A reasonable argument could be made that at his peak, Mark "The Hammer" Coleman was the most dominant fighter on the planet.
From July 1996 through February 1997, Coleman -- the first heavyweight champion in UFC history -- was seemingly untouchable thanks to an aggressive style of wrestling and ground fighting that proved the guard, popularized by Royce Gracie, had its limitations.
Coleman was the originator of ground-and-pound, which at the time featured a brutal ram-like crack of the skull that became his trademark. Yet when headbutts were rightly outlawed by UFC 15, The Hammer was essentially neutered, opening the door for other wrestlers, such as Randy Couture with his dirty boxing game and brilliant game-planning, to establish dominance in various ways.
Some 12 years after Coleman and Couture were first set to fight at UFC 17 (it didn't happen because Couture was injured in training), neither man resembles the physical force he once was. But that doesn't mean the debate over which was more effective and aggressive is any less interesting, especially on the eve of their fight Saturday night in Las Vegas at UFC 109.
Had Couture, 46, and Coleman, 45, boxed for a living, a bout featuring two men their age with their records -- 17-10 and 16-9, respectively -- would likely be killed by the media. But not in MMA, not right now. Don't forget, these two are pioneers, early modern-day heavyweight greats. A century from now they'll likely be talked about in the same vein boxing historians celebrate Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey. So, it seems, the novelty of a fight, even if it comes at the tail end of their important careers, is appealing enough to look past certain stark realities.
Whether it's a main event that fans should want to spend their money on is a question worth considering, especially in the wake of Wednesday's announcement that Zuffa was putting WEC -- UFC's sister promotion -- on pay-per-view on April 24. (If I had to choose, and fortunately I don't, I'd go with the WEC, which is headlined by top featherweights Jose Aldo and Urijah Faber.) The UFC didn't necessarily want this bout to headline one of its most important cards of the year, but with many of the company's top fighters on the shelf at the end of 2009, it didn't have a lot of choice.
How will a fight Couture joked could be dubbed "Geezers at Caesars" -- it's actually at the Mandalay Bay -- go down?
Each side has its opinion.
Trainer Shawn Tompkins, who recently left Couture's Las Vegas gym and was hired to run Coleman's camp, says his current pupil is three times more powerful than his former -- which matters because Couture is susceptible to getting hit.
"Randy doesn't seem to have the chin that he used to have," Tompkins said. "And I see him not getting better at boxing, but I see his boxing becoming weaker. Every time you see Randy move to the right, he moves outside his hands and he gets hit. I don't remember seeing him take as much punishment early in his career. In his last three fights he's been dropped four times."
But that might not make a difference against Coleman, who in 25 pro MMA bouts hasn't put together the kind of effective, disciplined standup attack he'll need to catch Couture.
"It's not like I'm getting knocked out, but I've definitely gotten hit," Couture said. "I have a pretty good idea of the tendencies that I developed that caused some of those openings, and worked hard the last couple camps to close those."
So, fittingly, the clash between UFC Hall of Famers should come down to wrestling.
Even if Coleman forces Couture to his back, there's no guarantee he can keep him there. Couture has long been one of the best in the world at standing from the half-guard, and movement is a surefire way to press Coleman's fitness. I expect Couture to come out grappling. It makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, pushing and pulling in the clinch, a Couture speciality, is certain to fatigue Coleman quicker than striking with him on the outside. Second, Couture is more apt to finish Coleman if he can force The Hammer to fight from his back.
It's difficult, really, to know what Coleman has left. Yes, he bloodied up Stephan Bonnar at UFC 100, so we know he's motivated and willing to compete. But at what level is he effective? Somewhere between Bonnar and a subpar Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
Coleman relocated from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to Las Vegas to prepare for the fight. For the first time in his career, he hired a fitness coach. Tompkins says he's the most intense guy in the gym.
Maybe he has one more great fight in him.
The odds are against that, and I like Couture to win by a stoppage late.
One victory away from an opportunity at the UFC middleweight title, Marquardt (29-8-2) and Sonnen (24-10-1) meet in the evening's co-main event.
Sonnen is a skilled enough wrestler to take Marquardt down and control him. But the Matt Lindland disciple doesn't present much of a danger when it comes to effective ground-and-pound or applying submissions, especially against a fighter as versatile as the well-traveled Marquardt.
With his size, athleticism and skill, Marquardt steps into the fight a significant favorite -- and should make good on that, earning a stoppage sometime after the midway point in round two.
Stepping in for injured teammate Josh Koscheck, Swick (14-3) faces a stern test against the under-appreciated Thiago (12-1). Swick relies on speed and length to win fights, and he must smartly utilize both to have a shot of knocking off his Brazilian challenger, who stunned many with a knockout over Koscheck a year ago this month. Thiago should do enough to win a competitive fight.
Miller (11-2-1) is a heck of a submission fighter. But he's no Maia (11-1). With both middleweights coming off defeats -- Maia to Marquardt, Miller to Sonnen -- there is increased pressure with the knowledge that two losses in a row would seriously dent their position in the UFC. Maia's obscenely good Brazilian jiu-jitsu game should carry him to victory.
Kicking off the evening's pay-per-view action, veteran welterweights Trigg (19-7) and Serra (9-6) meet for the first time. While neither is currently a factor at 170 pounds, it's a matchup of two of the sport's best-known personalities. The nod goes to Serra because of heavier hands and improved striking.