Pramit Mohapatra
Wednesday January 16th, 2008

The Ultimate Fighting Championship opens 2008 with its first pay-per-view card of the year coming just three weeks after UFC 79. The promotion takes its show to Newcastle, England, after the UFC held two events in the country last year. UFC 80 begins a very busy stretch for the UFC -- one that includes a UFC Fight Night the Wednesday after UFC 80 and UFC 81 just two weeks later.

UFC President Dana White has conceded that the company has taken a financial hit so far with its overseas ventures.

Last week according to Orange County Register's blog "Keep Punching" White said, "I don't think there is anything profitable about the European market, right now. We're getting our [butts] kicked over there."

Still, Europe is a big part of White's plans for global expansion and he seems intent on conquering the English market first and expanding from there.

As with previous UK cards, UFC 80 will feature its share of European talent. The two main fights are a battle for the UFC lightweight title and a matchup that could help determine the number one contender in the heavyweight division.

In the 15 months since Sean Sherk defeated Kenny Florian for the UFC lightweight title, the recently resurrected but perpetually cursed division has seen only one title defense. That occurred last July at UFC 73 when Sherk successfully defended the title against Hermes Franca. Unfortunately, both Sherk and Franca failed their drug tests at that event. Sherk vehemently denied any wrongdoing and appealed the positive drug test after he was suspended for 12 months by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). Months passed with no decision on Sherk's appeal before the CSAC finally made a ruling in early December. While the commission didn't overturn the verdict, Sherk's penalty was cut to six months.

Following the ruling, White stripped Sherk of the title, which set the stage for UFC 80's lightweight title fight between Penn and Stevenson.

Perhaps the only thing less active than the lightweight title in recent memory is Penn's MMA fighting career. The free-spirited Hawaiian has always enjoyed a number of interests outside MMA and fought only once in 2007, twice in 2006, and twice in 2005.

While his motivation level is sometimes questioned, Penn's skills certainly never are. He is a highly respected submission artist with a strong background in Jiu-Jitsu.

"That's what I do. I eat, breathe and sleep Jiu-Jitsu," Penn said according to "Keep Punching." "Every moment I feel I could do it with my eyes closed."

But don't discount Penn's potent standup game, which helps make him an all-around threat often included in the top ten of various pound-for-pound rankings. Interestingly enough, Penn has previously shown no hesitation to fight in higher weight classes, which certainly can't hurt his efforts in the lightweight division. Prior to his rear naked choke victory against Jens Pulver at the TUF 5 Finale, Penn spent time in the UFC's welterweight division and even picked up a loss against current UFC light heavyweight Lyoto Machida in 2005. Still, it would appear that Penn is most dangerous in the lightweight ranks given that three of his four career losses have come in the heavier weight classes.

Stevenson -- the TUF 2 winner in the welterweight division -- received his shot at the title by virtue of his current four-fight win streak in the UFC. His main assets are his strength and his wrestling ability. While he has won a number of fights by submission, it is difficult to imagine that Stevenson will be able to submit the "Gumby-esque" Penn. It's also not easy to believe that Stevenson can get the better of Penn standing up. Stevenson's best chance in this fight is to grind out a decision victory on the ground.

And, don't forget about Sherk -- the now-eligible former champ is the number one contender in the division and awaits the winner of this fight.

Prediction: Penn wins by submission in the third round

This bout features two up-and-coming Brazilian heavyweights in a rematch of a 2003 fight won by Werdum via third-round TKO.

With the UFC heavyweight division currently in a state of limbo because of the impasse with champion Randy Couture and the resulting interim title fight between Tim Sylvia and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 81, the winner of this fight could potentially become the number one contender.

Gonzaga is a star in the making in a division with very few stars. While his background is in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he has demonstrated over and over in the Octagon that he can hang with the best standing up. His versatility makes him a threat no matter who he faces and his entertaining style makes him a crowd-pleaser. In his last fight, Gonzaga fought for the title, losing to wily veteran Couture last August at UFC 74. While Couture dominated and won by TKO in the third round, Gonzaga gained valuable experience and showed heart in that defeat.

Werdum, on the other hand, is best known as a superb practitioner of BJJ. Before suffering an uninspiring unanimous decision loss to Andrei Arlovski in his UFC debut last April at UFC 70, Werdum made a name for himself in PRIDE, where he racked up a number of submission victories. It is important for Werdum to not only win this fight but also to do so in an entertaining manner to bolster his chances at a title shot.

Although Werdum won their first fight, Gonzaga has improved quite a bit since then. While the two would appear to be even on the ground, Gonzaga has the edge because of his prowess on his feet.

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

In a division that has long been dominated by Matt Hughes and heir apparent Georges St. Pierre, a persistent question is who else can step up and make things interesting? TUF 2 alum Davis is an intriguing candidate who has shown that he could fit the bill. A former professional boxer, Davis has made a very nice transition to MMA and sports a five-fight win streak in the UFC coming into this bout. While Davis has always shown quick hands, his last fight at UFC 75 against Paul Taylor revealed that he has quite a bit more in his arsenal. In that fight, Davis survived a right high kick early in the first round and a number of shots to the head on the ground before reversing and locking in an armbar to earn the victory.

Liaudin comes in with a two-fight win streak in the UFC and sports a resume full of victories earned by various types of submissions. In his last fight -- against Anthony Torres at UFC 75 -- Liaudin showed that he can strike as well, knocking Torres down twice in the first round before finishing him with combinations to win by TKO.

This bout could win fight of the night honors. In the end, Davis has the edge in Octagon experience and should have an edge standing up.

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

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