UFC's Atlanta foray brings a trio of notable storylines
You almost have to feel bad for the fighters on Saturday's UFC 88 card in Atlanta. With the announcement of Randy Couture's return dominating MMA headlines, the weekend fights in Georgia seem like an afterthought. The blame can be split, though: part Couture's legal media show, part UFC 88's lineup.
There's not a single title up for grabs on the pay-per-view event, and most of the bouts don't even have title implication. Instead, we get several ex-champs and former superstars trying to stay relevant against a rising class of competitors.
But that doesn't mean UFC 88 is just a forgettable stop on the road to Couture vs. Brock Lesnar in November. While it may be slim pickings, here are a few things worth watching Saturday:
Chuck Liddell vs. Rashad Evans
When it comes to title shots and the UFC, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Just look at the Kenny Florian-Roger Huerta bout at UFC 87, which was supposed to be a No. 1-contender match. Supposed to be.
Saturday's main event brings a slightly different story, though it's not necessarily any fairer.
If Chuck Liddell beats Rashad Evans, "The Iceman" will most likely get the first crack at Forrest Griffin's 205-pound title. Liddell has been a good soldier for the UFC, and company president Dana White will want to reward his loyalty. With Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in limbo and Lyoto Machida appearing elusive (a.k.a. boring) in recent fights, Liddell is the smart choice for a big-money match anyway.
If Evans wins, he still may not take Liddell's spot. Even if "Sugar" managed to finish Liddell (an unlikely scenario given Liddell's takedown defense and counter-punching ability), Evans would still be at least one more win from a title shot. As talented as he is, his slow, grinding style will never be a hit with fans, and thus he'll never be the draw that Liddell is. Fair? Not really. But it is reality. Just ask Machida.
Franklin and Henderson on the same boat
Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson: both former champs, both undone by the brilliance of Anderson Silva (and both, in turn, joined the long list of Silva victims). There's no shame in that, not when the champ is the "Spider." But where do they go from here?
Henderson is staying at middleweight, still holding on to the pipe dream of a rematch with Silva. Franklin, who moves up in weight in an attempt to revitalize his career as a 205-pounder, made the best choice. If he can't beat Matt Hamill on Saturday, though, that glimmer of hope will also fade, leaving him with a choice between retirement and a steady fall from mediocrity. Neither road is appealing, but at least one is more dignified.
Henderson faces the capable, but largely unheralded, Rousimar Palhares in a fight that could easily go badly for the former PRIDE champ. Aside from being a touch too small at middleweight, Palhares is exactly the type of Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter who has given Henderson trouble in the past.
If Hendo can't come up with a solution to that problem he'll drop out of the title picture altogether and most likely end up on Ultimate Fight Night events or pay-per-view dark matches. In short, this is do-or-die for him.
The bout between Martin Kampmann and Nate Marquardt on the undercard has the potential to be the best of the night. Not only does it pit two well-rounded, exciting fighters against one another in an intriguing clash of styles, but also it should also tell us whose stock is rising in the middleweight class and whose is staying in the middle of the pack.
Marquardt needs to erase the ugly memory of his split-decision loss to Thales Leites at UFC 85. It's not so much that Marquardt performed poorly, but losing a fight on points after being penalized for illegal blows is a bad way to go down. He needs this win as a morale boost.
Kampmann is an unheralded middleweight who is somehow still flying under most people's radar. He's unbeaten in the last four years and has faced some tough, though not elite, competition in recent fights.
If he can put up a convincing victory over Marquardt, it may signal that the "Hitman" is a potential title contender -- even if not right away. But in a division so desperate for fresh meat to toss into the cage with Silva, Kampmann's time may come sooner than expected. Let's just hope it isn't too soon. There's no sense in destroying such a bright young talent by overmatching him at this point in his career.
In the meantime, don't tune in late and miss this fight. It could easily provide more fireworks than the main event.