens Pulver at UFC 63 back in 2006. Since the loss, Lauzon has been largely inconsistent, splitting wins and losses against a wide range of styles.
Some of Lauzon’s marquee victims include Jeremy Stephens, Gabe Ruediger, Curt Warburton and Melvin Guillard. On the other hand, he’s dropped fights to Kenny Florian, Sam Stout, George Sotiropoulos and, most recently, Anthony Pettis.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt with four "Submission of the Night" bonuses, Lauzon continues to hone his striking skills, evidenced by the big punch that dropped Guillard en route to a triumphant submission win this past October.
Lauzon was initially scheduled to take on British striker Terry Etim, so it remains to be seen how he’ll cope with the wrestling of Varner.
The 27-year-old Varner scored one of the most stunning upsets of the year in his UFC return this past May, finishing highly touted Brazilian banger Edson Barboza with strikes in the very first round.
A former WEC lightweight champion, Varner has recorded wins over the likes of Jesse Bongfeldt, Rob McCullough, Donald Cerrone and Drew Fickett.
In his WEC 46 bout with current UFC torchbearer Benson Henderson, Varner actually controlled the fight for the better part of two rounds before falling victim to a third-round guillotine choke.
The MMA Lab disciple was a standout high school wrestler, which remains his biggest threat in the cage. After being written off as over-the-hill and prematurely announcing his retirement last year, Varner has returned to top form.
The Arizona native will give Boston’s Lauzon some trouble early as he tries to close the distance and pressure him in the clinch. He may even secure a takedown or two, but Lauzon will always threaten with a superior submission game.
Ultimately, Varner’s lack of submission defense and Lauzon’s persistent attempts at finishing the fight will pay off as he coaxes a tapout late in the fray.
Verdict: Lauzon via Submission, Round 3
Mike Swick (14-4) vs. DaMarques Johnson (15-10)
Inactive since February 2010, the American Kickboxing Academy’s Swick finally returns to the Octagon for a welterweight duel with Johnson, a finalist on the ninth season of "The Ultimate Fighter."
Swick, 33, dropped his last two fights against Paulo Thiago and Dan Hardy, snapping a four-fight winning streak that included knockouts of Ben Saunders and Jonathan Goulet.
A rangy welterweight with dynamic striking and a dangerous guillotine choke, Swick is looking to return to his winning ways, though ring rust remains a major question mark surrounding his return.
Johnson, 30, a student of Jeremy Horn at Elite Performance, was submitted by John Maguire in his last bout this past April.
A talented submission practitioner with strong ground-and-pound, Johnson has struggled to build up a streak since graduating from the popular reality series, dropping fights to Amir Sadollah, Matt Riddle and James Wilks, while racking up some wins over Edgar Garcia, Brad Blackburn, Mike Guymon and Clay Harvison.
On the feet, Swick will be in complete control. Johnson will threaten if the action spills to the canvas, but Swick is no fish out of water. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt under Dave Camarillo will anticipate Johnson’s takedown attempts and find an opportunity to pounce with a flurry, putting him away with strikes in the second stanza.