The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to FOX Saturday with arguably the best line-up ever assembled on network television, headlined by an explosive lightweight championship bout pitting torchbearer Benson Henderson against No. 1 contender Nate Diaz.
UFC on FOX 5: Henderson vs. Diaz, which emanates from the KeyArena in Seattle, Wash., will also feature a pair of bona fide legends against red-hot young prospects as former UFC champions Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and B.J. Penn look to derail the momentum of top contenders Alexander Gustafsson and Rory MacDonald, respectively.
Quite possibly the best fight card on free television since Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson unified the Pride and UFC light heavyweight titles in 2007, Saturday’s show offers a perfect balance of recognizable legends and young studs. Capped off by a tremendous title showdown between two men in their primes, fans can expect fireworks from start to finish.
Here’s a closer look:
Benson Henderson (17-2) vs. Nate Diaz (16-7)
Lightweight gold is up for grabs as the former WEC titleholder and reigning UFC champion Henderson battles the Stockton scrapper Diaz.
Henderson, 29, is coming off a pair of controversial decision wins over Frankie Edgar. The Colorado native has been on a roll since joining the UFC in April 2011, beating the likes of Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida on his path to a title shot.
A taekwondo black belt and Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, Henderson is an exceptional athlete with strong wrestling and submission grappling fundamentals, coupled with a potent muay thai game.
Anchored at the MMA Lab, Henderson is looking to legitimize himself as an elite pound-for-pound fighter by finally moving past his razor-thin wins over Edgar.
Henderson is a gifted southpaw who likes to mix up striking and takedowns. He’s done some of his best work on the ground and wrestling will undoubtedly be his greatest offensive weapon on Saturday night.
Diaz, 27, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Cesar Gracie, has found some rhythm since returning to 155 pounds after a short-lived stint at welterweight, emphatically defeating Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller to get a crack at the title.
The rangy southpaw, who hones his boxing skills under unheralded coach Richard Perez, trains alongside his brother Nick and a slew of talented fighters, including Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields.
The five-time “Fight of the Night” winner possesses an aggressive boxing game. Diaz systematically breaks his opponents down with a high volume of punches landed before capitalizing on the opportunity to finish them by submission.
In assessing Diaz’s career setbacks, wrestling is obviously his Achilles’ heel. Diaz struggled against Clay Guida, Joe Stevenson, Dong Hyun Kim and Rory MacDonald as a result of his inability to thwart takedowns.
However, Diaz, who started competing at the age of 19, has come full circle and he finally appears to have entered his prime, adding muscle to his lanky frame and fine-tuning his skills in the gym. But a 48% career takedown defense rate will not be enough against Henderson.
It should be a highly competitive affair from bell to bell with Diaz doing his best work from a distance, pushing Henderson against the cage and unloading with combinations. Conversely, Henderson will relentlessly push forward, pursuing takedowns and dominant grappling positions. Henderson will need to rely on his slick submission defense to stay out of trouble.
Neither fighter has ever been knocked unconscious and that’s unlikely to change. The end result will come down to Diaz’s improved takedown defense. If he can stuff the majority of Henderson’s shots, while getting off with his patented flurries, Diaz will do the most damage. Diaz also scrambles very well off his back, so Henderson will have a hard time keeping him there.
Henderson, meanwhile, will find success by targeting the legs of Diaz with kicks. We witnessed the effect of repeated leg kicks on Diaz in his three-rounder with Cerrone. If Henderson pursues a similar strategy, we’ll see how Diaz copes with 25 minutes.
Diaz continues to blow us away after every performance, so we can expect to see him at his best with the championship on the line. After five frantic rounds of back-and-forth action, Diaz’s work in striking exchanges and scrambles will pay off as he comes away with a competitive decision, becoming the first representative of his camp to claim a UFC belt.
Verdict: Diaz via decision
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (21-6) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (14-1)
In a fight that could determine a frontrunner in the light heavyweight title race, the former UFC king and legendary Pride veteran “Shogun” battles the fast-rising youngster Gustafsson.
The 30-year-old Rua is still relatively young, but his arduous battles in Japan and later in the UFC have visibly slowed him down.
The Curitiba, Brazil native, a member of the original Chute Boxe Academy, dismantled the likes of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Ricardo Arona and Kevin Randleman during his stint in Pride.
After a shocking upset loss to Forrest Griffin in his UFC debut, which he avenged last year, “Shogun” reclaimed some of his past glory with destructive knockouts of Chuck Liddell and then-champion Lyoto Machida.
Since dropping his belt to Jon Jones in a one-sided beatdown at UFC 128, “Shogun” fought Dan Henderson in an epic five-round war, coming out on the losing end of an incredibly close decision.
The Brazilian berserker rebounded this past August when he finished Brandon Vera on FOX. However, Rua had a tough time against Vera, eating many big shots before finally putting him away in the fourth round.
A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay thai, Rua is still one of the best fighters in the division, but he’s no longer the same menacing force once considered the premier pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
Furthermore, Rua has repeatedly been criticized for his lackadaisical training camps in Brazil, opting to stay close to home rather than making the trip to the U.S. for a greater selection of training partners.
Nonetheless, Rua is still a lethal striker with an overlooked submission game as he elects to bulldoze opponents standing.
The 25-year-old Gustafsson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is riding an impressive five-fight winning streak.
After suffering his lone career blemish against Phil Davis in 2010, the Swedish sensation proceeded to train with Davis at Alliance MMA to address holes in his game.
Gustafsson has since vanquished Cyrille Diabate, James Te Huna, Matt Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko and Thiago Silva to enter the title picture.
The 6-foot-5 Gustafsson utilizes his height and long reach effectively, flustering opponents with sharp striking and killer instinct on the ground.
Still only 15 fights into his career, Gustafsson could benefit from the perfect opportunity to shine by turning in a breakthrough performance against the revered Brazilian legend.
Gustafsson’s superior conditioning and effective movement will be his greatest weapons as he circles and counters, wearing the former UFC champion down over three rounds to prevail on judges’ scorecards.
Verdict: Gustafsson via decision
B.J. Penn (16-8-2) vs. Rory MacDonald (13-1)
In one of the most compelling matchups of the year, the former two-division champion Penn makes his long awaited return to the Octagon against the young phenom MacDonald.
Once considered the greatest lightweight and welterweight in the sport, the 33-year-old Penn has been at a crossroads in his career, contemplating his future since a unanimous decision loss to Nick Diaz at UFC 137.
Penn, who dominated the lightweight landscape with wins over Jens Pulver, Takanori Gomi, Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, would suffer successive decision setbacks against Frankie Edgar in 2010, prompting his return to the welterweight division.
Penn reclaimed top form with a 21-second knockout of Matt Hughes in their trilogy bout at UFC 123 before a hard-fought draw against Jon Fitch at UFC 127 once again had him contemplating retirement.
Despite a record that’s often criticized for a lack of consistency, the Hawaiian “Prodigy” has always strived to fight the best in the world.
The first non-Brazilian to win a World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in the black belt division, Penn could very well be the most naturally gifted fighter we’ve ever seen.
Penn has struggled with conditioning issues and size disadvantages throughout his career, but his fundamental boxing, submission and wrestling skills are all at an elite level.
The pride of Hilo, Hawaii is visibly motivated for a fight with MacDonald as he’s never come to terms with his losses to Georges St. Pierre, a representative of Firas Zahabi’s Tristar Gym.
With MacDonald brashly calling Penn out and training at the Montreal-based academy, the Hawaiian decided to return to the sport to test himself once more against an emerging force and a man widely billed as a future champion.
Penn could be the only fighter to arouse widespread excitement over a 15-second YouTube video in which he shadowboxes shirtless in a parking lot. His fans are perhaps the most loyal in the sport and there’s nothing he’d like more than to live up to his hype.
Penn has never accepted the fact he’s no longer the champ and with newfound hunger and a target in sight, Penn is hoping his latest stint in the Octagon will end differently. He’s tired of hearing about his wasted potential and a victory over MacDonald would surely go a long way in cementing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
One of the most highly touted prospects to join the UFC in recent memory, the 23-year-old MacDonald is coming off a trifecta of wins over Nate Diaz, Mike Pyle and Che Mills.
MacDonald suffered the first and only loss of his career in his sophomore UFC outing against recent title challenger Carlos Condit, succumbing to a third-round TKO.
A dynamic athlete who has trained in all facets of mixed martial arts since the age of 14, the shy British Columbia native has showcased a tremendously well-rounded arsenal and explosive power for the 170-pound class.
In assessing where both men currently stand in their respective careers, acknowledging MacDonald as the likely favorite is not far-fetched. In fact, many fans are already counting down the days until his path crosses with that of his teammate St-Pierre.
However, a motivated Penn is a scary proposition for anyone, let alone a young fighter with the limited big fight experience of MacDonald.
Traditionally soft-spoken, MacDonald has exuded a newfound confidence ahead of this fight. Bordering on arrogant and disrespectful, MacDonald has criticized Penn’s game and his standing in the sport, even citing an interest in potentially fighting again in January.
Confidence for a fighter is a great thing, but overconfidence is another thing entirely. MacDonald should be confident in his abilities. After all, coaches, journalists and teammates praise him left, right and center. But to look past Penn or provoke him in the weeks leading up to the biggest fight of his career could have grave consequences. MacDonald had little trouble dispatching Mills, but creating any parallels between Penn and some of MacDonald’s recent victims is a night-and-day comparison.
If the fight stays standing, Penn is the superior boxer and he likely packs a heavier punch. MacDonald’s offense is more dynamic in that he throws more kicks and knees, but he’ll be on the receiving end of stiff counterpunches if he opts to trade in close quarters.
On the mat, MacDonald’s size and strength will be critical advantages, but his submission game is no match for Penn, whose creativity, flexibility and killer instinct are second to none.
The bigger and stronger MacDonald will need to push the pace on Penn, falling back on his wrestling to wear down the Hawaiian’s questionable gas tank. Taking Penn down is easier said than done, however, and MacDonald should be prepared to defend takedowns as well, as Penn shocked the NCAA Division I All-American Fitch with takedowns in their tilt, plus Penn has trained closely with wrestlers such as Tyron Woodley and Pat Healy in this camp.
Penn will need to do what he does best, relying on superior technique to trump aggression and strength. In a fight that will likely determine Penn’s fate in the sport, just when we all thought he might have been finished, “The Prodigy” could turn in another career-defining performance, stunning MacDonald early with a violent storm of fight-ending punches.
Verdict: Penn via KO, Round 1
Mike Swick (15-4) vs. Matt Brown (15-11)
A pair of fan friendly welterweights will kick off the main card as Swick seeks his second straight win after a two-year hiatus when he tangles with the hard-jawed Brown.
The 33-year-old Swick, a member of the UFC family since 2005, recently returned from a prolonged absence to nurse back and knee injuries.
Swick knocked out DaMarques Johnson in the second round of his comeback this past August on FOX.
A semifinalist on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Swick holds notable wins over Joe Riggs, Josh Burkman, Marcus Davis and Ben Saunders.
The American Kickboxing Academy product is known for his quickness, guillotine choke and knockout power. Though he doesn’t have any primary weakness, Swick isn’t the best wrestler and he often leaves himself open on the ground.
The 31-year-old Brown is one of most underrated fighters in the division, which probably has something to do with his unremarkable 15-11 professional record.
However, the judo brown belt and Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt is capable of trading big strikes with the best of them and his grappling game is always improving. Like Swick, however, the Ohio native has a tendency to leave himself open to submissions.
Riding a three-fight winning streak over Luis Ramos, Stephen Thompson and Chris Cope, Brown is hoping a win over a household name like Swick will earn him more opportunities in the Octagon. A potential 4-0 campaign in 2012 could put him in line for bigger fights next year.
While he may be coming off an impressive knockout win over Johnson, Swick sustained quite a bit of punishment. Brown pounces when he hurts foes, which could score valuable points with the judges.
Swick will be competitive throughout, doing his best work from a distance, utilizing his swift movement and mixing up his strikes. However, Brown will secure some pivotal positions on the ground and aggressively push the pace, which could be the deciding factor if it goes the distance.
Verdict: Brown via decision