For all the hoopla surrounding the main event pitting UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Mauricio Rua putting his title on the line against top contender Jon Jones, not to mention a highly respectable main card full of interesting match-ups, the preliminary card is also worth more than just a passing glance.
And seeing as the UFC has been so kind as to give us four free "Prelims" -- two on Facebook and two on Spike TV --we're able to do just that. However, there are three more bouts that may or may not make the broadcast and we'll delve a little deeper into those fights, too.
In we go:
155 lbs.: Edson Mendes Barboza Jr. (7-0) vs. Anthony Njokuani (13-4)
Barboza -- who has already drawn comparisons to featherweight buzzsaw Jose Aldo despite just one fight inside the Octagon -- is a dangerous a Muay Thai champion. He has only seven professional mixed martial arts fights to his credit, but he is the proud owner of a sick Muay Thai record (25-3), which includes 22 knockouts (17 of which came in the first round).
He's a bad man.
The 24-year-old lightweight phenom impressed fans and UFC brass alike when he stopped Mike Lullo with leg kicks at UFC 123. While impressive, it marked the first time a Barboza fight made it to the third round and only the second to go beyond the first.
Njokuani, meanwhile, recently spun out of a two-fight losing skid, finishing Edward Faaloloto via second round technical knockout back in Nov. 2011. Prior to the win, the WEC import dropped back-to-back fights to Shane Roller and Maciej Jewtuszko.
Those two defeats were momentum killers -- the Nigerian destroyer was sitting on a nice three-fight win streak, which was highlighted by three "Knockout of the Night" awards.
He, too, is a bad man.
But it's Barboza’s leg kicks that will be the difference makers in this fight. Njokuani does possess the Muay Thai know-how and range to keep away from them (or at least minimize their impact); however, when combined with the threat of Barboza's face-melting power in his hands, as well as speed, it's going to be a long and painful night for Njokuani.
Barboza's speed, power and apparent ability to take the fight to the ground should the going get hairy, lead me to think he’ll win this one convincingly. Njokuani has truly wicked kicks and actually knows how to use his ridiculous height to his advantage (unlike certain other "Skyscrapers"), but that just isn't enough to cut it against a prodigy of this caliber.
Prediction: Barboza via knockout after about 3.5 minutes of excellent kickboxing
205 lbs.: Eliot "The Fire" Marshall (10-2) vs. Luis "Banha" Artur Cane Jr. (10-3)
Marshall seemed to be on the right track after losing to Ryan Bader in the semifinals of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 8, winning three straight fights (including one over finalist Vinny Magalhaes).
He was unexpectedly cut, however, following a split-decision loss to Vladimir Matyushenko.
Undaunted, he proceeded to win three more fights on the regional/international circuits before being called upon to replace cross-eyed crusher, Karlos Vemola, on short notice.
Cane has taken a much different path to Newark. The Brazilian walked into UFC 106 in Nov. 2009 on the cusp of light heavyweight contender relevance.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, who dominated "Banha" en route to a crushing knockout. In his next fight, Cane collided with Cyrille Diabaté at UFC 114, who served up his second straight defeat (technical knockout), burying the Muay Thai specialist’s title aspirations indefinitely.
In the hyper-competitive 205-pound division, this is a must-win for Cane.
Recent history clearly proves that Cane has trouble with southpaws. But that might be overstated, considering he got knocked out by two really good southpaws. So I’m taking Cane to emerge victorious in this fight for one simple reason (In my best Inigo Montoya voice):
"Marshall is not left-handed!"
Cane shreds most of the (orthodox) 205-pound fighters on the feet. And you can bet your sweet bippy that he was likely training his takedown defense relentlessly even before the opponent switch. Add in the fact that he’s most certainly on the chopping block and you have a very dangerous Brazilian standing in the cage.
Prediction: Cane via vicious knockou
170 lbs.: Mike "Quicksand" Pyle (20-7-1) vs. Ricardo "Cachorrao" Almeida (13-4)
Two fights removed from a thrashing at the hands of rising prospect Jake Ellenberger, Pyle -- the first, last and only man to ever submit Jon Fitch -- was selected as the sacrificial lamb for surging John Hathaway at UFC 120.
"Quicksand," however, swallowed up the Brit’s momentum with brutal grappling and surprisingly solid stand up. He even managed to stick Hathaway in a triangle from side control and drop unopposed punches for half of the second round.
Eleven years into his MMA career, the Xtreme Couture product is eager to force his way into the welterweight elite ... it's now or never.
Almeida -- a Renzo Gracie understudy and former King of Pancrase -- bucked the trend by dropping to welterweight after a middleweight win. Following a submission over Matt Brown, , "Big Dog" sought to avenge his mentor’s defeat, challenging Hall-of-Famer Matt Hughes at UFC 117.
Shockingly, Hughes submitted the highly-regarded jiu-jitsu black belt with a never-before-seen Schultz Headlock. Though he got back into the win column with a decision over T.J. Grant, there’s no telling what damage his confidence has taken.
Almeida may be the more decorated submissions artist, but Pyle is the better all-around fighter. He has all the tools necessary to dictate where the fight goes and the ever-clever Xtreme Couture camp in his corner to tell him where to take it.
Prediction: Pyle via dominant decision
155 lbs.: Kurt "Batman" Pellegrino (16-5) vs. Gleison Tibau (21-7)
Pellegrino has historically been fairly successful in the increasingly-crowded lightweight division, but the "joke" was on him at UFC 116 when he was overwhelmed by recently-deflated prospect, George Sotiropoulos.
He also reneged on his claim that he would retire should he lose to the Australian.
Despite his success, this may be a make-or-break fight for the Point Pleasant product.
Tibau is coming off a decision loss to the chronically underrated Jim Miller. He sports a similar UFC record (7-5) as Pellegrino under the ZUFFA banner. The American Top Team (ATT) standout has been frustratingly inconsistent, unable to put more than two consecutive wins together in the Octagon.
His grappling pedigree and the fact that he cuts close to 30 pounds to make 155, however, make him a handful for anyone. His destruction of an obscenely-outsized Caol Uno notwithstanding, Tibau just seems to have trouble winning fights that he should, by all rights, dominate.
While I don’t doubt that he can overpower Pellegrino and probably muscle his way to a submission, I just can’t put any confidence in that. As one-sided as Kurt’s last loss was (save for a last-second knee), he displayed an uncanny ability to get out of tough situations against Fabricio Camoes, among others. And he should have the grappling pedigree necessary to stay alive when Tibau inevitably puts him on his keester.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Prediction: Pellegrino via decision
135 lbs.: Joseph Benavidez (13-2) vs. Ian "The Barn Owl" Loveland (14-7)
The high-octane Benavidez is rapidly proving to be the Rich Franklin of the bantamweight division:
Incredibly dominant over the rest of the division, but unable to defeat the champ.
Though he has suffered two defeats at the hands of Dominick Cruz, the Alpha Male wunderkind has run roughshod over the rest of his 135-pound compatriots, knocking out Rani Yahya and choking out highly-regarded Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts Miguel Torres and Wagnney Fabiano.
With a combination of world-class wrestling and incredible speed, any fight with him is a headache-in-the-making for his opponents.
Those seven losses may look ugly, but four of them came in his first 10 fights. And, prior to his UFC debut, Loveland had four consecutive knockouts. It's important to note that his Octagon debut was taken on 2.5 weeks notice and ended in a dominant victory over Tyler Toner.
Though worryingly-susceptible to chokes, the Team Quest mauler has solid striking and, judging by his team association, should have solid wrestling acumen to complement it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say something I will inevitably regret: Benavidez beats everyone at bantamweight not named Dominick Cruz. He has inherited Faber’s speed and uncanny ability to choke out people who are, for all intents and purposes, superior on the ground.
Loveland may be on one hell of a tear, but "Joe B. Wan" has eaten better than him for breakfast. Expect about two minutes of exciting stand up before Loveland gets Robespierre’d by the trademark Alpha Male guillotine.
War mini Faber.
Prediction: Benavidez vis submission
145 lbs.: Erik "New Breed" Koch (11-1) vs. Raphael Assuncao (16-3)
The once-beaten Koch, who turns 23 this year, was supposed to face fellow super-prospect Josh Grispi at WEC 52, but had to settle for a lesser name when "The Fluke" was awarded a title shot (that an injury to the champion, Jose Aldo, eventually nixed).
Koch went on to knockout his late replacement, Francisco Rivera, with a slick head kick 90 seconds into the first round. Training out of Roufusport with the likes of Anthony Pettis and Pat Barry, Koch has lived up to his nickname since his loss to Chad Mendes.
"New Breed" was originally booked to fight Cub Swanson two weeks ago, but a late injury to Swanson prompted Joe Silva to book his UFC debut for this Saturday.
Assuncao experienced similar woes: His original opponent for "Shogun vs. Jones" was former contender Manny Gamburyan, who suffered a late injury. Luckily, the UFC knows an opportunity when it sees it and dutifully hooked him up with a new adversary.
Assuncao needs a win here to stay relevant in the new UFC featherweight division, as he has lost two of his last three. Admittedly, the ones who beat him were Urijah Faber and Diego Nunes, both top-tier, but there is very little room for error under Dana White’s watchful eye.
Luckily, his recent win over L.C. Davis should help his mojo. It speaks volumes about how stacked this card is that this fight is relegated to the unaired "Prelims." Koch is undoubtedly one of the brightest prospects at 145, while Assuncao gave Nunes all he could handle and was doing fairly well against Faber before being put in an asphyxiating fix by the former champ.
This is probably the closest match up on the card. Assuncao has the slight edge on the ground, while Koch’s wicked stand up will likely win the day should they remain on the feet. I’m thinking "Fight of the NIght," with Assuncao doing well early before being picked apart standing by the "New Breed."
Prediction: Koch, somehow, someway
195 lbs.: Nick "The Jersey Devil" Catone (8-2) vs. Constantinos Philippou (7-1)
Catone last fought 13 months ago, snapping a two-fight losing streak with a split decision over Jesse Forbes. He's tried to return to action sooner -- three times since his last fight -- but the bouts were ultimately scrapped because of injuries sustained during training.
The New Jersey native was supposed to return to the Octagon against division stalwart Dan Miller before the earthquakes in Japan shook the UFC 128 fight card thousands of miles away.
Enter Philippou, who fights out of the Serra-Longo camp along with recent UFC debutant, Chris Weidman.
Philippou had his first shot at stardom squashed by Joe Henle, who came from behind to submit the Greek during the elimination rounds of TUF 11. The good news (for him) is that he has not lost an official bout since his debut in 2008, fighting exclusively for Ring of Combat during that time.
This fight is going to come down to ring rust ... and lots of it.
Catone has never really impressed too much in the UFC. And not setting foot in the Octagon for so long can’t have done him any favors. Philippou, on the other hand, last fought little more than a month ago and won a decision over Uriah Hall.
For what it's worth, Catone did manage to give Mark Munoz all he could handle, but Philippou has the ultra-talented Chris Weidman, among others, in his camp to prepare him.
Prediction: Philippou via decision
That's a wrap.
Feel free to now get dirty in the comments section below, sharing your UFC 128 "Prelims" thoughts and predictions.
Remember that MMAmania.com will provide blow-by-blow, round-by-round coverage of all the night's action, beginning with the PPV telecast at 10 p.m. ET. In addition, we will deliver up-to-the-minute quick results of all the under card action much earlier on fight night.
Be there or be square.