In a main event that features two familiar names on similar roads, but different paths, Light Heavyweight standouts Mauricio Rua and Chael Sonnen take center stage in a UFC Fight Night 26 headliner from TD Bank Garden in Boston, Mass., too unpredictable to call.
Both men will be near desperate to dispose of their competition and will look to continue their careers according to their respective plans. The most important thing for both, though, is a solid performance to prove their relevancy is still intact.
There are plenty of promising fights on the "Prelims" portion, which can be seen on the Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) new home, FOX Sports 1, as well as on Facebook. One of the most intriguing match ups that lead us into the main card is Conor McGregor, the fastest rising star in the Featherweight division, taking on the youngest fighter in the promotion, Max Holloway.
Here is another installment of "The Top Two" as we break down the most important fights to watch on the main card and the "Prelims."
The most important factor going into the main event on Saturday night (Aug. 17, 2013) is that both men are at crossroads in their careers, but are still somewhat far apart. "Shogun" Rua was so frightening and dominant during the Pride FC era that he must be mentioned when compiling a list of the greatest 205-pound fighters in history. Jon Jones, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Frank Shamrock are names that easily come to mind, but "Shogun" was a promising youngster back in 2005 when he won the Middleweight Grand Prix at the tender age of 23.
Rua was then able to capture the Light Heavyweight championship in the UFC, knocking out Lyoto Machida at UFC 113 in a rematch of their controversial meeting at UFC 104; however, he was unable to defend the crown -- something many believe a true champion must do to establish his worth. "Shogun" was battered in a loss where Jones made it look too easy taking away his title, but Rua showed his heart is immeasurable, able to withstand a sizeable amount of damage and pain more often than he should in his fights.
Rua has lost three fights in his past five outings (just like his opponent) and has been fairly inconsistent in his Octagon tenure, having a win followed by a loss in his last eight fights and not having won two straight bouts since his wins over Mark Coleman and Liddell in his second and third appearances for the promotion.
"Shogun" is still capable of re-igniting the flame and giving the division another scare by gunning for the title once again, but he must prove that with a win over Sonnen. Shogun's past three losses were against younger and agile combatants in Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, while the epic clash that could have been the greatest fight of all-time with Dan Henderson was a war that was hard to judge.
It could have been anyone's fight, but a loss is still a loss.
His striking has always been impressive -- a Muay Thai style capable of ending a fight at any given moment. He's also been training with Freddie Roach, famed boxing trainer of Manny Pacquiao, who said "Rua hit like a girl." If Rua were looking to possess more power and puissance in his shots, then it would definitely benefit him because a potential gameplan could be to catch Sonnen fast and early.
Nonetheless "Shogun" should concentrate on how he can neutralize his Sonnen's takedowns since he is facing a competitor who notoriously suppresses his opponents underneath him while he relentlessly dishes out shots from the top. Rua has had plenty of difficulties with wrestlers in the past (Coleman, Henderson and Jones) so his improvements should be watched closely.
There is a general consensus that oddsmakers and gambling aficionados favor Sonnen because they predict the "American Gangster" will smother the former champion by laying on top of him for five rounds, using his superior wrestling skills and making it a grueling night for "Shogun" on the bottom.
Sonnen has spent a hefty amount of time talking about Wanderlei Silva and looking past his opponents leading up to his headlining slot on Saturday, but that is not surprising given the true nature of the best trash-talker in the sport. Sonnen's ability to sell a fight is matchless, and as Brian Stann spoke about a paradigm shift in MMA for fighters where they are starting to realize they must market their fights, Sonnen stands at the forefront being the influential voice.
That being said, Sonnen is coming off two straight losses, challenging for titles in two different weight classes. Although his plans to drop down to Middleweight after this fight seem to be written in stone, Sonnen cannot afford to turn into a mediocre fighter with a craft to sell fights. Sonnen needs a victory badly because he needs to convince the fandom that he can still hack it in the big league and that all of his upcoming fights after Saturday night will be as relevant as the next.
Some love him, some hate him, but it would be a shame for him to fulfill his newly signed UFC contract by setting up fights that should have materialized a while ago or simply by sticking around with no true benefit or importance. Sonnen is done fighting for titles unless he talks his way into another one so he is in an awkward position:
Can he stay motivated if he is on the receiving end of a loss on Saturday?
Sonnen's bread and butter is his wrestling and knowing his style, look for him to shoot for the takedown right away. Out of his 13 losses, he's been submitted eight times, but his opponent has not made someone surrender in that fashion since 2006. And Sonnen would love to pick point Rua's weaknesses on the ground. However, Sonnen does need to work on his stand up. It is by no means awful, since he rocked Anderson Silva a few times in their first fight and usually sets up his shots well, but he is facing an accomplished Muay Thai striker who has faced some lethal stand up practitioners in his career.
Keep an eye out for his improvements or for his opponent to trouble him on the feet.
It's a tough fight for both men and the post-fight emotions may be even tougher. One man will gain new confidence by not only getting back in the win column but also redirecting his career, while the other must reassess his position in the sport and be forced to dig deep to find the drive he once had in his prime.
Although Brad Pickett and Michael McDonald is a worthy "Prelims" headliner and is as fascinating as this next bout, McGregor taking on Max Holloway is a classic scrap between two of the sport's budding prospects. Holloway, who goes by the nickname "Blessed," is the youngest fighter on the UFC roster and will welcome the most talked about fighter in the company at this present time, Ireland's Conor McGregor. Holloway replaces Andy Ogle, who bowed out of the fight due to injury.
With all due respect to the latter, Holloway's presence creates a more compelling duel.
McGregor's plugging is similar to the one that built up Jones not too long ago in the champion's early career. Billed as the most promising mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter to come out of Ireland, McGregor finds himself in the spotlight after just one UFC bout. "The Rise of Conor McGregor," an MTV-produced short documentary that showcased the young talent prior to his UFC debut against Marcus Brimage earlier this year in Stockholm at UFC on Fuel TV 9, was only the beginning. After a breathtaking performance over Brimage -- who suffered his first UFC defeat and knockout loss thanks to the Irishman -- it was confirmation that maybe the brash and outspoken McGregor was something special worth keeping an eye on.
For this upcoming card, McGregor was given his own personal open workout (watch highlights here) -- something very rare for a fighter who is set to do battle on the "Prelims" and not a headlining slot. He was even riding shotgun in Dana White's Ferrari in one of the bosses' video blogs (watch clip here), not to mention had dinner with his employer for his birthday.
Too soon for the star treatment or already merited?
His flashy, unorthodox stance and pulverizing counter-striking is as exciting as anyone in the world right now, mixing up his angles as he circles around his opponents with power behind his fists. Holloway must be alert when it comes to his opponent's might, as McGregor has knocked out 12 of his 13 opponents; however, if there is something Holloway could capitalize on, it's submissions. McGregor's only two losses came via submissions that ended the fight in less than one minute both times.
If McGregor loses, the hype train takes a premature halt. It's not to say that McGregor would lose his appeal or would not come back stronger in his next fight, but it would prove that the recent attraction he has gained would be over exaggerated. If he loses badly, it would make it even worse. Although at the age of 25, there would still be a hefty amount of fights left in him and his promising rise would not be long gone either. One thing is for sure, surely what Cub Swanson said about him earlier this week would resonate in volume.
He is the odds-on favorite, but how costly will it be for his career if he does not win?
It's not that Holloway could afford the loss compared to his opponent but it would not be so unkind to him because of his age and the modest analysis pundits have of him. Already being the youngest fighter on the roster at the age of 21, Holloway has five times the amount of UFC experience compared to his opponent, facing opposition like Leonard Garcia, Dennis Bermudez and Justin Lawrence in a span of less than one year. On the contrary, Holloway has only competed in nine professional bouts while McGregor is a 15-fight veteran with two Cage Warriors titles to his name -- keep in mind it was against virtually unknown opposition as well.
Holloway's debut fight was a losing effort against Dustin Poirier, which he showed promising attributes for a young fighter. He is tall with long limbs and possesses an explosive striking pedigree complete with flying knees and kicks, but he showed a lack of submission defense in his debut. That could be a one way to surprise McGregor, but the feeling here is that both athletes will most probably trade blows until someone drops. This fight should not go to a decision, since both men will come out guns blazing and their striking styles matched up against each other will hopefully give us a barnburner for the ages.
This fight is equally stimulating for the 145-pound division as well, since the winner will join an exhaustive list of emerging title contenders, forcing Joe Silva to provide us with some highly entertaining scraps in the near future.
Remember, too, that MMAmania.com will provide LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire Fight Night 26 card this weekend, starting with the Facebook "Prelims," which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, right on through the FOX Sports 1-televised under card bouts at 6 p.m. ET and then main card action, which is slated to begin at 8 p.m. ET.