The Ultimate Fighting Championship kicks off 2013 with a bang as UFC on FX 7: Belfort vs. Bisping takes place Saturday at Ibirapuera Arena in São Paulo, Brazil.
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Explosive middleweight contenders Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping will collide in the main event, while a number of Brazilian prospects and veterans round out the UFC’s first event of the year.
Here’s a closer look:
Main Card (FX):
Vitor Belfort vs. Michael Bisping
In a pivotal middleweight showdown with potential title implications, the Brazilian "Phenom" Belfort clashes with the brash Brit Bisping.
Belfort, 35, a former UFC light heavyweight champion, is coming off a submission loss to 205-pound king Jon Jones at UFC 152 this past September.
Despite the setback, Belfort actually shocked most observers by accepting the challenge on short notice and threatening the seemingly indomitable champion with an armbar in the opening frame. Ultimately, Jones’ size and wrestling proved too much to overcome, as he locked in a fight-ending kimura in the fourth round.
Naturally a middleweight, Belfort boasts notable wins over the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Gilbert Yvel, Heath Herring, Randy Couture, Matt Lindland, Rich Franklin, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Anthony Johnson.
A former ADCC submission grappling bronze medalist, the Brazilian southpaw now trains with the "Blackzilians" in Florida. His camp includes an assortment of world-class mixed martial artists and kickboxers, including Alistair Overeem, Rashad Evans, Daniel Ghita, Tyrone Spong, Braulio Estima and Thiago Silva.
With only three career wins by submission, Belfort’s grappling is often overlooked, but the Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo black belt can hold his own with the best of them on the mat. However, Belfort’s heavy hands are his bread and butter. With devastating power, exceptional footwork and cat-like speed, Belfort is among the sport’s most feared strikers.
Bisping, 33, last saw action on the same card in September, earning a hard-fought unanimous decision over Brian Stann.
The winner of the third season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Bisping owns key wins over Matt Hamill, Chris Leben, Dan Miller, Jorge Rivera and Jason Miller.
Bisping is one of the most underrated fighters on the roster, having only been stopped once at the hands of Dan Henderson at UFC 100, while dropping three razor-thin decisions against Rashad Evans, Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen.
A well-rounded veteran, Bisping has improved considerably in the wrestling department. Although he possesses the hands to hold his own, his best strategy will involve takedowns and unrelenting pressure. Belfort’s 63% takedown defense rate is pretty impressive, but Bisping should find success if he can take the fight into deeper waters and grind on his Brazilian foe.
If Bisping engages Belfort in a striking contest, he could be in a heap of trouble. Traditionally, Bisping has often circled into the power hand of his opponents, which ultimately led to his demise against Henderson. Moreover, Belfort is the first southpaw to challenge Bisping since Leben in 2008, which could expose some holes in Bisping’s stand-up approach.
However, Bisping’s stellar conditioning, intelligent game planning and suffocating pressure should be vital factors in this contest. If the polarizing Brit can close the gap and avoid heated exchanges, he should be successful. As he feeds off the crowd’s energy, Belfort will threaten until the final bell, needing a single accurate blow to change the dynamic of the fight. But Bisping’s multidimensional skillset should be the deciding factor, as he pulls off a late stoppage or decision.
Verdict: Bisping via decision
Daniel Sarafian vs. C.B. Dollaway
"The Ultimate Fighter Brazil" middleweight finalist Sarafian will finally make his Octagon debut against the American wrestler Dollaway.
The 30-year-old Sarafian dominated Richardson Moreira, Renee Forte and Sergio Moraes to earn his spot in the finals of the first international season of "The Ultimate Fighter." However, an injury prevented Sarafian from competing, which cost him his shot at winning the reality show.
A São Paulo native based at American Top Team, the explosive Sarafian returns home for the toughest test of his career.
The 29-year-old Dollaway was a finalist on the seventh season of "The Ultimate Fighter," losing to Amir Sadollah by submission in the final.
Since his stint on the show, Dollaway has rattled off wins over Jesse Taylor, Mike Massenzio, Jay Silva, Goran Reljic, Joe Doerksen and Jason Miller. Meanwhile, he came up short against Tom Lawlor, Mark Munoz and Jared Hamman.
A former NCAA Division I wrestler, the Ohio native trains at Power MMA and Fitness alongside fellow standout wrestler Ryan Bader.
Sarafian struggled against superior wrestlers in his lone two professional setbacks, dropping fights against Mike Whitehead and Gary Padilla. Dollaway has the pedigree to put him on his back and keep him there, but his chin may need to absorb some heavy shots.
Dollaway will attempt to close the distance and grind on the Brazilian in his hometown. But Sarafian will time Dollaway’s shot, inevitably finding a home for a storm of violent strikes to mark a successful Octagon debut.
Verdict: Sarafian via KO, Round 2
Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Ben Rothwell
In a competitive heavyweight encounter, the former title challenger Gonzaga seeks his third straight win against the resurgent American powerhouse Rothwell.
Gonzaga, 33, made his return to the UFC in January 2012, submitting previously unbeaten Ednaldo Oliveira in the first round.
Gonzaga’s career defining moment was a head kick knockout of famed kickboxer Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic at UFC 70 in April 2007. Historically, the Rio de Janeiro native has struggled against higher levels of competition, dropping fights to Brendan Schaub, Junior dos Santos, Shane Carwin, Fabricio Werdum and Randy Couture.
The Team Link product is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Gonzaga is no slouch on his feet, but submissions could very well be his key to victory on Saturday night.
Rothwell, 31, rebounded from a one-sided beating at the hands of Mark Hunt in September 2011, knocking out Schaub just 1:10 into their bout last April. To his credit, Rothwell showed up in much better shape than his previous UFC appearances.
Throughout his career, the IFL veteran has amassed key wins over Devin Cole, Roy Nelson, Krzysztof Soszynski, Ricco Rodriguez and Gilbert Yvel.
A native of Wisconsin, Rothwell is a heavy power puncher with great durability, but his technique and conditioning have often been scrutinized.
Rothwell will benefit from keeping the fight standing as he tries to land a big punch. Gonzaga is well-rounded, so he should mix it up everywhere, putting Rothwell on his back and outworking the American with a pressure game.
Verdict: Gonzaga via decision
Thiago Tavares vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Rounding out the main card is an international lightweight tilt pitting the Brazilian veteran Tavares against the Russian standout Nurmagomedov.
Tavares, 28, a product of Brazilian Top Team, is coming off back-to-back wins over Sam Stout and Spencer Fisher.
A member of the UFC roster since 2007, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has struggled with consistency, beating Michihiro Omigawa and Manny Gamburyan, both of whom have since dropped to 145 pounds, while dropping fights to Tyson Griffin, Matt Wiman, Kurt Pellegrino and Shane Roller.
Nurmagomedov, 24, is still undefeated in his professional career. Since joining the UFC last January, the Russian prospect rattled off a pair of wins over Kamal Shalorus and Gleison Tibau.
A judo black belt and International Master of Sports in combat sambo, Nurmagomedov has spent time training at AMA Fight Club and the American Kickboxing Academy since making his North American debut. Saturday’s bout marks the first time Nurmagomedov competes in Brazil.
Although his recent win over Tibau was somewhat controversial, Nurmagomedov was the significantly busier fighter, which always leaves a lasting impression with judges.
Expect a similar strategy from Nurmagomedov this time around, as he maintains a furious pace, outpointing his Brazilian adversary over three rounds.
Verdict: Nurmagomedov via decision
Preliminary Card (Fuel TV):
Godofredo Pepey vs. Milton Vieira
The 25-year-old Pepey lost to Rony Bezerra in the featherweight final of "The Ultimate Fighter Brazil," his first professional setback, while the 34-year-old Vieira battled Felipe Arantes to a split draw in his UFC debut last June.
In this battle of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, Vieira should put his experience advantage to good use, winning the positional game en route to a triumphant decision.
Verdict: Vieira via decision
Diego Nunes vs. Nik Lentz
The 30-year-old Brazilian Nunes last saw action in October, earning a unanimous decision over gritty veteran Bart Palaszewski. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old American Lentz, a former NCAA Division I wrestler, made a successful featherweight debut last August, finishing Eiji Mitsuoka in the first round.
Nunes is the superior striker and submission player, while Lentz wins fights with a grinding wrestling style. Nunes was able to fend off the wrestling of Mike Brown when they crossed paths in January 2011, so expect his timing and takedown defense to be the difference makers after three rounds.
Verdict: Nunes via decision
Ronny Markes vs. Andrew Craig
The powerful Brazilian middleweight Markes is gunning for his third straight Octagon victory when he tangles with the undefeated Texan Craig.
Markes has earned decisions over Karlos Vemola and Aaron Simpson since debuting in the UFC, while Craig outpointed Kyle Noke in his promotional debut before knocking out Rafael Natal with a memorable come-from-behind head kick in July.
The Nova Uniao representative Markes should do some of his best work in the clinch, dominating key positions over the course of three rounds to hand Craig his first blemish.
Verdict: Markes via decision
Edson Barboza vs. Lucas Martins
On the rebound trail following one of the biggest upsets in 2012, the 26-year-old Barboza will try to erase the memory of a first-round loss against Jamie Varner as he takes on the undefeated 24-year-old newcomer Martins in an all-Brazilian battle.
A taekwondo black belt and muay thai specialist, The Armory product Barboza batters opponents with an assortment of flashy kicks. His January 2012 spinning wheel kick knockout of Terry Etim will go down in history books as one of the most memorable finishes of all time.
Conversely, the Chute Boxe product Martins has yet to taste defeat in his career, having knocked out eight of his 12 victims. However, Martins has benefited from fighting unseasoned and largely one-dimensional fighters on regional shows in Brazil.
Referring to Barboza as a step up in competition is an understatement. Look for the leg kick machine to break his opponent’s will before finishing him with strikes midway through the fray.
Verdict: Barboza via TKO, Round 2
Yuri Alcantara vs. Pedro Nobre
In another Brazilian showcase, the 32-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Alcantara tries to rebound from his first Octagon loss against the 26-year-old UFC first-timer Nobre.
After earning impressive wins over Francisco Trinaldo, Ricardo Lamas, Felipe Arantes and Michihiro Omigawa, Alcantara’s winning streak was snapped in a unanimous decision loss to Hacran Dias this past June.
Meanwhile, Nobre carries a two-fight winning streak into his debut on short notice. The Brazilian Top Team product will be the much smaller competitor and his non-existent experience under the UFC’s bright lights should also factor into the outcome.
Alcantara will be looking to return to the win column in emphatic fashion as he finishes the UFC newcomer with a sizzling sequence of strikes.
Verdict: Alcantara via KO, Round 2
Wagner Prado vs. Ildemar Alcantara
In light heavyweight action, the 26-year-old Prado looks to bounce back from his only professional loss as he meets the second half of the Alcantara brothers, Ildemar "Marajo," who makes his first appearance in the Octagon.
A highly touted disciple of the world-famous Team Nogueira, Prado tasted defeat for the first time, succumbing to a second-round anaconda choke against Phil Davis this past October.
"Marajo" brings a seven-fight winning streak into his UFC debut, including wins over Edilberto de Oliveira and Itamar Rosa. Alcantara has competed primarily at 185 pounds, while Prado is a natural light heavyweight. Additionally, Prado already possesses valuable UFC experience, while Alcantara has dropped fights to numerous UFC veterans.
Prado will put Alcantara through the ringer in his debut, dissecting his compatriot with combinations and leg kicks before finishing him off late.
Verdict: Prado via TKO, Round 3
Preliminary Card (Online):
Francisco Trinaldo vs. C.J. Keith
In the only fight on the Facebook preliminary card, the 34-year-old Brazilian Trinaldo takes on the 26-year-old Californian Keith.
After competing as a middleweight on "The Ultimate Fighter Brazil," the former Jungle Fight champion Trinaldo dropped down two divisions to 155 pounds, where he came out on the losing end of a decision against Gleison Tibau in October. Anchored at Constrictor Team and Brazilian Top Team, Trinaldo holds notable wins over Luiz Firmino, Adriano Martins and Delson Heleno.
Conversely, Keith was finished in the first round of his UFC debut against Ramsey Nijem this past June. Keith was exposed in his promotional debut and Trinaldo is arguably an even stiffer test for his sophomore outing.
Trinaldo will waste little time in this one, blitzing Keith for an emphatic first-round finish.