Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Will Frankie Edgar successfully defend his lightweight title against the third man to challenge him? Or is Ben Henderson ready to become the new 155-pound champion of the world? Can Rampage Jackson notch his first win in Japan in six years? Or is Ryan Bader ready to pull off a career-reviving upset? Could Mark Hunt pull off a stunning third consecutive UFC victory? Or is Cheick Kongo set to end Hunt's winning streak?
I'll attempt to answer those questions and more as I predict the winners at UFC 144.
What: UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson
Where: Saitama Super Arena, Saitama, Japan
When: Saturday, the Facebook preliminary starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, the four-fight FX card starts at 8 and the seven-fight pay-per-view card starts at 10.
Predictions on the seven pay-per-view fights below.
After fighting just two opponents over the last two years -- B.J. Penn twice and Gray Maynard twice -- Edgar is finally ready for a fresh opponent, with former WEC champion Henderson the next man up. I find the matchup fascinating because Henderson is bigger and more powerful than Edgar, and he's plenty good as a striker, and yet...
I just think Edgar's fast-paced striking is going to prove too much for Henderson. I see Henderson causing Edgar some trouble early in the fight but Edgar's relentless punches eventually proving too much as Edgar wins a unanimous decision.
Rampage Jackson vs. Ryan Bader
Jackson, who fought 17 times in Japan for Pride, lobbied the UFC to let him return to Japan in the Octagon, and they obliged with a matchup with Bader, who's a game opponent but not really on the same level as Rampage. True, Rampage isn't the Rampage of the Pride days -- he's just 2-2 in his last four and he hasn't finished anyone since Wanderlei Silva in 2008 -- but he's a good enough wrestler to neutralize Bader's biggest strength, and he's much better on his feet than Bader.
This fight is a lot of fun and just the kind of matchmaking that the Japanese fans love: Hunt is a former K-1 champion who has spent most of his career in Japan, and Kongo is a big, muscular dude who looks like he can break an opponent in half. I didn't think Hunt had any business in the UFC when he first signed and got submitted in just 63 seconds by Sean McCorkle in his Octagon debut, but I've since been proven wrong: Hunt has won two in a row. But Hunt's winning streak will come to an end here: Kongo will take him down and pummel him with ground and pound.
Akiyama, who was once one of Japan's most popular fighters, returns on a three-fight losing streak. Now he's moving down to welterweight in an attempt to revive his career, but I don't think Shields is a good matchup for him at all. Shields should win this by decision and probably send Akiyama out of the UFC.
Boetsch is a powerful middleweight coming off a 2011 in which he had two impressive wins, but I just don't think he's ready for an opponent quite on the level of Okami, who's 10-3 in his UFC career and has only lost to elite middleweights, Rich Franklin, Chael Sonnen and Anderson Silva. Okami will grind out a unanimous decision.
Without many challengers available for champion Jose Aldo, the winner of this fight could be in line for a shot at the featherweight title. Hioki went on a great run while fighting in Japanese promotions over the last few years, but when he made his UFC debut he struggled through an uninspiring split decision win over George Roop. He'll need to be better than that to beat Palaszewski, who moved down from lightweight and knocked out Tyson Griffin at UFC 137. And I think he will be better. If Hioki fights smart he'll be able to use his length to stay out of Palaszewski's range, and if the fight goes to the ground I like Hioki's chances of submitting Palaszewski.
This is my pick for Fight of the Night. These guys both routinely put on good shows, and they're both capable of finishing opponents in a variety of ways. I like Pettis to take this one and make a statement that he belongs in the discussion for the next contender to the lightweight throne.
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