Josh Gross
Friday January 8th, 2010

While mixed martial arts fans are granted a rare Saturday night off from the fights, there is more than enough action Sunday and Monday to make up for it. With Zuffa pumping out back-to-back cards -- WEC 46 on Sunday in Sacramento, Calif., and Ultimate Fight Night 20 in Faifax, Va., Monday -- here are five bouts more than worthy of your time:

Meeting for the WEC lightweight championship in the main event of WEC 46 (9 p.m. ET, Versus), Varner returns to the cage for the first time in 50 weeks against Henderson, the organization's interim titleholder. The last time fans saw either Arizona-based fighter, they were in the middle of wars against Donald Cerrone. Both won -- Varner by split technical decision, Henderson unanimously on points -- though the champion was forced to the sidelines for nearly a year after busting a hand and foot.

For the southpaw Henderson, a former Varner sparring partner, the fight with Cerrone capped a strong 2009 which saw him go 3-0. He should be sharp heading into Sunday night, and may have an edge over Varner, a slow starter, in the early going. But that probably won't last; Varner, a notoriously hard worker in the gym, sparred a ton over the past three months in the hopes that ring rust won't play a factor in his return.

Against Cerrone, Henderson was successful scoring takedowns, which helped him rack up points to secure the decision. Facing Varner, who is without question a superior wrestler to Cerrone, Henderson's continued grappling dominance seems unlikely.

On the feet Varner appears to have an edge. While Henderson is capable, his footwork can get sloppy and the interim belt holder will find himself out of position from time to time. Varner, who was hailed by his trainer Trevor Lally as a "blueprint" for the kind of mixed martial artist he aims to create at Arizona Combat Sports, brings into the fight clean strikes and heavy hands.

Can Henderson, who fights and trains out of The Lab in Glendale, Ariz., outwrestle Varner? Not for 25 minutes, and that should be the difference.

Like Varner, Faber, the former WEC featherweight champion, was forced to recover following his last bout, a decision loss to Mike Thomas Brown. Though he fell short on points, Faber showed his guts by continuing to press despite a badly broken right hand, and a dislocated thumb on his left. Six months after losing to Brown for a second time, Faber returns against Assuncao, whose record demands attention.

For Assuncao, Faber represents a serious step up in competition. He's clearly ready for it, though it's difficult to tell how good he is at 145 pounds considering this is the first time he's face a truly world-class competitor. Most of Assuncao's success has come against "finesse" grapplers -- an antonym for any appropriate description of Sunday's challenge.

Is Assuncao good enough to handle Faber's speed, power, aggression and deep energy reserves? Probably not. In an important fight for both men, Faber, fighting in front of his hometown fans, should come out on top.

While the best lightweights in the WEC battle for respect -- there isn't a ranked 155-pounder in the organization -- the drive continues to build the division with names you may not have heard of. This bout is an example of that.

Both Jansen and Shalorus carry quality records into the cage, with the idea that the winner could be on the short list to get a crack at Varner or Henderson. Both can wrestle, though Shalorus -- an Iranian national now living in Austin, Texas -- has a much higher pedigree considering he represented the UK at the 2004 Olympics.

The winner here is someone to watch. Though it's tough to discount Jansen's experience -- both in the cage and at Team Quest in Gresham, Ore. -- Shalorus could be the real deal.

The main event for Monday's Ultimate Fight Night 20 card at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., Maynard-Diaz is a rematch of a 2007 "exhibition" during the semifinal round of the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter. Diaz won via guillotine choke in their first encounter, a victory that propelled Diaz into the finals and past Manvel Gamburayn to claim the prize.

The Maynard he faces Monday is a totally different threat. The lanky younger brother to enigmatic Strikeforce-signed contender Nick Diaz, Nate remains dangerous with submissions, and he brings a punches-in-bunches striking style. But he has been exposed against stronger wrestlers in two of his last three fights. That does not bode well against Maynard, who upgraded his submission and striking games significantly over the past three years to compliment a powerful wrestling base, and now appears ready to take a crack at the UFC lightweight title.

Rumors persist that regardless of Maynard's performance on Monday (9 p.m. ET/PT, Spike TV), the next shot against B.J. Penn will go to Frankie Edgar. That appears to be fine with "The Bully," who has shown a willingness to wait his turn. Time, however, is not on Diaz's side. Simply put, he cannot afford another loss. Falling to Maynard would make it three losses in four fights, cementing the belief that he isn't physical enough to handle stronger grapplers populating the upper echelon of the lightweight division.

The pace and look of the fight will be determined by Maynard. It's unlikely Diaz can take him down, so expect a mostly stand-up affair. Diaz, the fourth consecutive southpaw opponent for Maynard, could present problems on the feet with his length and unorthodox angles. However Maynard's power, movement and simple yet crisp punching will, in the end, lead him to victory.

We can never get enough of undefeated prospects meeting at the proper moments in their careers. This is what a good matchmaker should deliver to fight fans, and in Escudero-Dunham, UFC's Joe Silva has done it right.

Escudero, winner of Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter looks like the real deal at 155 pounds. He's a quality wrestler who possesses an understanding of submissions. Add to that the powerful punching displayed in his last bout, a first round knockout of Cole Miller, and you've got one pretty intriguing prospect.

Dunham, too, is worthy of praise. He prefers submissions, though the Oregonian, who trains with Randy Couture in Las Vegas, can strike as well.

Together, he and Escudero should make for a fun, competitive fight. I'll take Escudero to remain undefeated.

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