Two of the most violent strikers in the UFC will battle this Saturday night (January 14, 2011) as former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort accepts the challenge of debuting middleweight Anthony Johnson in the co-main event of UFC 142 in Rio.
Belfort is coming off a brutally violent knockout of Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 133 and will be fighting in his native Brazil for the first time in well over 13 years. This will be an emotional homecoming as he's beloved by the Brazilian faithful and he won't want to let them down.
"Rumble" Johnson finally caved and moved up to the middleweight division after years of holding off the inevitable which included missing weight on multiple occasions. Johnson was a huge player in the welterweight division so he will become an instant contender if he can knock off the legend in his divisional debut.
Will Belfort bring back the furious flurry of strikes he's famous for? Can the upstart Johnson silence the Brazilian crowd by knocking out their idol? What's the best path to victory for both men on Saturday night?
Let's find out.Vitor Belfort
Record: 20-9 overall, 9-5 in the UFC
How he got here: Vitor Belfort has had a love affair with the UFC for a very, very long time. At just 19 years old and in just his second and third professional fights, he cruised through the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament, defeating both opponents in two minutes combined.
After crushing fan favorite Tank Abbott in just 52 seconds barely three months later, he earned a number one contender match against some unheralded old fogie named Randy Couture. Vitor would be completely overwhelmed by "The Natural's" wrestling and eventually TKO'd in just over eight minutes to halt the uber-prospect's momentum.
After two more victories inside the Octagon, including a 44 second thrashing of Wanderlei Silva that is still considered one of the most impressive displays of hand speed in MMA history, Belfort decided to send his talents to Japan to compete in Pride.
The Brazilian would close his Pride run with four straight victories and returned to the UFC. After losing a decision to Chuck Liddell in his return bout, he would go on to earn a title shot against Randy Couture, winning the belt in one of MMA's biggest fluke injuries after a grazing punch slit "Captain America's" eyelid badly, forcing a cut stoppage in less than a minute.
Couture would get his revenge in the next fight, taking a decision and after a split decision loss to Tito Ortiz, he would not return to the UFC for two more years. During that time, he would have a series of highs and lows in Pride and Strikeforce before finding his groove in Cage Rage and Affliction.
After his devastating knockout of Matt Lindland, Belfort was offered an opportunity to fight Rich Franklin at UFC 103. Belfort would crush the former middleweight champion with another nasty knockout in just three minutes to earn a title shot against Anderson Silva. After several delays due to injury, the showdown finally took place this February and Silva finished Belfort with one of 2011's finest knockouts, a front kick to the face.
"The Phenom" redeemed himself against Akiyama at UFC 133, crushing the Korean/Japanese fighter inside the first round by brutal knockout and gleefully accepted an opportunity to fight in his native Brazil again.
How he gets it done: It's not the biggest surprise what Belfort wants to do. He's known for his lethal hands and he'll be looking for an opportunity to explode forward with a lightning quick combination of strikes against Johnson on Saturday night.
"The Phenom" has become more patient with time, he waited nearly three minutes before blasting Rich Franklin at UFC 103 and nearly two minutes before exploding against Akiyama his last time around.
If he doesn't see an opening, he won't take it, although he should clearly have a technical striking advantage over Johnson. Look for him to cautiously pick Johnson apart in the striking early, similar to what Josh Koscheck was able to do.
Expect Belfort to stay on the outside for most of the fight. Johnson is a significant threat with his wrestling and with the added mass with his move to middleweight, he could have even more force behind a takedown. Belfort should try to avoid short strikes unless he hurts "Rumble." If Belfort does tag Johnson, look out. He's got the skills to lunge forward with scary precision and finish the fight in an instant.
Record: 10-3 overall, 7-3 in the UFC
Key Losses: Josh Koscheck (UFC 106), Rich Clementi (UFC 76)
How he got here: Anthony Johnson took the fast track to the UFC. With his freakish size and power for a welterweight, he made his promotional debut in just his fourth professional fight. Prior to that, he had been a national champion wrestling on the junior college level.
He didn't get off to a great start in the UFC, going 2-2 in his first four fights, losing via submission to the significantly smaller Rich Clementi and getting his eye poked badly by Kevin Burns which somehow resulted in a TKO loss. In between those fights, he showed his potential by knocking Ultimate Fighter season six finalist Tommy Speer silly in less than a minute with a vicious punch.
"Rumble" went on a solid three fight win streak, avenging the eye poke to Burns and knocking out both Luigi Fioravanti and Yoshiyuki Yoshida in the first round. This earned him a big time divisional match-up against top contender Josh Koscheck. Johnson struggled to land big strikes against Koscheck, resorting to wild punches and his lack of a serious submission game resulted in a second round rear naked choke defeat.
He was slated to face John Howard but their fight next got past the ridiculously awesome war of words before Johnson was sidelined with a horrible knee injury. He would be shelved for 17 months before finally returning against Dan Hardy at UFC Fight Night 24. Johnson smashed Hardy with strikes and then rode out a decision with his significantly superior wrestling, something he caught some flack from the fans and media.
He faced the surging Charlie Brenneman at UFC on Versus 6 and floored the wrestling, stuffing his takedowns and finishing him off with a brutal head kick. Afterwards, he finally decided to move to middleweight to take on "The Phenom."
How he gets it done: Johnson has knocked out his opponent in all but one of his UFC victories. He's got some serious power. "Rumble" is very dangerous with not only his punches but also his kicks, something Belfort should be very careful about considering he tends to stand on the outside before diving in. That's how he got caught by Anderson Silva's famous front kick
Despite coming up from welterweight, Anthony Johnson is the bigger fighter so his best plan of action would be to stay on the outside looking for the big power shot whether it's a counter punch or a huge head kick. If Belfort dives in with his famous punching flurries, Johnson needs to change levels and slam "The Phenom" to the canvas.
It's the ability to overpower Belfort that should be able to carry Johnson to victory. He could really outmuscle and wear out the Brazilian either in the clinch or with takedowns. It's the things that Johnson can do that Belfort can't which could be the deciding factor here.
Fight X-Factor: There are two major X-Factors for this bout. The first, obviously, is the move to middleweight for Anthony Johnson. It looks like he's packed on some significant muscle and has been working incredibly hard with top fighters like Rashad Evans over with the Blackzilians at Imperial Athletics. "Rumble" is likely to have more energy and be even more powerful at middleweight than at 170 pounds so he could be extremely scary come fight night.
The other factor is Vitor Belfort already having plans beyond this bout. He's already signed on to coach the first Brazilian season of The Ultimate Fighter and he's already going to fight Wanderlei Silva as his next opponent regardless of whether he wins or loses so what are the stakes for this fight? There are multiple people ahead of him in the title picture already. If he is not taking this bout as seriously as he should, Anthony Johnson could surprise the hell out of him.
Bottom Line: This is by far the most intriguing match-up of the entire UFC 142 fight card simply because it has the most questions heading into it. New weight classes, the Brazilian crowd, kickboxer-wrestler versus boxer-jiu-jitsu. This fight could take place just about anywhere at any point with the extremely violent nature of both men (both have won via knockout in six of their last seven victories) there should be some serious fireworks in store for the viewers. Hold on to your hats.
Who will come out on top at UFC 142? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!