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UFC 88: Rashad Evans crashes the UFC’s New Year’s Eve party four months early

In one week the UFC gained a mega-main event of Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 91 while losing another mega-main event between Forrest Griffin vs. Chuck Liddell for the UFC light heavyweight title during the UFC’s annual New Year’s Eve weekend spectacular.

A proposed main event between two of the most beloved fighters in UFC history during the promotion’s biggest show of the year went up in smoke last night, possibly costing Zuffa tens of millions of dollars in the process. And they have Rashad Evans and his camp, Greg Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., to thank for that last night.

In a wise but boring strategy of refusing to pressure Liddell on his feet or attempt takedowns – which prompted fans at the Phillips Arena in Atlanta to boo on occasion – Evans circled Liddell frequently in order to stay out of range and avoid a knockout that the vast majority of MMA fans felt had been inevitable. In typical Liddell fashion, he did not take Evans’ bait and remained patient instead of wearing out his 38-year old body by chasing down his much younger opposition.

The two exchanged glancing blows briefly at times with each fighter catching the other on the way out as they disengaged. However, for the most part, the fight lacked any real action until Evans and Liddell both opened themselves up at 1:51 of round 2 with each prepared to unload. But it was Evans’ superior hand speed that allowed him to beat the former UFC light heavyweight champion to the punch, plastering Liddell’s chin with an overhand right that turned his head and sent him straight to the canvas.

Evans followed up the right hand by attempting to hit Liddell after he had fallen but referee Herb Dean jumped in and prevented what appeared to be an unconscious Liddell from absorbing any more damage. After the fight had been called to a stop, Liddell looked to have remained unconscious for several seconds afterwards, as he was laying on the mat completely motionless.

The knockout was about as undisputed of a conclusion to a fight as you will find. There was no way for even the most loyal Liddell fan to claim a flash knockout or a premature stoppage.

The result of Evans vs. Liddell coupled with the nature in which the fight came to an end will allow the main event for UFC 88 to join fights such as Mirko Cro Cop vs. Gabriel Gonzaga and Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra to go down as one of the most stunning upsets in the history of the UFC.

In shocking Liddell last night, Evans earned himself a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title. However, whether he’s actually granted that shot is hardly a given. The bottom line is that Griffin vs. Evans on the marquee of the UFC’s biggest event of the year doesn’t have the same ring to it as Griffin vs. Jackson II or Griffin vs. Silva (pick a Silva, any Silva). But even the most ardent Evans critic must acknowledge that the UFC has put many hurdles in front of Evans and he’s cleared them all.

High-profile wins over Liddell, Michael Bisping, Stephan Bonnar, along with a draw over Tito Ortiz have greatly enhanced Evans’ resume, which also includes a 12-0-1 record and the title of the heavyweight winner of season two of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

The concept of having winners from the first two seasons of the UFC’s greatest marketing vehicle face each other for the most prestigious title in MMA carries a lot of intrigue but it still might not have the gusto the promotion is seeking for its biggest show of the year.

With Liddell out of the picture for now, the UFC will have to choose an opponent for Griffin from a list that includes Lyoto Machida, Wanderlei Silva, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Machida had been scheduled to face Thiago Silva at UFC 89 and appeared at least one more win away before being granted a light heavyweight title shot. Silva’s decision to pull out with a back injury is hardly cause to grant Machida a shot that the UFC essentially said he wasn’t already deserving of.

Having only made one single title defense before losing the belt to Griffin, Jackson does not have an obvious case for an immediate rematch.

And while Silva has had a remarkable career and has seen his profile in the U.S. increase greatly following a win over Keith Jardine in May at UFC 84, the fact of the matter is that he has still lost three of his last four fights and has just one win in the UFC since 1999.

Last night’s unplanned outcome could force the UFC to look at two unconventional options for Griffin on NYE weekend; one could involve Anderson Silva returning to 205 pounds if he’s able to beat Patrick Cote at UFC 90 on Oct. 25 and not take too much damage.

Bringing Silva back on such short notice might seem like a long shot, but the lure of a title shot might be too much to ignore and the fact that he would not have to cut a lot of fight makes a quick turnaround feasible. Knowing the UFC, they usually like to have more of a window to promote their main events than the turnaround between UFC 90 and NYE weekend would allow.

Of course, Tito Ortiz remains unsigned and holds a controversial win over Griffin. While he’s coming off a loss to Machida, Griffin vs. Ortiz II has a lot of marketing appeal. The chance to get Griffin a win over Ortiz should have some appeal to UFC President Dana White. And if Ortiz were to win the title, having him as champion would not be the worst thing in the world as it would create a possible rematch with Wanderlei Silva and a first-time matchup against friend and former training partner, Jackson.

However, when you break it all down, the least complicated scenario of them all might just be to match Griffin with Evans on Dec. 27. Whether Evans gets a light heavyweight invitation to the UFC’s annual New Year’s Eve weekend bash remains to be seen, but he certainly forced his way towards the front of the line with last night’s victory.

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