Pramit Mohapatra
Thursday December 27th, 2007

UFC ends what can only be described as an eventful year with what may go down as one of the top cards of 2007. The promotion returns to Vegas and fans expect pre-New Years Eve fireworks at Saturday's UFC 79, which features an interim title bout, a dream fight, the introduction of "The African Assassin", and a couple of other intriguing matchups.

This fight was originally scheduled as the long-awaited conclusion to TUF 6 and was supposed to pit welterweight champ Matt Serra against former champ Matt Hughes. Instead, Serra injured his back training just days before Thanksgiving and Georges St. Pierre, the man dethroned by Serra, stepped in to take his place. Given the uncertainty of Serra's prognosis and reluctance to leave the division's title dormant for much longer, UFC President Dana White deemed the Hughes-St. Pierre bout a five-round interim title match. The winner of the fight will go on to fight Serra to unify the belt. If Serra's injury keeps him out of action for a prolonged amount of time, the winner of this fight will become the undisputed welterweight champ.

Hughes and St. Pierre are quite familiar with each other. This is the third fight between the two and each has captured one match, making this the rubber match of the trilogy. After their first fight at UFC 50, which St. Pierre lost by submission due to armbar at the very end of the first round, St. Pierre admitted that he was in awe of his idol when they fought. St. Pierre overcame being awestruck in their second bout at UFC 65 and won in dominant fashion by TKO due to strikes in the second round.

The young, athletic St. Pierre is in the prime of his career and has well-developed all-around skills. In his last fight against Josh Koscheck, St. Pierre even managed to outwrestle the former college wrestling champ. Hughes, who has recently indicated he may not have too many fights left in his career, is a very strong wrestler. Taking the fight to the ground would appear to give Hughes his best chance of winning. If the fight remains standing, however, the clear edge goes to St. Pierre.

Prediction: St. Pierre wins by TKO (strikes) in the second round.

A year and a half ago, this matchup would have been one for the ages. At the time, Chuck Liddell was the UFC's light heavyweight champ and Wanderlei Silva was PRIDE's corresponding titleholder. Since then, both fighters have lost twice in a row and as a result some of the luster of this bout has been lost as well. Still, it's a fight MMA fans have been clamoring for for years and one White has desperately wanted to make happen.

While "modern" UFC fans may think of Silva as new to the organization, he has actually fought three times in the UFC dating back to 1998 through 2000 (going 1-2 in that stint). The Brazilian is a Chute Boxe protégé who has been training with Xtreme Couture for this match. Silva never hesitates to bang and favors a Muay Thai style in which he presses his opponent and fights in close. He loves to use the Muay Thai clinch and finish his opponent with knees. However, his last two losses (to no slouches in Mirko Cro Crop and Dan Henderson) showed that if Silva is kept at a distance, he can be defeated by well-placed punches or kicks.

Liddell is at a crossroads in his MMA career. While his loss to Rampage Jackson was not unexpected, his subsequent defeat to Keith Jardine is one of the upsets of the year. Liddell needs this victory more than Silva does to resurrect his career. Hopefully, the San Luis Obispo counter-striker studied Silva's losses to Cro Cop and Henderson because therein lie the keys to his success. The longer Liddell must keep Silva at bay by striking from distance. If Silva can move in and crowd Liddell, though, it will be a long night for the former UFC light heavyweight champ.

Will UFC 79 mark the beginning of Liddell's Randy Couture-esque career comeback or are we witnessing the twilight of a brilliant MMA career? We'll find out soon enough. It's just too bad this isn't a five-round affair.

Prediction: Silva wins by TKO (strikes) in the third round

Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou was to PRIDE what Houston Alexander is to the UFC -- except better. Sokoudjou, a judoka who trains with Team Quest, makes his UFC debut after storming onto the worldwide MMA scene in the past year with stunning TKO upset victories in PRIDE over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona. Sokoudjou, also known as "The African Assassin", is a muscular, energetic presence who pushes the tempo and possesses quick hands along with an assortment of kicks. Before those two PRIDE victories, however, Sokoudjou did lose in the WEC in 2006 to Glover Teixeira. Teixeira, another striker, landed punches early and often in that bout and showed that even an assassin can be taken out.

Lyoto Machida is a karate expert who is unbeaten in the UFC and also boasts pre-UFC knockouts over Rich Franklin and Stephen Bonnar as well as a pre-UFC decision victory over BJ Penn. Like Sokoudjou, Machida is inclined to keep the fight standing with an assortment of punches, knees, and kicks from varying stances. Machida is more patient than Sokoudjou but when he connects, he inflicts damage. Machida also has the edge in MMA experience, with twice as many fights on his resume than Sokoudjou. But, Machida's three UFC fights have all gone to decision, so he will surely be looking for a stoppage to impress fans and White.

On a night with so much top-heavy talent on display, this matchup could end up taking fight-of-the-night honors. This should be a non-stop stand-up war between two evenly-matched fighters and the victor will find himself in prime position in the stacked UFC light heavyweight division.

Prediction: Machida wins by TKO (strikes) in the second round

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