5 Things to Watch for at UFC 98

May 22, 2009
The UFC’s Memorial Day weekend offering promises to be memorable. UFC 98 “Evans vs. Machida” emanates from the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a combat sports beacon, in Las Vegas.

Here are five things to watch for come fight night.

1. The 205-Pound Elephant

Rashad Evans defending his light heavyweight crown against Lyoto Machida is the elephant in the room. Everyone sees it, and no one wants to talk about it.

The style clash between two defensive-minded counter strikers has inspired little pre-fight steam. It’s a shame when you consider the technical prowess involved and a travesty when you consider that it’s the UFC’s first title bout between undefeated fighters in any division. The blame rests on the uneasy shoulders of premature promotion.

Evans was brought into the Octagon to hype a fight with Quinton Jackson after “Rampage” scored a decision over his teammate, Keith Jardine, at UFC 96 in March. Oddly, the champion called out the challenger. The storylines of Evans trying to avenge a teammate and Jackson attempting to recapture gold -- along with their heated faceoff -- were all compelling enough to push a matchup; too bad that fight’s not happening yet.

The prospect of Evans-Jackson turned Evans-Machida into a second-fiddle booking. Come fight time, though, it should be apparent that the combatants are two of the world’s best -- Sherdog.com ranks Evans and Machida at No. 1 and No. 4, respectively -- at 205 pounds. Regardless of the outcome, their well-rounded games, which emphasize defense, will likely ensure they will remain among the sport’s elite for years to come, even if fans are not thrilled by what they see at UFC 98.

2. Grudge Match

Matt Serra’s grudge with Matt Hughes was so intense that an entire season of “The Ultimate Fighter” was built around it. The coaches were slated to fight after taping wrapped, but Serra’s back injury nixed those plans. Now the reality series has moved on to season nine, and two subsequent super bouts -- Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton Jackson and Frank Mir vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira -- have diminished the appeal of Serra vs. Hughes.

Georges St. Pierre’s reign over the welterweight division further buries their co-main event match at UFC 98. Hughes finds himself in the unfortunate position of having lost to both the current champion (twice) and number one contender Thiago Alves. Serra, however, split two fights against the champion and, should he dominate Hughes, could be a fight or two away from a rubber match, especially if his home state of New York grants MMA a Big Apple blessing soon.

The sport’s unforgiving nature has come down hard on these former champions. Their overall relevance may have diminished, but come fight time, one man will try and beat down the other. That’s so much sweeter when two combatants dislike each other.

Photo by Sherdog.com

Chris Wilson is one of
many fighters to have
an opponent change at UFC 98.
3. Injuries, Replacements & Rewards

UFC 98’s undercard closely resembles that of its predecessor. After losing his promotional debut to Denis Kang, Xavier Foupa-Pokam challenges Drew McFedries, instead of the injured James Irvin. Meanwhile, 170-pound bulldozer Brock Larson steps in to face Chris Wilson for an ailing Josh Koscheck. And Krzysztof Soszynski’s kimura victory over former World Extreme Cagefighting titleholder Brian Stann lands him across the cage from Andre Gusmao in a showdown between International Fight League veterans.

The shakeups can shoot Larson and Soszynski up their divisional ladders. “Professor X,” on the other hand, snags a fast turnover with a chance to turn it into something meaningful. The same holds true for amateur politician Chael Sonnen, who last saw action when Demian Maia sent his UFC career spiraling like the Republican Party. He takes on former IFL middleweight champion Dan Miller.

Even if these replacements falter, the UFC figures to reward their willingness to compete. A win would serve as a double down for each of them. Potential rewards are greater than the risks.

4. Put Up or Shut Up

Sean Sherk has favored slugfests in his last two bouts, and fireplug Frankie Edgar will be happy to oblige him. It’s a nice invitation for Sherk -- finish a tough fighter with a similar to, equal to or greater than boxing-wrestling combination, and a shot at gold could be in the works.

Sherk was the second person to defeat Tyson Griffin; Edgar was the first. It was a noteworthy debut for Edgar, and the New Jersey native has continued his rise, posting a 4-1 UFC record. His one loss, however, came to a larger wrestler in Gray Maynard. Edgar’s challenge seems more pressing: prove the 155-pound division is his proper weight class by staying competitive against a former champion, or find a home at 145 pounds in the WEC.

Meanwhile, Phillipe Nover hopes to get a grip on the slippery hype that dubbed him the next Anderson Silva/Georges St. Pierre. He has not competed since he lost to Efrain Escudero at “The Ultimate Fighter 8” Finale and will take on Kyle Bradley, a fighter still searching for his first UFC win.

Finally, George Roop and David Kaplan also made their names on season eight of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but they certainly seem to be closer to the chopping block than Nover. The lightweight division is a shark tank, and they will need to show their teeth in order to survive in an organization increasingly unforgiving to those spawned by the reality TV world.

5. From Concussed to the Cage

Yoshiyuki Yoshida and Brandon Wolff know the health hazards of their chosen profession all too well -- provided they can remember anything after their respective bouts with Koscheck and Ben Saunders in December.

Yoshida suffered one of the worst knockouts of 2008, so severe in fact that it prompted critics to evaluate the UFC’s safety standards and point out the irony that he was put down in an event meant to raise funds for traumatic brain injuries. On the same card, Wolff worried viewers, as well, when Saunders raised a watermelon-sized hematoma on his head with a series of knees.

“Zenko” needs a win in order to rekindle the hype he enjoyed after he choked War Machine silly in his debut. Wolff, on the other hand, wants to keep his spot in the UFC and escape the Octagon without a two-pound growth in tow.

Meanwhile, Patrick Barry’s first Octagon appearance at UFC 92 did not leave anyone concussed, but it left Dan Evensen writhing on the canvas after some classic K-1 leg kicks. Questions surround Barry’s ground prowess -- he’s only been training for a year -- and one-time King of the Cage heavyweight champion Tim Hague may try to test it.
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