UFC 95 predictions, preview and analysis

UFC 95 "Sanchez vs. Stevenson" is set to go down this Saturday, February 21 from the O2 Arena in London, England, on SpikeTV starting at 9 p.m. ET.

Remember: MMAmania.com will provide LIVE updates with blow-by-blow, round-by-round commentary of the main card action on fight night, which is slated to air at 9 p.m. ET.

To get us pumped for the festivities, MMAmania.com Editor and Senior Writer Jesse Holland (that’s me) will be breaking down the main event matches and revealing each fighter’s keys to victory.

If you’re looking for an unbiased and objective examination of each contest, then I’m happy to report you will be extremely disappointed.

Why else do you think I would depose the former contributors and take this act solo like the selfish blowhard you already know me to be?

But enough about me … at least for the time being.

Let’s get cracking:

Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez (19-2) vs. Joe "Daddy" Stevenson (29-9)

The UFC 95 main event might not have the star power that most people expect from a major UFC event, but that doesn't make the Sanchez vs. Stevenson bout any less compelling. Sanchez was knocking on the door of a potential 170-pound title shot with a win over Thiago Alves at UFC 90: "Silva vs. Cote" back in October before making the surprise move to lightweight. It wasn’t the first time, either. Before back-to-back losses to Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch in 2007 — the only two blemishes on his professional mixed martial arts record — the inaugural The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) welterweight champion was on the cusp of a title shot. Unfortunately, it never came. "Nightmare" rebounded with impressive consecutive wins and had "The Pitbull" on his radar before a rib injury forced him off the card at the last minute. It also more than likely spelled the end of his career — at least for the time being — in the 170-pound category. It’s not going to get any easier for Sanchez 15 pounds lighter. And his new career at 155 starts against one of the top contenders in the weight class. Stevenson — who was the TUF 2 welterweight winner — is in a rare slump, losing two of his last three bouts. However, those two losses have come to current division champion, BJ Penn, in a fight for the vacant title and Kenny Florian to determine the next championship contender. That’s some pretty stiff competition. The newly-minted Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt will begin his climb back to the top at UFC 95 and a win over a big name and top talent like Sanchez in the featured fight of the night will go a long way toward getting him where he wants to be sooner rather than later. In fact, the same goes for both fighters. Stevenson has more to lose in defeat than Sanchez does, who could probably chalk up a narrow defeat to the first-time weight cut. Still, questions remain about Stevenson's ability to go deep into a fight and with the size difference between him and Sanchez, don't be surprised to see his conditioning fail him by the end of the second and all of the third. Remember that Diego sets a nonstop, frenetic pace and while Joe may be able to keep him at bay with his boxing early on, it's just a matter of time before he succumbs to the repeated onslaught.

Keys to victory:

Sanchez: Joe has a good chin and a solid ground game, and I don't think your striking is the stuff of legend despite how far it's improved. Do what you do best: Drag him into deep water and smash him. And promise you'll do that celestial benchpress before they announce your name. I love that.

Stevenson: The easiest way to pull this off is to convince Sanchez he can stand and bang. Remember his debacle against Josh Koscheck at UFC 69? Tell him it's his destiny to win on the feet and then stick and move.

Prediction: Sanchez by unanimous decision

Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy (20–6) vs. Rory Markham (16-4)

After a bitter fallout with brothers Matt and Jeff, Dan Hardy lived up to his billing as the top British 170-pound prospect in his Octagon debut with a hard-fought split decision win over the crafty Akihiro Gono at UFC 89: "Bisping vs. Leben" last October. With the win, "The Outlaw" kept his red hot win streak intact, taking nine of his last 10 fights. And the lone loss during that span was because of a disqualification. It won’t get any easier, however, for the former Cage Warriors welterweight champion … he has essentially been thrown into the deep end in a very deep division right off the bat. Markham is a super tough competitor who has also been on a tear of his own of late. The former International Fight League (IFL) welterweight standout continued that success within the eight-sided cage, kicking off his UFC career with a bang … literally. He nearly decapitated Brodie Farber at UFC Fight Night 14 back in July, earning "Knockout of the Night" honors for the scary finish. It has to rank among the best knockouts of the 2008 fight campaign. But that’s Markham’s MO — the Miletich-trained fighter has never gone the distance in 20 professional fights — win or lose — since his pro debut back in 2003. He comes to scrap and leaves it all on the table, which is why I think he's going down in this one. Markham already said he likes to take a few before hulking up and smashing - unfortunately you can't take a few from the Outlaw without kissing canvas. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

Keys to victory:

Hardy: You're the more complete fighter, so don't abandon your skill set and get into a brawl where anything can happen. Beware of the head kick, I hear that Brody Farber still can't chew solid foods.

Markham: Since you've pretty much already told the world what you plan on doing, why not surprise us all and start with a double leg takedown? You've got three triangles to your credit so if you get dropped, wait for him like you're his date on the beach after the prom.

Prediction: Hardy by TKO

Nate "The Great" Marquardt (27-8-2) vs. Wilson Gouveia (12-5)

I wonder how it must feel to compete in a division where the ultimate goal is to try and not get beheaded against Anderson Silva. Marquardt is fresh of a brutal first round domination of Martin Kampmann at UFC 88: "Breakthrough" back in September. Prior to the win, the former King of Pancrase suffered a minor setback in his bid to earn a title rematch against the UFC Middleweight Champ when he dropped a bizarre split decision to Thales Leites at UFC 85: "Bedlam" back in June where he was deducted two points for fouls. It was a competitive fight that he clearly could have won if the infractions — one of which was questionable — were not enforced. He’s now back in the win column and will look to make it two in a row against the surging American Top Team (ATT) standout. Gouveia smashed Jason MacDonald with vicious elbows at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 8 Finale earlier this month to score an impressive first round technical knockout. Unfortunately, the win was overshadowed by the former light heavyweight’s inability to make the 185-pound division limit, coming in at an alarming four pounds over. This will mark just the third fight for Gouveia at middleweight. He notched a submission win (armbar) over late replacement Ryan Jensen at UFC Fight Night 15 in his divisional debut back in September. Despite being relatively new to the division, however, he could find himself right in the title hunt with a win over a guy like Marquardt. True, anything can happen, but the experience of Marquardt and his tenure at middleweight are going to be far too much for the still-adjusting Gouveia. I have Nate sailing to a convincing decision.

Keys to victory:

Marquardt: Gouveia has solid jits but abandons it in favor of the stand-up. That's a good thing. Muscle him around the cage and give him a Kampmann-esque beatdown.

Gouveia: Disrupt his gameplan with fierce low kicks and stay out of the pocket. If that doesn't work, have the rest of ATT come to the cage in a dress. Why should Gono have all the fun?

Prediction: Marquardt by unanimous decision

Demian Maia (9-0) vs. Chael Sonnen (21-9-1)

I'm surprised this bout isn't the main event, since according to Sonnen both fighters are better than Anderson Silva. Maia recently finished Nate Quarry via first round submission (rear naked choke) in less than three minutes at UFC 91: "Couture vs. Lesnar" last month. It was his fourth win inside the Octagon and his fourth by way of submission. In addition to Quarry, Maia — a 2007 Abu Dhabi tournament winner — has submission wins over Ryan Jensen, Ed Herman and Jason MacDonald since his debut with the promotion at UFC 77: "Hostile Territory" back in October 2007. It’s safe to say that a win over the last man who should have held the WEC 185-pound belt would be perhaps the biggest feather in his cap to date and set him up as the next man to face division kingpin, Anderson Silva. Sonnen recently handed a dazed and confused Paulo Filho — who was widely regarded as the second-best middleweight fighter in the world before encountering major personal issues — his first career loss at WEC 37 on November 5. He avenged a previous controversial defeat to the Brazilian in a fight that Sonnen clearly dominated through the first round. However, in the second Filho sunk in a tight armbar that forced Sonnen to verbally tap, which he vehemently denied doing (it was just a shriek), with just five seconds remaining on the clock. That saga now appears to be behind him, allowing Sonnen to focus on once again attempting to build a successful UFC career. The Team Quest fighter is even in UFC competition (1-1), losing to Jeremy Horn via submission (armbar) at UFC 60: "Hughes vs. Gracie" back in 2006 and outpointing Trevor Prangley on all three judges scorecards at Ultimate Fight Night 4 that same year. More than half of his career losses have come via submission, which makes it very hard for me to see him defeating a super slick ground tactician like Maia. Sonnen might look good in the opening minute, but this one isn't getting out of the first.

Keys to victory:

Maia: What is there to say? You're undefeated and so good at submitting people I'm beginning to wonder if your matches are scripted.

Sonnen: You're certainly not a scrub, but if you were submitted by "Gumby," then what chance do you have against Maia?.

Prediction: Maia by submission

Josh Koscheck (12-3) vs. Paulo Thiago (7-0)

Josh Koscheck likes to fight as often as possible. While I give him credit for striking while the iron is hot, it can be a dangerous venture, especially when you face the unknown. "Kos" most recently annihilated the very dangerous Japanese fighter, Yoshiyuki Yoshida, at UFC Fight Night 16: "Fight for the Troops" with a scary-looking two-punch knockout on December 10. He defeated "Zenko" just six weeks after losing to number one division contender Thiago Alves at UFC 90 via unanimous decision back on October 25. He took the fight against the bruising Brazilian on less than 14 days notice to replace an injured Diego Sanchez. It didn’t go his way, but it’s hard to hold it against him. The former contestant on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) has won three of his last four fights — he knocked off Dustin Hazelett and Chris Lytle before the Alves loss — and appears that he is willing to do whatever it takes — and fight as often as possible — to get back in the 170-pound title chase. But he’ll have to do it against an opponent who is not well-known in the United States. Thiago has competed primarily in his native Brazil, posting a four-fight win streak for the Jungle Fight promotion last year. He most recently stopped Luis Dutra Jr. via technical knockout (strikes) in round one of their bout in September 2008. He’ll be thrown right into the deep end against Koscheck. It also appears to be a fight for Koscheck without much upside … unless of course he scores another sensational knockout on cable television in front of millions watching across the nation at home. Unfortunately I have a feeling that it's not going to be that easy.

Keys to victory:

Koscheck: Against the unknown I would suggest sticking with your bread and butter. Superior wrestling and stingy defense. Maintain a pace that will make him wish he was back in Brazil on the beach with Vinny Magalhaes.

Thiago: Since Kos chooses not to watch any tape or do any homework, you can pretty much try anything and make it look intentional. You know you're getting wrestled, so use it to prove how good you are on the ground.

Prediction: Koscheck by unanimous decision

That’s a wrap, folks.

Remember to come check us out after the show for all the latest results, recaps and our coverage of UFC 95 "Sanchez vs. Stevenson."

What do you think? Now it’s your turn … let us have it in the comments section and share your thoughts and picks for Saturday’s event.

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