- Jason Probst
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With a rousing comeback after a disastrous opening round, Frankie Edgar pulled out a draw to retain his UFC lightweight belt against Gray Maynard on Saturday night in Las Vegas. While the draw decision may have been a letdown for some, the bout itself was more exciting than most could've expected.
On the UFC 125 card, there were the expected developments, a few surprises and winners to sort out among the action. Here's a close look at five matches I'd like to see after Saturday's fights.
Thiago Silva versus Phil Davis
It would be tempting to pit Silva against Quinton Jackson; the prefight trash talk and testosterone levels alone would be epic.
At UFC 125, the hard-charging Silva was back in top form, dominating Brandon Vera en route to a one-sided decision win. But I like him against unbeaten prospect Phil Davis next. Here's why.
With Jackson coming off a close decision win over former champ Lyoto Machida, "Rampage" is a lot more marketable than Silva and the title shot queue is pretty long at the top. There's the Feb. 5 UFC 126 card, with Jon Jones-Ryan Bader and Rich Franklin-Forrest Griffin, in two meaningful 205-pound bouts.
Throw in Mauricio Rua's March defense versus Rashad Evans at UFC 128, and it becomes clear that the UFC might be better served putting the rising Davis in against Silva, who, despite his win Saturday night, still has two losses against Machida and Evans. Put it this way: If Silva were to win against Jackson it wouldn't grant him an immediate title shot, while simultaneously eliminating a very viable contender in "Rampage" from the conversation. It's a match, right now, with little promotional upside, though it'd be fun to watch.
Davis' wrestling would give him a clear takedown advantage against Silva, but the Brazilian would have the edge on the feet and in experience. It's also the kind of match that helps someone like Davis go from being a prospect to a legit top-10 contender in the organization.
The Rua/Evans/Jackson trilogy, followed by the winner of Jones/Bader, will sort itself out in the next year. Throw in Griffin and Franklin, both of whom are still marketable regardless of who wins their bout, and there's some viable pathways for Silva to keep moving up the ladder. Fair or not to Silva, he also needs to prove he can beat someone who isn't a hot-and-cold talent like Vera, who was doing great standing until he repeatedly allowed himself to be clinched and caught in takedown range before getting stuck on the ground.
Davis is unbeaten and has some serious fire, though his stand-up game is still raw in spots. He'll get better with every fight, and Silva, now that the fire is apparently back, would be the perfect match for both.
Clay Guida versus Ben Henderson
Long known for his afterburners-on attack, Guida displayed a stylistic wrinkle that worked out perfectly against Takanori Gomi. Using patient, head-movement-happy stand-up, he picked his spots perfectly to keep Gomi guessing, and then turned the burners on, putting Gomi on the mat and sinking home a textbook guillotine for a second-round win. It just goes to show you how readily fighters are evolving in today's game, and Guida showed he's more than just a perennial "Fight of the night" candidate -- he can use his head to outsmart guys before applying his talents.
That's why Henderson is the perfect next opponent for him. The former WEC champ, coming off a thrilling decision loss to Pettis, is very similar to Guida. He's a high-paced guy, with outstanding wrestling and scrambling ability, along with moderate stand-up that doesn't necessarily dictate a fight, and a good chin and conditioning. The amount of harrowing scrambles, transitions and swings of momentum in a Guida-Henderson match would be off the charts. And in the pecking order of lightweight contenders, it makes sense for both. It's a stacked division, and both would get considerable cred with the win. The only drawback is they can't make this one five rounds, but we'd happily settle for three because it'd be a barnburner.
Brian Stann versus Michael Bisping
With some fighters, it takes a while for their improvement curve to catch up to the great storyline they possess. And that's clearly the case with Brian Stann, who registered an impressive first-round stoppage over Chris Leben. Stann, willing to slug, showed a degree of sharpness and evolved tactical acumen he simply didn't possess in his earlier appearances, especially in the WEC. Training with Greg Jackson has clearly bumped up his game to the next level.
A match against Bisping would be a solid one, though as a caveat, Bisping has Jorge Rivera lined up Feb. 27. Win or lose, Stann-Bisping is perfect for both guys. Neither has a wrestling background or proven takedown defense against elite grapplers, which would be a real problem against a Chael Sonnen or Nate Marquardt.
Both like to slug and have a marketable storyline. Bisping also seems to rankle stateside fans while being a beloved figure amidst the U.K. crowd, so a battle against Stann would be a great opportunity for both to take a jump in popularity while not getting taken down and sat on en route to a decision loss.
Plus, if Stann won, his popularity and profile in the states would jump enormously. As a former Marine captain who received the Silver Star while serving in Iraq, Stann's improvement seems to be making strides, and a matchup with Bisping would be both a marketable and winnable fight, and one that if he lost, likely wouldn't be a blowout.
Dong Hyun Kim versus Diego Sanchez/Martin Kampmann winner
As expected (at least in my predictions column), Kim ground out a close decision over Nate Diaz in a bout with few surprises. To be honest, given the lay of the welterweight landscape, he'd be likely outwrestled and outstruck by available top contenders like Josh Koscheck. Kim is sort of in a weird gray area in terms of contention, as he's tough enough to grind out wins over a certain class and style, but hasn't shown the all-around game he'll need to propel himself to the next level.
That's why I like him against the winner of the March 3 Versus bout of Sanchez/Kampmann. That's likely to be an exciting bout, and the winner would be fun to watch against Kim. While I'm leaning toward Sanchez to take the duke there, he's very marketable and wouldn't necessarily out-muscle Kim; though Sanchez's ability to force a fast pace and work rate would be interesting. Ditto for Kampmann, whose good striking and wrestling deficits would be a good match for Kim as well, and give him time to work on his stand-up, which he'll need against the elite fighters in the division.
Brad Tavares versus Tom Lawlor
Tavares displayed a cool head after a near-disastrous start against veteran slugger Phil Baroni, getting drilled early and surviving the storm en route to a first-round knockout win. Tavares, now 7-0 (he was eliminated in the TUF semifinals against eventual winner Court McGee), is a good prospect with some ability and compelling upside.
That's why a match against Lawlor is the perfect test. Lawlor is a tough wrestler with solid conditioning and an improving stand-up game, who always gives a good scrap. It would further test Tavares' ability to deal with tactical problems and prove he's ready to take the next step up the mountain, and either way it'd be a fan-friendly bout.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.
Here five matches to make after UFC 125.