Josh Gross
Friday November 20th, 2009

Hardships surrounding Zuffa's promotion of UFC 106 have shone a bright light on two important facts as Saturday's pay-per-view looms from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

First, the UFC's ability to cobble together a respectable card shows the full force of its roster depth and flexibility. Moreover, that the event itself hasn't been scrapped despite the numerous changes speaks to a major advantage mixed martial arts possesses over boxing.

While no one could honestly argue that UFC 106 is anywhere near as compelling or important today as it was six weeks ago -- before Brock Lesnar was forced out of his UFC heavyweight title defense against Shane Carwin; Kenny Florian vs. Clay Guida was moved to early December; Mark Coleman bowed out of his fight against Tito Ortiz because of a knee injury; Ricardo Almeida, too, hurt his knee; and Karo Parisyan left everyone hanging 48 hours before he was set to fight Dustin Hazelett -- there remain reasons to watch through the rubble.

Matched for the first time since April 2006, when Ortiz scored a split-decision win in Anaheim, Calif., two of the most marketable fighters in UFC history come together hoping they can pick up the considerable slack left by the loss of Lesnar-Carwin.

The light heavyweights are burdened both by lingering doubts from fans and media that either can seriously contend against the elite in the division. After an 18-month layoff following major back surgery, will Ortiz (15-6-1) find the explosion in his legs that once inspired a three-and-a-half-year title run? And for the younger Griffin, following decisive losses to Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva, what does he have left?

Each, too, faced doubts when they clashed three years ago on the UFC's first card in California. In MMA years, the fight feels like it took place three careers ago. And, for Griffin, it pretty much did. That loss to Ortiz, on a card dubbed "Reality Check" as a nod to Griffin's popularity on The Ultimate Fighter, pushed Griffin forward. Taking the setback as a learning experience, Griffin, now 30, managed to secure a piece of the UFC light heavyweight title two years after falling to Ortiz. Yet, unlike Ortiz, Griffin's stint atop the UFC's deepest division lasted just one fight, when he fell to Evans in three.

Though he comes into the bout very much the veteran at 34, Ortiz said in the buildup to Nov. 21 that being healthy for the first time in years -- including his first bout against Griffin when "The Huntingon Beach Bad Boy" walked into the Octagon with torn ligaments in his right knee -- has energized him.

"Now that I got back surgery, it was very serious for me to make that decision of getting it done," he said. "I had a chance of being paralyzed, but this sport means that much to me. Getting a world title around my waist is one step at a time, and that one steps starts Saturday night against Forrest Griffin."

If their first effort is any indication, and it should be, a healthy Ortiz -- one who could drop on a double-leg and fire forward into an opponent's hips -- represents a stylistic nightmare for Griffin. Ortiz took down and pounded Griffin in the opening period three years ago, so much so that it appeared he deserved a 10-8 advantage on the judges' cards.

Griffin (16-6) has matured since that fight, adding an improved sprawl at Randy Couture's gym in Las Vegas. But he recognizes that a fully-operational Ortiz, even as doubts and questions linger over what he has left, remains a threat.

"Tito's got a great fallback," Griffin said. "He's been smashing that double-leg for 12 years. His legs are healthy, so you know that's definitely a part of his game."

While Griffin has an edge on the feet, he's not the kind of hard-punching counter striker (ala Chuck Liddell) that gives Ortiz fits. All that indicates, irrespective of ring-rust, that Ortiz has built-in advantages. Expect him to find success with takedowns, but don't be surprised if Griffin forces standing exchanges more than once.

I like Ortiz to keep Griffin on his back long enough that his ground-and-pound game will be the difference in the fight.

Josh Koscheck (13-4) and Anthony Johnson (10-2) meet in an interesting welterweight co-feature.

For Johnson, who fought less than a month ago in Los Angeles but embarrassed himself by stepping on the scale six pounds over the division limit of 170 pounds, this represents a sizable jump in the level of competition. If he's going to do something in the UFC, he must win this fight.

Extra pounds won't be an issue, said his manager Ken Pavia. Johnson went to bed Thursday night at 179, putting him on target to make weight. He'll need to be distraction free against Koscheck, who is clearly one of the division's best competitors, even if the adapted all-american wrestler split his last four bouts.

I expect a little bit of everything in this fight. Koscheck would be foolish to forget his wrestling roots against a longer striker who brings considerable power. Johnson can grapple too, which makes the bout interesting.

Give me Koscheck.

A light heavyweight tilt between well thought of Brazilians could be the best fight of the night. Both Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (17-3) and Luiz Cane (10-1) stand southpaw. They can strike and they can grapple. (Cane the better striker, Nogueira the better grappler.)

This, in my estimation, is an essentially even fight. Cane appears to be the more physical mixed martial artist, but not by much. It could come down to cardio in the latter half of the fight, and if it does, Nogueira should have an edge. I'm leaning slightly towards Cane, though, with the understanding that either man has the tools and wherewithal to have his hand raised Saturday. The winner could be a victory away from earning a UFC title shot.

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