Five things to watch for at UFC 99
The UFC touches down in Deutschland on Saturday, as the Las Vegas-based promotion embarks on a historical first trip to Germany. The card can serve both to entertain international fans and endear the sport to a new nation.
Here are five storylines to follow at UFC 99 "The Comeback" at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne.
1. Former champions interested in change
Compromise equates to meeting in the middle -- exactly what former Pride 205-pound champion Wanderlei Silva and former UFC middleweight titleholder Rich Franklin will do when they clash in the main event at a catch weight of 195 pounds.
Silva's once-elite status has turned tumultuous, and he believes shedding some of his skin for a 185-pound rebirth can return him to his skull-collecting ways. However, Franklin's interrupted ascent to 205 pounds -- this after Anderson Silva effectively exiled the former middleweight king -- serves as a significant roadblock for Silva and his attempted return to prominence.
Most hope Silva acclimates to weight cutting and Franklin grows comfortable with a heavier frame. It seems to be an easier move for Silva, though. Franklin has already started his divisional shift, posting a 1-1 record in light heavyweight bouts against Matt Hamill and Dan Henderson. Dropping an extra 10 pounds when he planned to pack them on looks like a rough proposition, but trouncing Silva has monetary and résumé-building rewards.
If Silva performs well, it builds much-needed momentum for his entry into a division desperate for a star-power injection. If he loses, it only stings on the highlight reels. Meanwhile, Franklin claims a title run in a new weight class would be more than just a side effect from his one-sided encounters with Anderson Silva.
The UFC typically steers away from special-attraction fights, but this showdown between former titleholders seems mutually beneficial, whether it ends with a big left hook from Franklin or an onslaught of knees from Silva. For live spectators -- perhaps viewing their first mixed martial arts event -- it has been called a "dream fight."
2. Heavyweight headlines
American Kickboxing Academy standout Cain Velasquez infuses the heavyweight division with young, scary talent, but the backbone of the weight class still lies in dangerous veterans like Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. Both are primed to make headlines, for better or worse, at UFC 99.
The Velasquez hype train followed the two-time All-American right out of Arizona State University and into professional MMA. After just two fights, he hit the UFC Octagon and rattled off three dominating performances. Head AKA trainer Javier Mendez sees the Salinas, Calif., native as the sport's next superstar and expects him to take his place alongside former Mendez students like B.J. Penn and Frank Shamrock.
Velasquez was originally scheduled to face Pride veteran Heath Herring, but an illness left Cheick Kongo to replace The Texas Crazy Horse. The French kickboxer wields powerful strikes that can threaten anyone in the heavyweight division, including Velasquez. At this early stage in the Mexican-American heavyweight's career, any veteran poses stiff challenges. Kongo, perhaps teetering on the brink of a title shot, wants nothing more than to capitalize on inexperience and impress UFC brass by siphoning Velasquez's momentum. Another win for Velasquez would strengthen his place as one of the sport's top prospects.
Filipovic re-enters the Octagon after a self-admitted underwhelming 1-2 foray in 2007. He will face Mustapha al Turk, a fighter battered relentlessly by Kongo in his UFC debut in December. Al-Turk's inexperience at the elite level and his grappling-oriented offense looks like a "Cro Cop" gift card on paper. However, the Croatian's mental game fluctuates, which adds uncertainty and intrigue to his return. Anything less than a left-high-kick knockout victory will make him look less like the 2006 Pride Open Weight Grand Prix winner and more like the disinterested fighter who plodded through a victory over Eddie Sanchez. Emphatic victories go a long way, and when "Cro Cop" wins with an exclamation point, it goes even further.
3. Welterweight gold and grudge
Georges St. Pierre's reign of near picture-perfect terror over the welterweight division includes wins against two of top three 170-pound fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy: Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch. That leaves Mike Swick. Plagued by injures and a shift from middleweight to welterweight, the newly minted jiu-jitsu purple belt will look for a fourth straight victory against Ben Saunders. An American Top Team representative, the unbeaten Saunders turned Brandon Wolff's forehead into a balcony the same night Swick knocked out Jonathan Goulet.
For all of the depth at welterweight, the division lacks a clear No. 1 contender beyond the St. Pierre-Thiago Alves contest at UFC 100. Swick can secure his spot or defer to the tall, rangy Saunders, who would receive a golden ticket to top-tier credibility with a win here.
On the opposite end of the prefight noise spectrum, not much can be said for Dan Hardy and Marcus Davis that has not been said already. Their bad blood seems more potent than that which existed between Matt Hughes and Matt Serra. The two stand-up stylists have the skills set to match their hateful prefight bravado. Contender implications take a back seat to pride in this one.
4. Lightweight show stealers
Any time Spencer Fisher fights, expect a "Woo!" and a war. His opponent, Caol Uno, serves as a nice retro addition to the UFC roster and fancies himself a fighter, too. This bout features two highly regarded veterans who aim to entertain, even though they fall just short of the best in the world at 155 pounds.
The UFC's lightest weight class often features fights with non-stop action, and Terry Etim versus Justin Buchholz shapes up as a match that will follow in that tradition. Etim, one of the division's tallest fighters will face one of its shortest. Each needs to impose his will in fast, hurtful fashion.
5. New market mayhem
Like any good promotion, the UFC caters to its local audience in preliminary action. Native German Dennis Siver earned his second UFC win in five tries when he knocked out Nate Mohr with a flash-forward spinning back fist at UFC 93. Dale Hartt will hunt for a more notable UFC performance after getting his lone Octagon win on Corey Hill's freak injury. Disposing of the tough home favorite could do wonders for his stock.
Meanwhile, European heavyweights Stefan Struve and Denis Stojnic simply seek their first UFC wins in a submission-fighter-versus-striker match. Finally, "Fight of the Night" collector Paul Taylor welcomes great German hope Peter Sobotta to the UFC in a welterweight tilt.
Danny Acosta is a contributor to Sherdog.com.