UFC 126 preview

BY foxsports • February 4, 2011

The biggest middleweight title bout in UFC history takes place this Saturday night as “The Phenom” Vitor Belfort challenges Anderson “The Spider” Silva for divisional supremacy at UFC 126 in Las Vegas.

The stacked event also will feature two intriguing light heavyweight matchups as former world champions Forrest Griffin and Rich Franklin go at it, while Jon “Bones” Jones meets Ryan “Darth” Bader in a clash of young studs looking to break into the top five of the division.

Here’s a breakdown of the main card set for the Mandalay Bay Events Center:

Anderson Silva (27-4) vs. Vitor Belfort (19-8)

The seemingly indomitable kingpin faces a legitimate threat on Saturday night as he battles one of the preeminent technical boxers in mixed martial arts.

Silva, 35, is widely considered among the top pound-for-pound fighters in the game. The Brazilian’s success is abundantly clear by looking at his unblemished UFC record against a multitude of dangerous wrestlers and submission specialists, including Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Rich Franklin, Nate Marquardt, Demian Maia and Forrest Griffin.

Unbeaten since a controversial disqualification loss to Yushin Okami in January 2006, Silva continues to stun audiences with masterful displays of elite striking and submission wizardry. Seven consecutive title defenses have cemented Silva as the most dominant champion in UFC history.

However, the southpaw often has struggled against superior wrestlers, losing rounds to Henderson, Sonnen and Travis Lutter before pulling off come-from-behind submission triumphs. Prior to his miraculous fifth-round triangle choke to put away Sonnen at UFC 117 last August, Silva repeatedly was criticized by UFC president Dana White for a lack of effort and killer instinct.

Anchored at Black House Gym under the likes of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Sylvio Behring, the BJJ and judo black belt Silva may finally meet his match in terms of high-level striking when he battles a fellow Brazilian knockout artist.

On Saturday night, Silva will be pressured from the onset, which will leave him little opportunity to showboat in the octagon. In the buildup, Belfort has assured fans that he is not going to dance with Silva, in contrast to the champion’s performances against overmatched Brazilian foes Maia and Thales Leites. He will be gunning for his opponent’s head and, unlike Sonnen, who likes to grind on his opponents using his wrestling pedigree, Belfort is an explosive fighter who only needs one solid punch to end a fight.

The 33-year-old challenger also possesses black belts in BJJ and judo, although it is his sharp boxing prowess that has earned him a reputation as one of the sport’s lethal stand-up fighters.

After recently severing ties with TapOut Gym head coach Shawn Tompkins, Belfort has completed the majority of his training camp at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, working closely with Ron Frazier, Ray Sefo, Pedro Frapiuna, Neil Melanson and Mike Dolce.

Belfort’s speed, footwork and accuracy can pose some serious problems for the champion, but his game is more diverse than some give him credit for. The blueprint to beat Silva is already clear — control him with takedowns and administer ground-and-pound.

After aggressive knockouts of Matt Lindland and Rich Franklin, Belfort surely would love to do the same to Silva, but he has other tools in his repertoire that could be equally threatening.

In bouts against Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson, Belfort utilized an underrated wrestling game to secure takedowns and transitions on the mat. Despite coming out on the losing end in both efforts, he showed glimpses of wrestling skills that could be vital against the seasoned champion.

Following early career wins over Wanderlei Silva and Randy Couture, Belfort appeared to be on the verge of superstardom. However, his gas tank has failed him on more than one occasion, and his will to fight has been questioned after uninspired outings in his rematch with Couture and in his fight against Tito Ortiz.

A recent drop to 185 pounds surely will be a beneficial cut for the Brazilian. On the other hand, Belfort has not seen action since September 2009, a long period to be sidelined ahead of a title fight against one of the sport’s most dangerous competitors.

A reinvigorated, motivated Belfort can test Silva anywhere the fight goes, but his conditioning must be better than ever before.

Both Silva and Belfort rely primarily on effective counterstriking, which could translate to a slow start in which both men will feel each other out on their feet. Neither man will come in swinging recklessly, but Belfort likes to keep the pressure on his opponents. He likely will do the same with Silva, especially as the bout progresses and he gets increasingly comfortable with the champion’s movement. Pressuring “The Spider” was a fatal error for the likes of Griffin and Chris Leben, but Belfort’s striking is in a different league.

Few fighters can survive Belfort’s offensive storm once his powerful punches begin to land, so Silva will need to employ an impenetrable defensive game.

On paper, Belfort has all the tools and advantages to dethrone the long-reigning torchbearer. If he is on top of his game, he can be unstoppable in the talent-rich middleweight class. Belfort's inactivity and tendency to fold under pressure, however, make Silva the favorite heading into Saturday’s title clash.

Expect Silva to rise to the occasion by flustering Belfort with his multi-dimensional striking and outworking him en route to a hard-fought unanimous decision.

Verdict: Silva via unanimous decision

Forrest Griffin (17-6) vs. Rich Franklin (28-5)

In an intriguing light heavyweight bout, two former UFC poster boys will finally cross paths in the octagon.

Griffin, 31, is a former UFC light heavyweight champion, as he dethroned Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to win the title in controversial fashion at UFC 86 in July 2008.

Since that victory, Griffin was stopped by Anderson Silva and Rashad Evans before bouncing back with a split decision win over Tito Ortiz. The Xtreme Couture product also owns an unlikely submission victory over current champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the Brazilian’s UFC debut back in 2007, although Rua was plagued by injury problems leading into the bout.

The winner of the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter” continues to evolve as he was recently awarded his BJJ black belt under Robert Drysdale. Standing 6-feet-3, Griffin is among the most physically imposing fighters in the 205-pound division. In between fights, he has been known to balloon to well over 220 pounds.

Griffin hardly threatens opponents with knockout power, but he effectively uses his range by delivering leg kicks and staying clear of danger.

Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Franklin claimed the UFC middleweight title with a stoppage of the late Evan Tanner in 2005. Despite two losses against Anderson Silva, a contentious decision setback against Dan Henderson and a devastating recent knockout at the hands of Vitor Belfort, Franklin remains a real threat at either 185 or 205 pounds.

Fresh off a knockout win over Chuck Liddell, Franklin’s well-rounded game carried him to decision wins over Wanderlei Silva and Yushin Okami in recent years. Additionally, he made all light heavyweights take notice when he stopped wrestling standout Matt Hamill with a brutal body assault in 2008.

A BJJ brown belt under Jorge Gurgel, Franklin is a tactical striker with an ability to pick his opponents apart. Similar to Griffin, the former school teacher always stays composed and fights hard until the final bell.

Griffin and Franklin have some similarities in their respective games. Neither man is a one-punch knockout banger. They are willing to trade punches standing and they possess highly underrated ground games.

The southpaw Franklin should do more damage standing if he can close the distance and punish the body of Griffin. However, if he allows Griffin to find his range and unload with leg kicks, his movement will be greatly impacted as the fight progresses.

Given the considerable size discrepancy, expect Griffin to attempt takedowns. Once on the mat, he can use his mass to control Franklin, possibly even submit him.

Franklin’s game plan should be a ruthless attack on the body. His body kicks have winded past opponents, and he must persistently attack Griffin’s midsection to wear him down.

Both men desperately need an impressive performance to cement their place in the top 10 of the UFC’s most star-studded division. With Griffin based in Las Vegas, he will have the support of the live crowd at the Mandalay Bay and he can try to feed off that energy to pressure the former middleweight champion.

I give the edge to Franklin based on power alone, but a back-and-forth battle can be expected when these two fan favorites slug it out on Saturday night.

Verdict: Franklin via unanimous decision

Carlos Eduardo Rocha (9-0) vs. Jake Ellenberger (22-5)

In an odd pairing for the pay-per-view portion of the card, the explosive 25-year-old Ellenberger can move one step closer to the title picture with a dominant showing against the 29-year-old Brazilian.

After notable victories over Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons and Pat Healy, Ellenberger joined the UFC in September 2009, losing a close split decision to former WEC champion Carlos Condit. In defeat, he demonstrated tremendous power and wrestling skills, which consequently put the 170-pound division on notice.

Ellenberger is riding a two-fight winning streak with impressive stoppages of durable contenders Mike Pyle and John Howard.

Rocha, a BJJ black belt fighting out of Hamburg, Germany, won his UFC debut by submitting Kris McCray with a kneebar last November.

Though he may possess an unbeaten record, Rocha’s wins have come against questionable opponents overseas and Ellenberger is undoubtedly the toughest opponent of his career.

The American powerhouse, nicknamed “The Juggernaut,” has a clear path to victory. If he takes Rocha down and hammers down bombs from top position, the Brazilian will be in a heap of trouble.

Although his submission skills are undeniable, Rocha will need to be at his best to catch Ellenberger off his back. Ellenberger already has used his wrestling to defeat solid submission players, such as Pyle, and he should have little trouble doing the same at UFC 126.

Rocha could be walking into the first loss of his career unless he turns in the performance of a lifetime against the fast-rising welterweight contender.

Verdict: Ellenberger via unanimous decision

Ryan Bader (12-0) vs. Jon Jones (11-1)

In a pivotal light heavyweight showdown, the unbeaten Bader meets the highly touted prodigy Jones.

The 27-year-old Bader won the eighth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” by submitting BJJ black belt Vinny Magalhaes.

A former NCAA Division I wrestler from Arizona, Bader has continually improved his all-around game with training partners that include Aaron Simpson and C.B. Dollaway. During his time as an amateur wrestler, Bader also trained alongside current UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.

Since his “TUF” run, Bader has rattled off wins over Eric Schafer, Keith Jardine and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

Though his wrestling background was critical in assuring those victories, Bader also has displayed improved power and boxing technique.

At only 23, Jones is positioning himself as the future of the 205-pound division.

His stunning destructions of Vladimir Matyushenko, Brandon Vera and Matt Hamill are only a sign of what’s to come from one of the most innovative fighters in the UFC.

In addition to being a 2005 state wrestling champion, Jones has developed a striking game that is both unique and unpredictable. Under coaches Greg Jackson, Phil Nurse and Firas Zahabi, the New York native is constantly learning new techniques and employing them in the cage. Jones' trainers and sparring partners continue to marvel at his athleticism and ability to grasp new skills.

Bader is the more decorated wrestler, but Jones’ arsenal includes a plethora of other weapons. I expect Jones to unleash a barrage of unorthodox strikes to throw Bader off his game before knocking him out in sensational fashion.

Verdict: Jones via KO, Round 1

Miguel Torres (38-3) vs. Antonio Banuelos (18-6)

Former longtime WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres makes his highly anticipated UFC debut against an entertaining contender in the division.

Torres, 30, at one time was considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, having lost just once in 38 professional bouts.

However, Torres’ momentum was halted when he was stopped in back-to-back contests against Brian Bowles and Joseph Benavidez.

In the aftermath of the successive setbacks, Torres left his academy in Indiana and moved to Montreal to train full-time under Firas Zahabi at Tristar Gym. The move was a beneficial one, as Torres bounced back with a submission victory over Charlie Valencia last September.

The well-rounded Carlson Gracie BJJ black belt is one of the largest men in the weight class, standing 5-9 with a 76-inch reach. His Muay Thai skills and improving wrestling, training alongside Georges St-Pierre, can carry him back into the title picture with a win at UFC 126.

Banuelos, 31, fights out of The Pit in California. The aggressive boxer is 4-1 in his past five outings with notable wins over Kenji Osawa, Scott Jorgensen and Bryan Goldsby.

At just 5-3, he will be at a substantial size disadvantage against Torres, which surely will be a difference maker on fight night.

Simply put, Torres is a more experienced fighter with fewer holes in his game. He should overwhelm Banuelos once the action spills to the canvas, and a submission will be his key to victory.

Verdict: Torres via submission, Round 2

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