Josh Gross
Thursday October 22nd, 2009

The UFC returns to Los Angeles this weekend for the first time in three years, and once again, MMA's top promotion reminds us that yesterday's greatness doesn't guarantee tomorrow's success.

Matt Hughes made that exceedingly clear when he pounded Royce Gracie in a main-event mismatch at the Staples Center last time around. While circumstances aren't quite what they were in 2006, it appears Lyoto Machida will have his chance in the same arena to assert present over past when he takes on a highly-skilled and dangerous Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 104.

It was only four years ago that Shogun was the light heavyweight earning accolades. He was regarded as virtually unbeatable. He was No. 1 -- across all weight divisions. Mind you, the praise was justifiable after Rua (18-3) ran roughshod through one of most exciting and meaningful tournaments in mixed martial arts history; during an unprecedented five-month span in the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championship, Rua bested Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona -- a sequence that brought Fighter of the Year honors and demanded a shift in expectations for the wildly violent Brazilian.

Fans and media were quick to ask: "Could Rua be the best ever?" In this sense, Machida and Rua understand one another very well.

Upon winning the UFC belt this past May, the unblemished, unhittable karateka faced similar queries from MMA watchers, who, all too often, seem intent on labeling someone with greatness before it has the opportunity to plant its flag. In Machida's case, another question -- one far more interesting -- was making the rounds: "What is that makes 'The Dragon' so unique, and what is the key to surviving it?"

The standard response from the 31-year-old Brazilian revolves around his dedication to karate, the samurai lifestyle, and his father's strict, yet nurturing, upbringing, which augmented the early training he provided. Essentially, Machida (15-0) was born into martial arts. That he was fortunate enough to love and excel at them is something Machida calls a "blessing." Delve deeper and you'll find a supremely focused athlete, one who worked on his mental strength as much, if not more, than his physical prowess.

This is where Machida seems to enjoy his biggest advantage. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's never been beaten, let alone roughed up. Machida has spoken quite a bit leading up to his first title defense about taking each fight on its own merits. While he expects Rua, who now counts among his biggest assets the experience of falling from the top, to bring a pressuring style that seems well suited for a quick-fisted, eagle-eyed counter-fighter, Machida and his clan don't appear to be the sort to overlook anyone.

Fully recovered from two major knee surgeries that halted his progression and contributed to early trouble in the UFC after coming over from Pride, Rua will need to call upon his athleticism and whatever quickness remains if he's going to stand a chance of knocking off Machida. Moreover, the head-hunting Rua would be well served to focus on attacking the southpaw champion to the body. Considering Machida's defensive posture, with his head perched high and away from onrushing opponents, going after his body would make sense. For Rua to have any success on Saturday, he should finish combinations with kicks to the midsection.

It's not all bad for the challenger, who does bring some advantages into the fight, especially if it goes to the floor. Machida's camp was quick to acknowledge Shogun's skill as a submission fighter, one who favors leg locks and twisting arm submissions that force opponents into compromising positions.

When it comes down to it, Machida's balance, focus, speed and timing should carry him to victory. Shogun could extend action into later rounds if he remains patient and doesn't overcommit. Assuming the challenger can avoid exposing his chin -- something he has struggled with throughout his career -- he could make a real fight out of it.

While Cain Velasquez and Ben Rothwell took opposite routes to the UFC, their paths cross Saturday in an important heavyweight eliminator that could determine the next challenger in the division.

Velasquez, 27, entered the Octagon after just two pro fights, and he remains a work-in-progress following four appearances (all wins) for the organization. Rothwell, who turned 28 on Oct. 17, took the circuitous route of fighting across the globe nearly 40 times before considering himself ready for the UFC.

Rothwell (30-6) possesses more than enough size, experience, skills and guts to give it a real go against Velasquez (6-0), a two-time All-American wrestler for Arizona State before transitioning into MMA three years ago.

Both men are well-spoken and cordial. But underneath the surface resides a mauler, someone who doesn't mind a war if he can find one. That is the expectation here. Rothwell certainly enjoys a good brawl, and when he's not overmatched by speed and athleticism, he can hang with just about anyone in the division. Velasquez comes into the fight regarded by most as the favorite. Still, the pair isn't separated by much and that will be apparent Saturday.

UFC 104 does not appear to be the strongest card Zuffa has pieced together in the past 12 months. For hardcore fans, however, it has the potential to be a meaningful docket, particularly off TV and beyond Machida-Rua and Velasquez-Rothwell.

For the second consecutive event, UFC and Spike TV will team up to broadcast two bouts before the live pay-per-view kicks off at 10 p.m. ET. The Ultimate Fighter 8 winner Ryan Bader should have a pretty easy go of it against Eric Schafer, and kickboxers Antoni Hardonk and Patrick Barry have the potential to wage an enjoyable stand-up affair.

Fans watching at home will also have access to two lightweight bouts -- Joe Stevenson vs. Spencer Fisher, and Gleison Tibau vs. Josh Neer -- along with a welterweight scrap between Anthony Johnson and Yoshiyuki Yoshida. None of these fights do much for me, though the 155-pound bouts could easily produce the best action of the evening.

There is a middleweight contender fight between the under-promoted (one could say virtually ignored) Yushin Okami (23-4) and Chael Sonnen (23-10) that is worth your time -- even if it means finding the results online since there's no guarantee we'll be able to see it at home. Sonnen can wrestle, and when he wins he tends to outwork his competition. He has to produce something special against Okami, who, with the possible departure of Dan Henderson, is now as valuable as ever to the 185-pound title picture. That is, presuming the UFC is willing to give the Japanese fighter another opportunity.

ROUNDTABLE: SI and FanHouse experts weigh in on UFC 104

FOWLKES: Rothwell vs. Velasquez boosts once-lagging heavyweight class

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