The number one contender position for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 185-pound title is within the grasp of two of the promotion's mouthiest middleweights this Saturday night (Jan. 28, 2012) as former title challenger Chael Sonnen takes on Britain's last hope, Michael Bisping, in the co-main event of UFC on FOX 2 in Chicago, Illinois.
Sonnen called out UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva after thoroughly manhandling fellow top contender Brian Stann this past October, but it was to no avail as the champ has been sidelined with a shoulder injury. He's tried every trick in the book to get Silva to accept a fight, but "The Spider" will have no choice but to fight him if Sonnen can pound "The Count" on national television this Saturday night.
Bisping has perennially been at the top of the middleweight division although his competition level has left something to be desired. He's come up short before against Dan Henderson with a potential title shot on the line, but he's back after four straight wins in the division and no one can complain about strength of schedule if he can defeat Sonnen, the consensus number two ranked middleweight in the world.
Will Sonnen be able to power double Bisping into kingdom come? Can the upset-minded Brit pull off a miracle against the heavily favored American? How does each man secure a victory on Saturday night?
Let's find out:Chael Sonnen
How he got here: Oh boy, Chael Sonnen has had a long and storied history in mixed martial arts. He was an All-American at Oregon, was a national champion in Greco Roman wrestling and was an Olympic alternate. He didn't take the easy road into MMA either as his first professional fight was against Jason Miller where he ground out a decision with his wrestling.
The story of Sonnen's entire career has been his ability to use his wrestling to defeat opponents while coming up short occasionally to tough submission fighters. Jeremy Horn famously beat him on three separate occasions, twice by submission and once from a cut. Sonnen also fell short to the likes of Forrest Griffin and Renato Sobral in his pre-UFC days.
After dropping a tough loss to Paulo Filho for the WEC middleweight title, Sonnen rebounded to hand Bryan Baker his first career loss and then beat Filho in a rematch, although the champion had failed to make weight (and also saw invisible people).
Sonnen lost his first fight in the UFC to Demian Maia via, you guessed it, submission in the first round but he bounced back strongly with solid victories over top contenders Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt to earn a shot at UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. In his title fight against "The Spider," Sonnen refused to back down and was minutes away from a dominant decision victory before Silva wrapped him up in a triangle choke and forced the tap.
The Oregonian tested positive for testosterone after the fight and dealt with suspension and other issues for a full year before finally getting a crack at Brian Stann at UFC 136. The mouthy ex-realtor stepped up and destroyed Stann, overpowering him with wrestling and actually scoring his first stoppage victory in the UFC with a second round arm triangle choke.
After an injury to Mark Munoz, Sonnen is slated to battle Bisping for a title shot.
How he gets it done: Chael Sonnen has a terrific ability of being aggressive with his striking because he knows his opponents are very concerned about the takedown. He's been able to outstrike just about everyone he's fought because of this. If his opponents get flustered and try to open up, he puts the fear into the back of their minds by diving in with his wrestling.
Sonnen has a terrific double leg, single leg and high crotch takedowns. He clearly possesses some of the best MMA wrestling on the planet and he throws a ton of strikes once he has his opponent on the ground. They may not be heavily damaging blows, but they accumulate and Sonnen never gets tired.
He will push the pace of this fight, pressing Michael Bisping in the striking, clinch and especially on the ground. If Bisping gets a little too antsy in the stand-up and starts tagging him, Sonnen always has that terrific shot in his back pocket. Being able to control where the fight takes place is incredibly vital.
While Bisping likely won't be "rocking" Sonnen with his punches, the American wants to get in deep, bury his head in "The Count's" chest and blast him into the canvas. That's the best way to neutralize someone's stand-up game and he knows it.
Record: 22-3 overall, 11-3 in the UFC
Key Wins: Chris Leben (UFC 89), Yoshihiro Akiyama (UFC 120), Jason Miller (The Ultimate Fighter Finale 14)
Key Losses: Dan Henderson (UFC 100), Wanderlei Silva (UFC 110), Rashad Evans (UFC 78)
How he got here: Michael Bisping entered season three of The Ultimate Fighter with a spotless 10-0 record and having been a Cage Warriors star in his native England. He dominated the competition and, despite being an undersized light heavyweight, won his first four fights in the UFC.
His momentum was finally halted when he dropped a decision to Rashad Evans, and he decided to make the cut to middleweight immediately afterwards. Bisping won his first three fights at 185 as well and was potentially in line for a title shot against Anderson Silva, but first he had to coach season nine of The Ultimate Fighter against Dan Henderson.
Bisping faced Henderson at UFC 100 and was infamously knocked out in one of the greatest knockouts in MMA history. "The Count" rallied against Dennis Kang at UFC 105 in his native England, but once again, he'd have his momentum halted by another Pride legend, this time Wanderlei Silva who was dropping down to 185 for the first time.
Since that loss, Bisping has won three straight, although his last performance against Jorge Rivera was full of controversy with a blatant illegal knee and the spitting incident afterwards. The Brit decided to coach another season of The Ultimate Fighter in his downtime and didn't do himself any favors with the fans by pretty much acting like a jerk for much of the season. When he finally got an opportunity to put his hands on "Mayhem," Bisping took full advantage, crushing his gassed opponent over the course of three rounds and eventually scoring a mercy stoppage after Miller refused to fight back from the relentless torrent of punches "The Count" was dropping on him.
Bisping was originally slated to take on Demian Maia at this event, but an injury to Mark Munoz granted him the opportunity to fight Chael Sonnen for number one contender. He eagerly accepted the bout.
How he gets it done: Bisping has developed a style which plays into his skill-set very well in the last couple years. He doesn't have a ton of power in his strikes, but he's very good at getting in, landing blows and getting out.
While Sonnen is more than a competent striker, judging by the fact he was able to hang with Anderson Silva, Bisping can't be intimidated. He needs to employ his "hit and run" attack early and often, scoring as many points with the judges that he can.
Footwork will be key for Bisping as well. He needs to dart in, do his damage and dart out before Sonnen can get his hands on him. "The Count" has some pretty solid takedown defense and his ground game is vastly superior to most of his countrymen, so as long as he doesn't do anything crazy and come in throwing haymakers, he should be able to defend against most of Sonnen's attacks.
If taken down, expect to see some of Bisping's underrated ground game. Chael Sonnen is one of the best wrestlers in all of MMA, but Bisping hasn't been held down and controlled for a long duration by anyone thus far in his career, not even when he was at light heavyweight. Expect to see Bisping working constantly to get back to his feet and while we haven't seen much of a submission game, if Sonnen leaves his neck exposed at any point, "The Count" will surely go for it.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight is pretty obvious, it's Michael Bisping's takedown defense and ability to get back to his feet. Chael Sonnen has been ferocious ever since his loss to Demian Maia. He's been power doubling every opponent he's faced from Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt and Brian Stann to Anderson Silva of all people. He's been nearly unstoppable in that department. Is Bisping really going to be the guy to be the one to halt his wrestling attack?
Also, is Bisping actually a better striker than Sonnen? With his constant threat of the takedown, Sonnen has been able to outstrike every opponent he's faced at middleweight, even Anderson Silva. If he's got no fear of Bisping's power, he might just be willing to stand and trade with him, beating him up on the feet. Bisping is going to have to be at the absolute top of his game in all areas.
Lastly, the final factor is, how will the change in opponent affect both men? Chael Sonnen was preparing to fight a wrestler who was so good he won a national championship and actually beat him in college while Bisping was already preparing for a fighter who will likely be looking to take the fight to the ground. If anyone has a potential advantage from the late opponent change, I would say it's Bisping, as he's been working on keeping the fight standing already.
Bottom Line: This fight could be incredible or it could be three straight rounds of Sonnen grounding and pounding Bisping. Depending on how much you like Michael Bisping, this could be your second favorite fight of all time (next to his UFC 100 bout with Dan Henderson). The excitement level in terms of this being an evenly matched fight will entirely hinge on whether Bisping can a.) stop Sonnen's takedowns, b.) get back to his feet when taken down and c.) threaten with submissions while on the ground. If Bisping gets rag-dolled across the cage and has no answer for Sonnen's wrestling, this could be a very one-sided affair.
Who will come out on top at UFC on FOX 2? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!