Josh Gross
Monday December 1st, 2008

For a sport with no off-season, there's hardly a busier time than the end of the year. It's fitting then that 2008, which undoubtedly will go down as a crucial chapter in mixed martial arts history, closes with several meaningful fights.

While Japanese promoters used to carry the end-of-the-year torch with stacked New Year's Eve cards, it's the UFC's The Ultimate 2008 card on Dec. 27 that stands tall heading into this final month.

Looking at the sheer volume of fights in December, it was tough to limit my list of the most important -- it's all about relevance, big names and consequences -- but I chose five that fit the bill for various reasons.

Some, like the UFC light heavyweight title fight between Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans, offer everything, while others (Joachim Hansen versus Gesias "JZ" Calvancante) are meaningful, though they won't determine the top fighter in the world at a particular weight.

A rematch of 2004 bout that saw Norwegian lightweight Joachim Hansen take a majority decision over a talented and inexperienced Calvancante, this K-1 Dynamite!! New Year's Eve clash brings with it the reminder that great MMA can, and does, happen outside the UFC from time to time, particularly in the lightweight class.

Losing to Eddie Alvarez in May -- one of the best fights to go the distance in 2008 (or any year for that matter) -- Hansen found good fortune when the young Philadelphian withdrew from the Dream 160-pound tournament finals in July because of an injury. The victory over Shinya Aoki netted Hansen the title -- a prize many felt would belong to Calvancante, the winner of the 2006 and 2007 Hero's grand prix.

If his surgically repaired knee is healthy, Calvancante can bring the fight to Hansen, who's shown little timidity during his nine-year career.

There's no shortage of star power in this clash of light heavyweight greats. In previous meetings -- both of which were finished conclusively by Silva (32-8-1, 1 NC) during his reign as the Pride champion in Japan -- the two bulls charged at one another until one was left standing. Chances are good that a similar result will come from their third clash on Dec. 27 in Las Vegas.

Silva owns a 2-0 edge, and without a title on the line (a No. 1 contender spot could hang in the balance), most of the pre-fight attention will focus on Jackson (28-7), who returns for the first time since his highly-publicized arrest in July.

"Rampage" has never lost two in a row, but Silva, looking rejuvenated after consecutive losses to Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Dan Henderson (both of which were vicious knockouts) and Chuck Liddell, seems poised to make that happen.

The back-half of UFC's heavyweight tournament (Dec. 27) features an "interim" title fight between the second-best heavyweight in MMA history and a former UFC champ hoping skill and talent can carry him to an upset.

If Nogueira (31-4-1, 1 NC) manages to submit Mir, he'll own the title of the best submission-based heavyweight in perpetuity -- 20 of the Brazilian's wins have come from some sort of joint lock or choke. Yet there's no guarantee he'll catch Mir (11-3), who's enjoying the fruits of submitting "pre-Randy-Couture" Brock Lesnar.

While Nogueira has looked sluggish since coming to the UFC after years spent dominating opponents in Japan (save Fedor Emelianenko), he's shown an increased comfort level with each appearance inside the Octagon. He'll have the benefit of being the longer, taller fighter, and should find that to his liking as he stands and strikes with a challenger that's never shown himself all that willing to trade.

The winner's prize: a UFC heavyweight title unifier against Lesnar.

If Urijah Faber's loss to Mike Thomas Brown taught us anything, it's that weight divisions less than 155 pounds haven't been fleshed out yet. Though we might believe Torres to be a pound-for-pound giant and the champion at 135, bantamweight fighters are really just getting going in the States, which means there could be a lot of talent that's yet to be recognized.

For Tapia (10-0-1), the headline bout on Dec. 3 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (Versus 8 p.m. ET) offers a chance to prove himself against the best in his division.

The World Extreme Cagefighting champ, meanwhile, is a win away from completing a monster 2008 -- a 12-month stretch that saw him rise to prominence after a "Fight of the Year" caliber performance against Japan's Yoshiro Maeda. A win on Wednesday would make three for Torres (34-1) this year, setting him up for several extremely competitive challengers, and perhaps an event-driven fight or two.

A testament to the star-building power of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, UFC delivers a main event on Dec. 27 featuring two men reared on the reality show -- Season 1 and 2 winners, respectively -- who are now known more for their success in MMA than their time on television.

Because most year-end awards seem to come with time left on the clock, pundits likely won't make Griffin (16-4) "Fighter of the Year." But if people are willing to wait, and he manages a victory over Evans (12-0-1), the No. 1-ranked Griffin, who took the title against "Rampage" in July, could qualify.

One bout after handing Michael Bisping the first loss of his career, Evans earned the top-contender slot in the UFC's deepest division with a stone-cold knockout of Liddell in September. Evans should possess an edge in speed and power. Best fight of the month, hands down.

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