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UFC 92 Preview: Tonight’s Top Storylines

I don’t think it needs to be said again that tonight’s UFC 92 event is a major fight card. However, the stakes will be high and there is a wealth of intriguing storylines to follow during the course of tonight’s action.

Below is an outline of the storylines that will be tracking, along with strategically placed hyperlinks to highlight much of the preview-related content we published this week to help get you in the mood for tonight’s stellar card.

1. Rashad Evans’ bid to become the number one ranked light heavyweight in the world - If someone told you three years ago that Evans would be the top ranked light heavyweight in the world how would you have reacted? If they had said it two years ago what would you have said? If they had set it a year ago, how would you have responded? And if someone came to you and made that prediction just months ago before he knocked out Chuck Liddell, how would you have felt? Evans has been counted out by numerous pundits multiple times, present company included. However, doubters such as myself will have no choice but to rank Evans as the number one light heavyweight in the world should he manage to procure the most prestigious world title in mixed martial arts.

2. Quinton Jackon fighting for redemption – Jackson comes into this fight with enough baggage that if he was checking in for a flight, he’d be hit with $2,000 worth of surcharges. He’s coming off an upset loss to Forrest Griffin in July; a messy “divorce” with former manager and trainer Juanito Ibarra; his two previous losses to Wanderlei Silva; and of course a manic episode this summer on a Southern California freeway that saw him being led away in handcuffs.

Simply put, many of the industry’s leading pundits do not believe Jackson has any business fighting right now. It’s a prevailing line of thought summed up rather succinctly by Dann Stupp of during this week’s edition of “The Duel”:

“This fight may look competitive on paper (even with Jackson’s two previous losses to Silva), but there are some very important real-world issues the odds-makers seemed to have forgotten,” Stupp began to write. “Just five months ago Jackson was in a police chase. Let that sink in: an actual police chase in which he fled from cops, dodged spike strips and allegedly hit other cars before he was apprehended at gunpoint. It’s not exactly a fender-bender we’re talking about. He was also went to a mental-health facility after friends and family were worried about his sanity and well-being. He broke up with a longtime trainer who was also like a best friend, and every indication points to a less-than-amicable split with some very serious allegations about money.”

I’m picking Jackson to win, but no one can make a legitimate argument over the case that Stupp makes. But while covering the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, there was a tired cliche I heard over and over: winning cures everything.

If Jackson loses in disappointing fashion, you’re going to see a lot of editorials blasting the UFC, Jackson, his family, and his friends for allowing him to fight. However, if he wins, all will be forgotten and the headlines will read “Jackson is back and better than ever.”

Winning cures everything and Jackson needs this win in the worst way because who knows how he will react in the aftermath of another loss?

3. Frank Mir attempts to overcome a less than ideal training camp - While watching HBO’s telecast a few weeks back of Wladimir Klitschko defending his heavyweight title vs. Hasim Rahman, Jim Lampley came right out and said at the top of the fight that Rahman had less than “an ideal training camp.” That was a politically correct way of saying Rahman was out of shape.

Well, I don’t live in Vegas and I’ve never met Mir so I couldn’t tell you exactly how he prepared for this fight. However, has had multiple “informants” in recent months claim that Mir “had less than an ideal training camp.” He dealt with a back issue along with one other undisclosed injury. He was involved with not one, but two WEC telecasts. He did a lot of media for this fight and to promote the TUF 8 finale. He also was at the finale itself coaching some of his fighters.

We all know Mir’s reputation for not training as hard as he should at times and it appears that he hasn’t done anything this time to dispel that notion. Picking off Antoni Hardonk and Dan Christison when you don’t have your A-game is one thing but trying to defeat a legend like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in a fight scheduled for five rounds when you’re not in top shape is another.

Mir got by with his pure talent early in his career but the motorcycle accident changed that. If Mir manages to pull off the upset tonight, it means that in spite of the severe accident in which his leg almost required amputation, he managed to retain more of his natural athletic gifts than we previously thought.

4. The foundation for the 2009 light heayweight title picture being laid out - UFC President Dana White hasn’t labeled Silva vs. Jackson III as a fight to determine the number one contender for the UFC heavyweight title, but c’mon! It’s either the winner of Jackson vs. Silva that gets it or the winner of Thiago Silva vs. Lyoto Machida at UFC 94.

It would seem like a no-brainer to call this fight a number one contender’s match but perhaps there is more than meets the eye. I’m not sure what Jackson’s contract situation is but tonight will mark Wanderlei’s third fight in the UFC. Perhaps he’s up for re-negotiation and the UFC isn’t going to back itself into a corner by guaranteeing him a title shot just before it goes to the bargaining table?

Politics aside, the winner of this fight will be a worthy title challenger and regardless of who wins, the UFC will win. Griffin vs. Silva would be a great fight; Evans vs. Silva wouldn’t be anywhere near as big, but it wouldn’t be bad; Jackson vs. Evans could be a good way to try and attract more African-American fight fans because it will help dispel the myth that the UFC is nothing more than a “bunch of white guys from the midwest.”

But I think the most lucrative matchup that could be bred out of tonight would be Griffin vs. Jackson II. There’s a lot of drama there and the fact that Jackson has said he thinks about the loss every day is the type of storyline that translates well for television ads and countdown shows.

No matter what, at the very least we will have a slightly greater sense of clarity about how the light heavyweight title picture will unfold heading into 2009 after tonight’s two huge 205 pound encounters.

5. The identity of the first fighter to challenge Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title being revealed - After tonight, the first round of the so-called “mini-heavyweight tournament” will be over and the finals will be set. And in just a few short hours, we’ll be a major step closer towards determining the undisputed heavyweight champion of the UFC. Will we see Lesnar vs. Nogueira or Lesnar vs. Mir II? Either way, the UFC wins. Lesnar vs. a legend will attract a lot of interest but Lesnar going for revenge against the only man to ever beat him might have even bigger box office potential.

6. Mike Massenzio seeks revenge against C.B. Dollaway - When you think UFC 92, you think of the big three matches. However, Massenzio vs. Dollaway is a nice little bout for the televised main card to have to complement the big three. This isn’t just some random wrestler vs. wrestler bout as their is some history here.

Massenzio was a wrecking machine as a amateur wrestler on the Junior College level until he ran into Dollaway in the JUCO finals several years ago. Dollaway pulled off the mild upset and being the uber-competitor he is, Massenzio became obsessed with seeking revenge. He trained like a mad man for the following year’s JUCO tourney and while he made it to the finals, Dollaway got picked off before they could meet. In a strange twist of irony, Massenzio’s shot at redemption will now come inside of the cage.

Public money will come in on Dollaway because the casual fans know him from TUF 7 while Massenzio is still a virtual unknown to the mainstream. Living in Philly and being a supporter of anything with local sports ties, I have followed Massenzio’s MMA career closely, just as I have with most Philly and Jersey-based fighters. Having watched Massenzio up close, I can tell you he is going to make waves in the UFC’s middleweight division and while I was singing the praises of Dollaway as a top MMA prospect long before he made it to TUF, I consider Massenzio to be the better fighter at this moment in time.

If I am correct in my belief that Massenzio wins this fight, then what happens to Dollaway? Despite a strong career wrestling for Arizona State and working with a tremendous camp at Arizona Combat Sports, the two losses to Amir Sadollah via submission are still a little too fresh. If he loses to Massenzio, is a July win over Jesse Taylor enough to keep him on the UFC roster? I hope so, because I think the best from Dollaway is still yet to come.

7. Yushin Okami and Dean Lister likely fighting for the right to remain in the UFC – UFC President Dana White hasn’t called Okami vs. Lister a “loser leaves town fight,” but Dave Meltzer speculated as much in the Wrestling Observer several weeks ago. With the UFC cutting several mid-level salary fighters, Meltzer’s reporting carries a lot of logic. If it’s Lister who loses his job, I think outage will be at a minimum. However, if Okami is sent packing with a 6-2 lifetime Octagon record how many editorials from the blogosphere are we going to read proclaiming that the “UFC is more sports entertainment than sport?”

8. The debut of Pat Barry - When the casual fan hears the name “Pat Barry” their automatic response is “Who?” However, next to Cheick Kongo, he could easily be the second-best pure heavyweight striker in the UFC. He makes his debut against Dan Evensen, a fighter whose greatest attribute is striking. However, Barry’s striking is on a different level and we could see an absolute demolition that is so good it wins “Knockout of the Night” and gets promoted to the main card telecast on tape-delay. I’m working on a “Breakout Stars for 2009″ article and Barry is a leading candidate to be on it. Is it obvious yet that I am excited about the former K-1 fighter’s arrival in the UFC? A friend called me from Vegas telling me the odds on this fight are even money. Man, if I was in Vegas right now I’d be betting the house on Barry.

9. Mike Wessel looks to defeat Antoni Hardonk on two weeks notice - Having trained out of several fight gyms, I can tell you that it’s a big deal when a fighter gets a chance to fight for a major national promotion. Everyone in the gym begins to politic to travel with the fighter and be in his corner. The reason? Because they want the exposure. Prior to cornering Rolando Delgado for the TUF 8 finale, Mike Wessel was an 8-1 prospect known only to the hardest of hardcores. But Delgado pumped up his boy at every turn and made sure UFC Vice President of Talent Relations Joe Silva knew who he was at the TUF 8 finale. The introduction paid off because when Silva suddenly needed a last-minute replacement to fight Antoni Hardonk after Mark Burch was scratched due to injury, Wessel got the call.

Wessel is a great heavyweight prospect but there are questions whether or not he’s ready right now for the UFC. There is also a question of whether he can hang with such a strong striker as Hardonk after just a few weeks of preparation? If Wessel pulls off the victory, it’s going to be a tremendous upset and earn him a lot of capital with the UFC brass. If he loses, he’ll likely be given at least one more chance as a reward for taking a fight on short notice.

Despite his upside potential, Wessel is still the underdog against Hardonk. And if Hardonk wins, it will create an interesting situation because it will be his third consecutive win inside the Octagon. Once thought to be on the brink of being dropped, a win tonight for Hardonk could catapult him into a televised spot against an established heavyweight in his next bout. Where have you gone Heath Herring?

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