Vitor Belfort is 9-2 in his last 11 appearances. | Photo: Gleidson Venga/Sherdog.com
When it comes to jaw-dropping knockouts, Vitor Belfort has the market cornered in 2013. His stoppages of Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold were as spectacular as they were violent, and more importantly, they launched “The Phenom” back into 185-pound title contention. Belfort has been described as “difficult” by Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White when it comes to the matchmaking process, however, and the former light heavyweight king lived up to his reputation by shooting down a proposed matchup against Tim Kennedy.
A showdown with Dan Henderson in the UFC Fight Night 32 headliner proved to be more palatable for the Blackzilians representative, although the bout will be contested at light heavyweight instead of middleweight. If anyone can withstand Belfort’s onslaught it is Henderson, who has yet to be stopped by strikes in 39 professional outings. As added incentive, Henderson, who will try to rebound from a pair of narrow split decision defeats to former light heavyweight champions Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida, already owns a win over Belfort in 2006.
In a fight where both men are known for their numbing knockout power, this one could end well inside the allotted 25-minute timeframe.
Here is a closer look at UFC Fight Night 32, with analysis and picks:
Sherdog Fantasy MMA: UFC Fight Night 32 Free Fan Pick’Em
Light HeavyweightsVitor Belfort (23-10, 12-6 UFC) vs. Dan Henderson (29-10, 6-4 UFC)
The Matchup: Belfort and Henderson first met seven years ago in Pride Fighting Championships, with the Team Quest founder capturing a unanimous decision triumph at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Belfort tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid after that fight, though he claimed he may have unwittingly received the substance from his doctor during injections while attempting to recover from a torn meniscus. Nonetheless, the Brazilian was fined $10,000 and suspended for nine months by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
Fast forward to the present day, and Belfort remains a controversial figure. His use of testosterone replacement therapy while fighting exclusively in Brazil of late has raised questions about his performance. Enter the 44-year-old Henderson, who also has received a therapeutic use exemption for TRT. The treatment and its benefits continue to provoke debate throughout the MMA community, and a headliner featuring two beneficiaries figures to bring the TRT discussion to the forefront once again.
No fighter has looked more explosive lately than Belfort, who scored devastating knockouts of top 10 middleweights Bisping and Rockhold in his last two outings. Making matters even more frightening for the rest of MMA world is that the 36-year-old Brazilian seems to be adding techniques to his repertoire: his finishes of both Bisping and Rockhold came as the result of high kicks.
In terms of career goals, the fight with Henderson does not make a lot of sense for Belfort. The Blackzilians representative has had his sights set on 185-pound gold for some time now; fighting an opponent whose last three UFC bouts have come at light heavyweight, no matter how big a name, would seem to only incrementally further that cause.
There is the matter of unfinished business, however. While Belfort has only lost to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones since his first showdown with Henderson, the Team Quest founder has dropped his last two bouts. Granted, there is no shame in losing narrow split verdicts to the likes of Machida and Evans, but TRT or not, it appears that age may finally be catching up to Henderson. While his powerful right hand is as dangerous as ever, he has difficulty tracking down quicker and more agile opponents. That becomes a problem when the two-time Greco-Roman Olympian seems to have become more one-dimensional with advancing age. Contrast that with Belfort, who is suddenly expanding his arsenal.
With that said, there are aspects of Belfort’s approach that are tailor-made for Henderson. Even in his mid-30s, Belfort relies primarily on overwhelming his opponents with speed, power and athleticism. His patented flurries are based far more on physical tools than technique; it is just that few have the durability and composure to survive.
Henderson has yet to be stopped by strikes in his 39-fight career, but he has been dropped and rocked on numerous occasions. Thanks to an amazing recovery rate, the Californian always stays in the fight. If he can survive the initial blitz, Henderson may very well find an opening to land his famous equalizer.
Belfort’s attacks are usually of the straight-line variety, utilizing little in the way of head movement or angles. Such an approach could leave him wide open for a counter right hand from Henderson. Of course, the difference in speed and explosion between the two men is not to be ignored. Belfort could close the distance and begin bombing away before his foe even has a chance to unload.
Belfort needs very little space to generate power, but he expends a great deal of energy going in for the kill. If Henderson can maintain his senses, there is a chance he will eventually be able to test his luck against a fatigued opponent. Unfortunately, Henderson also tends to fade over the course of a fight, and while his recovery ability is well-documented, Belfort’s skill in following up on a dazed adversary with accurate, powerful strikes is unrivaled and can challenge even the recuperative powers of “Hendo.”
The Pick: Belfort appears to faster, stronger and more diverse than ever. Henderson, while tough, savvy and dangerous, is slowing down. Belfort wins by KO or TKO within three rounds.
Seven of Daniel Sarafian’s eight wins have come by submission. | Photo: G. Venga/Sherdog.com
MiddleweightsCezar Ferreira (6-2, 2-0 UFC) vs. Daniel Sarafian (8-3, 1-1 UFC)
The Matchup: It took some time, but Ferreira and Sarafian -- who were originally expected to meet in “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” Season 1 final -- will finally face one another in their home country.
Ferreira defeated Sergio Moraes via unanimous decision at UFC 147 to become the reality show’s middleweight winner. He followed that up with a 47-second submission triumph over Thiago Santos at UFC 163 in August. A longtime pupil of UFC middleweight contender Vitor Belfort, “Mutante” is a powerfully built southpaw with thunder in his hands and aggression to match.
Sarafian, meanwhile, was unable to compete in “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 1” final due to injury. He lost a hard-fought split decision to C.B. Dollaway in his promotional debut but put forth a good showing in the process. The Sao Paulo native dropped Dollaway with power punches in the opening round and was later able to sweep and transition to threaten for a choke on the mat against the former NCAA All-American wrestler. However, Sarafian faded down the stretch, and Dollaway was able to take control with a pair of third-round takedowns. The Brazilian received a less daunting foe in his sophomore effort, and he capitalized by submitting Octagon newcomer Eddie Mendez with an arm-triangle choke inside of a round at UFC 163. Sarafian has decent power in his hands and is also capable of attacking with various kicks, but the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt would be better served taking his opponent to the floor. Sarafian is adept at working to advance position to secure submissions from the top; on his back, he is capable of sweeping and reversing.
The 6-foot-1 Ferreira has a five-and-half-inch reach advantage and will be the more powerful fighter overall. His aggression can be used against him if Sarafian is able to land a counter, but prolonged exchanges favor “Mutante.”
The Pick: Ferreira has a good finishing instinct when he sees his opponent is hurt. He will use his superior size and strength to dictate the location of the fight, winning via TKO or submission in round two.
Rafael Cavalcante has one win since capturing Strikeforce gold in August 2010. | Photo: G. Venga/Sherdog.com
Light HeavyweightsRafael Cavalcante (11-4, 0-1 UFC) vs. Igor Pokrajac (25-10, 4-5 UFC)
The Matchup: Cavalacante’s faulty gas tank took center stage at UFC on Fuel TV 10, where he quickly faded after a furious initial salvo against Thiago Silva and lost via TKO in the opening frame. For an all-too brief period, “Feijao” was a sight to behold, landing combinations, body shots and even a spinning back kick against his Brazilian rival. When the finish did not arrive, Cavalacante’s pace slowed significantly and Silva capitalized with an uppercut and follow-up strikes to get the win. The former Strikeforce champion is a dangerous finisher with a well-rounded skill set, but it will be hard for him to make progress in the light heavyweight division until his cardio issues are resolved.
Pokrajac enters the bout winless in his last three outings, having been neutralized in the clinch in recent bouts against Joey Beltran and Ryan Jimmo. His slump could be worse were it not for some questionable judging that gave him a unanimous verdict over Fabio Maldonado in May 2012; he was out-landed by 62 significant strikes in a UFC on Fuel TV 3 victory over the former pro boxer.
Pokrajac’s propensity for slugfests in the clinch could be a recipe for disaster. Calvacante prefers to press the action, and his knees in close quarters are especially damaging. Pokrajac will move forward regardless of the risk, however. This will lead to the Croat eating punches, knees and kicks from yet another opponent who holds the edge in speed and athleticism. Additionally, Cavalcante has stout takedown defense, meaning Pokrajac could waste energy looking to get the fight to the ground. Even if he does get the Brazilian down, Pokrajac is not adept at maintaining position.
Pokrajac’s best chance is to hope he survives his opponent’s barrage and then Cavalcante gasses, allowing him a chance to land some heavy shots.
The Pick: The heart and will are there for Pokrajac, but the skill is not. Cavalcante has enough stamina to bring this to a close via KO or TKO late in round one.
Brandon Thatch has finished his last nine opponents inside one round. | Photo: Isaac Hinds/Sherdog.com.com
WelterweightsPaulo Thiago (15-5, 5-5 UFC) vs. Brandon Thatch (10-1, 1-0 UFC)
The Matchup: As recently as a few years ago, Thiago was recognized as one of the world’s 10 best welterweights. With losses in four of his last six bouts, the Brazilian has fallen on hard times. He rebounded somewhat in May, when he captured a hard-fought unanimous verdict over Michel Richard Cunha dos Prazeres at UFC on FX 8. Even then, Thiago had his struggles, as Prazeres had success landing kicks at all levels early in the bout and battled his veteran foe to a near-stalemate in the final frame. Coming off resounding losses to Dong Hyun Kim and Siyar Bahadurzada, a win in any fashion was welcome for Thiago. However, his difficulty combating Prazeres’ kicks could prove problematic against Thatch.
Anchored at Elevation Fight Team in Colorado, the 6-foot-2 Thatch has emerged as a prospect to watch in recent years. The muay Thai specialist has finished all of his victories inside of a round, with only two foes lasting longer than two minutes. That trend did not change in Thatch’s Octagon debut -- an 83-second TKO of Justin Edwards at UFC Fight Night 27. Additionally, Thatch received positive accolades from Georges St. Pierre after training with the reigning welterweight king at Tristar Gym prior to his bout with Nick Diaz in March.
All of this seems to suggest that Thatch is on his way up, while Thiago is on his way out. However, Thiago is the most seasoned opponent Thatch has faced, as the Constrictor Team representative has squared off with the likes of Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Martin Kampmann and Diego Sanchez during his UFC tenure.
While Thiago is more of a counterstriker, Thatch is all about overwhelming his foes. He can switch stances, land a variety of flashy kicks and is especially brutal with knees in the clinch. Once he senses a finish is near, Thatch is relentless in attacking with knees, punches and kicks.
Since all of Thatch’s triumphs have been abbreviated affairs, it will be interesting to see how he responds if Thiago is able to extend the fight. The Brazilian is not a world-beater on the feet, but he is able to remain composed in tight spots. On the ground, Thiago has an active submission game and is usually adept at creating scrambles and reversing into advantageous positions. Thus far, Thatch’s lanky frame has allowed him to control foes on the mat; he also transitions well when pursuing submissions.
The Pick: Thatch is clearly the better striker, and he is well-rounded enough to survive on the floor. Thatch wins by decision.
Santiago Ponzinibbio will enter the cage on a seven-fight winning streak. | Photo: Colin Foster/Sherdog.com
WelterweightsRyan LaFlare (8-0, 1-0 UFC) vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio (18-1, 0-0 UFC)
The Matchup: A native of La Plata, Argentina, Ponzinibbio was one of the most highly regarded cast members on Season 2 of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” until a broken hand suffered in a semifinal decision victory over eventual tournament winner Leonardo Santos derailed his run.
During his stint on the reality show, Ponzinibbio earned $25,000 for the season’s best knockout and another $25,000 for best fight. “El Rasta” enters the Octagon with solid credentials: 18 victories in 19 professional appearances, with 16 of those triumphs coming by way of knockout, technical knockout or submission. His lone defeat came at the hands of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 1” competitor Leonardo Mafra Texeira. Ten of his finishes have come inside of a round.
LaFlare, meanwhile, remained unbeaten as a professional with a three-round verdict over Ben Alloway in his promotional debut at UFC on Fuel TV 9. The former Ring of Combat welterweight champion went the distance for the first time in his career, as he relied on a steady diet of takedowns and top control to best his opponent. In addition to his wrestling, LaFlare defended a number of Alloway submission attempts on the mat while working diligently to pass guard.
Ponzinibbio favors an aggressive approach on the feet. He will press forward with violent power strikes, including his left hook and overhand right. LaFlare must work to avoid getting trapped with his back to the cage, because that is where the Argentine can unload a barrage. “La Rasta” also works kicks to the legs effectively, and his head kick has knockout potential.
The Team Tavares product tends to get a little wild with his strikes, a habit on which LaFlare can capitalize with quick level changes. On the mat, LaFlare must advance position with caution against a foe with a solid submission game.
The Pick: Ponzinibbio was arguably the uncrowned champion of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2,” and he will pick up where he left off against LaFlare, winning via TKO in round two.
Jeremy Stephens has lost three out of four. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
FeatherweightsRony Mariano Bezerra (13-3, 3-0 UFC) vs. Jeremy Stephens (21-9, 8-8 UFC)
The Matchup: These have not been the easiest of times for Stephens. In the midst of the first three-fight losing streak of his career, “Lil Heathen” was jailed prior to a scheduled UFC on FX 5 appearance due to a felony charge in his native Iowa. One or the other is often enough to derail a career. Dealing with both a slump and legal issues at the same time is even more difficult.
Things are looking up for Stephens, however. The Victory MMA representative ended his rough stretch in the Octagon at UFC 160, taking a blood-soaked unanimous verdict over Estevan Payan in his first featherweight outing with the promotion. In July, the felony charges against Stephens were dropped in favor of a plea bargain. In short, the 27-year-old knockout artist should be rejuvenated and refocused as he continues his MMA career.
Thus far, Bezerra has made a name for himself in the UFC by dispatching cast members from assorted seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter.” While “Jason” has been mostly impressive in victories over Godofredo Castro, Sam Sicilia and Mike Wilkinson, there is a large gap between besting a reality show leftover and someone as experienced as Stephens. Though his win-loss record is a mixed bag, Stephens has faced a plethora of top-notch competition, including Anthony Pettis, Melvin Guillard, Donald Cerrone, Sam Stout, Rafael dos Anjos and Cole Miller, to name a few.
Although it seems as though Stephens has been around forever, Bezerra is two years older. At this point, the Brazilian also appears to have the higher ceiling. With 14 knockouts or technical knockouts among his 21 pro triumphs, Stephens’ finishing power is well-known. It is also no secret that his striking arsenal is not particularly diverse. Other than the occasional leg kick and left hook, the Victory MMA representative spends most of his time swinging for the fences.
While Bezerra cannot quite match his opponent’s knockout track record, he is a noted finisher himself -- all but one of his victories has come inside the distance. He has good power in his hands, especially in his counter right and lead left hook, and his muay Thai skills allow him to attack with effective knees in the clinch.
If Stephens elects to try and bully Bezerra through takedowns and heavy ground-and-pound, the Brazilian has shown good composure on the mat. He is comfortable working from guard and can counter Stephens’ aggression by framing a triangle choke, one of his favorite submissions.
The Pick: There is always a chance that Stephens connects with a lethal right hand, but those instances have become less frequent over the years. A more versatile Bezerra wins via decision.
Thiago Tavares recently finished serving a nine-month suspension. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
LightweightsThiago Tavares (17-5-1, 7-5-1 UFC) vs. Justin Salas (11-4, 2-1 UFC): Tavares returns from a nine-month suspension that resulted from a positive steroid test following a loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC on FX 7. In the past, the Brazilian has relied on conditioning and a skilled ground game, but his standup is improving. Salas’ success will depend on his ability to mix takedowns with punching and kicking combinations. Tavares wins by decision.
FeatherweightsGodofredo Castro (9-2, 1-2, UFC) vs. Sam Sicilia (11-3, 1-2 UFC): Sicilia was briefly deleted from UFC.com following a loss to Maximo Blanco at “The Ultimate Fighter 17” Finale, prompting speculation that the Season 15 competitor had been released from the promotion. Those rumors were quickly put to rest, but it cannot be a good sign that Sicilia was the source of such confusion to begin with. Like Sicilia, Castro has lost two of three in the Octagon, and he could very well be on the chopping block with another defeat. Castro wins by decision or submission.
MiddleweightsOmari Akmedov (11-0, 0-0 UFC) vs. Thiago de Oliveira Perpetuo (9-1-1, 1-0 UFC): Like many Russians, Akmedov has a background in combat sambo. He also has an unblemished MMA record, with nine finishes via knockout, technical knockout or submission. Whether that translates into big-show success in hostile territory remains to be seen. Perpetuo, meanwhile, returns from an extended layoff after suffering a knee injury training to face Michael Kuiper in January. Akmedov has plenty of power in his hands and decent submission savvy, but he is not especially technical on the feet. Perpetuo is not the type to back down from a slugfest. Perpetuo takes this by TKO or submission in round three.
LightweightsDaron Cruickshank (13-3, 3-1 UFC) vs. Adriano Martins (24-6, 0-0 UFC): A veteran of “The Ultimate Fighter 15,” Cruickshank been able to blend flashy striking -- especially his kicks -- with competent wrestling to win three of four bouts in the Octagon. In his most recent victory, “The Detroit Superstar” displayed good conditioning and countered effectively to outpoint the well-traveled Yves Edwards at UFC on Fox 8. Martins, a former Jungle Fight champion, has not competed since beating Jorge Gurgel under the Strikeforce banner in January. Cruickshank keeps the fight at a safe range and captures a decision.
FlyweightsJose Maria Tome (33-4, 0-1 UFC) vs. Dustin Ortiz (11-2, 0-0 UFC): Tome faced a rough initiation in his UFC debut, falling to the heavy-handed John Lineker via second-round TKO in August. Even in defeat, “No Chance” showcased some explosive offense when he staggered Lineker with a spinning back kick in the first round and swarmed in pursuit of a finish that never came. Still, Tome’s ability to land unorthodox strikes makes him an interesting talent to watch. Anchored at Roufusport, Ortiz has already fought decent competition while competing for Strikeforce, Tachi Palace Fights and King of the Cage. Ortiz is capable of violent bursts of offense himself, making this an entertaining way to begin the card. Tome earns a decision.
TRACKING TRISTEN 2013Overall Record: 225-136
Last Event (UFC Fight Night 31): 10-3
Best Event (Strikeforce “Marquardt vs. Saffiedine): 9-2
Worst Event (UFC 156/UFC on Fuel TV 8/UFC Fight Night 28): 5-6