Bonanza of bouts across the globe
Fifty-one weeks down. Celebration time. The coming year-end mixed martial arts festivities aren't as glamorous as previous renditions, but -- almost as if to prove a point about where the sport stands heading into 2011 -- they're undeniably solid.
UFC 125: Edgar vs. Maynard
Get ESPN.com's full coverage of Saturday's UFC 125 event.
In recent years UFC has grabbed attention from Japan on New Year's weekend, and Saturday's card in Las Vegas certainly has appeal. The three-day fightfest -- World Victory Road Presents: Soul of Fight on Dec. 30 in Tokyo (HDNet, tape-delay Jan. 14, Jan. 21); "Dynamite!! 2010" in Saitama, Japan (Dec. 31, HDNet, live, 4 a.m. ET); and the Jan. 1 Zuffa card (pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET) -- closes out with a UFC lightweight championship bout between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. It's hardly the weekend's only title fight.
While some can be safely skipped, here are 11 fights worth any fan's time:
11. Mike Thomas Brown versus Diego Nunes -- UFC 125, Jan 1, Las Vegas
A second trip to the UFC for Mike Thomas Brown (24-6) comes at 145 pounds, where he bested Urijah Faber and reigned as WEC champion until Jose Aldo came along. At 35, Brown is likely walking on his last path to reclaim the belt. To do so successfully, he must outdo a burgeoning featherweight talent pool. With wins in his past two fights against Raphael Assuncao and Tyler Toner, Diego Nunes (15-1) is poised to join the contendership discussion if he can defeat the former champion.
10. Dustin Poirier versus Josh Grispi -- UFC 125
From Jose Aldo to Dustin Poirier, New Englander Josh Grispi (14-1) rolled craps heading into his UFC debut. The lanky 22-year-old featherweight's championship aspirations are on hold as Aldo recovers from a bad back. In place of a UFC title opportunity, Grispi gets Dustin Poirier, a once-beaten 21-year-old prospect from Louisiana. Everything to gain, nothing to lose: that now describes Poirier, not Grispi.
9. Chris Leben versus Brian Stann -- UFC 125
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Can Chris Leben maintain momentum following a 3-0 campaign in 2010? While the veteran middleweight faces more troubles away from the UFC after his second arrest on suspicion of a DUI in three years, he appears to be at the top of his game heading into a showcase against Brian Stann (9-3). The Marine captain's tale of heroism in Iraq and the Silver Star it earned him will always be something he's remembered for. If the 30-year-old fighter from Scranton, Pa., wishes to be recognized for his accomplishments in the cage, Leben (25-6) is a must-beat.
8. Antonio McKee versus Jacob Volkmann -- UFC 125
If you don't know a thing about Antonio McKee, check the numbers. Age: 40. Fights without a loss: 15. Years without a loss: going on seven. Wins: 25. Defeats: three. It's now or never for an outspoken lightweight who loudly proclaims himself the finest 155-pound fighter in MMA. Step 1 toward proving that comes against 30-year-old Jacob Volkmann (11-2), who, like McKee, prefers wrestling to control his opposition. Expect Volkmann, a three-time NCAA All-American for the University of Minnesota, to put up a stiff test.
We're looking at a get-over-the-hump tussle between Nate Diaz (13-5) and Dong Hyun Kim (13-0-1). While the welterweights promise excitement because of their styles, the real intrigue comes as they attempt entry into a higher divisional tier. A victory for Diaz, 25, would make three in a row and push the Stockton, Calif., native up the ladder toward bigger fights. For Kim, a 29-year-old from Busan, South Korea, success means recognition as one of the better Korean fighters in MMA.
On paper: a mismatch. Alistair Overeem is the Strikeforce heavyweight champion and captured the most prestigious heavyweight kickboxing tournament on the planet two weeks ago. Duffee (6-1) hasn't fought since May, was focused on rehabbing a bum knee and accepted his return to the ring on less than two weeks' notice. Overeem (33-11) is a heavy favorite, and most people expect the 30-year-old monster to walk through Duffee, who's gambling that a loss won't set his career back any further than it already stands against the chance that winning would immediately make him a commodity again at the age of 25.
5. Bibiano Fernandes versus Hiroyuki Takaya -- Dynamite!!
Designated as the "featherweight" division, Dream's championship bout between Bibiano Fernandes and Hiroyuki Takaya features a weight limit of 139 pounds. Whatever the number, Fernandes (8-2) and Takaya (14-8-1) wear it well. Fernandes, 30, has won seven in a row, including a 2009 split decision over Takaya, 33, to claim the crown. The rematch features two rested fighters who should put on a competitive championship display.
Another reality check. Fan favorite Clay Guida (27-11) is next in line against a seemingly revitalized Takanori Gomi (32-6), the best lightweight Japan has ever produced. In his most recent bout Gomi, 32, reminded everyone how dangerous he can be with a knockout of Tyson Griffin. Guida, 29, should test Gomi's wrestling and fitness. Will he hold up when forced to grapple? If Gomi manages another win, don't be surprised to see him thrust into the UFC title picture at 155.
3. Tatsuya Kawajiri versus Josh Thomson -- Dynamite!!
Veteran lightweights meet in a fight that could determine the participants' relevance. Thanks to a working relationship between Dream and Strikeforce, Josh Thomson (18-3) and Tatsuya Kawajiri (26-6-2), both 32, square off on New Year's Eve, two of the most successful 155-pound fighters of the past 10 years. Kawajiri never quite made it to the top of the Japanese lightweight class. The same could be said of Thomson in America. But each has competed with skill and pride, and their records bear that out. This should be a terrific clash.
2. Marlon Sandro versus Hatsu Hioki -- World Victory Road Presents: Soul of Fight, Dec. 30, Tokyo
The championship headliner on a festival of fighting promoted by the people who give you Sengoku, Marlon Sandro (17-1) and Hatsu Hioki (22-4-2) are top-of-the-food chain featherweights. Sandro, the 33-year-old titleholder, flattened his previous two opponents with uppercuts in a combined 47 seconds. Hioki, 27, has quietly taken on all comers since 2002. It's a fitting capper to an event of 30 combat sports contests.
1. Frankie Edgar versus Gray Maynard -- UFC 125
The big prize. Two wins over B.J. Penn in 2010 made Frankie Edgar the No. 1 lightweight in MMA. Gray Maynard, Edgar's opponent at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on New Year's Day, has the right to question that, considering he's the only fighter with a win over the current UFC champion. Add in the fact that Maynard, 31, is unbeaten in 11 pro fights. Will Maynard (10-0-1) have Edgar's number like Edgar (13-1) had Penn's? Or has the 29-year-old champion found a way to retain his title and bring stability to the lightweight division? It should be a competitive UFC championship fight to start 2011.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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