Five Things to Watch for at UFC 97

Apr 18, 2009
The UFC returns to the Bell Centre in Montreal on Saturday for UFC 97, eh? Weak attempts at adopting Canadian vernacular aside, the promotional big dog travels heads North for the first time since national hero Georges St. Pierre trashed Matt Serra at UFC 83 last April. Here are five points to watch come fight night -- one for every finger in the fist.

Anderson Silva's Big Gamble

Fans are begrudgingly forgiving at best and unapologetically forgetful at worst. So should Anderson Silva lose to Thales Leites in the main event, his aura as the world’s best will take a major hit -- one Silva can’t afford given his softness as a top draw despite a nearly unparalleled (strike nearly from the record if he wins) UFC win streak.

Add a looming retirement and a performance against Patrick Cote at UFC 90 last October that deviated from his usual murderous formula, Silva taking on Leites -- who seems to be battling Travis Lutter and James Irvin for his least compelling opponent -- is a lukewarm proposition. Anytime Silva steps in a cage it’s a must see, but Leites does little to balance his side of the equation at the moment.

Lutter subverted Leites when, as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu mainstay, he was submitted by Silva. Even James Irvin had a weight-class differential obfuscating the fact that he was spoils for a conqueror. Leites’ controversial win over Nate Marquardt and submitting Drew McFedries, a slugger whose three UFC defeats were all submissions, in his last two outings has him limping into the fight from a popularity standpoint. His last fight wasn’t even slated for the main card.

While Leites’ jiu-jitsu credentials certainly endow him with the capability to topple the world’s top middleweight, Silva’s expected to finish the fight in decisive, dramatic fashion to answer any questions that arose after the Cote fight. Anything less would fuel the fickle expectations unfortunately attached to being one of the best in the world.

Mining 205 Pounds

In the featured fight of the night, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua looks to victimize Chuck Liddell. Despite his inability to storm the UFC after a Pride run that inspired armies, Rua remains the young gun in this bout. Liddell losing three of his last four bouts convincingly in the past two years has him looking like a 39-year-old rather than “The Iceman.” If Rua wins, he recaptures the energy that he never brought in the Octagon. If Liddell wins, he reminds fans he’s still more useful as a fighter than trivia question. This fight is finding gold at the top.

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Cane vs. Cantwell is
a quality matchup.
There’s plenty of other digging going on, too, when the main card showcases young light heavyweights Luis Arthur Cane versus Steve Cantwell and Brian Stann taking on Krzysztof Soszynski. None of these fighters have established themselves like Rua and Liddell, but Saturday night may provide glimpses of where they’re headed.

Cane has the most to gain after dispatching fast-rising-faster-fading Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, and pleased fans with particularly brutal performances in his last two UFC bouts. However, should WEC holdover Cantwell defeat “Banha,” he’d surpass prospect status and begin to enter contender talks. Stann needs a major UFC debut after being stripped of his WEC luster at the hands of Steve Cantwell and to avoid becoming another young talent who can’t make it in the majors. In his way is Soszynski, who was primed for the UFC regardless of “The Ultimate Fighter” and will likely enjoy the reality show bump among the fans. “The Polish Experiment” needs the ‘W’ for his Canadian brethren and to capitalize on his popularity while its still around. The same is true for his TUF brothers Eliot Marshall and Vinny Magalhaes, when they tangle on the unaired portion of the event.

Heavyweight Hits

The last fight on the main card is between two big men looking to shine in a Shane Carwin-Cain Velasquez crazy division. Cheick Kongo and Antoni Hardonk entered the UFC at UFC 61 and 65 respectively, where standout knockouts were followed with blundering showings on the mat. Both are hoping to build win streaks and lay claim to “the most feared striker at heavyweight” title or, at least, marked improvement on the ground. Kongo’s visibility and progress seems to be greater, but Hardonk’s cutting leg kicks can be the formula for getting noticed in a contender-hungry division.

Middleweights on the Rebound

Canadians Jason MacDonald, Denis Kang, and David Loiseau will enter the Octagon trusting victory can please their fans and keep them off the UFC’s chopping block. MacDonald’s exciting tenure has been marred by an inability to win when he’s all-in. Opponent Nate Quarry is ready to keep it that way, if only to erase a quick submission loss to Demian Maia that prevented him from demonstrating anything offensively.

Kang’s inconsistency may not be tolerated for long thanks to the pretty pennies he earns, so a repeat performance of his baffling guillotine choke loss to Alan Belcher in his UFC debut won’t be tolerated against UFC newcomer Xavier Fouka-Pokam, who has the standup and international experience to challenge the well-rounded American Top Team fighter.

Loiseau is re-entering the UFC after mostly underwhelming fans since his title loss to then-champion Rich Franklin. Given the talent he’s shown and the suspicion he’s either hoarding it or lost it, “The Crow” is required to deliver an inspiring performance against Ed Herman, a fighter also flailing at 185 pounds.

Fouka-Pokam doesn’t have the fallback of being an “Ultimate Fighter” alumnus or UFC veteran like Quarry and Herman, so a winning performance from him seems more pressing. Conversely, Quarry and Herman can’t fall to their Canadian opponents despite home field disadvantage if they want job security or respect in the contender line that seems miles away from Anderson Silva.

Grant(ed) Success?

T.J. Grant, Canada’s top prospect at 170 pounds, makes his long-awaited debut in the Octagon. Ryo Chonan is the welcoming party and he intends to crash. Home field advantage is not a courtesy extended to many, if any hot UFC prospects, so Grant would be wise to astonish and gain momentum as the UFC searches for maple leaf stars. The UFC’s other notable 170-pounder is champion Georges St. Pierre. Grant doesn’t train with “Rush” like another UFC Canadian welterweight Jonathan Goulet, thus a Grant win could be the first in a long, best-case-scenario journey that culminates in a Canadian versus Canadian title bout, drawing megabucks.

Canadians Mark Bocek and Sam Stout round out the card against David Bielkheden and Matt Wiman. The four UFC veteran lightweights are wishing for wins as well, though their performances will have to be true standouts to graduate out of the shadows of the main attractions.
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