Friday, March 2, 2007

Return of Couture tops storylines as circuit heads east

By Pramit Mohapatra

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) comes to the Midwest Saturday, making a pay-per-view stop in Columbus, Ohio, for UFC 68. The event features a strong card -- most notably, a title match with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture and three other bouts with former champions -- that should more than make up for UFC 67's average lineup. UFC 68's main attractions, along with several quality secondary matches, provide intriguing storylines as the promotion ventures away from typical pay-per-view locations such as Las Vegas and California.

Here are the five matches I will focus on as I cover the event Octagonside from Nationwide Arena (Editor's note: Visit's mixed martial arts section Saturday for live updates from UFC 68):

Tim Sylvia vs. Randy Couture (Heavyweight Title Match)
Couture supposedly came out of retirement to take this fight because he felt that heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia's previous title defense against Jeff Monson exposed weaknesses in Sylvia's game. The only true weakness I see in Sylvia's style is that it is not flashy, bordering on boring. However, the 6-foot-8 Sylvia has proven he can effectively use his height and reach -- he is extremely difficult to attack standing up. In the Monson fight, Sylvia also showed that his sprawl is in good working order and that he has improved his ground technique, attempting a couple of submissions in a unanimous decision win.

Fans and the UFC may not want a boring heavyweight champion, but I don't think Couture will somehow exploit this "flaw" of Sylvia's. The 43-year-old Couture also lost two of his last three fights in the UFC before retiring (granted both losses were against Chuck Liddell). Couture is stepping up in weight class to the heavyweight division he once dominated, and hasn't fought since his UFC 57 loss to Liddell over a year ago. While Couture is a tremendous wrestler, what will he bring to the table that Monson didn't? Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, the last two high-profile retirees to attempt UFC comebacks, both demonstrated that the game had passed them by in their returns to the Octagon. Randy Couture will learn the same hard lesson this weekend in Ohio.

Rich Franklin vs. Jason MacDonald (Middleweight)
Rich Franklin returns for his first UFC fight since losing the middleweight belt in devastating fashion in a first-round technical knockout by Anderson Silva in UFC 64. The bout came on the heels of Franklin's five-round unanimous decision over David Loiseau in UFC 58, so it's safe to say that he hasn't dominated a fight in a while. It will be interesting to see if Franklin can put the Silva fight behind him and start strongly against MacDonald.

MacDonald, on the other hand, is one of the hottest fighters in this division. He introduced himself to the UFC with a nice first-round submission win over The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season three alum Ed Herman Oct. 10. MacDonald followed that performance with a second-round TKO win over another TUF participant -- Chris Leben -- in UFC 66. MacDonald has impressed with his technical skills on the ground and brings an all-around game to the table. If Franklin comes out flat, MacDonald could surprise a lot of fans and leave the Octagon with his hands raised, with a potential shot at the UFC middleweight title looming on the horizon.

Matt Hughes vs. Chris Lytle (Welterweight)
This match features yet another deposed champion, Matt Hughes, who will enter the Octagon for the first time since losing the welterweight title to Georges St. Pierre in UFC 65. Hughes also looked to be in trouble in his previous match, when he fought Jay Dee "B.J." Penn in UFC 63. Penn appeared to be in control through two rounds but claims he hurt a rib at the end of the second, and provided no defense as Hughes pounced on him for a third-round TKO.

Lytle lost in the TUF 4 championship match against Matt Serra, thus missing out on an opportunity to challenge Georges St. Pierre for the welterweight title. Lytle -- a good striker with submission skills -- is 0-3 in his last three UFC matches and 2-5 overall in the UFC. Hughes would like to take advantage of his strength as a wrestler -- a strategy he abandoned against St. Pierre -- and the unimpressive Lytle provides him with the perfect opportunity to revive his game. A loss by Hughes in this match could signal real trouble for the man who dominated the UFC welterweight division for close to five years.

Renato Sobral vs. Jason Lambert (Light Heavyweight)
Renato Sobral is yet another marquee fighter attempting to bounce back after a loss. Sobral last fought in a light heavyweight title match in UFC 62, a first-round TKO by champion Lidell. Sobral is a submission specialist who also has striking ability. He comes into this match 5-3 in the UFC, with three straight wins prior to the Liddell bout.

Lambert is a ground and pound fighter with 3-1 record in the UFC. He lost his last fight on a second-round knockout by rising light heavyweight Rashad Evans in UFC 63. But all of Lambert's victories have been decisive -- either by submission or referee stoppage. This bout promises to be very entertaining and may be one of the most evenly-matched fights of the night.

Matt Hamill vs. Rex Holman (Light Heavyweight)
This matchup features two former college wrestling champs. Rex Holman, 37, is making his UFC debut in familiar surroundings -- he won the 190-pound NCAA title for Ohio State in 1993. According to, Holman has only fought in five mixed martial arts matches, amassing a record of 4-1. Although one would assume that wrestling would be Holman's strength, he won three of those fights by TKO.

UFC fans know Matt Hamill, 30, as the deaf former three-time NCAA Division III wrestling champion from TUF 3. Hamill is 2-0 in the UFC, winning his last fight with a unanimous decision over Seth Petruzelli Oct. 10. This bout will be Hamill's first appearance on a pay-per-view card and provides him with an opportunity to shine on the UFC's biggest stage (though the UFC has stated that this fight may not be broadcast on the pay-per-view telecast).


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