The first UFC offering of 2012 comes to fans this Saturday in the form of UFC 142 where UFC Featherweight Champion “Junior” Jose Aldo (19-1) will defend his belt against “Money” Chad Mendes (11-0). The card marks the organization’s second return to the country of Brazil since the beginning of the Zuffa era and, as is often the case when the UFC travels abroad, it features a majority of fighters from that country. “Toquinho” Rousimar Palhares (15-5) will take on American middleweight Mike Massenzio (13-5), “Indio” Erick Silva (8-2) will face off with fellow Brazilian “Neo” Carlo Prater (27-11-1), and Edson Barboza (9-0) will put his undefeated record on the line against British striker Terry Etim (15-3). Serving as the co-main event is a middleweight match-up with a serious impact on the top of the division’s food chain. Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and UFC 12 Tournament winner “The Phenom” Vitor Belfort (20-9) will seek to further erase his loss to current champion “The Spider” Anderson Silva (29-4) by knocking out former welterweight contender “Rumble” Anthony Johnson (10-3) who will be making his 185lbs. divisional debut.
At First Glance: While title implications are not a significant part of this bout, there are still major waves to be made by both fighters, especially considering the comparative lack of depth in the 185lbs. division. Anthony Johnson is making his first appearance at middleweight and consequently his first appearance in the UFC that will not require him to make a +50lbs. weight cut. The presence of such a large and athletic middleweight could jumble up the upper ranks of the division in a major way, especially if he makes a splash with a win over a consensus top ten middleweight. Vitor Belfort is preparing to take on the role as coach for The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil opposite long-time rival “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva (35-11-1) and needs to enter the show on the heels of another victory to keep the relevance of his post-season bout with Wanderlei alive. Vitor’s only loss at 185lbs. is to the current champ, so a loss would be all the more damaging as it will significantly hurt his standing in the division as well.
In Depth: The long and short of this fight is Johnson’s power wrestling and raw size vs. Belfort’s sickening hand speed and tremendous knockout power. Belfort’s Achilles’ heel has always been his wrestling, but he more than compensates for it with explosive hand speed that allows him to demolish wrestlers as they come in for the takedown. Still, against skilled wrestlers, Belfort has a record of 2-4 which doesn’t bode well for “The Phenom” against Johnson who has a respectable if not exceptional wrestling pedigree. For Johnson’s part, he is a larger fighter, as is almost always the case in his bouts, and will have the added bonus of cutting 15 fewer pounds for this bout than he was forced to as a welterweight. What he does lack, however, is any evidence that he can handle the blistering hand speed and power of Belfort’s boxing. Johnson has faced a skilled striker only once in his career and even then was lost on the feet and resorted to lay-and-pray wrestling for the win. Against Belfort who has superior takedown defense, boxing, hand speed, and power when compared to “The Outlaw” Dan Hardy (23-10), the only credible striking threat of “Rumble’s” career, the outlook doesn’t look good for the newly minted middleweight. For Johnson, the fight is all about closing the distance with his head in tact and controlling Belfort long enough to pull out a decision win. For “The Phenom” the bout balances solely on his ability to make Johnson pay for any opening he presents, and in a violent fashion.
Wild Card: The x-factor in this fight is obvious – it is Johnson’s size, but not in the way most would think. While “Rumble” will cut from around 225lbs. to make weight, giving him around a 20lbs. advantage over Belfort, his size may actually work against him. Belfort began his career as a heavyweight and spent the majority of it at light heavyweight. He is more than comfortable fighting opponents the size of Anthony Johnson. “Rumble” by contrast wrestled at 174lbs. and spent his MMA career at 170lbs. and is thus used to having a very significant advantage in size and strength. If he has come to rely on that advantage too much over the course of his career, there is a very good chance that Belfort will expose it in a manner that leaves “Rumble” devoid of his consciousness.
The Verdict: At the end of the night, this is Belfort’s fight to lose. His worst enemy was always himself and he seems to have put the mercurial nature of his youth behind him. Johnson is fighting at a new weight against fighters larger than any he has faced before. Even though he is still the bigger man, he will not enjoy the kind of advantage he has become accustomed to and that may very well spell the end for him. Look for Johnson to struggle to close the distance only to be left on his back after a vintage Vitor Belfort blitzkrieg. Belfort via KO (Punches), Round 1