UFC 96 predictions, preview and analysis

UFC 96: "Jackson vs. Jardine" is set to go down this Saturday, March 7 from The Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, live on pay-per-view (PPV) starting at 10p.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 10 p.m. ET.

To get us pumped for the festivities, MMAmania.com Editor and Senior Writer Jesse Holland (that’s me) will break down the main event matches and reveal 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:

Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (29-7) vs. Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine (14-4-1)

The UFC 96 card is topped with a compelling main event -- though you wouldn't know it from the recent grumblings of casual MMA fans. I suppose most of us were expecting "Rampage" to get a crack at current 205-pound kingpin Rashad Evans after his big knockout win over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 92: "The Ultimate 2008″ last December; however, a deal could not be struck between both parties for the big money match. Instead he'll face the "Dean of Mean" -- who's done his share to be atop the light heavyweight ladder, putting together a solid record of (6-3) during his time in the Octagon. His resume is highlighted with wins over some of the top names in the sport such as Forrest Griffin, Chuck Liddell, Brandon Vera and others. Those victories are unfortunately overshadowed by the site of Jardine going limp at the hands of Houston Alexander at UFC 71 and Wanderlei Silva at UFC 84. While Jardine has shown he can get dropped on the inside in a wild melee, he's also proven that he can inflict heavy damage with his legs like he did to neutralize "The Iceman" at UFC 76 and TKO Kerry Schall at the TUF 2 Finale. I don't think Jardine changes much from fight to fight nor do I think he needs to. He is a complete fighter who sometimes runs the ship aground when he gets lured into a slugfest. The question for me is how much Rampage has changed -- if at all. His striking looked clean and crisp against Wanderlei Silva in December, but was the loss to ex-champ Forrest Griffin a learning experience? True, it was his only defeat since 2005 and there wasn't a whole lot that needed improving, but the site of him limping and spending the entire second round getting beaten up at UFC 86 did raise a few red flags. Those mistakes have to be corrected for this fight because it's only three rounds and there's very little margin for error against a bruiser like Jardine. If Jackson can take the leg kicks out of the equation, he should cruise to a unanimous decision win.

Keys to victory:

Jackson: While the leg kicks are of primary importance, don't forget he also dropped Liddell with a punch and delivered Griffin to the corner of Cries and Runs. Keep the distance and think of all those cold days he made you spend in the UK away from your kids.

Jardine: Since the only person rooting for you outside of the Greg Jackson camp is Lyoto Machida, take a page out of his playbook and frustrate the former champ. Backpedal, let him come to you and then blast him with leg kicks. Repeat ad nauseam.

Prediction: Jackson by unanimous decision

Shane Carwin (10-0) vs. Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga (10-3)

When Brock Lesnar faced Frank Mir in his UFC debut, I said "Don't believe the hype." Well I'm prepared to bite from Public Enemy once again and say don't believe the hype - it's a sequel. Shane Carwin has descended upon the heavyweight division from his throne atop of Mount Hype to face the Brazilian Yeti known as Gabriel Gonzaga. Now before the defenders of the faith rush down to the comments section and start feverishly typing about my hatred for Shane-O, let's be clear -- this guy's got the goods. Carwin is a three-time All-American in wrestling and a two-time All-American in football out of Western State College and has not made it into the second round of any (10) of his professional mixed martial arts fights. In fact, Carwin fights have AVERAGED just one minute each. He's coming off a 91-second destruction of the previously unbeaten Neil Wain at UFC 89 back in October and perhaps this is my biggest concern. There are too many unknowns for Carwin because he's never been tested. I'm sure he has great gym cardio, but what happens if he goes past the second round? How will he react if he gets cut above the eye and is covered in blood with a giant hairball straddling him while raining down punches? Carwin can have all the hype and praise in the world, but in my opinion he's got to get past Gonzaga first -- and do it convincingly. How can a guy that doesn't train full time because of his career working at the Burns Nuclear Power Plant just walk into the cage with "Napao" and make magic happen? MMA experts who are secretly on Carwin's payroll like Larry Pepe will tell you that Gonzaga was handled by Couture and Werdum, but let's not try to compare Carwin -- whose career highlight is a KO win over Christian Wellisch -- with two of the world's top ten heavyweights. As for Gonzaga? He's big, mean and nasty -- and he's not afraid of pulling the overhead brake on anyone's hype train (See Filipovic, Mirko). Sprinkle some jiu-jitsu black belt on top of that and you have Carwin served up on a platter. So let it be written, so let it be dumb.

Keys to victory:

Carwin: Wrestling may get you top position, but is that a place you really want to be against a BJJ black belt? Keep it standing and fight intelligently. Forget about the KO and work the clinch. Beware of the head kick.

Gonzaga: He's stronger than anyone you've ever fought and hits like a sledgehammer, but he's also known as the Green Giant by insiders. Exploit his inexperience with a offense that includes strikes and jits to keep him off balance and guessing. Then smash him and make Lesnar worry about what happens if he gets past Frank Mir.

Prediction: Gonzaga by TKO

Pete "Drago" Sell (8-4) vs. Matt "The Immortal" Brown (8-7)

I've been hearing a lot of moaning and groaning about this fight making the main card and if you're one of the haters, kindly excuse yourself from the room and go slam an arsenic smoothie. Every card should have a match-up like this with two guys that aren't there to do anything but batter their opponent. Sell — the protégé of former welterweight champion Matt Serra — made his 170-pound debut against Josh Burkman at UFC 90: "Silva vs. Cote" in October 2008, defeating "The Peoples Warrior" via unanimous decision in an exciting back-and-forth match. Opposing him is Matt Brown, who stepped up on short notice to replace an injured Matt Riddle at UFC 91: "Couture vs. Lesnar" in November 2008 and scored an impressive second round submission win over Ryan Thomas via armbar. I like the new-look "Drago," he boasts a nice size and power advantage over most of his opponents in the 170-pound division -- including Brown and packs a decent punch. I do expect "The Immortal" to be game throughout, his grit and determination have been complimented by a great deal of post-TUF improvement in his fight against "Stun Gun" Kim at UFC 88 and even more so against Thomas. I just don't think his intensity and stubbornness will be enough to overcome the more complete Sell, and I have questions about Brown's gas tank. Don't be surprised to see this come down to a split-decision -- and possibly the fight of the night.

Keys to victory:

Sell: You've never finished an opponent by KO or TKO, so don't try to do it here. Work some of that Serra jiu-jitsu to keep position and pepper him with punches from different angles. Make him work and he'll gas by the third.

Brown: Sell can be finished if you land it clean. Repeated viewings of his Nate Quarry and Scott Smith fights are recommended. Do a Jack Ryan and keep an eye out for the subs.

Prediction: Sell by split-decision

Matt "The Hammer" Hamill (5-2) vs. Mark "The Philippine Wrecking Machine" Munoz (5-0)

This is going to be an interesting fight because for the first time in his career, Matt Hamill may not have the advantage in wrestling. "The Hammer" has seven professional fights to his credit … all under the UFC banner. After being medically sidelined before the semifinals of TUF 3, he debuted for the promotion at the finale in June 2006 and was victorious with a first round technical knockout stoppage of Jesse Forbes. Hamill has also defeated Seth Petruzelli, Tim Boetsch and Reese Andy inside the Octagon. His two losses came at UFC 75: "Champion vs. Champion" in a very controversial split-decision to Michael Bisping and at UFC 88: "Breakthrough" in a third round technical knockout to Rich Franklin - a fight in which he all but abandoned the takedown. Now he must abandon it once again in favor of stuffing it. Munoz turned some heads with two strong showings under the WEC banner in 2008. The ridiculously-talented collegiate wrestling champion from Oklahoma State University debuted for the promotion at WEC 34: "Sacramento," scoring an impressive first round technical knockout win over the 13-3 Chuck Grigsby. Six months later he was back in action on the WEC 37: "Torres vs. Tapia" card. And, again, he was impressive with a first round technical knockout, this time over WEC newcomer Ricardo Barros. That being said, this is a big step up in competition, and I don't know if his striking is up to par. "The Philippine Wrecking Machine" may be the more decorated wrestler, but that means nothing if Hamill can stuff the shoot and utilize his surprisingly effective striking. This has the potential to be very boring if it turns into a wrestling match, but I don't believe Hamill is going that route. Four of his five wins have come by way of TKO - and I think ol' Hammer-head has a taste for it. Tuck that chin and re-rack, Mr. Munoz.

Keys to victory:

Hamill: Don't let some guy from the WEC come in and push you around. Stuff him early and often and you may mentally break him. Then it's time to physically break him with some dirty boxing.

Munoz: Stay out of the clinch and away from the fence. You may be able to get him to the ground, but will you be able to keep him there? Takedowns are worth points, assuming you can secure them.

Prediction: Hamill by unanimous decision

Jim Miller (13-1) vs. Gray "The Bully" Maynard (6-0)

Two more wrestlers, very different results. Well, not really. Jim Miller recently endeared himself to both the UFC and MMA fans when he filled in for an injured Frank Edgar to derail Matt Wiman at UFC Fight Night 16: "Fight for the Troops" on December 10. Why so special? He took the fight on just eight days notice, after Thanksgiving and having just returned from his honeymoon -- and looked sharp while doing it. He uses wrestling well with his jiu-jitsu, ending 9 of his 13 fights by way of tapout. He's definitely a good wrestler, unfortunately Maynard is better. And "The Bully" is strong -- especially for a lightweight. Maynard has strung together four straight wins inside the Octagon since his participation on season five of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 5, including a unanimous decision over the previously unbeaten Frank Edgar at UFC Fight Night 13 in April 2008. He's an unstoppable force and while he has yet to be able to take that next step and develop the ability to finish from the top, it doesn't make it any less suffocating. Miller's only chance is a stingy defense coupled with a proactive guard. It's not out of the realm of possibility to see Miller score the submission, but he'll have to do it in the third round after a very busy first and second when Maynard may not have as much strength to power out of it. When all is said and done, I expect Maynard to have complete control in this one, though a finish would go a long way in stripping him of some of those negative labels his wrestling-based victories have given him.

Keys to victory:

Miller: Keep an active guard and wear him down. Elbows from the bottom can do damage as well as score points. Take what you can get.

Maynard: Keep doing what you've done since your debut: Overpower him and grind out the win. Don't get lured into a false sense of security, his nine submission wins didn't come by accident.

Prediction: Maynard 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 96 "Jackson vs. Jardine."

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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