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UFC 152: Jones vs. Belfort

After a brief late-summer hiatus, the UFC will look to make a triumphant return with this Saturday’s UFC 152 card in Toronto. And the dominant mixed martial arts promotion will be counting on one of its dominant champions to make up for that lost time. Light-heavyweight kingpin Jon (Bones) Jones — the man shouldering most of the blame for the extended layoff after his refusal to fight Chael Sonnen resulted in the cancellation of UFC 151 on Sept. 1 — will defend his 205-pound title at the Air Canada Centre against veteran underdog Vitor Belfort.

Although this card is stacked from top to bottom — also featuring the first-ever flyweight (125-pound) title fight between Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson, plus a middleweight contender bout between Michael Bisping and Brian Stann, not to mention four Canadians fighting on home soil — most eyes will be on the main event, and mainly on Jones.

Once a fan favourite for his unorthodox but extremely effective and entertaining style, Jones has drawn the ire of everybody as of late — from UFC president Dana White, who pointed the finger at Jones for the organization’s only cancelled card in 11 years, to fellow fighters, who disagreed with his decision to duck Sonnen while consequently postponing paydays for those on the undercard. And not to be lost in this, growing fan frustration with some having already lost respect for Jones over a drunk-driving arrest back in May following his last fight, a lacklustre decision victory over former training partner Rashad Evans at UFC 145 on April 21.

Almost as fast as Jones rose to stardom, he’s falling from grace and even getting labeled a prima donna these days, having recently inked a deal with Nike. But, in the dog-eat-dog, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport of MMA, that could all change with one impressive performance over a ripe-for-the-picking opponent such as Belfort.

The UFC desperately needs these headliners and their supporting cast to deliver in highlight-reel fashion to avoid losing additional momentum. Especially staging a show in hockey-mad Canada where blood-or-adrenaline-thirsty fans will need a new winter fix should the NHL’s current lockout be long-lasting — and coming off an underwhelming Calgary debut in the UFC’s last trip north of the 49th parallel for injury-riddled UFC 149 on July 21.

That Calgary card came in the midst of a busy stretch for the UFC, which held five events in just over a calendar month from July 7 to Aug. 11, but none since the latter saw Benson Henderson defeat Frankie Edgar for a second time by controversial split decision to retain the lightweight (155-pound) title.

While the UFC’s bottom line might not be taking a hit yet — in terms of gate revenue and pay-per-view purchases — the last couple months have certainly been a blow to its popularity with the general public slowly but surely losing interest.

The next couple months could, again, change all that as pound-for-pound superstar Anderson Silva headlines UFC 153 in his native Brazil next month before Canadian welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre does the same for UFC 154 in his hometown of Montreal on Nov. 17. St-Pierre hasn’t fought since April 2011, recovering from a knee injury and returning to face interim title-holder Carlos Condit.

Should Silva and St-Pierre both prevail, the stage could be set for a super-fight between the two sometime in 2013 — a dream matchup for White, fans and media alike, akin to the long-rumoured-but-yet-to-materialize boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

That said, nobody should look past the potential fireworks of this Saturday’s card. Without further ado, here are my predictions:

Jon Jones (16-1) vs. Vitor Belfort (21-9)

Jones needs to make a statement in this fight and I’m confident he will. Belfort is better than the bookies are giving him credit for, but Jones is simply on another level and will be out to showcase that. Belfort may be getting long in the tooth at 35 and having been fighting professionally since 1996, but he’s still powerful and explosive, thus giving him a puncher’s chance similar to Matt Serra’s memorable upset of GSP. Jones will no doubt have a lot on his mind and will likely be given a villain’s welcome with a chorus of boos, but I don’t see the champ getting shaken, stirred or stopped in his fourth title defence. Expect Jones, who is more talented in every facet of MMA and possesses a 10-inch reach advantage over Belfort, to stay focused and execute the game plan given to him by renowned trainer Greg Jackson. Expect the result to be devastating and electrifying.

Prediction: Jones by first-round stoppage (KO or submission).

Joseph Benavidez (16-2) vs. Demetrious Johnson (15-2)

Two relative newcomers to the UFC, which only introduced the flyweight division in March, Benavidez and Johnson are as elite as it gets for their weight class. As is common of the lighter fighters, they both scrap at a frenetic, crowd-pleasing pace thanks to unmatched speed and abundant stamina. They could go the full five rounds without skipping much of a beat, a likely outcome as they also lack knockout power because of their slight stature. Having not seen enough of either combatant from past bouts contested outside the Octagon, I’ll go with my gut on this one.

Prediction: Benavidez by unanimous decision (wins 4 rounds to 1).

Michael Bisping (22-4) vs. Brian Stann (12-4)

Bisping has been humble in the build-up to this fight, an adjective not commonly associated with the brash Brit. Perhaps he’s trying a new approach, leaving the trash-talking to the likes of Sonnen, or perhaps Bisping just respects Stann, a former war hero with no real chink in his amour — at least not one to attack verbally. Stann has a big right hand, something Bisping has been vulnerable to in the past — lest we forget how his Ultimate Fighter coaching experience ended at the hands of Dan Henderson. But Bisping is a workhorse who kept up with Sonnen in a close decision loss and might be able to wear down Stann as the fight wears on — that is providing he can keep his hands up and his chin down. Easier said than done for a guy that likes to brawl at times.

Prediction: Stann by second-round KO/TKO.

Matt Hamill (10-4) vs. Roger Hollett (13-3)

Hollett, a Halifax, N.S., native making his UFC debut, has the better record, but Hamill, making his Octagon return after a year-long retirement, has faced the much better competition. Will Hollett have jitters? Or will Hamill have ring rust? Or both . . . ? Regardless, it’s an intriguing fight between 205-pounders looking to take the next step in their respective careers. As much as I don’t like betting against Canadians, I just think a rejuvenated Hamill will be too much to handle for Hollett.

Prediction: Hamill by unanimous decision (3 rounds to none).

Cub Swanson (17-5) vs. Charles Oliveira (16-2)

This has the makings of another fun fight between two action-packed featherweights (145 pounds). I enjoy watching both, but I think there is a discrepancy in their natural skill level, with Oliveira holding a distinct edge on the ground and debatably even standing up. But Swanson is always game and will try to impose his will on an opponent six years his junior. However, I think Swanson’s bullish ways will play right into the hands of Oliveira.

Prediction: Oliveira by first-round submission (armbar).

As for the preliminary fights, I’ll keep these short and sweet:

Igor Pokrajac (25-8) vs. Vinny Magalhães (9-5), light-heavyweight = Magalhães is back in the UFC and back to stay, winning by submission.

T.J. Grant (18-5) vs. Evan Dunham (13-2), lightweight = Grant, from Dartmouth, N.S., has won two straight since dropping down from welterweight, but Dunham is a tough customer who has also won two in a row. Grant will still have a size advantage and use that to his advantage, earning a decision victory.

Sean Pierson (12-6) vs. Lance Benoist (6-1), welterweight = Pierson, from Toronto, will be fighting in front of family and friends and is 12 years older at 36, but the 24-year-old Benoist is considered a well-rounded up-and-comer, with this potentially being his coming-out party . . . Benoist by first-round submission (triangle choke).

Jimmy Hettes (10-0) vs. Marcus Brimage (5-1), featherweight = Speaking of up-and-comers, Hettes is also being hailed as a force to be reckoned with at 145 pounds, with Brimage serving as another stepping stone toward title contention. Hettes by first-round stoppage.

Seth Baczynski (17-8) vs. Simeon Thoresen (17-2), welterweight = Thoresen, a native of Norway, has the more impressive record, but Baczynski has won five straight, including a split decision over Benoist in June. That result, to me, was telling and I expect Baczynski to outlast Thoresen as well, likely by decision.

Mitch Gagnon (8-2) vs. Walel Watson (9-4), bantamweight (135 lbs.) = Gagnon will be the first Canadian in the cage, fighting out of Sudbury, Ont., but at 5-foot-6 he’ll have his hands full with the cagey 5-foot-11 Watson. Gagnon is looking to rebound after losing his UFC debut, while Watson has dropped two straight decisions. An important tilt for both guys, but I’ll go with the Canadian by way of a coin flip and say Gagnon by majority decision.

Tune in to TUF

In UFC news unrelated to the Toronto card, the 16th season of The Ultimate Fighter has started airing and features two Canadian welterweight prospects in Kelowna’s Mike (The Messenger) Hill, 25, and Montreal’s Mike (The Martian) Ricci, 26.

Both have trained with fellow Canadian welterweight Rory MacDonald (13-1), a 23-year-old originally from Kelowna who moved to Montreal where he currently fights out of the TriStar Gym, alongside Ricci (7-2).

Hill (4-0) and Ricci both scored quality TKO victories in the elimination round to earn entry into the TUF house during last Friday’s premier episode, with the ensuing teaser highlighting Hill as one of this season’s more colourful — or possibly controversial — characters. Stay tuned and, as always, enjoy the show (Friday evenings on FX Canada and Rogers Sportsnet, check local listings).

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