If it seems like ages since the UFC last graced the Octagon, well, that's probably because we're kind of spoiled. But who cares about that now, it's time to rejoice because we've finally got real, honest-to-goodness fights to enjoy on Saturday. And if one positive can be drawn from the cancellation of UFC 151, it's the fact that UFC 152 suddenly looks like one of the more stacked cards of 2012.
Can Jon Jones avoid a St-Pierre-ian upset? Will someone finally be crowned the first flyweight champion in UFC history? Can Michael Bisping actually pull through in a top contender's match? Let's take a look.
Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, CA.
When: Saturday, the three-fight Facebook card starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight FX card starts at 8:00 p.m. and the five-fight main card starts on pay-per-view at 10:00 p.m.
Two young, electrifying featherweights riding impressive winning streaks and primed to break into the top-15? If there's a sneaky, non-Jon Jones candidate for Fight of the Night, this would be it. And at worst, it's is an alluring stylistic clash to open the pay-per-view.
Swanson has made a living cashing checks with fists lately -- TKO'ing Ross Pearson and George Roop -- while Oliveira has been busy twisting guys up like his day job was baking soft pretzels. The 22-year-old tidily dispatched both Eric Wisely and Jonathan Brookins since dropping down to featherweight, the former of which ended with one of the slickest, most painful looking submissions this writer with a bum knee has seen all year. Anytime you're the first to win by something called a calf slicer, it's hard not to get a little boost to your stock.
Oliveira comes in with a size advantage and his body seems to have adapted to weight change well, as he looked quick to the trigger against Brookins. While both men are considerably well-rounded compared to some of their contemporaries, Swanson hasn't cobbled together three straight wins since 2007, and has historically struggled in these type of make-or-break scenarios. It'll likely be fantastic scrap and a good gauge of where exactly these guys are at in the divisional pecking order, but potential tops experience this time.
By the time this fight happens, Matt Hamill will have been out of the game for 412 days. And that's not 412 days of intense physical therapy rehabbing an injury. No, that's 412 days of no longer being a professional athlete. Now, I'm not a professional fighter by any stretch, but I'd be willing to bet Hamill was a bit looser with his lifestyle restrictions somewhere during that downtime. For a 35-year-old man already facing a daunting case of ring rust, that laxity could be a hard road to climb back from.
Fortunately for Hamill, Roger Hollett has a few mountains to scale himself. The Canadian is eyeing a massive step-up in competition to go along with the famous Octagon jitters, plus the whole owned-by-Bellator-but-not-really sham that led to this match-up being rebooked on 11 days notice probably didn't help matters.
Hollett has been on a torrid stretch of late, winning five straight, but this is the type of fight a prime Hamill would've dominated. Let's not forget, this guy's UFC losses -- not counting Bisping -- came to Alexander Gustafsson, Rampage Jackson, and Rich Franklin, so it's not as if he's prone to bad defeats. Obviously "The Hammer" could be a shell of his former self by this point, but given the circumstances, it's too hard to pick against the feel-good story.
Michael Bisping is one of those rare guys who was overrated for so long, he actually became underrated. Yet he's also one of the only last remaining guys hanging around the top-10 for the past four years to not get a shot at Anderson Silva, and that's because he always stumbles in top contender match-ups like this. But that soon may change.
In Brian Stann, Bisping sees the best opportunity of his career to advance towards that elusive title shot. Stann may possess dump trucks for fists, but his status at the top of the division seems to be built more on his marketability and general all-around niceness, than any particular standout performance. Wins against Alessio Sakara and Jorge Santiago are nice, but a contender they do not make.
Bisping may also lack that standout win, but "The Count" is ultra-competitive in every fight he's ever been in -- save for one overhand right from a certain American -- and if his showing against Chael Sonnen proved anything, it's that the gap between Bisping and the division's elite is growing narrower by the minute. With a guy like Stann, a flash KO is always a second away, but it seems likelier that Bisping rides crisp counter-punching and superior technique to a unanimous decision victory, and potentially, a shot against Silva. (Though Chris Weidman probably has something to say about that.)
It's fitting that the two men who were long considered to be the best flyweights in the world, even before they were actually flyweights, will now meet with a chance to make history. Nearly everyone predicted this pairing when the UFC's four-man tournament was announced, and though it may have taken a little longer to get here than anticipated, it's a perfect showcase for what the 125-pound division brings to the table.
Both men share several stylistic parallels but the nuances are what makes this match-up so intriguing. Johnson and Benavidez easily rank among the fastest fighters in UFC, and both are similar in that their stifling wrestling and blindingly fast level changes set up the rest of their offense. But whereas Johnson often uses his boxing and top control more as a means to an end to wear down his opponent, Benavidez has proven himself a capable finisher, with power in either hand -- as ill-fated semi-finalist Yasuhiro Urushitani can attest to -- and a fearsome submission game that has downed the likes of Wagnney Fabiano and Miguel Torres in recent years.
Expect a whirlwind of intensity for a title bout that will be much closer than the Las Vegas line indicates. Though from what we've seen so far, it's hard to pick against Benavidez. Simply put, the guy just looks like the best 125-pounder in the world right now. This one will likely go the distance, with Johnson looking to stay on the outside and dart in and out with his strikes, but in the end, the uncrowned king of the flyweights will finally take his place upon the throne.
It takes a brave and reckless man to go out on a limb and pick a historic underdog to upset a seemingly unstoppable force. Unfortunately, I am not that man.
Jones has a near limitless set of tools to draw from, that implausibly seem to grow each time he fights. His otherworldly size and length, which would rival most heavyweights, presents an even bigger challenge for a 35-year-old man five years removed from 205 pounds. "Bones" has ragdolled much more accomplished grapplers than Belfort and picked apart strikers of equal pedigree with a relentlessness that borders on terrifying. If Jones can survive Belfort's inevitable early blitz, this one could turn ugly quickly.
Ultimately, if there's one advantage for Belfort, it's the fact that he really has nothing to lose here. The ‘no one believes in me' card can be a devastating play in a sport as volatile as mixed martial arts. But in reality, GSP-Serra only happens once out of every hundred chances. The rest of the time insane underdogs usually get smashed, just like they're supposed to. This is one of those times.
Pick: Jones handily wins the battle of the self-styled "young dinosaur" against the young lion to defend his UFC light heavyweight strap.