Josh Gross
Thursday July 2nd, 2009

Starting with UFC 100's gigantic fights, this upcoming summer stretch is the busiest and most important in the history of the sport. Maybe we're saying things like that too much lately, but they're true.

Here are the 10 best fights -- based on relevancy, stature of fighters, importance of the bout and promotional platform -- over the next three months, along with a bunch of others worth catching:

The Aug. 1 fight is the best heavyweight battle to happen in a long time, one that makes a monumental series of bouts in the division special. Barnett, who, at 24, was the youngest heavyweight champion in UFC history, has long been thought of as the man to test top-ranked heavyweight Emelianenko. Barnett's submission-heavy style, aggression and experience must pay dividends. Otherwise he'll be the 27th consecutive fighter to come out on the bad side of a test of wills with the Russian.

While it's taken several years to get the friendly pair in the ring, this feels like the proper time for a fight. By all rights, the title clash should happen in Japan, where both spent the majority of their careers. Instead, this marks the third straight fight for each in Southern California, as Affliction continues to promote near its home base, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Not only will we see if Barnett is the man to dethrone Emelianenko -- far and away the most dominant mixed martial artist of this decade -- the future of Affliction as a viable mixed martial arts promoter could be hanging in the balance. Despite being repeatedly shot down by Affliction executives, rumors have persisted that this third card could be the clothing brand's last as a promoter of MMA. It will take Emelianenko and Barnett drawing a strong number on pay-per-view -- no easy feat -- for Affliction to convince doubters it can sell top-shelf fights. SI.com's Rating: 5 stars

Hard to imagine there's a better welterweight matchup in store for 2009 than this July 11 bout on the UFC 100 card. St. Pierre has run through a gauntlet of challengers, and Alves ranks pretty high on that list. Victory would put a vacuum seal on G.S.P.'s pound-for-pound status. Should Alves, an aggressive striker at heart, pull the upset, it would mark a significant shift at 170 pounds.

With St. Pierre's Gatorade campaign heading to the U.S. this week, the French-Canadian mauler could be on the verge of full-fledged global stardom. A win over Alves -- no matter how he earns it -- will produce another strong gust behind G.S.P.'s sails. SI.com's Rating: 5 stars

A compelling and hyped heavyweight fight has all the ingredients in this championship rematch at UFC 100. Unless one of these guys fights Fedor before year's end, this is likely 2009's most marketable tilt between big boys. With Lesnar and UFC president Dana White involved, it's hard to argue otherwise.

On the line, officially, is the UFC heavyweight championship. Unofficially: the future of promotion's biggest draw. Winning would propel Lesnar into the stratosphere. Losing? Well, that would make him 3-2 in five fights.

Mir, meanwhile, stands poised to write one of the best turnarounds in MMA history. After winning and never defending the UFC title in 2004, Mir was out for a year and a half following a terrifying motorcycle accident that mangled one of his legs as badly as it did his career. Today, the limb and vocation are doing wonderfully. Come July 12, though, anything can happen. SI.com's Rating: 4 1/2 stars

The most hyped women's fight in MMA history leads the biggest card ever promoted by Strikeforce or aired on Showtime. Think people care about this one? Yup.

Showtime is pulling out all the stops to promote the Aug. 15 fight (HP Pavilion, San Jose, Calif.) with a big press conference at Madison Square Garden next week. Rumor has it Carano and Cyborg might even step into a cage built somewhere outside Penn Station. (Will New Yorkers take the time to care?)

As far as the fight, Carano likes to kickbox. Cyborg likes to kick butt. This historic five-minute, five-round title fight is a true test for both women. SI.com's Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Records tell a lot, but Bowles is not to be underestimated. His powerful wrestling and previous performances make him a legit challenge to the best bantamweight in MMA at WEC 42 on Aug. 9. But what of the challenger's will? That seems to be the deciding factor when Torres puts his belt on the line.

Torres' last two performances were fight-of-the-year contenders. There's little reason to suspect Bowles won't exude the kind of effort needed to bring the best out of Chicago's 135-pound MMA champion.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle for the WEC is, again, avoiding be overlooked as its promotional brother, the UFC, which has four of its biggest stars fighting the night before in Philadelphia. SI.com's Rating: 4 1/2 stars

No shortage of high-wattage fighters in this light heavyweight attraction at UFC 101 on Aug. 8 in Philadelphia. Unlike recent fights, when the Brazilian UFC middleweight champion appeared bored against overmatched opponents, Silva will have his hands full against Griffin. With his friend Lyoto Machida atop the light heavyweight, it makes little sense these days for Silva to spend time in the division. But the matchup works because of the many rooting interests in play.

A win for Griffin would be a tremendous addition to an already stellar collection of victories. The preeminent Ultimate Fighter alum enjoys a permanent spot in the UFC, though it helps to remember that his success is the result of an ability to make the most of opportunities, not marketing hype. SI.com's Rating: 4 1/2 stars

At UFC 101, the lightweight championship is up for grabs. Most favor the controversy magnet Penn, who has some work left in repairing his reputation after asserting St. Pierre "greased" during their bout in January, which Penn lost by technical knockout in the fourth round. Penn can go a long way if he walks into the cage against Florian and puts on an efficient and dominant performance.

Fighting at his best weight, 155, Penn needs to make a statement against a solid athlete who prepares as well as anyone in the game. There's no guarantee he'll get what he wants. SI.com's Rating: 4 1/4 stars

Polar opposite jiu-jitsu stylists clash in this tremendous lightweight fight at Dream 10 on July 20 in Saitama, Japan. Aoki's off-the-wall, long-limbed attacks may not work against "Shaolin," who's regarded among the best in the world at 155 before suffering a serious eye injury in defeat to Gesias Calvancante two years ago.

This is a giant moment for Ribeiro, who undoubtedly jumps back into the top five at lightweight with a win. SI.com's Rating: 4 stars

Once-great heavyweights on the downside of their careers, Couture and Nogueira will battle it out at UFC 102 on Aug. 29 in Portland, Ore. The two revered names in the division should make for a quality clash when "The Natural" fights in his former hometown for the first time.

How much does either man have left? That'll be the question as fight night approaches. One thing is certain, though: Neither man knows what it's like to go down without a fight. SI.com's Rating: 3 3/4 stars

Just a great contender fight in the middleweight division, also on the UFC 102 card. Marquardt is as tough as they get. He's trouble enough with his size and strength, but experience, poise and, yes, plenty of skill have made him a fixture inside the middleweight rankings.

Maia's so good at Brazilian jiu-jitsu he hasn't had to pay the price for average-at-best striking and suspect wrestling. Somehow, though, Maia's managed to get opponents on the ground. And when he does, fights end in submission. Of his five bouts in the UFC, each ended with a tap-out to a choke (three rear-nakeds, two triangles).

Marquardt will determine how good Maia is right now, and where the Brazilian's BJJ will take him in the division. SI.com's Rating: 3 3/4 stars

Gegard Mousasi (25-2-1) vs. Renato "Babalu" Sobral (32-8)

Dan Henderson (24-7) vs. Michael Bisping (17-1)

Jorge Santiago (21-7) vs. Vitor Belfort (18-8)

Josh Thomson (16-2, 1 NC) vs. Gilbert Melendez (15-2)

Hatsu Hioki/Masanori Kanehara vs. Marlon Sandro/Michihiro Omigawa

Jon Fitch (18-3, 1 NC) vs. Paulo Thiago (11-0)

Gray Maynard (7-0) vs. Roger Huerta (20-2-1, 1 NC)

Satoru Kitaoka (25-8-9) vs. Mizuto Hirota (11-3-1)

Joseph Benavidez (10-0) vs. Dominick Cruz (13-1)

Paulo Filho (16-1) vs. Melvin Manhoef (23-5-1)

Nick Diaz (20-7, 1 NC) vs. Joe Riggs (30-10, 1 NC)

Martin Kampmann (15-2) vs. Mike Swick (14-2)

Paul Buentello (27-10) vs. Gilbert Yvel (36-13-1, 1 NC)

Takeya Mizugaki (11-3-2) vs. Jeff Curran (29-11-1)

Andre Galvao/Jason High vs. Hayato Sakurai/Marius Zaromskis

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