To paraphrase the great Muhammad Ali, it’s almost time for the UFC to rumble, big man, rumble. When UFC 146 hits the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night, it will be a promotional first thanks to a five-fight main card made up entirely of heavyweight bouts.
Those five fights also look a lot different than they did just last month. UFC Heavyweight Champion Junior dos Santos was initially slated to defend his title against former Strikeforce and Dream Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem. That match was scrapped after Overeem failed a pre-fight drug test, leaving him unable to compete in Nevada for the remainder of 2012 and sending a wave of changes through the UFC 146 card.
Though Overeem was arguably the hottest heavyweight in the world following his thrashing of Brock Lesnar at UFC 141, dos Santos (14-1, 8-0 UFC) still faces a stiff test in the form of Frank Mir, who was elevated from the co-feature. A former titlist himself, Mir (16-5, 14-5 UFC) poses a much different challenge thanks to his submission skills.
The list of big men Mir has forced to tap out is an impressive one. Along with Lesnar, it includes Tim Sylvia, Cheick Kongo and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira–the last of which came by a kimura that was named 2011 Submission of the Year. Mir’s experience inside the octagon is also unmatched among current UFC fighters, as he’s been appearing exclusively with the promotion since UFC 34 in November 2001.
Dos Santos is younger, faster, and the owner of the best boxing skills of any big man in mixed martial arts. His accurate, powerful jab sets up devastating straight rights and uppercuts, and he’s also a threat with knees in the clinch. Dos Santos’ ground game is an open question, but thus far his striking and takedown defense have combined to make it one that hasn’t had to be answered.
Mir has openly talked about his desire to get the fight to the mat, but his stand-up skills have progressed over the years to the point that he isn’t outgunned by most opponents in striking exchanges. The problem is that dos Santos tends to outgun everyone he faces, and that could happen again on Saturday night.
The rest of the main card is an intriguing mix of former champs, title contenders and up-and-comers that should be entertaining despite all the shuffling involved to get it finalized:
Cain Velasquez (9-1, 7-1 UFC) vs. Antonio Silva (16-3, UFC debut)
In retrospect, maybe Velasquez won the UFC Heavyweight Championship too early in his career. He took the title by knocking out the similarly inexperienced Lesnar at UFC 121 only to lose it in his very first defense against dos Santos.
He’ll hope to shake off the loss against another talented striker in Silva. The man known as “Bigfoot” fought all over the world before signing with the UFC, though he comes into the fight off a defeat to Daniel Cormier in his final Strikeforce appearance.
Velasquez may need to get back to his wrestling roots, but that may not be easy against an opponent with significant height and weight advantages. He’s a heavy favorite with the oddsmakers, but it would not be a shock to see Silva give him a tought time.
Roy Nelson (16-7, 3-3 UFC) vs. Dave Herman (21-3, 1-1 UFC)
No one was affected more by the shake-up necessitated by Overeem’s absence than Nelson. He was supposed to fight Silva, then was switched to Gabriel Gonzaga before ending up with Herman.
That might be for the best for “Big Country,” who could really use a win after coming up short against Fabricio Werdum in his last trip to the cage. Herman will present a straightforward puzzle to solve, as he makes no bones about the fact that he enters every bout looking to score knockouts with his striking.
Nelson’s game is more well-rounded, but he isn’t afraid to exchange. If both men are content to stand in the pocket, this could easily end up as Fight of the Night.
Stipe Miocic (8-0, 2-0 UFC) vs. Shane del Rosario (11-0, UFC debut)
Miocic brings new meaning to the term well-rounded: He’s a former pro baseball prospect and current firefighter and EMT. He was taken the distance by Joey Beltran in his UFC debut but needed only 43 seconds to dispose of Phil De Fries in February.
Like Nelson, del Rosario spent some of his time preparing to face Gonzaga. His kickboxing background has led to some quick nights, as only one of his pro MMA bouts has made it to Round 2.
The intrigue here will be if Miocic chooses to try to extend the action and see what del Rosario has to offer in a lengthier fight. Both men have shown some wherewithal on the ground, so this isn’t necessarily going to be a strictly stand-up affair.
Stefan Struve (23-5, 7-3 UFC) vs. Lavar Johnson (17-5, 2-0 UFC)
This might be the most evenly matched bout on the main card. The strengths of each fighter appears to align perfectly with the weaknesses of the other, so whoever can impose his will first will probably win.
Struve will look to take things to the ground to bring his submission skills to bear, while Johnson will try to land some bombs on his foe’s questionable chin. No matter which one succeeds, the biggest surprise would be if the fight goes the full three rounds.