Ben Fowlkes
Thursday August 6th, 2009

UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva isn't simply in search of a new challenge when he moves up in weight to fight Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 in Philadelphia this weekend. What he needs is someone who will give him an actual fight. He needs an opponent who can knock him out of his current holding pattern and force him to be the exciting finisher he used to be. He needs a Rocky Balboa to his Apollo Creed, to put it in terms that Philly can understand, and he needs it now.

As much heat as Silva has gotten for putting on two straight snoozers while defending his 185-pound belt, it's not all his fault. His lapse into a risk-free fighter coincided exactly with the point at which he ran out of credible challengers. First Patrick Cote and then Thales Leites proved incapable of even offering much in the way of offense, let alone a meaningful challenge.

With no one pushing him Silva could coast through without ever getting hit, while also entertaining himself by mocking his opponents in between occasional bursts of activity. Not exactly the stuff epic title fights are made of.

That's where former UFC light heavyweight champ Griffin comes in. He's a guy known more for his work ethic and his self-deprecating sense of humor than his talent, but the fact remains that he'll come after you from beginning to end. It's not in Griffin's DNA to hang back and get outpointed. Even if you are the superior fighter, he's the kind of guy who will make you prove it -- and if that means he has to get his facial features rearranged in the process, so much the merrier.

But if Griffin's job is to make Silva do something -- anything -- worth watching again, does that mean he's just there to play the role of an aggressive punching bag? Not exactly, though the oddsmakers who have tagged him a 3-1 underdog don't seem to think that being a sentient life force will make much of a difference on fight night.

Griffin's size, strength and ability to stick to a game plan even while getting punched in the face repeatedly make him a legitimate threat. He's not easy to put away, and there's always a chance that he might outwork you over the course of a three-round fight. Then again, this is Anderson Silva we're talking about. Even finding him in the cage has proved nearly impossible for some opponents, let alone hitting him. Griffin's probably in for a frustrating encounter, but at least there's reason to hope that the Anderson Silva of old will show up at some point in the night.

The other big fight on Saturday sees a return to the 155-pound division for UFC lightweight champ B.J. Penn, who still seems like he'd prefer another shot at Georges St. Pierre -- either in the cage or the courtroom -- to making his first title defense in more than a year. No one is more deserving of a shot at Penn's belt than Kenny Florian, who's on a six-fight winning streak since falling short in his first crack at the title against Sean Sherk back in 2006.

Any time Penn steps in the Octagon there is always the same question about his conditioning: Can he last into the championship rounds? This time, the answer is almost certainly yes. Getting down to lightweight usually forces him to show up in better form, and he's spent the last few months flooding the internet with a constant stream of short videos from his training camp with renowned strength and conditioning coach Marv Marinovich.

Penn will be physically ready to go on Saturday night, but his mental state will be questionable. The loss to St. Pierre at UFC 94 clearly still troubles "The Prodigy." He seems far more interested in contesting that rivalry than he is in taking on Florian, which makes you question his focus. This is the biggest fight of Florian's life. If Penn doesn't approach it with a similar urgency he could be in for a surprise.

But if we know anything about the scrappy Hawaiian, it's that he never shies away from a good fight. Even if he hasn't spent the last few weeks salivating at the thought of taking on Florian, once he steps in the cage the vicious competitor in him will likely take over. Then we'll find out just how much Florian has improved since the last time he went five rounds with championship gold on the line.

Maybe it's because the top two fights on the card are so compelling, but it sure feels like a dramatic drop off when you look at the rest of the lineup. Ultimate Fighter turned TV personality Amir Sadollah is finally getting back into action, and he'll have his hands full with former Oklahoma State University wrestling standout Johny Hendricks, who will probably spend the evening putting Sadollah on his back over and over again.

Kendall Grove and Ricardo Almeida battle for relevance in the middleweight division, while Josh Neer and Kurt Pellegrino lead off the pay-per-view broadcast in a fight that seems custom-made for a Spike TV card.

If only one of the preliminary bouts from the may-not-be-broadcast no man's land makes it to air, however, let's hope it's the welterweight scrap between the always-entertaining Tamdan "The Barn Cat" McCrory and John Howard.

McCrory is a young fighter who improves drastically with every outing, and after his one-sided victory over Ryan Madigan at UFC 96 he showed that he also has some personality to go along with all that raw potential. Unless UFC president Dana White wants to get called out in another McCrory victory speech, he'd better just go ahead and let "The Barn Cat" have his choice of entrance music, even if it is from a cartoon.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.