Thursday, March 15, 2007

Fight frenzy

By Mike Chiappetta

April brings four must-see bouts.

Fight fans will have plenty of action to watch in April. From heavyweight wars to lightweight showdowns, there should be much moving and shaking in the UFC as new contenders move up the rankings, old favorites take to the octagon and several key matchups take the spotlight.

Today, we'll take a look at four of the biggest matchups to take place during that time.

Joe Stevenson vs. Melvin Guillard
Ultimate Fight Night 9 – April 5

When the UFC reinstated the lightweight division in mid-2006, they hoped it would foster relentless action, buoyed by many fighters who would drop down from the 170-pound division for a chance at gold.

But after Sean Sherk defeated Kenny Florian to win title at UFC 64 in October 2006, tearing his rotator cuff in the process, the division has been at a bit of a standstill. Hermes Franca emerged as the top contender with his dominant victory over Spencer Fisher in January, but this fight between Ultimate Fighter alumni Stevenson and Guillard is an important one as the two jockey for position in the division.

From a style standpoint, Stevenson prefers to take things to the mat and pound out his opponent while Guillard would likely rather keep it on his feet and outstrike his foe. So this will be an interesting battle of wills as each tries to dictate the style of the fight. If Guillard's takedown defense is good enough to stuff Stevenson – and he does have a wrestling background – Guillard might have the upper hand. A win by Guillard could put him in line after Franca. The loser will have a long road to a title shot. There is a lot to win and even more to lose, an element that makes this fight quite exciting.

Josh Koscheck vs. Diego Sanchez
UFC 69 – April 7

Most UFC fights feature athletes who respect and appreciate the other, bouts that begin with a respectful hand-slap at the outset and end with a hug. The good, old-fashioned grudge match? It's a rarity these days.

So don't miss Koscheck vs. Sanchez.

These two fought before during the first season of TUF, with Sanchez winning a split-decision during the semifinals, then going on to win his division. Koscheck, however, was an MMA newcomer at that point, and had little experience with submission fighting. Limited in his attack, he utilized a "lay and pray" style that emphasized takedowns and octagon control over any attempt to finish. While that style didn't win him many fans, it was relatively productive. But Koscheck has been evolving as a fighter. His standup game has improved and while he isn't a jiu-jitsu master, he is now looking to pass guard and inflict damage from top position in an attempt to finish.

Sanchez is looking to stay unbeaten. In fact, if he wins, he will be a perfect 20-0, the only fighter in UFC who can boast of such a mark. He's proven equally dangerous whether striking or grappling, and has a complete game.

Add to that the fact that Sanchez went on Koscheck's MySpace recently and left a message for his former castmate in which he called him a "human blanket" and questioned Koscheck's standup, and you've got a full-fledged rivalry.

Looking for a good grudge match? Houston, we have liftoff.

Mirko Cro Cop vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
UFC 70 – April 21

In all reality, Cro Cop is a heavy favorite in this match, more experienced with more weapons and heavier hands. But this bout isn't as important for the actual matchup as for what it means down the line.

Cro Cop is a star, who will get his biggest U.S. exposure in this match, and the showcase will help build his future heavyweight title matchup with Randy Couture a mega-event – as long as he can get past Gonzaga.

Gonzaga is a jiu-jitsu specialist, so his best best is undoubtedly finding a way to get the fight to the canvas, where Cro Cop is uncomfortable but not without skill.

A dominant victory will assure an even bigger buyrate when Cro Cop and Couture go head-to-head, while an upset by Gonzaga would propel him to No. 1 contender status.

Andrei Arlovski vs. Fabricio Werdum
UFC 70 – April 21

The infusion of international talent continues in UFC, as evidenced by the arrivals of Werdum as well as Lyoto Machida, also scheduled to fight at UFC 70. The Brazilian-born Werdum has fought and trained throughout the world, and enters the octagon with an overall record of 9-2. He has fought major names like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Aleksander Emelianenko (brother of Fedor).

Not surprisingly, Werdum has a jiu-jitsu background, and once trained with Mirko Cro Cop, as Werdum taught the Croatian jiu-jitsu in exchange for kickboxing training.

Werdum represents a significant challenge for Arlovski, the former heavyweight champ who got back on the winning track by defeating Marcio Cruz in December after dropping two straight to Tim Sylvia. The Belarus-born Arlovski has a challenging road in front of him to the championship, as the winner of the Mirko Cro Cop-Gabriel Gonzaga matchup on the same night is scheduled to next fight Randy Couture for the title. Tim Sylvia is also waiting in the wings, and Chuck Liddell has even talked about moving up to heavyweight. But a win over Werdum would be a statement that Arlovski's name should be in the mix.


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