Pramit Mohapatra
Thursday January 31st, 2008

While the most common topics leading up to Super Bowl XLII this weekend are the Patriots run for a perfect season and Tom Brady's ankle, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has its own questions to answer Saturday at UFC 81 in Las Vegas.

Two of the promotion's weakest divisions -- heavyweight and middleweight -- will receive the majority of the main card attention with five fights between the two scheduled on the card. The heavyweight division in particular provides us with two notable questions: 1) Who will be the interim titleholder, and 2) Can an inexperienced phenom defeat a seasoned veteran?

When Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira signed with the UFC last year, there was no doubt that he would soon be contending for the heavyweight title. Nogueira (aka "Big Nog") is the former PRIDE heavyweight champion and has defeated the likes of Josh Barnett, Mirko Cro Cop, Fabricio Werdum (now the UFC's number one contender), and Dan Henderson. Big Nog even took Fedor Emelianenko, who is widely considered the world's top heavyweight, to the judges' scorecards.

Nogueira brings, possibly, the best jiu-jitsu game of any heavyweight in the world and is also quite good with his stand-up game, making him an all-around threat. However, he has to consider himself lucky to have survived his UFC debut against familiar PRIDE foe Heath Herring. Nogueira ate a left high kick late in the first round and, had it not been for Herring's tentativeness following that kick and early in the second round, Nogueira could have very well lost that fight. Instead, he survived to win by unanimous decision.

While Nogueira's presence in this fight is not unexpected, UFC President Dana White could not have imagined in his wildest dreams (or nightmares) that Tim Sylvia would be back in title contention less than a year after losing the belt to Randy Couture. With the signings by the UFC of Nogueira and Cro Cop, the free agency of Emelianenko, and the rise of young fighters such as Brandon Vera, it was not far-fetched to think the division was too deep for Sylvia to get another shot so quickly.

Instead the heavyweight division is a mess and its champ, Couture, no longer wants to fight in the UFC, giving way to this interim title fight. Emelianenko signed with another promotion (M-1 Global), Cro Cop has thus far been a flop, and Vera was defeated by Sylvia in his last fight. So, we find ourselves with the "Maine-iac" in yet another title match.

Sylvia's main asset is his height. At 6-foot-8, he stands seven inches taller than Nogueira. While he's not blessed with an abundance of athletic skill and his style can best be described as plodding, Sylvia has an impressive 9-3 record in the UFC including wins in six out of his last seven bouts. Even though he is considered a striker, Sylvia continues to work on his ground game and is not easy to take down or submit. The main rub against him is that five of his last six fights have gone to decision and they haven't exactly been barnburners. The Sylvia who came up through the ranks with exciting victories is no more. In his place is a man who is just good enough to eke out victories in, what have lately been, five rounds of boredom.

Will Nogueira be able to use his veteran guile and all-around skill to overcome the lumbering Sylvia much the same way Couture did nearly eleven months ago? Or will Sylvia smother Nogueira with his length standing up and do just enough to survive on the ground? Whatever the answer, expect this fight to go the distance.

Prediction: Sylvia wins by split decision

I have a confession to make. I grew up on a steady diet of professional wrestling. I used to watch the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) on weekends, the National Wrestling Alliance on weekdays, and even dabbled in Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (when my parents weren't looking) before I finally outgrew that form of entertainment. So, it is with much curiosity that I will be watching former WWE superstar Brock Lesnar's UFC debut this weekend against former UFC heavyweight champ Frank Mir.

Interestingly enough, the Lesnar-Mir bout has drawn more of UFC's marketing attention and online chatter than the interim title fight. Why? Because, in Lesnar, fans have a fighter who may one day live up to his billing as an MMA superstar in a division that badly needs one. Lesnar is young (30), big and powerful (6-foot-3 ½, 265 pounds), a tremendous athlete who tried out for the Minnesota Vikings after leaving WWE, and was the 2000 NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion.

Lesnar's obvious shortcoming is his lack of MMA-specific experience. He's only trained in MMA for a couple of years and has just one professional fight under his belt -- a ground-and-pound victory over unheralded Min Soo Kim last June at K-1's Dynamite!!USA card.

Against Mir, Lesnar faces an opponent whose best days may very well be behind him. Mir defeated Sylvia with a bone-cracking armbar to win the heavyweight title in 2004, but shortly after, the champion suffered severe knee and leg injuries from a motorcycle accident. Those injuries kept Mir out of MMA for about 18 months and he has been lackluster in his return, going 2-2 in the UFC. If there is a positive for Mir, it was his last win via kimura against Dutch kickboxing specialist Antoni Hardonk early in the first round.

Mir's strengths going into this bout are his experience and jiu-jitsu technique. However, Lesnar should have the advantage in strength and wrestling. While Mir believes he is quicker than Lesnar by virtue of being smaller, such an assumption has little basis. After all, part of Lesnar's appeal is his supposed freakish combination of size and speed.

Given his inexperience in the sport, though, Lesnar's game provides fans and opponents with more questions than answers. Will the high-flying acrobatics of pro wrestling mean anything in MMA? Has he developed his striking and submission defense enough to keep Mir away from his comfort zone on the ground? Will he be able to effectively use his power and wrestling to his advantage? Is he MMA fit?

In the end, this contest boils down to natural ability versus experience. While Mir isn't exactly a top-five fighter anymore, there are simply too many unknowns when it comes to Lesnar's game. Lesnar may one day dominate the UFC heavyweight division, but this Saturday he will find out the hard way how much he has to learn before that day arrives.

Prediction: Mir wins by submission in the second round

A pervasive question in the UFC middleweight division is who can stand up to champ Anderson Silva? Rich Franklin lost to him twice in brutal fashion and, now, PRIDE middleweight champ Dan Henderson gets a shot at him in UFC 82 in March. But if Henderson should falter, where will Silva's future challenges come from? Yushin Okami is certainly a candidate, but after him the ranks are quite thin. UFC 81, with three scheduled middleweight fights, should give both White and the fans a little more insight into the status of the promotion's weakest weight class.

In one matchup, Jeremy Horn returns for his third stint in the UFC to take on Nate Marquardt. While he hasn't fought in the promotion in close to twenty months, Horn has always been active, racking up more than 100 MMA fights in his career. He also rides a two-fight winning streak in the UFC's middleweight division entering this bout. Marquardt has tremendous ground skills and, at 28, is a rising UFC star (he has a 4-1 record inside the Octagon) who has also been in MMA for a long time. Marquardt had his chance at the title last July, but fell to Silva by TKO due to strikes.

Prediction: Marquardt wins by submission in the second round

In another middleweight bout, Ricardo Almeida faces Rob Yundt. Almeida returns to action after retiring from the sport for three years. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist with a 1-2 UFC record who sports wins over Ryo Chonan, Kazuo Misaki, and Marquardt. Yundt replaces Almeida's original opponent, Alan Belcher, who had to withdraw due to bronchitis. This match marks Yundt's UFC debut and, according to Sherdog.com, he only has six professional fights, all victories in the Alaska Fighting Championship. On his UFC.com profile, Yundt's listed strengths are wrestling and ground-and-pound. Had Belcher been fighting, he would have been my pick, but now the edge goes to Almeida based on his big-league experience.

Prediction: Almeida wins by submission in the first round

In the final middleweight matchup, Marvin Eastman, 38, squares off against Terry Martin, 27. While Eastman has wins over Quinton Jackson and Vernon White, his lifetime record in the Octagon is 0-3 (including a rematch loss to Jackson almost a year ago in Jackson's UFC debut.) Martin is a strong puncher who has found a home in the middleweight division after starting his UFC career with two losses in the light heavyweight division. In fact, it appeared that Martin was on his way to a third straight victory in the division in his last fight against Chris Leben before Leben stunned him with a knockout punch in the third round. In this fight, however, Martin should be the stronger fighter with the more powerful hands.

Prediction: Martin wins by TKO in the second round

Send questions/comments to pramit.mohapatra@gmail.com.

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