The Ultimate Fighting Championship is returning to Brazil for the first time since 1998 as UFC 134: Rio emanates from the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil live this Saturday night on pay-per-view.
Three Brazilian mixed martial arts legends are featured on the card, which is headlined by middleweight juggernaut Anderson Silva defending his throne against Yushin Okami.
In other featured fights, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua will seek revenge in a rematch with Forrest Griffin, while heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira makes his long awaited return to action against rising contender Brendan Schaub.
Here’s a breakdown of all the action on tap for the UFC’s historic return to Brazil:
Main Bouts (On Pay-Per-View):
-Anderson Silva (28-4) vs. Yushin Okami (26-5)
One of the most awe-inspiring fighters in mixed martial history looks to defend his middleweight championship for the ninth time against a Japanese challenger hungry for his crack at gold after a five-year run in the UFC.
Silva, 36, has ruled the 185-pound division since October 2006 when he destroyed Rich Franklin. Most of the division’s top contenders have fallen victim to the Brazilian wrecking machine, including Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort. Silva has also tried his hand at light heavyweight, recording emphatic first-round finishes of Forrest Griffin and James Irvin.
Silva’s career traces back to 1997 in his native Brazil. After achieving some success, Silva started fighting for Shooto in Japan, beating Hayato Sakurai to win the organization’s middleweight title.
Silva then signed with the Pride Fighting Championships, but his run in the now-defunct promotion saw him lose two decisive fights against Japanese journeymen Daiju Takase and Ryo Chonan by submission. Silva’s improvements on the ground since those shocking setbacks are well-documented, but the losses on his record remain a reality.
Silva would also go on to claim the Cage Rage middleweight title in the U.K., amassing wins over Lee Murray, Jorge Rivera and Tony Fryklund.
In January 2006, Silva and Okami’s paths would cross in the Rumble on the Rock tournament held in Hawaii. Silva was dominating the striking game before Okami secured a takedown and controlled from top position. As Okami postured up, Silva unleashed an illegal upkick that rocked the Japanese fighter and ultimately cost him the fight via disqualification.
Despite the contentious loss on his record, Silva’s career journey brought him to the UFC and Chris Leben became his first victim, succumbing to a violent knee in under a minute. Silva would subsequently establish a legacy as one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in the octagon.
With that being said, Silva’s game is far from perfect and Okami happens to be the type of challenger who can exploit his weak areas.
Okami, 30, competed primarily in Japan during the early portion of his career, which dates back to September 2002.
Strength and conditioning, which are now some of Okami’s strongest areas, were primary reasons for his losses to Amar Suloev and Falaniko Vitale, but he submitted both Brian Foster and Nick Thompson leading up to his questionable victory over Silva. Okami was eliminated from the talent-rich Rumble on the Rock tournament by Jake Shields, who edged him in a three-round majority decision.
Okami made his UFC debut in August 2006, just two months after Silva, defeating current contender Alan Belcher by decision. Despite winning most of his fights by decision, Okami got the job done against the likes of Mike Swick, Jason MacDonald, Evan Tanner, Dean Lister, Mark Munoz and Nate Marquardt.
Okami’s only losses in the octagon have come by decision against former champion Rich Franklin and top-three middleweight Chael Sonnen.
A judo black belt with tremendous wrestling and submission grappling skills, Okami has evolved considerably since his fight against Franklin. Adding to his arsenal, Okami has developed a potent stand-up game with a stiff jab and effective footwork to set up his shots.
After losing to Sonnen, Okami took all the necessary steps to correct his errors. The southpaw has split his time training in Japan and the U.S., where he has worked with Sonnen and Matt Lindland at Team Quest in Oregon. Despite beating Okami in convincing fashion, Sonnen insists he’s a top dog in the division with the perfect skillset to dethrone the seemingly indomitable champion.
Silva, also a southpaw, trains primarily with Team Nogueira, where he surrounds himself with MMA royalty, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Lyoto Machida, Jose Aldo and Junior dos Santos.
A black belt in judo and taekwondo, the muay thai executioner Silva is most dangerous when he’s unloading vicious combinations on his feet. Also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Nogueira, Silva has the submission skills to threaten on the mat, but he will want to spend as little time on his back as possible.
Silva is indeed that good, but his glaring weaknesses were exposed by superior wrestlers, including Sonnen, Henderson and Travis Lutter. Silva triumphed in all three fights with come-from-behind submissions, but he’s hardly winning every round along the way like his welterweight counterpart Georges St. Pierre.
Silva deserves the benefit of the doubt. A rib injury leading into his fight with Sonnen could have certainly hindered his performance, but wrestling remains his weakest area. Munoz, one of Silva’s wrestling coaches, had little success trying to take Okami down in their fight last August. Okami is a hard-nosed grinder with stellar submission defense, which could spell trouble for the champion.
However, Okami has a habit of covering up or backing away when he’s hit with big strikes. He will need to press forward relentlessly if he hopes to emerge victorious on Saturday night. The moment he turtles, Silva will pounce.
When “The Spider” is on, he is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Silva’s knockouts of Belfort, Griffin and Franklin will live on in MMA highlight reels, but his fall from greatness is inevitable.
Whether Okami is the man to end Silva’s streak remains to be seen, but the possibility should be widely acknowledged.
If the Japanese warrior employs an intelligent game plan and forces Silva into a grueling grappling affair, it might not be pretty, but it could be enough to play the role of spoiler to Silva’s Brazilian homecoming.
Verdict: Okami via decision
-Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (19-5) vs. Forrest Griffin (18-6)
Anxious for his shot at redemption after a stunning submission loss to Griffin in his UFC debut four years ago, “Shogun” returns to his native Brazil with everything to lose.
Rua, 29, is one of the greatest light heavyweight fighters in history. The Pride middleweight grand prix winner and former UFC champion has vanquished Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Chuck Liddell, Lyoto Machida, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Ricardo Arona, Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman.
If his list of victims is not convincing enough, Rua’s credentials as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and muay thai master make him one of the most feared fighters on the planet.
When “Shogun” is at his best, there are few who can match his skill or intensity. But his performances against Griffin in his UFC debut, Mark Coleman in his second UFC bout and, most recently, Jon Jones have led to question marks surrounding the Brazilian’s health and conditioning. In the cases of his losses to Griffin and Jones, it’s worth noting that Rua was coming off surgeries.
In preparation for this fight, Rua has made wise adjustments to his training camp, spending significant time at Kings MMA in the U.S. where he has reunited with former coach Rafael Cordeiro and trained with Fabricio Werdum, Wanderlei Silva, Jason Miller and Mark Munoz.
The Curitiba native wants a rematch with Jones and an opportunity to challenge for the title, but he must turn in a spectacular performance against Griffin to silence critics who are weary of his consistency and durability.
Griffin, 32, had a standout 2007-2008 stretch as he submitted Rua in his UFC debut and won a controversial unanimous decision over “Rampage” to claim the UFC light heavyweight title. But back-to-back knockout defeats at the hands of Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva, the latter of which was utterly destructive, led to Griffin’s departure from the list of top contenders in the division.
The Ohio native has since rattled off decision wins over former UFC poster boys Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin. A third straight win over a legend of Rua’s caliber will undoubtedly propel him back into title contention.
Griffin, a member of Xtreme Couture and Throwdown Training Center in Las Vegas, was recently awarded his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt by submission grappling world champion Robert Drysdale. A rugged scrapper, Griffin is usually content engaging in slugfests, though he desperately needs to take Rua down on Saturday night.
Griffin is tough, but he simply lacks the punching power to threaten foes with his hands. Conversely, “Shogun” is a known knockout artist.
Griffin’s primary advantage is his overwhelming frame. Standing six-foot-three, he is one of the most physically imposing fighters in the 205-pound class. By utilizing his wrestling and top control, Griffin can wear opponents down.
Griffin’s 2007 win over Rua is often regarded as one of the biggest upsets of all time and Rua is hell-bent on proving that it was an off-night.
Armed with a lethal striking game and motivated by the support of his home crowd, “Shogun” will bulldoze the American with a stampede of strikes before putting him away with some form of devastating knockout.
Verdict: Rua via KO, Round 1
-Brendan Schaub (8-1) vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-6-1)
The self-proclaimed “Legend Killer” Schaub wants to add another name to his trophy case, though “Minotauro” still has some fight left in him.
Schaub, 28, reached the finals of the tenth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, losing to experienced veteran Roy Nelson by knockout.
The Grudge Training Center product is riding a four-fight winning streak, including a decision over former heavyweight title challenger Gabriel Gonzaga and a knockout win over Pride legend Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
Nogueira, 35, is in the latter stages of a historic career dating back to 1999. One of the most dominant and influential heavyweights of all time, Nogueira achieved his greatest success competing for Pride and winning the organization’s heavyweight title. Along the way, “Minotauro” beat Cro Cop, Mark Coleman, Heath Herring, Bob Sapp, Dan Henderson, Sergei Kharitonov, Ricco Rodriguez, Fabricio Werdum and Josh Barnett.
Since moving over to the UFC in July 2007, “Minotauro” submitted Tim Sylvia to win the interim heavyweight strap and defeated Randy Couture by decision, while losing to both former champ Frank Mir and current heavyweight king Cain Velasquez by knockout. Prior to competing for the UFC, Nogueira had never been knocked out.
A sublime submission specialist with dangerous boxing, Nogueira possesses black belts in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The former Brazilian Top Team member has formed his own academy, which is home to some of the best Brazilian fighters in the world.
A year and a half has elapsed since Nogueira last fought, but ring rust is unlikely to plague such a savvy veteran. The universally loved Brazilian heavyweight will get a thunderous ovation from the home crowd as he looks to return to the win column and prove he can still be a contender in the rapidly changing heavyweight landscape.
The former NFL player Schaub is a heavy-handed fighter with a solid base in wrestling and good trainers behind him, but Nogueira marks a significant step up in competition.
If Nogueira uses his punches effectively to bust Schaub up while setting up takedowns and working his magic on the mat, Schaub will likely come out on the losing end of a competitive judges’ decision.
Verdict: Nogueira via decision
-Ross Pearson (12-4) vs. Edson Barboza Jr. (8-0)
In lightweight action, “The Ultimate Fighter” winner Pearson looks to end the run of the undefeated Brazilian sensation Barboza Jr.
Pearson, 26, is looking to build on a unanimous decision win over Spencer Fisher this past February. The British Team Rough House product holds UFC wins over Andre Winner, Aaron Riley and Dennis Siver.
Barboza Jr., 25, has put his muay thai black belt to use since his UFC debut last November. After breaking Mike Lullo down with leg kicks in his UFC debut, the Brazilian defeated fellow striker Anthony Njokuani this past March.
A former Ring of Combat lightweight champion, Barboza Jr. trains at the Armory where he is rapidly expanding on his striking base by learning all the tricks of the trade.
Pearson has proven to be an effective boxer, but he will likely be outclassed by the unbeaten Brazilian muay thai champion, who should come away with a one-sided unanimous decision win.
Verdict: Barboza Jr. via decision
-Luis Cane (11-3) vs. Stanislav Nedkov (11-0)
Yet another Brazilian rounds out the main card as Cane looks to put the first blemish on the record of the Bulgarian beast Nedkov.
Cane, 30, is coming off one of his best performances as he finished Eliot Marshall with strikes in the first round. Desperately needing to put back-to-back TKO losses against Cyrille Diabate and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira behind him, Cane’s offensive onslaught was simply too much for Marshall to handle. Cane’s other victims in the UFC include Steve Cantwell, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Jason Lambert.
Nedkov, 29, is perhaps best known for his run in the Japanese promotion Sengoku, where he trounced Americans Travis Wiuff and Kevin Randleman. Probably the best fighter from Bulgaria, Nedkov must prepare to take on the premier opposition on the planet as he readies for his UFC debut.
Both fighters are Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts with dangerous striking and unquestionable power, making this a compelling addition to the card.
Though very few casual fans are likely to be familiar with Nedkov, the Bulgarian will look to make the most of this opportunity with a late rally to finish Cane in his home country.
Verdict: Nedkov via TKO, Round 3
Preliminary Bouts (On Spike TV):
-Thiago Tavares (15-4-1) vs. Spencer Fisher (24-7)
In preliminary action on Spike TV, these two exciting lightweights are eager to bounce back from losses.
Tavares, 26, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, is coming off a knockout loss to WEC standout Shane Roller. Prior to that setback, the Brazilian Top Team product had rattled off wins over Manny Gamburyan and Pat Audinwood.
Fisher, 35, has been a staple of UFC cards since 2005. Throughout his octagon campaign, the Team Evolution founder has amassed marquee wins Thiago Alves, Aaron Riley, Matt Wiman, Sam Stout, Jeremy Stephens and Caol Uno. The southpaw is looking to rebound from a unanimous decision loss to Ross Pearson this past February.
Tavares is younger and more explosive. Fisher may be enjoying the final years of his career, but Tavares will be intent on putting on a show for his Brazilian fans. Expect Tavares to have Fisher’s number anywhere the fight goes, picking him apart en route to a decision win.
Verdict: Tavares via decision
-Rousimar Palhares (12-3) vs. Dan Miller (13-5)
In a showdown of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, the Brazilian Palhares looks for his second straight win against the American wrestler Miller.
Palhares, 31, a teammate of Thiago Tavares at Brazilian Top Team, is coming off a second-round submission win over Dave Branch this past March. A master of leg locks, heel hooks and kneebars, Palhares has dropped UFC bouts against Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt, while defeating Jeremy Horn, Lucio Linhares and Tomasz Drwal.
Miller, 30, is a member of AMA Fight Club, home to the likes of his brother Jim Miller, Charlie Brenneman and Jamie Varner. With an unremarkable 5-4 UFC record and a style that can hardly be described as fan friendly, Miller could be facing his release from the promotion unless he turns in a solid effort against Palhares. Miller’s notable wins include Matt Horwich, Jake Rosholt, John Salter and Joe Doerksen.
Miller’s submission prowess is good enough to keep him in the fight, but Palhares should be more dominant wherever it takes place. The Brazilian will likely have to settle for a convincing decision, however, as Miller has yet to be stopped in his mixed martial arts career.
Check out Fight Network’s exclusive UFC 134: Rio preview show here: