Before perennial pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva returns to the octagon for arguably his toughest career test against surging young contender Chris Weidman, the action will kick off with the UFC 162 prelims live on Facebook and FX.
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Emanating from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the pay-per-view undercard features several familiar names, including Silva’s very first UFC victim.
Here’s a closer look:
Preliminary Card (FX, 8 p.m. ET):
-Chris Leben (22-9) vs. Andrew Craig (8-1)
Looking to rebound from a tepid performance at UFC 155 this past December, the former WEC middleweight champion and three-time "Knockout of the Night" winner Leben will battle once-beaten Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt Craig.
Leben, 32, a contestant on the inaugural season of "The Ultimate Fighter," owns notable victories over Patrick Cote, Jorge Rivera, Jorge Santiago, Alessio Sakara, Jay Silva, Aaron Simpson, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Wanderlei Silva in a UFC campaign that dates back to 2005.
Most recently, the free-swinging southpaw is coming off back-to-back losses against Mark Munoz and Derek Brunson, the latter of which was likely his most forgettable career effort. Returning from a suspension after testing positive for oxycontin, Leben ran out of gas early and he lacked the punching power and killer instinct that initially transformed him into a fan favorite.
The Oregon native is an all-offense fighter, landing 1653 strikes in his UFC career, the most in middleweight history and fourth overall. Reckless abandon has left him open to brutal counters in the past, but the Alliance MMA product must maintain a persistent flow of aggression to perform at his best.
Craig, 27, suffered the first defeat of his career this past January as he dropped a unanimous decision to Brazilian powerhouse Ronny Markes, snapping a perfect professional run, which included successive wins over Kyle Noke and Rafael Natal in the octagon.
A graduate in Corporate Communications from the University of Texas, Craig immediately embarked on a career in mixed martial arts after graduation. The well-rounded Texan has the tools to finish a fight anywhere, so he should provide Leben with a stern test on Saturday night.
Years of heated brawls have taken their toll on Leben, who has visibly slowed down in recent performances. He still has the firepower to connect with a fight-ending blow, but Craig’s durability and conditioning should be the deciding factors as he takes Leben into deep waters and outpoints the 31-fight veteran down the stretch.
Verdict: Craig via Decision
-Norman Parke (17-2) vs. Kazuki Tokudome (12-3-1)
In lightweight action, 26-year-old prospects look to build on triumphant promotional debuts as the Irishman Parke tangles with the Japanese southpaw Tokudome.
Parke won "The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes" this past December, outpointing Colin Fletcher by unanimous decision to extend his winning streak to seven straight.
In addition to possessing a black belt in judo, Parke has 12 submission victories in 19 professional fights, an indication of the evolution of his grappling since training under the tutelage of Robert Drysdale.
Tokudome defeated Cristiano Marcello by unanimous decision in his UFC debut this past March. The Tokyo native has been training since the age of 20, earning a 2nd degree judo black belt and a BJJ purple belt along the way.
The Pancrase veteran likes to wear opponents down in the clinch, but he’s already suffered a pair of vicious knockout losses during his Japanese tenure. Parke isn’t the most proficient striker in his own right, so the keys in this fight could be grappling and wrestling. Tokudome’s ability to initiate the clinch and control positions should be rewarded if the fight goes all three rounds.
Verdict: Tokudome via Decision
-Gabriel Gonzaga (14-7) vs. Dave Herman (21-5)
In an exciting heavyweight affair, the 34-year-old Brazilian behemoth Gonzaga meets the 28-year-old Indiana native Herman.
Gonzaga, a 4th degree BJJ black belt, had his three-fight winning streak snapped at the hands of Travis Browne this past April.
The Team Link product has struggled with elite competition during his UFC run with his highlights including a second-round submission of Ben Rothwell in January and a memorable head kick knockout of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in April 2007. Meanwhile, the Rio de Janeiro native has dropped fights to Brendan Schaub, Junior dos Santos, Shane Carwin, Fabricio Werdum and Randy Couture.
Herman enters this contest on a career-worst three-fight losing skid against Stefan Struve, Roy Nelson and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Herman paid the consequence for his claims that BJJ isn’t a functional martial art as Nogueira caught him in an armbar this past October. Herman subsequently tested positive for marijuana and he was suspended for six months and forced to undergo treatment.
It goes without saying that Herman is in desperate need of a victory to keep his UFC journey afloat. The 26-fight veteran has amassed notable career wins over Don Frye, Jim Yorke, Michal Kita, Yoshihiro Nakao and Jon-Olav Einemo.
Gonzaga has been known to absorb big shots as he’s suffered knockout losses in all but one of his seven career losses. But Gonzaga can dish it out as well, which compliments his strong grappling pedigree.
Conversely, Herman implements unorthodox striking techniques as he utilizes a wide array of kicks. However, the sarcastic American continues to disregard the submission game, so he’ll likely eat his words yet again.
Gonzaga should close the distance and initiate takedown attempts. Once the Brazilian secures a dominant position on the mat, he’ll find an opening to coax the tapout.
Verdict: Gonzaga via Submission, Round 3
-Edson Barboza (11-1) vs. Rafaello Oliveira (15-5)
Rounding out the FX portion of the prelims, Brazilian lightweights will take center stage as the 27-year-old muay thai specialist Barboza meets the 31-year-old BJJ black belt Oliveira.
Anchored at Valor MMA, Barboza is one of the lightweight division’s most potent pure strikers, dissecting foes with his accurately placed flashy kicks. The Rio de Janeiro native is 5-1 since joining the promotion in 2010, earning wins over Mike Lullo, Anthony Njokuani, Ross Pearson, Terry Etim and Lucas Martins. Barboza suffered a first-round TKO loss against Jamie Varner in his lone career setback last year.
Oliveira has yet to record back-to-back wins in the octagon dating back to his September 2009 UFC debut. The AMA Fight Club member has edged decisions over Yoislandy Izquerdo and John Gunderson, while coming out on the losing end against Yves Edwards, Gleison Tibau, Andre Winner and Nik Lentz.
This is a classic stylistic clash of striker versus grappler. Some holes were exposed in Barboza’s defense and ability to cope with pressure when he lost to Varner, but Oliveira’s rudimentary striking shouldn’t pose any threats. Barboza should have his way with his Brazilian compatriot, picking him apart with a cavalcade of kicks and combinations before finishing him off late in the fray.
Verdict: Barboza via KO, Round 3
Preliminary Card (Facebook, 7 p.m. ET):
-Seth Baczynski (17-7) vs. Brian Melancon (6-2)
In a welterweight matchup, the 31-year-old "Polish Pistola" Baczynski takes on the debuting 31-year-old Melancon.
Baczynski rejuvenated his career after dropping a decision to Brad Tavares on "The Ultimate Fighter 11 Finale" in June 2010, bouncing back with a six-fight winning streak, including finishes of Clay Harvison, Matt Brown and Simeon Thoresen.
In his most recent appearance, however, Baczynski lost a unanimous decision against Mike Pierce this past December. Based at Power MMA and Fitness in Arizona, the Hawaii native of Polish descent surrounds himself with experienced wrestlers such as Ryan Bader and Robbie Lawler as he continues to round out his game.
Melancon, a heavy-handed Texan, outpointed Felipe Portela in his last fight at Strikeforce Challengers 19 in September 2011.
The UFC newcomer is facing a significant step up in competition and he must also cope with the reality of ring rust. Despite possessing a BJJ purple belt under Ricco Rodriguez, Melancon’s submissions should be no match for Baczynski, whose critical experience and aggressive offense will ultimately overwhelm his adversary.
Verdict: Baczynski via Decision
-Mike Pierce (16-5) vs. David Mitchell (12-2)
In another solid 170-pound pairing featured on Facebook, the 32-year-old Portland native Pierce faces off with the 33-year-old Californian Mitchell.
The former NCAA Division I wrestler Pierce is riding an impressive three-fight winning streak over Carlos Eduardo Rocha, Aaron Simpson and Seth Baczynski.
In his prior appearances, Pierce dropped razor-thin split decisions to Josh Koscheck and Johny Hendricks in two fights that could have gone his way, which means Pierce could actually be on a nine-fight winning streak in one of the promotion’s deepest divisions.
A foundation in wrestling shapes Pierce’s style, but he exhibited his fight-ending power when he starched Simpson last October.
Mitchell entered the organization with a perfect professional record before dropping successive decisions to T.J. Waldburger and Paulo Thiago. Mitchell rebounded with a decision of his own over Simeon Thoresen this past January.
A two-time Gracie Open champion and BJJ purple belt under Dave Terrell, Mitchell excels when he’s able to utilize his arsenal of submissions. They are unlikely to faze Pierce, who will dictate the pace and control the fight with his relentless wrestling, persistent clinch work and ferocious ground-and-pound.