Thursday, March 1, 2007

UFC stars on show - not to mention plenty of muscle - in Columbus this weekend

By Neil Davidson

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CP) - A super-sized champion, a Hall of Famer re-emerging from retirement and two former title-holders coming off losses highlight Saturday's mixed martial arts card UFC 68: The Uprising.

Not to mention rising Canadian sensation Jason (The Athlete) MacDonald.

The main event pits six-foot-eight, 265-pound heavyweight champion Tim (The Maine-iac) Sylvia against 43-year-old legend Randy (The Natural) Couture, a former heavyweight and light-heavyweight title-holder who is returning to action after a year away from the game.

Sylvia, who says he counts Couture as a friend and mentor, is pithy in his assessment of their fight.

"I'm obviously looking for the knockout and Randy's looking to take me down and ground-and-pound me," the 30-year-old champion told a news conference Thursday. "Look for me to take the centre of the ring and try to knock this old guy out."

Distinguished ex-champions Rich Franklin (middleweight) and Matt Hughes (welterweight) return to the Octagon for the first time since losing their crowns: Franklin in October to Brazilian Anderson Silva and Hughes in November to Montreal's Georges St. Pierre.

On Saturday, Franklin takes on MacDonald while Hughes tackles Chris (Lights Out) Lytle.

Franklin looked like he had already been in a fight when he faced the media Thursday with a black eye, courtesy of a boxing workout. MacDonald looked relaxed and confident after spending time with respected trainer Greg Jackson in New Mexico gearing up for the bout.

"I see Rich and I as two pretty evenly matched fighters going into this fight. It's whoever has the ability to impose their game plan on Saturday night is going to come away with the victory," said the native of Red Deer, Alta.

UFC president Dana White has said the winner will get a middleweight title shot. He may have to wait, however, with Nate Marquardt widely expected to get next crack at Silva.

The bookies favour Franklin big time. listed Franklin at minus-520, meaning you would have to lay down $520 to net $100 profit. MacDonald was plus-380, meaning a $100 bet would return $380 in profit.

But the lanky Canadian has confounded the bookmakers each time out in the UFC so far.

UFC 68 promises to be a hit already. Officials anticipate a crowd in excess of 18,000 at Nationwide Arena which would make the card the organization's biggest ever in terms of attendance. The live gate, listed at more than US$2.8 million Thursday, is expected to peak closer to $3 million fight night.

The UFC chose Columbus and this weekend in large part because the city is hosting the Arnold Sports Festival, named after former bodybuilder, movie star and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is slated to be part of the festivities.

Hotel rooms are at a premium and everywhere you look, muscles are bulging out of tank tops and sweatsuits. The 39-event festival features everything from bodybuilding and weightlifting competitions to arm-wrestling, sumo demonstrations and 92-year-old fitness guru Jack LaLanne. The WWE is even here to scout potential new talent.

Columbus is also fertile territory for the UFC. While normally home to the NHL Blue Jackets, Major League Soccer Crew, triple-A baseball Clippers, Arena Football Destroyers and Ohio State Buckeyes, it is also keen on wrestling with the state high school championships receiving plenty of coverage in Thursday's Columbus Dispatch newspaper.

Also, Franklin is from nearby Cincinnati while Hughes is based in Illinois and Sylvia in Iowa.

With a card crammed with stars, the UFC will be looking to go one better than its rival, Pride Fighting Championships. The Japanese-based circuit is rumoured to be on its last legs but still managed to put on a barnburner of a card last Saturday in Las Vegas that was filled with upsets and knock-'em-down brawls.

In contrast, the UFC is coming off a quiet card. Last month's UFC 67 served largely to set the table for future events, with the UFC debuts of Croatian heavyweight sensation Mirko (Cro Cop) Filipovic and light-heavyweight Quinton (Rampage) Jackson. The main event lost some lustre when challenger Travis Lutter failed to make weight and the bout with middleweight champion Silva was downgraded to a non-title affair.

Saturday's card raises some interesting questions.

Can Couture get the past the reach and striking power of Sylvia to impose his will on the giant, punishing him in the clinch and on the ground? Couture says he is ready, and has been in "big man mode" for some time now.

"The first couple of weeks it was like 'What the hell did I sign up for?' but I made the adjustments and the last four weeks of training camp have been spectacular," Couture said. "I've had several guys 6-6 and above, 280, 290 (pounds) in camp, ganging up on me so I feel like I'm ready for Tim."

Is MacDonald, after disposing of two second-tier UFC fighters, ready to step up in class against Franklin, a well-rounded, well-conditioned veteran southpaw?

Has Franklin put the devastating Silva loss behind him? He says he has, and has taken steps to regain the focus he says he had lost prior to his last fight, in part to an overly crowded schedule.

"I don't think you can go through a loss like that and not re-evaluate things," Franklin explained. "You start re-evaluating every aspect of your life: your focus inside your career, your focus outside your career. Your training, your coaches. . . . You make the necessary changes you need to make and hope it corrects the problem."

Will Hughes return to the slamming, grappling style that served him so well as a champion before falling prey to thinking he can solve any puzzle posed on him in the ring on the fly?

Can Lytle survive Hughes' ferocious takedown power and use his boxing skills to punish the former champion?

St. Pierre, who fights Matt Serra next month at UFC 69 in Houston, will be watching the Hughes fight closely. A Hughes win Saturday would set up a third matchup with St. Pierre, a fight that White would dearly love to hold in Canada.


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