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UFC 95: Preview and Predictions of Main Card and Undercard

The debate as to whether UFC 95 has a main event worthy of a pay-per-view was made a moot one when Spike TV and the UFC received a deal to broadcast Saturday’s card from the O2 Arena in London, England back to the United States on a tape delay basis.

UFC 95 set to air at 9 p.m. ET this Saturday, the event will be free to those who are able to afford basic cable. Instead of another PPV that costs $44.95, the fan is instead being presented a bonus UFC Fight Night card.

However, the lineup on tap for Saturday is vastly superior to recent UFN offerings, as the main event matchup between season one and season two alums of The Ultimate Fighter Diego Sanchez and Joe Stevenson is a strong matchup on paper.

The card will also feature intriguing middleweight matchups between Nathan Marquardt vs. Wilson Gouveia and Demian Maia vs. Chael Sonnen. Below is full preview of the event (including the non-televised undercard) along with predictions (remember to check back this Saturday for live play-by-play starting at 12 noon ET)…

Lightweight (155 lbs.):

Diego Sanchez (19-2) vs. Joe Stevenson (29-9)

A lot of people are counting Stevenson out in this one based on the fact that he’s coming off bad losses to B.J. Penn and Kenny Florian where he failed to impress. Sanchez fits the mold of the kind of eltie level fighter that Stevenson has yet to beat in the UFC. However, Saturday will mark Sanchez’s first cut to 155.

As recent as December Sanchez revealed that he was over 190 pounds and he was candid during a conference call last week in revealing that the cut has been difficult for him. He was at 162-163 pounds two weeks out so I believe he will make 156.

However, I am concerned about Sanchez’s cardio in the second and third rounds. The longer the fight goes, the more it benefits Stevenson. The fact that Stevenson has abandoned the temptations of Las Vegas also is a sign that he could be re-focused on his career.

I expect an upset in this one with Stevenson winning via unanimous decision against a gassed Sanchez.

Welterweight (170 lbs.):

Josh Koscheck (12-3) vs. Paulo Thiago (10-0)

A perfect 10-0 record is something to respect no matter how it was accumulated. Some of Thiago’s early fights in Brazil didn’t present much of a challenge, but his more recent fights while competing for the Jungle Fight promotion were a solid test. However, the submission specialist is going to be taking a major step up in competition at UFC 95 against Josh Koscheck.

Koscheck probably doesn’t want to spend too much time on the ground with Thiago and giving his world class wrestling a night off wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. After all, Koscheck’s striking continues to make major strides and he recorded one of the most vicious knockouts of 2008 when he dropped Yoshiyuki Yoshida in the first round during the “UFC Fight for the Troops” event this past December.

I expect Koscheck’s athleticism to prove to be too much for Thiago and for the former TUF 1 veteran to record a second round TKO victory.

Middleweight (185 lbs.):

Nathan Marquardt (27-8-2) vs. Wilson Gouveia (12-5)

I know that the average fan isn’t overly excited about Saturday’s show but how do you not get excited for this fight? Marquardt vs. Gouveia is a strong matchup between two large middleweights who have the ability to compete whereever a fight may go.

Gouveia trains out of American Top Team and could eventually become the middleweight division’s version of Thiago Alves. He’s a good athlete with excellent size for the weight class and can fight on the feet or on the floor.

Marquardt also comes from an excellent camp, as he is a part of Greg Jackson’s extended family of fighters. Since a disappointing performance agaisnt Anderson Silva at UFC 73, Marquardt has impressed and continues to improve.

This is a fight that will have tremendous implications on the middleweight food chain in the UFC with the winner possibly moving onto the fast track for a middleweight title shot.

Picking a winner in this fight isn’t easy but I will give the nod to Marquardt via split decision. There are still concerns about Gouveia’s ability to properly cut to 185 and Marquardt’s high-atltitude training could give him an advantage when it comes to stamina.

Middleweight (185 lbs.):

Chael Sonnen (21-9-1) vs. Demian Maia (9-0)

Sonnen vs. Maia is another reason to get excited about UFC 95. Aside from Koscheck vs. Thiago, there isn’t a match scheduled to air on Spike TV that doesn’t have me intrigued.

Sonnen is perhaps one of the most underrated fighters in all of MMA. A seven-year veteran, he has been training with Team Quest before it was known as Team Quest. A real estate agent by trade,

Sonnen has put himself in a position where he can focus solely on fighting if he wants to by earning a strong contract with the UFC following three credible performances in the WEC, two of which came against one-time consensus top ten ranked middleweight Paulo Filho.

Having won seven of his last eight, Sonnen comes into this fight with a lot of momentum. However, he doesn’t have nearly as much heat behind him as Maia, perhaps one of the brightest prospects in all of MMA.

Undefeated at 9-0, four of his wins have come inside the Octagon. All of the jiu-jitsu black belt’s wins in the UFC have come via submission. As good as Sonnen is, he likely won’t be able to hang very long on the ground with Maia, a former jiu-jitsu world champion.

If Sonnen can use his solid wrestling to keep the fight standing, we could see Maia’s lack of standup exposed and witness his first career loss. However, Maia has always found a way to get the fight where he wants it and I expect we’ll see him win via third round submission.

Welterweight (170 lbs.):

Dan Hardy (20-6) vs. Rory Markham (16-4)

Fireworks in the cage will open up the Spike TV telecast. Markham has questioned Hardy’s punching power and Hardy feels like his hands are being overlooked.

One might think that Markham is trying to bait Hardy into standing with him, but if he’s looking to bang, he doesn’t need to resort to giving Hardy bulletin board material. Hardy is a strong striker in his own right and his standup is much more versatile than Markham’s.

Markham has spent a great deal of time over the years working on his wrestling while a part of Miletich Fighting Systems in Davenport, Iowa, but he’s not world class in that department. Yet again, the ground is another area in which Hardy possesses more versatility.

Hardy via unanimous decision is the pick here based on the fact that I consider him to be the more well-rounded mixed martial artist.

Non-televised Preliminary Bouts…

Heavyweight (206-265 lbs.):

Junior dos Santos (7-1) vs. Stefan Struve (16-2)

Struve is an M-1 Challenge veteran and based on his Dutch heritage, one might assume he’s a strong kickboxer. While he isn’t bad on his feet, the reality is that 12 of his 16 wins have come via submission.

He’s being counted out against dos Santos, who caused quite a stir at UFC 90 when he pulled off an upset first round TKO of Fabricio Werdum that caused Werdrum to get pink slipped.

I’m not so sure Struve should be overlooked because what did we truly learn about “Cigano” in just 1:21 of UFC action? That he can knock out an unprepared and out of shape Werdum?

Dos Santos trains under the Nogueiras so there’s no way the guy is a fluke. As such, I am going to predict him to win Saturday via second round TKO.

Lightweight (155 lbs.):

Evan Dunham (7-0) vs. Per Eklund (14-3-1)

Dunham accepted this fight on short notice but all indications are that he’s in fighting shape and ready to go. An undefeated lightweight prospect, Dunham’s hallmark is his wrestling. Eklund also has a solid ground game so we could see these fighters spend a lot of time standing in hopes of exposing a weakness.

Dunham is definitely a prospect but because Eklund has proven himself against higher caliber opponents such as David Baron, Rafael Dias and Samy Schiavo, I am going to give him the nod via unanimous decision.

Lightweight (155 lbs.):

Brian Cobb (15-4) vs. Terry Etim (11-2)

Cobb vs. Etim is a classic wrestler vs. striker matchup.

Cobb took this fight on short notice after Justin Buchholz was forced to withdraw due to injury. Fortunately for the former amateur wrestling standout, Cobb was already slated to compete on Feb. 21 for the M-1 Challenge so he was in full training camp mode when he got the call to fight.

Etim possesses good kickboxing skills and has solid UFC wins over Sam Stout and Matt Grice. The latter win against Grice was against a fighter who has a similar style to Cobb. However, Cobb is good enough of a wrestler that he was considered a hopeful for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

I think he uses his wrestling to control Etim while grounding out a unanimous decision victory.

Heavyweight (206-265 lbs.):

Neil Grove (7-1) vs. Mike Ciesnolevicz (16-3)

I was on the Neil Grove bandwagon after the unknown strolled down wearing a Karate Gi in his Cage Rage debut in July of 2007 and shocked everyone with a 10-second knockout of James Thompson. However, since the big win, I’ve seen a few holes in his game, such as suspect cardio and not much of a ground game.

Ciesnolevicz is a former IFL veteran and the Miletich product has long been overlooked by the MMA media. A well-rounded fighter, Ciesnolevicz normally competes at light heavyweight but has yearned for a shot at the UFC for so long that he was not only willing to take the bout on short notice but also move up in weight class.

Grove is a big heavyweight and if he connects with a punch on Mike C. — who could be giving up as much as 30 pounds on fight night — it’s likely lights out. However, I believe that Ciesnolevicz is going to turn the fight into a mixed martial arts bout as opposed to a brawl and I think his veteran savvy will prove the difference here. I like Ciesnolevicz to take the fight into deep water and record a third round TKO against a gassed Grove.

Welterweight (170 lbs.):

Paul Kelly (7-1) vs. Troy Mandaloniz (3-1)

We haven’t seen “Rude Boy” since he TKO’d Richie Hightower during the live finale for the sixth season of TUF way back in December of 2007.

The UFC has hung onto him but he likely will need to impress in order to remain on the UFC roster. Mandaloniz is a hard hitter but not a well-rounded fighter.

He could have some trouble against Kelly, a solid prospect who trains with Michael Bisping out of the Wolfslair Academy. I expect the 7-1 Kelly to win via unanimous decision.

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