Josh Gross
Friday December 26th, 2008

In its final offering of 2008, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has assembled a card capable of attracting all sectors of mixed martial arts' diverse fan base.

For the casual supporter, clashes between reality show coaches and reality show stars should draw plenty of attention. That Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans are vying for UFC titles comes as an added bonus, one that will appeal to a more serious watcher. And longtime followers familiar with the heyday of Japan's Pride Fighting Championship will watch a third fight between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Wanderlei Silva with the memory of two dynamic wars, both brutally finished by "The Axe Murderer."

If history, context and ramifications aren't your thing, rest easy knowing that UFC 92 in Las Vegas, particularly the three headline bouts, offer style matchups that should compel enough action in the Octagon to ensure the last taste of 2008 is a sweet one.

Here, now, a primer on what to watch for Saturday evening.

Many expect an epic ground battle, but don't be stunned if much of this UFC interim heavyweight title fight plays out on the feet.

Nogueira -- the No. 2 heavyweight in MMA and perhaps the best mixed martial artist ever produced by fighter-rich Brazil -- was smart enough early in his career to understand that relying on submission skills alone would eventually catch up to him. So he made striking a focus, taking trips to Holland to train with Dutch kickboxers, and to Cuba to work on his hands.

Though he never found much knockout power, Nogueira (31-4-1, 1 NC) learned to uncoil combinations off a stiff jab. Being excellent from his back with arm locks, chokes and sweeps also allowed the 32-year-old fighter enough comfort to sit on his punches, making for a recipe that continues to pay off.

In Mir, Nogueira meets a challenger also touted for ground skills, though there really isn't a comparison. Where the Brazilian is finesse and technique on the canvas, Mir's seven subs in 11 bouts have largely manifested through quick-twitch muscles and great timing. It's difficult to imagine Mir, a former UFC champion, catching Nogueira on the ground. That leaves the stand-up game, where Mir also appears lacking when stacked against Nogueira.

Of the three headliners, I make "Minotauro" the likeliest winner, particularly when you take into account the potential fatigue associated with a 25-minute war; Mir has only once gone a full three rounds, and he's not exactly MMA's Lance Armstrong. What the 29-year-old Las Vegan has done astonishingly well, though, is finish fights early. His seven subs came in a combined eight minutes, 29 seconds.

But considering Nogueira has never been submitted or knocked out, Mir's hill to climb looks like a steep one.

As far as definitive endings go, Silva has rarely left things to chance. Of his 32 wins, only six have gone the distance.

For Rampage, submissions had been a weakness in his earlier losses to Silva, but the stout kid from Memphis, Tenn., could take a punch.

Knees, it turned out, were something different altogether.

In the two previous fights, Silva exposed Jackson as a fighter without an understanding of the clinch, a point punctuated during the pair's second bout in 2004 when the Brazilian champion drilled 22 consecutives knees to the head that left Rampage dangling unconscious between the ropes. To this day, Jackson, 30, won't watch the tape.

The point is Silva (32-8-1, 1 NC) has always fought with a style -- aggressive, unforgiving and, yes, technical -- that overwhelmed Jackson's. The American fought on strength and passion, relying on haymakers and high-elevation slams.

While Wanderlei's locomotive approach could be mistaken for a style similar to Jackson's, the Brazilian has nearly perfected the art of Muay Thai. The style defines him, and it's also one that confounds Jackson.

Early in his career, Jackson, who, despite his deficiencies, finished Chuck Liddell twice, mainly because "The Iceman" is more of a puncher than a fighter comfortable in the clinch, developed the habit of covering his head instead of moving it when he came under attack. For Silva, this created opportunities to move forward and grab the Thai plumb -- something Anderson Silva has capitalized on during his UFC title run. (It's no coincidence that both Silvas came out of Chute Boxe, the famed Brazilian Muay Thai camp.)

Heading into Satuday's fight, Rampage can be sure of one thing: Silva won't show him any mercy. I'm going with Silva for a thid win because of Jackson's defense, or lack thereof.

For the UFC, Griffin and Evans represent everything the promoter could want in a main event: Both men grew in stature through the prominence of The Ultimate Fighter. They validated the show with their success in the cage, and today, no one will argue the legitimacy of a title fight few could have imagined a year ago.

On paper, Griffin-Evans is also the toughest to predict of the three fights highlighted at UFC 92. While Griffin has the advantage of being a big man that can push the pace, Evans comes in supremely confident in his speed and knockout power. (He has every right to be after scoring the best KO of the year against Liddell in September.)

Griffin, 29, is a scrapper, which should be considered the highest of compliments in a sport that often determines winners based on how one endures punishment. And he's gotten to where he relies heavily on that instinct. Despite Griffin's size (he looks like a natural heavyweight and should tower over Evans), he hasn't found the power to match his stature. If there's a weakness on the feet for Griffin, it resides in Evans knowing he can stand in the pocket and trade without much fear of being put down.

It will be the stand-up exchanges that provide the fight's intrigue. Evans (12-0-1) has matured here faster than anywhere else, and the Liddell knockout solidified the former Michigan State wrestler as someone not to be trifled with. Gone are the days when takedowns were his only route to victory. Now footwork, hand speed and refined power are the attributes people most associate with the 29-year-old Greg Jackson product.

Speed versus size. Power versus perseverance.

A win in his first title defense could propel Griffin (16-4) past Liddell as the icon of the UFC light heavyweight division. Evans, however, might have the wrong opponent for that to happen.

After much deliberation, I think Evans' speed is the biggest factor in the fight. He can bob and weave his way in and out, land effective shots and always threaten with a double-leg. Griffin loves to push forward, but finding a comfortable rhythm against a fighter that moves as much as Evans does could be too much.

A stoppage may not be in order, but another changing of the guard in the UFC light heavyweight division is. My pick: Evans.

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