A potential champion vs. champion super fight in Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre. Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen. Jose Aldo Jr. vs. Frankie Edgar. The return of controversial headliners Alistair Overeem and Nick Diaz after Nevada Athletic Commission suspensions. Ronda Rousey's UFC debut. Bellator's move on Spike TV.
All the signals point to the mixed martial arts industry gearing up for a monster slate of 2013 events in its effort to rebound from a turbulent 2012. But while the fight world chatters about what could transpire next year, there's the danger of overlooking what appears on paper to be a blistering final month of fights before we break out new calendars.
With that in mind, a sneak preview of five fights worth watching over the holiday season:
(One note before we get started: If this list seems UFC-heavy, it's in part because other fight companies simply aren't offering much in December. Bellator, which does have multiple events scheduled, is holding back most of its high-profile talent for its Spike debut. And while Japan's Dream promotion plans on holding a big combined MMA and kickboxing event in Saitama on New Year's Eve, as of this writing, none of the MMA bouts for the card have been announced).
1. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson, UFC on FOX 5, Seattle, Dec. 8: While most of his former PRIDE Fighting Championship compadres have slowly fallen by the wayside, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua keeps on ticking. But for how long? Rua (27-6) turns 31 on Nov. 25. He's not old per se, but the former UFC light heavyweight champion's hard-charging style is likely to catch up with him eventually.
With the exception of a quick knockout of Forrest Griffin at UFC 134, all of Rua's fights over the past two years have been grueling. He was on the wrong end of a beatdown in losing the light heavyweight title to Jones in March 2011. He lost a decision in a five-round battle against Dan Henderson last November in a bout considered by many the fight of the year -- precisely for the level of punishment the two inflicted on one another. And he had a tough go of it in a four-round rumble with Brandon Vera in August before winning.
That's the Rua who meets Alexander Gustafsson on the UFC on FOX 5 main card. The 25-year old Swede, who trains in San Diego, is the UFC's best hope for finding a legitimate, non-retread challenger for Jones' title. The 6-foot-5 Gustafsson is 14-5 and has won five straight since losing to current Alliance MMA teammate Phil Davis two years ago. His wins have come against an increased level of competition each time out.
Rua vs. Gustafsson is a solid test for each, both in gauging whether Gustafsson is a real title contender and whether you can still say the same about "Shogun."
2. Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz, UFC on FOX 5, Seattle, Dec. 8: This one could almost be sold on storyline basis alone, particularly on FOX, which isn't exactly allergic to ginned-up controversy. Henderson, the UFC lightweight champion, professes that he doesn't drink, smoke, or do drugs, and he is vocal in his Christian beliefs. Diaz, while avoiding the excesses which have snagged his older brother, Nick, nonetheless throws down with one of MMA's brashest crews at Cesar Gracie's camp.
But to focus solely on personalities would be to undersell what promises to be a fantastic tactical fight. Both combatants boast well-rounded skills sets and limitless gas tanks. Diaz is a skilled submission artist; Henderson has an unparalleled ability to find his way out of tight submissions. They can both stand and bang, with Henderson the more technical of the two and Diaz a fierce brawler.
Regardless of whether you're tuning in for the storyline or the action, Henderson vs. Diaz looks like a can't-miss fight.
3. Jamie Varner vs. Melvin Guillard, The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale, Las Vegas, Dec. 15: The most anticipated fights tend to be those with big consequences in their divisional scheme, grudge matches, or any involving a needle-moving superstar.
Sometimes, though, matches are made simply because they look fun on paper. This is one of those. Varner (20-7-1, 1 no-contest), the former WEC lightweight champion, and Gullard (30-11-2, 1 no-contest), known as "The Young Assassin," both have well-earned reputations for bringing fireworks. Varner and Guillard have a combined 30 fights in the UFC and WEC. Twenty-four out of 30 have ended via KO/TKO or submission and only six have gone the distance.
Varner is coming off a bout which will merit serious Fight of the Year consideration in his third-round loss to Joe Lauzon on Aug. 4. That one was filled with several dramatic twists and turns before Lauzon was able to use a Varner takedown against him and turn it into a submission. Guillard, meanwhile, is coming off perhaps the most frenzied 1:16 seen in the octagon this year against Donald Cerrone at UFC 15. Guillard floored and nearly finished Cerrone right off the bat with a huge counter left hand, but Cerrone rallied and knocked Guillard cold with a head kick. If Varner vs. Gulliard doesn't deliver action, that in and of itself might be the upset of the year.
4. Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez, UFC 155, Las Vegas, Dec. 29: When these two last met, dos Santos (15-1) famously swatted Velasquez (10-1) in just 64 seconds and claimed his UFC heavyweight title.
There's one school of thought which holds the decisive result of the first fight, in and of itself, should be enough to preclude a rematch. Then there's the other, which understands that anyone can get tagged at any moment in a mixed martial arts fight. The dynamics of this fight haven't changed from last year: Few doubt that dos Santos, the winner of all nine of his UFC fights and possibly the best pure boxer in the sport, holds the advantage when the fight is standing. But can Velasquez, a tremendous wrestler with nasty ground-and-pound skills, get dos Santos to the floor this time around? If he can, then the former champion has a real shot at avenging his only career loss.
5. Chris Weidman vs. Tim Boetsch, UFC 155, Las Vegas, Dec. 29: Watching the undefeated Weidman, a Long Island native and Matt Serra protégé, at times feels like watching a rising St-Pierre: You had a gut feeling you were witnessing a future champion in the making, it was just a matter of how long it would take and whether he'd stumble along the way.
After Weidman (9-0) blitzed Mark Munoz in July for his fifth straight UFC win, several called for him to face UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva. That was a bit premature, but Weidman faces his next step up the ladder in the oft-overlooked Boetsch (16-4). Since dropping to middleweight, Boetsch is 4-0, with wins that include a fantastic rally over Yushin Okami in Japan and his exposure of the hype job that was Hector Lombard's 25-fight unbeaten streak, as Boetsch shut the former Bellator champ down at UFC 149.
Weidman vs. Boetsch is one of three upcoming bouts which should help determine who most deserves the next title shot at middleweight champion Anderson Silva: Okami meets Alan Belcher on the same UFC 155 card, and Michael Bisping meets Vitor Belfort in Brazil on Jan. 19.