In what many consider to be the biggest and most anticipated fight of 2010, Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar meet in the main event of UFC 121 Saturday night. And while much of the focus on this clash of titans, there are four other outstanding fights lined up on the main card. So before you enter your own picks read on for this event’s fantasy preview
Brendan Schaub vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
A veteran of season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, Brendan Schaub is looking to move his winning streak to three on Saturday. After getting knocked out by Roy Nelson at the TUF10 finale, Schaub won his next two fights against Chase Gormley and Chris Tuchscherer. He knows that by beating a “name” opponent on Saturday night, it will help him get into the heavyweight division mix.
Relatively unknown back in April of 2007, it didn’t take long for people to notice him. Although Gonzaga is known for his ground game, UFC 70 changed all that. Back at that bout in 2007, most people expected Mirko Cro Cop to do what he always does – use vicious kicks to end the fight. Using the blueprint on how Cro Cop beats his opponents, Gonzaga finished the fight by a kick to the head that people argue may be one of the greatest ever seen in the Octagon. But since defeating Cro Cop, Gonzaga has only gone 3-4 and is searching for the type of performance he had back in April of 2007.
When the Octagon gate closes on Saturday night, regardless of what Gonzaga did to Cro Cop, look for Schaub to try and keep the fight standing while he looks for his opportunity to capitalize on a mistake made by Gonzaga – a mistake that he hopes will send him folding to the canvas. For Gonzaga, look for him to try and bring the action to the mat where he feels most comfortable and has the ability to finish the fight.
Paulo Thiago vs. Diego Sanchez
With a professional record of 13-2, Paulo Thiago is entering this fight with a must-win mindset. Wanting to work his way to the top of the welterweight division, Thiago knows losing two fights in a row could severely hamper his prospects. The last time the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt entered the Octagon was back at UFC 115, where he lost a unanimous decision to Martin Kampmann. Prior to his fight with Kampmann, Thiago was riding a two-fight winning streak and was starting to move his way up the welterweight ladder. Now the thunder-fisted native of Brasilia, Brazil is looking to start a new hot streak and get back into the thick of the division.
Diego Sanchez is hoping to avoid losing three straight fights for the first time in his career, after dropping consecutive fights to BJ Penn and John Hathaway. Sanchez, like his opponent, knows that a long losing streak in the UFC could be detrimental to his career. Sanchez has been in this place before – losing two straight fights to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. After losing to Koscheck and Fitch, Sanchez went on a tear – winning his next four fights and eventually earning a crack at the UFC lightweight title. This is Sanchez's first fight in the Octagon since reuniting with trainer Greg Jackson.
With both fighters having similar fighting styles, it’ll be interesting to see how the fight goes. My hunch is that this will play out as an action-packed war on their feet. Sanchez likes a fast and furious pace, is known for great cardio, and will try to use that to his advantage.
Tito Ortiz vs. Matt Hamill
I remember being on the set of season three of The Ultimate Fighter when the coaches were about to pick their teams. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the fighters who were trying to win the coveted six-figure contract in the UFC. Prior to the coin flip, I asked Tito what he thought of that season's cast. He immediately raved about Matt Hamill and heaped high praise upon the gifted stranger. Sure enough, Ortiz picked Hamill to be on his team. Saturday night will be the first time that a coach on The Ultimate Fighter will fight someone whom he picked to be on his team.
The longest reigning light heavyweight champion in the history of the UFC, Ortiz is fighting in quite possibly the biggest fight of his career, even though this fight isn’t for the title or even the evening's main event – scenarios that Ortiz has become accustomed to throughout his career. Having battled through neck and back pain for nearly seven years, Ortiz hasn’t won inside of the Octagon since he beat Ken Shamrock back in October of 2006. Although he hasn’t won since then Ortiz has only fought four times thanks to two surgeries. The last time we saw Ortiz in the Octagon was back at UFC 106 where he ended up on the short end of a split decision to Forrest Griffin. In his fight with Griffin, Ortiz showed the ring rust that would be expected from a fighter who hadn’t fought in 18 months. Saying that he is perfectly healthy going into Saturday’s fight after his neck surgery, we will see the rare occasion of a teacher fighting his former student.
Having only started training in MMA six months prior to appearing on The Ultimate Fighter, Hamill was still seen as an early favorite to win the UFC contract, but an injury forced his early exit. Although his injury forced him off the show, Hamill showed that he had the ability to fight in the UFC when he made quick work of Jesse Forbes by defeating him in the first round on the TUF finale. Since beating Forbes, Hamill has gone 7-2. Currently riding a four fight-winning streak (one of them a disqualification victory over Jon Jones), Hamill knows that a victory over Ortiz will silence some of the naysayers that are out there.
Both Ortiz and Hamill rely on their wrestling and are very familiar with each other's games, so it will be interesting to see the game plan each fighter tries to impose on Saturday night. Ortiz, often known for his superior cardio, will look to push the pace from the opening bell. By pushing the pace, Ortiz knows that as the fight progresses, he’ll have a better chance of bringing Hamill to the canvas to work his patented ground and pound. Hamill, a three-time NCAA national wrestling champion, may look to keep the fight standing given his heavy hands and sturdy chin because each time Hamill enters the Octagon, he seemingly looks better and better on his feet.
Martin Kampmann vs. Jake Shields
Fighting out of Las Vegas, NV, Martin Kampmann holds a professional record of 17-3, with notable victories over Thales Leites, Jorge Rivera, Paulo Thiago, and Carlos Condit. A former Danish Thai boxing champion, Kampmann is particularly well respected on his feet. Although his main strength lies in the standup realm, his opponents often seem to sleep on his ground game. Kampmann, who is currently riding a two-fight winning-streak, knows that a victory on Saturday night will put him near the top of the welterweight division.
It was never a matter of if Jake Shields would ever fight in the UFC, but when. Prior to making his debut on Saturday night, Shields steamrolled through opponents around the world has won 14 straight. Wanting to fight the best of the best, Shields believes that he has what it takes to become a champion in the UFC. And following a win at 185 pounds over Dan Henderson earlier this year, it will be interesting to see how Shields re-adjusts to life at 170.
Brock Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez
The hulking frame, the outlandish and unpredictable personality. That is part of Brock Lesnar's appeal. He is arguably the most popular fighter to join the UFC thanks to a WWE career and a brief stint in the NFL. It’s rare that you see a world champion with a record of 5-1, but when you look at the results of his fights, it’s quite evident why Lesnar was given a title shot so early in his career. With notable victories over Randy Couture, Frank Mir, and Shane Carwin, Lesnar's only setback inside the Octagon was to Mir (a loss later avenged). Though Lesnar truly looks unstoppable at times, and the hype that surrounds his fast-evolving game is immense, it is important to remember that he is still human. After avenging his earlier loss to Mir at UFC 100, Lesnar went to do what he always does after a fight – hibernating with his family and hunting with buddies. In fact, it was a hunting trip to Canada that changed Lesnar's life and threatened his fight career. During the outing, Lesnar just didn’t feel right and he was eventually diagnosed with diverticulitis. At the time of his diagnosis, it seemed unlikely that the incredibly shrinking heavyweight would ever fight again. It was during that time Lesnar put things into perspective and realized what’s really important in life. After trying everything the doctors suggested, Lesnar tried holistic medicine and to his doctors’ surprise, he was cured. Although he was no longer sick, Lesnar had to build back the muscles and cardio he had lost before he got back into the Octagon. Although Lesnar didn’t look his best when beating Carwin -- taking a beating during round one under a hail of Carwin punches -- there’s something to be said for coming from behind against an opponent like Carwin during your first fight back after a career-threatening ailment.
Now back to full strength, and pronouncing himself more confident than ever, Lesnar faces off against a ferocious foe who some believe is the future of the heavyweight division. Looking to become the first fighter of Mexican descent to become a heavyweight champion in the UFC, Cain Velasquez is probably the most complete fighter Lesnar has ever battled. Fighting out of San Jose, CA, Velasquez was a two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State University. After winning his first two professional fights, Velasquez was signed to a UFC contract – racking up six straight wins to run his pro record to a perfect 8-0. Velasquez earned his title shot after knocking out “Minotauro” Nogueira in the first round of their fight at UFC 110. Other than going the distance with Cheick Kongo in a one-sided affair, Velasquez has ended five fights via strikes in the first round and two contests in the second round. He has never lost a round in his career.
Brock Lesnar is known for tipping the scales right at the 265-pound heavyweight limit, where Velasquez on the other hand, will come in about 25-pounds lighter than his opponent. Look for Velasquez to try and use that speed to his advantage. Don’t expect him to stay in one place for too long – he will look to be continually moving around while throwing punches and kicks (and perhaps firing off knees when Lesnar shoots). Look for Lesnar to keep the same game plan as usual: Trying to connect with powerful right hands on his feet and putting Velasquez on his back with those bull-rushing double-leg takedowns. Ground and pound will likely be Lesnar's preferred blueprint. He knows that with his power and size advantages, it will be very difficult for Velasquez to get back to his feet.