Thursday, March 1, 2007

Five Ounces of Pain: UFC 68 preview

By Sam Caplan

There's a significant degree of irony in Randy Couture's decision to come out of retirement to fight Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio, this Saturday. Couture, a former two-time UFC heavyweight champion, left the division and dropped down to light heavyweight several years ago because of supersized heavyweights in the mold of Sylvia.

Couture originally made his decision in 2002 after back-to-back losses to Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez. He went on to fight a who's who in the UFC light heavyweight division, taking on Vitor Belfort (twice), Tito Ortiz, and Chuck Liddell (three times).

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Couture is coming back because he sees an opportunity to defeat a fighter who has seen his past two title defenses go to a decision. In spite of all of his strength and power, Sylvia utilized conservative game plans against Andrei Arlovski at UFC 61 and Jeff Monson at UFC 65.

Despite a friendship between the two, Couture, 43, has been extremely critical of Sylvia's recent fights. The two will put their friendship aside in a bout that Sylvia is heavily favored to win.

Sylvia fought a fighter in Monson whose style is very similar to Couture. Couture is the better wrestler, and Monson has the better submissions, but the biggest difference between the two could be Couture's boxing skills, which have improved with age, but it might be difficult for him to display his standup ability because of Sylvia's extreme reach advantage.

Making matters more difficult is that Couture might also have trouble showing off his world-class ground skills. Sylvia employed a standup strategy against Monson that limited his susceptibility to takedowns. The current heavyweight champ rarely strayed from two-punch combinations in order to limit his exposure to Monson's takedown attempts, and it would be surprising if Sylvia deviated from that philosophy during Saturday's title defense.

If Couture decides to press the action in an attempt to get Sylvia to throw out his conservative playbook, he'll risk being knocked out by entering Sylvia's punching range. With his reach advantage, Sylvia will be able to hit Couture from a distance from which Couture is unable to hit Sylvia.

Reach is just one of several roadblocks standing in the way of Couture becoming a three-time UFC heavyweight champion, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him lose to Sylvia by a knockout in the third round.

Main card bouts

Rich Franklin vs. Jason MacDonald: MacDonald is riding a strong wave of momentum, coming off back-to-back upset victories over Team Quest members Ed Herman and Chris Leben. Meanwhile, this will be Franklin's first fight since losing the middleweight title to Anderson Silva at UFC 64. Coming into the Silva fight, Franklin hadn't fought for seven months after breaking his hand during a successful title defense against David Loiseau at UFC 58. He went through another period of extended inactivity following the Silva fight with a broken nose. MacDonald has a slight advantage in that he's been more active recently, but Franklin is still the better overall fighter. MacDonald is strong in submissions and has a keen ability to make opponents pay for mistakes, but if Franklin comes in on top of his game and keeps the fight standing, he should be able to defeat MacDonald with relative ease.

Matt Hughes vs. Chris Lytle: Lytle will try to rebound following a disappointing effort against Matt Serra during the welterweight final of The Ultimate Fighter 4 finale. Trying to do so against a fighter the caliber of Hughes is daunting. This match was seemingly put together to remind everyone just how dominant a fighter Hughes was before his one-sided loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 65 this past November. Look for this fight to make it to the ground in the first round, with Hughes grounding and pounding his way to victory.

Renato "Babalu" Sobral vs. Jason Lambert: Lambert was in the midst of an eight-fight win streak before losing to Rashad Evans at UFC 63. Some of Lambert's notable wins during the streak came against Travis Wiuff, Terry Martin, and Marvin Eastman. A victory over Sobral on Saturday would be the biggest of his career. Sobral is a huge favorite in spite of his questionable performance against Chuck Liddell at UFC 62 in August, in which he was knocked out just 1:35 into the first round. Lambert is well rounded but will be at a decisive disadvantage on the ground against Sobral, who is a jiu-jitsu black belt. Due to his superior ground skills, expect Babalu to win in a unanimous decision.

Martin Kampmann vs. Drew McFedries: Kampmann, nicknamed "The Hitman," is an unknown to many novice MMA fans but is one of the best strikers in the UFC's middleweight division. Despite being a great striker, Kampmann isn't completely helpless on the ground, with six of his 14 career MMA wins coming via submission. McFedries trains out of Miletich Fighting Systems in Iowa and has been fighting since 2001. Despite a six-year fighting career, he has just six pro MMA bouts. Both fighters will come out looking to strike, and if the fight stays standing, the advantage goes to Kampmann. Look for Kampmann to win via TKO in the second round in a match that could end up as the fight of the night.

Preliminary bouts

Jon Fitch vs. Luigi Fioravanti: Not one of the most well-known welterweights, Fitch is still a tough fighter few in the UFC are willing to step up and face. He's currently on an eleven-fight win streak and is 4-0 lifetime in the UFC. Fioravanti is no joke with a 10-1 MMA record and a 2-1 record in the UFC, but he's not on Fitch's level and will likely lose to him in a unanimous decision.

Matt Hamill vs. Rex Holman: Hamill developed a strong fan base following his appearance on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter. A tremendous amateur wrestler, Hamill has showed next to no semblance of a standup game during his brief MMA career. It's hard to see how Hamill will win; he won't have an advantage on the ground against Holman, an NCAA Division I national wrestling champion in 1993. Three of Holman's four career MMA wins have come by TKO, so one could make the argument that he has the better standup of the two. Look for Holman to neutralize Hamill's only strength and keep the fight standing, earning a TKO victory in the process.

Gleison Tibau vs. Jason Dent: The Brazilian-born Tibau lost his first and only UFC match at UFC 65 to Nick Diaz via TKO in the second round. Dent also lost in his UFC debut, at UFC 63, by unanimous decision against Roger Huerta. Huerta wasn't able to finish off Dent, so look for this match to go the distance. But Tibau is still the pick to win the decision because of his superior ground skills.

Jamie Varner vs. Jason Gilliam: A King of the Cage veteran, Gilliam is a perfect 9-0 during his MMA career. He'll put his unbeaten streak on the line in his UFC debut against Varner, who lost to Hermes Franca at UFC 62 in August. Look for Gilliam, the more well rounded of the two, to earn a TKO victory.


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