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January may not be star-studded, but it offers enticing fights

Photo: Bill Streicher/Icon SMI

Vitor Belfort will face Michael Bisping in what could be January's most exciting UFC fight.

The mixed martial arts events schedule for the months of February and March are shaping up as blockbusters. February features both a psuedo-superfight between UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo Jr. and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, and the much-hyped first women's title fight in UFC history between bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey and challenger Liz Carmouche. The March slate includes, among other events, a welterweight tripleheader at UFC 158 in Montreal with all of the division's top five in action, plus the currently suspended Nick Diaz, who fights champion Georges St-Pierre in the main event.

With so many enticing matchups on the February and March dockets, it's easy to overlook that January's schedule is also stacked. From Strikeforce's swan song to Bellator's Spike TV debut to the usual offering of UFC fare, this month's events might not match upcoming months in terms of sheer star power, but there's enough action to keep even the most jaded MMA fan happy.

Without further ado, then, a look at January tussles worth circling on your calendar:

1. Nate Marquardt vs. Tarec Saffiedine, Strikeforce, Oklahoma City, Jan. 12

Strikeforce's final event has a vibe similar to an old-school Saturday morning "Superstars of Wrestling" show. Back then, you'd watch stars like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage go up against lesser lights like the Brooklyn Brawler and Special Delivery Jones. Strikeforce's final show, meanwhile, features Daniel Cormier against someone named Dion Staring, Josh Barnett against the unknown Nandor Guelmino, and so on.

Granted, this lineup came about in large part for the very reasons Strikeforce's demise was caused in the first place: roster defections and injuries to standouts like lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez. Either way, there's still one fight worth sifting through Strikeforce's rubble Saturday night to watch: The welterweight title fight between Marquardt and Saffiediene.

The veteran Marquardt (32-10-2) has undergone a career rebirth since he dropped to 170 pounds, as he took Strikeforce's 170-pound title with an impressive finish of Tyron Woodley last July. Saffiedine (13-3), meanwhile, has flown under the radar. But the Belgian fighter, who trains with Dan Henderson at Team Quest, has won six of his past seven fights and three in a row. Will Marquardt return to the UFC on a roll, or will Saffiedine steal his shine and catch the UFC's eye?

2a. and 2b. Michael Chandler vs. Rick Hawn and Pat Curran vs. Patricio Freire, Bellator, Irvine, Calif., Jan. 17

This month, the newly rebranded Bellator MMA makes its long-discussed move to live Thursday night fight cards. The company debuts with a bang on Jan. 17 on the campus of Cal-Irvine, showcasing a pair of title bouts with the company's two most well-regarded fighters. Lightweight champion Chandler, who trains at San Diego's Alliance MMA with the likes of Dominick Cruz and Alexander Gustafsson, boasts a 10-0 record with eight finishes. The underrated Hawn, who participated in the 2004 Olympics in judo, has just one questionable split decision loss in 15 pro fights.

Curran (15-4), meanwhile, has found his groove since dropping down to featherweight, winning four straight fights, including his title-winning knockout of Joe Warren in March. Freire, is 17-1 with 13 finishes. But he's been out of action since May, 2011, due to injuries both on his part and those of potential planned opponents. So Freire's recent inactivity stands as the X-factor in this fight.

3. Vitor Belfort vs. Michael Bisping, UFC on FX 7, Sao Paolo, Brazil, Jan. 19

Few have played the game over the years as well as Bisping (23-4). The brash Brit understands that making your way to the top in mixed martial arts involves equal parts skill in the cage and ability to market yourself on the outside. It's taken seven years in the UFC and 18 fights, but the persistent Bisping, the winner of five of his past six matches, finally stands on the brink of a middleweight title shot.

Bisping has been promised a shot at Anderson Silva's title if he wins on Jan. 19, but his final obstacle is considerable: He faces the veteran Belfort (21-10) on Belfort's Brazilian home turf. While Belfort lost his gift light heavyweight title shot to Jon Jones in September, his only middleweight defeat since dropping to 185 pounds in 2009 was to Silva. Belfort has the heavy hands to match Bisping, making this main event a potentially explosive showdown.

4. T.J. Grant vs. Matt Wiman, UFC on FOX 6, Chicago, Jan. 26

The UFC's sixth live network television event has a typically stacked lineup, including flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson's title defense against John Dodson in the main event and rising light heavyweight star Glover Teixeira's bout with former champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. But you'll have to tune in to the FX-aired preliminary broadcast to check out the card's best on-paper matchup, a lightweight showdown between Matt Wiman and T.J. Grant.

The Coloradan Wiman (15-6) has been in the UFC since 2006 and has long been pegged as the sort of fighter who puts on exciting fights, win or lose. But he's done more of the former than the latter recently, with five victories in his past six fights. Meanwhile, Grant (19-5), a Nova Scotia native, has done much the same, particularly since he dropped to 155 pounds in 2011. He is 3-0 since.

5. Donald Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis, UFC on FOX 6, Chicago, Jan. 26

Cerrone and Pettis are two grads of World Extreme Cagefighting's celebrated lightweight class, which also includes current UFC champion Benson Henderson and the resurgent Jamie Varner. Somehow, though, Pettis, the final WEC champ, and Cerrone never managed to cross paths up until now. They'll finally meet on the main card of the UFC's Jan. 26 event.

Pettis (15-2) handed Henderson the only loss of his past 17 fights back in 2010 and has a propensity for dramatic finishes. Cerrone, a kickboxer from Colorado, has a reputation for bringing the heat and has won nine out of his past 10 fights. Throw in a liberal dose of trash talk between the two, dating to their WEC days, and you have the recipe for a fight that could steal the show.

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