Josh Gross
Friday March 6th, 2009

Saturday's UFC 96 at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, lacks a blockbuster bout at the top, yet intriguing clashes in several weight divisions make the company's latest pay-per-view offering a sleeper.

Meanwhile, MMA kicks off its own March Madness Sunday with the start of two competitive featherweight tournaments this month in Japan. DREAM returns to the big stage of Saitama Super Arena on March 8, followed by another event worth watching, Sengoku, two weeks later.

Without delving too deep, here are predictions for four compelling bouts at UFC 96, as well the opening round of Dream's 16-man elimination tournament, which is set to be fought at 139 pounds.

What we know: Jackson hits hard and Jardine is susceptible to being knocked out. If only it were that easy. There's no doubt Jardine is unorthodox and commits mistakes, but his wins over Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell make those things easy to forget.

The "Dean of Mean" can derail Jackson (29-7). First things first, he needs to avoid standing in front of "Rampage" to trade power shots. If possible, Jardine (14-4-1) must take advantage of the fact that he kicks legs as effectively as anyone in MMA. Considering Jackson has shown a lack of quality defense when it comes to kicks, this seems like a smart place for Jardine to go after the former champion.

However I saw something out of Rampage against Wanderlei Silva that was promising. He was light on his feet, and just a notch faster than in recent bouts. Both translate to deft attacks with power, and at some point, Jackson will find Jardine's chin.

I don't see much grappling here, and you can basically forget a submission finish. This is a tale of two brutes that prefer to maul opponents.

In a war for however long it lasts, I'll take Jackson by KO.

Is there a better story in professional sports than the hearing-impaired Hamill? I'm not so sure. You better believe the former college wrestler is intriguing for more than his "disability," and against an NCAA champion like Munoz, Hamill (5-2), once again, gets an opportunity to show why.

After demolishing opponents in the WEC, Munoz (5-0) is being asked to step up big time as he enters the UFC. His first bout comes against a large 205-pounder who can wrestle and is unafraid of a fight. That would seem to suit Munoz just fine.

This fight will inevitably turn into a rough one with plenty of good wrestling exchanges since Munoz has the pedigree to push Hamill.

The outcome? I'm tempted to take Munoz. In the end, Hamill's experience in big fights -- and potentially insignificant fact that he's competing close to home -- make him the selection here.

I'm going with Hamill, by decision.

Plenty to be learned in his heavyweight fight. Either Gonzaga (10-3) has a real future in the division, or Carwin will be positioned perfectly to challenge the winner of Frank Mir vs. Brock Lesnar.

Undefeated in 10 fights, Carwin has never faced anyone near Gonzaga's level. But the powerful grappler, who hasn't gone past 131 seconds in any of his fights, appears ready for the step up in competition. That's a good thing considering Gonzaga presents a host of problems.

The Brazilian is well-rounded. He's big, aggressive and hungry. He also has the tools the frustrate Carwin and drag him into, at least, the second round.

I question how much energy Carwin (10-0) will be able to carry past the opening frame, so Gonzaga is the pick. But it doesn't come without the acknowledgment that, thus far, Carwin has destroyed everyone put in front of him. Perhaps he is that good.

Despite having just six fights to his name, I have Maynard ranked No. 10 at 155 pounds. Call it premature if you like, but the former Spartan wrestling teammate of light heavyweight champ Rashad Evans has the benefit of being very big, very disciplined and very focused. And to this point, the improving Maynard has also avoided many mistakes, which is why I love this fight.

Miller is aggressive. He attacks no matter the position, and if he can find a way to put Maynard on his heels, Miller can pull off a win. Even if he's forced to fight from the guard -- which I expect he will be -- Miller (13-1) throws enough submissions and sweeps that Maynard may never get comfortable.

It would be easy to point to the fact that Miller's only loss came against Frank Edgar, whom Maynard manhandled for a decision win last April. But each fighter has improved drastically since that bout in 2006, and it doesn't provide much insight.

Expect Maynard (6-0) to play to his strengths, which means he'll wrestle and control and work for a points win. Miller, for the benefit of everyone watching, won't make it easy.

The most discussed fighter in Japan is also the country's biggest enigma. Injuries and marijuana have tempered the hype surrounding Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, but they have not yet killed it.

While May marks the expected return of a fighter most will favor when he gains special entry into the tourney's quarterfinals, the field must first be halved. That happens Sunday (and can be seen a week later on HDNet).

A fan of featherweights? If so, this is worthy of your attention. My picks:

Abel Cullum def. Akiyo Nishiura

Micah Miller def. Yoshiro Maeda

Masakazu Imanari def. Atsushi Yamamoto

Bibiano Fernandes def. Takafumi Otsuka

Hiroyuki Takaya def. Jong Won Kim

Chase Beebe def. Joe Warren

Also, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the evening's three remaining fights. The winners all seem pretty clear -- Shinya Aoki over Dave Gardner at a catch-weight of 163 pounds; Tatsuya Kawajiri over Ross Ebanez; and Mitsuhiro Ishida over Daisuke Nakamura, both at lightweight -- but they're worth watching.


GROSS: Jardine: bad for business, good for friends

FOWLKES: Regardless of outcome, UFC 96 has a lot at stake

CONTENDERS: Evans' next foe narrowed to two

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