Josh Gross
Wednesday July 8th, 2009

For all the focus fixed on UFC 100, chances are, the milestone event won't be remembered as the celebration of an arbitrary number. While the card marks an appropriate point from which to reflect upon mixed martial arts' uneven journey, with due respect to James Carville: It's the fights, stupid.

Indeed, the fights.

Saturday's pay-per-view card at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas -- technically event No. 133 under the organization's banner and, quite nicely, No. 100 of the Zuffa-era -- comes strong with a hyped heavyweight title, a potential classic for the UFC 170-pound championship and a contingent of well-matched undercard bouts.

The best event ever? No, not on paper at least. But it's pretty darn good and well worth the 50 bucks.

The evening's finale, a unification of the UFC heavyweight belt, features Brock Lesnar, a quadruple-XL-glove-wearing former WWE star and NCAA champion wrestler at the University of Minnesota, against a loquacious and confident former titleholder, Frank Mir.

In just five fights, Lesnar (3-1) seems poised to establish himself as the dominant figure in the UFC. And what a figure. Standing 6-foot-3, cutting down 20 pounds to make the division's 265-pound limit, with a chest as expansive as the American southwest, Lesnar, who turns 32 on Sunday, registers an 81-inch reach that pushes ham-fisted punches to their target.

Last November, against Randy Couture, Lesnar seemed to connect from across the cage on a shot that put "The Natural" down, a victory that quieted critics who said he was undeserving of a title opportunity, one that instantly placed him among UFC's most important draws.

Holding training camp a couple hours from Minneapolis near his home in Alexandria, Minn., Lesnar has a tight circle. Buoyed by his former Golden Gopher wrestling coaches, a hired-gun Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor and the guidance of veteran MMA trainer Greg Nelson, Lesnar has done nothing over the past two months but work and think of Mir, who claimed the UFC's interim title after stopping Brazilian heavyweight legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira last December.

Talented, but at times lazy, Mir (12-3) saw his career derailed following a motorcycle accident in September 2004. He was three months removed from the most important win of his career, an arm-snapping submission against then-heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. It took the 30-year-old native Las Vegan 18 months to compete again, and another year and a half before he looked anything like the fighter who started his career 8-1. Not until meeting Lesnar in February 2008 did Mir, thanks to a proper training camp, finally appear capable of competing at his best.

Their first go was a whirlwind. Fighting on adrenaline and athleticism, Lesnar swarmed Mir until inexperience forced him to tapout to a kneebar. Compared to where he was then, Lesnar enters the cage this weekend a full-fledged veteran -- and odds-on favorite.

Compared to most people, Mir is a giant. As tall as his rival, Mir is only the size of, say, Baltimore Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis. His preferred method of attack has long been a power jiu-jitsu game, though, against Nogueira, he displayed for the first time a high level of striking.

I picked Mir in the pair's first meeting, and I'm sticking with him in the rematch. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Lesnar ran over Mir, but in the end, I prefer skill and experience over raw power and emotion.

Georges St. Pierre, the indisputable No. 1 welterweight in MMA, is a difficult man to overshadow. Considering the size of the people in his way, though, it's understandable that his fight with dangerous Brazilian Thiago Alves earned second billing on Saturday.

For real MMA fans, however, let there be no doubt as to which of the two fights is better.

With the exception of a major hiccup against Matt Serra in 2007, St. Pierre, 28, has been untouchable since losing to Matt Hughes in 2004. Entering the Octagon with an 18-2 record (both his losses were avenged), St. Pierre is recognized as one of the most dynamic athletes in the sport today. Simply put, he does everything really well. Add to that an impressive work ethic, the ability to wrestle opponents to the canvas any time he chooses, and a mental makeup that has gone from liability to asset, it's St. Pierre's world at 170 pounds.

Should he defeat Alves, St. Pierre will, in my mind, lay claim to the best welterweight in the history of the UFC, supplanting Hughes, who reigned from 2001 through 2006. Alves, a giant 170-pounder who will walk in to the cage closer to 190, is undoubtedly a threat. His striking and improving takedown defense mean the French-Canadian champ can't risk a mistake.

The only question is whether Alves (16-3) is solid enough in defending takedowns to remain on his feet. If not, forget it. St. Pierre will dominate and probably finish the 25-year-old.

• Rumored to be a UFC middleweight title-contender fight, head coaches from season nine of SpikeTV's The Ultimate Fighter meet when veteran Dan Henderson, still very much a force at the age of 37, meets UK's shining light, 30-year-old Michael Bisping. Count me among the crowd that thinks Bisping (17-1) has a legit chance to win, despite the fact that he's rarely faced an opponent the caliber of Henderson (24-7). Henderson has always been a better light heavyweight than middleweight -- he seems to lose an edge in speed that he possesses over 205-pounders, and the weight cut doesn't do him any favors either.

• Stuck behind G.S.P. in the welterweight division, Jon Fitch, whom I believe is No. 2 at 170, faces undefeated Paulo Thiago (11-0). Thiago survived his UFC debut to knockout Josh Koscheck, a win that did little to give people confidence for future fights against competitors the level of Fitch (18-3). It will take another huge surprise for Thiago to upset Fitch. Don't expect it.

• Making his UFC debut, Japan's Yoshihiro Akiyama has the attitude and skill to perform well in the U.S. Fighting in a cage for the first time under the Unified Rules of MMA doesn't help, but Akiyama (12-1) would seem to match up well against Alan Belcher (14-5). This is a difficult fight to call. Belcher is a hit-and-miss. My call: Akiyama's American debut will be a prosperous one.

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