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Liddell, Franklin headline UFC 115 card high on depth and good will

Held up against the crassness from Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Zuffa's follow-up event Saturday in Vancouver, B.C., feels downright saccharine.

Offering a card notable for its depth and good will, UFC 115 also appears to have the potential to be one of the best fought of the year. While a main event featuring aging veterans Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin will appeal to some, it's the well-matched televised undercard -- including a terrific lightweight bout on Spike TV leading into the pay-per-view -- that has me interested.

If there's intrigue to be found in the headliner between Franklin, 35, and Liddell, 40 -- the former locked in a nebulous space between weight classes, the latter competing for the first time in nearly 15 months -- it's this: No one knows what "The Iceman" has left, and we haven't seen the pair of American MMA stars fight before. But, as best as I can tell, that's all.

Franklin makes for an ideal test as Liddell's comeback opponent. Why? The former UFC middleweight champion -- hard to believe it's been three-and-a-half years since "Ace" lost the title to Anderson Silva -- isn't the kind of fighter who gives much to his competitors, so you know Liddell will have to show something during their 15 minutes together to pull off a win. He also doesn't hit particularly hard, which is good news for someone whose chin has come under question with knockout losses in three of his last five fights. But the most obvious reason Franklin (26-5) is well-suited for Liddell: he's a southpaw. The best counter to a southpaw is the right hand lead, and no one has a more jarring straight right in MMA than "The Iceman."

A Liddell win -- that's where I'm leaning -- presupposes a couple things: His conditioning is up to the task (and he looks to be in great shape) and he isn't totally shot. Franklin can and will make a fight out of the evening's main event. He can move and keep distance and accumulate enough strikes against Liddell (21-7) to pull off a decision. But I don't see it. At some point, Liddell's right hand will find the mark, and Franklin, a victim of four knockouts in his career, including his most recent bout versus Vitor Belfort last September, should go down.

Don't expect much grappling. This is a standup fight. As the advertising for the evening's pay-per-view (10 p.m. ET) so delightfully promises, someone is getting knocked out.

UFC 115 lines up for some violent finishes: among the main event and a pair of heavyweight bouts -- Mirko Filipovic vs. Pat Barry and Ben Rothwell vs. Gilbert Yvel -- one seems destined to deliver a KO of the night bonus. Forced to choose, I'd say Rothwell (30-7) versus Yvel (36-14) should feature the least defense of the three.

Filipovic and Barry, experienced, quality kickboxers, could deliver a knockout, but I see it as a more technical affair, with plenty of movement and strategy. Watch the low kicks. Barry (5-1) took several in his last bout against a similar opponent, Antoni Hardonk, before finding a decisive blow in the second round. "Cro Cop" (16-7) prefers to sling his legs high, though that would be made easier if he targets Barry's lower body in the first half of the fight.

An intriguing pair of welterweight bouts round out the pay-per-view card. Paulo Thiago, one of just two top-10 ranked mixed martial artists on the bill, fights dangerous Dane Martin Kampmann. And Carlos Condit meets rising Canadian fast prospect Rory MacDonald.

Thiago-Kampmann is a very good matchup, and though I favor the Brazilian, Kampmann is certainly capable of derailing his chances of a welterweight title shot. Thiago (13-1), like Kampmann (16-3) is at his most dangerous when he flows between different areas of his game. I expect this fight to be the best showcase of MMA in Vancouver.

Condit (24-5) is MacDonald's first real examination at 170 pounds. If the 20-year-old MacDonald (10-0) is impressive here, then we know he's going to be someone with serious chops. From what I've seen he's a confident kid, not cocky like Condit, who is unbelievably just 26 years old. Condit's experience cannot be discounted, and for that reason I'm going with the fighter from New Mexico by decision.

The bout I'm most looking forward to is a lightweight tilt between Tyson Griffin (14-2) and Evan Dunham (10-0). Even better than the matchup itself -- which is quality on several fronts -- is the fact it's free on Spike TV (9 p.m. ET). Griffin, underappreciated for what he's done at 155 pounds and the other top-10 fighter alongside Thiago according to SI.com's rankings, can grapple and strike with anyone in the division. But he may have trouble with Dunham, a former training partner, in transitions. This is a step-up fight for both men, with the winner putting himself in line for big bouts in 2010 and beyond.

Chuck Liddell KO Rich Franklin R2Pat Barry unanimous decision Mirko FilipovicPaulo Thiago unanimous decision Martin KampmannGilbert Yvel KO Ben Rothwell R3Carlos Condit split decision Rory MacDonaldEvan Dunham split decision Tyson GriffinMatt Wiman TKO Mac Danzig R3David Loiseau unanimous decision Mario MirandaJames Wilks TKO Peter Sobotta R3Ricardo Funch unanimous decision Claude PatrickMike Pyle submission Jesse Lennox R2

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