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UFC opens up 2010 with a bang

Report by Andreas Hale

Since 2006, the UFC has put on extraordinary shows to ring in the new year. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz rang in 2007 with their rematch at UFC 66, 2008 was greeted with Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes having their rubber match while Chuck Liddell battled Wanderlei Silva at UFC 79 and 2009 saw a dynamic card that was topped off with Rashad Evans taking on Forrest Griffin at UFC 92.

UFC 108 was set to continue the trend of impressive cards to bring in the new year but the injury bug bit - and then bit again, and again, and again. Initially, Anderson Silva was to take on Vitor Belfort. However, an elbow injury prevented Silva from fighting. A heavyweight clash between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin was shelved after Lesnar was struck with an illness that shot down that highly anticipated match. All was well when it was announced that Cain Velasquez and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would step in as the main event. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck again as Nogueria would have to deal with a severe case of staph infection.

And that was only for the main event…

Injuries to Sean Sherk, Gabriel Gonzaga, Carlos Conduit, Tyson Griffin, Rory Markham and Steve Cantwell prevented them from competing on the January 2nd card and led many to believe that UFC 108 was officially cursed.

But here we are at UFC 108 - after its numerous shifts and changes - with a lineup that looks completely different than when it was first announced.

“Like I always say, we deliver fights, that’s what we do,” UFC president Dana White said during the final press conference before the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event of 2010 takes place. Obviously faced with the challenge to piece together a card that has been riddled with injuries since it was announced, White brimmed with confidence that his main event and co-main event would deliver.

“It’s just one of those things, guys are getting injured - it’s never happened in nine years,” White explained regarding the perceived “curse.” “This is a physical sport. These guys train hard (and) it is actually shocking that we haven’t run into this problem before.”

Regardless of what the naysayers shout on the message boards and chat rooms about UFC 108 being a “weak” card, White doesn’t flinch when he says that Saturday’s card will be full of fireworks.

“The momentum hasn’t died at all,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re a fight fan, you want to see good fights. I guarantee you, there will be good fights on Saturday.”

Saturday night’s co-main event features the classic “Striker Vs Grappler” match-up between Paul “Semtex” Daley and Dustin “McLovin” Hazelett.

“Semtex” is riding a three fight win streak entering the fight with Hazelett. His utter destruction of contender Martin Kampmann put the entire welterweight division on notice. A devastating striker, Daley will have his hands full when he takes on submission specialist Dusting Hazelett.

“It would be stupid of me to overlook Dustin,” Daley said as he was anticipating fighting Carlos Conduit before he went down with an injury. “He’s a tough and credible guy with great submission skills. I’m just looking at this fight. I’m not looking beyond this fight.”

“Nothing really changed with my game plan,” he explained when Hazelett was presented as his opponent. “I’m always going to want to keep the fight standing and always looking to try and knock people out.”

The fighter who resembles McLovin from “Superbad” has been anything but bad during his tenure in the UFC. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu specialist has showcased a knack for making his opponent tap as four of his last five fights have ended in submission victories. Obviously, Hazelett is making no secret as to what his strategy will be on Saturday night.

“I’m not, by any means, trying to make this into a brawl,” Hazelett said and making it clear where he wants this fight to be. “I’m not the fastest or the strongest guy. I got where I am through hard work and intelligence.”

“I don’t think I’m going to spoil any strategy by saying that taking this fight to the ground is the easiest path to victory,” McLovin said.

The main event features two fighters looking to factor back into the light heavyweight championship picture. “Suga” Rashad Evans and Thiago Silva both have superb records and both share a lone blemish on their record courtesy of Lyoto Machida.

For Rashad Evans, Saturday’s fight is of incredible significance. Since losing to Machida, Evans found himself going from TUF competitor to TUF coach during the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter. His stint has turned him into a UFC star and a fighter that many didn’t understand became a person that everyone could relate to.

“I think (TUF) changed the public perception of me big time,” he says about his rise in popularity after he coached on TUF. “Before that, people didn’t get to see what kind of person I am. They got to see me right before I fight and while I am in the cage. That’s about fifteen minutes. When they got to see me for a thirteen week process and how I interact with other people, then they can relate to me on a different level.”

Unfortunately, what was supposed to culminate in a highly anticipated grudge match with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was canned when “Rampage” opted for Hollywood over the Octagon and left Evans staring at the dangerous Thiago Silva. It will be the first fight for Evans in nearly eight months - which gave Evans enough time to refocus since being knocked silly by “The Dragon.”

“Losing in such devastating fashion is never easy to overcome,” Evans says when asked about the time off between fights. “The time off helped me benefit and get the focus and hunger I need to regain the title again.”

Win or lose, many think that a fight with “Rampage” is inevitable due to the hype surrounding the two on TUF, but Dana White made it clear that the fight isn’t a “gimme.”

“I think he’s going to have to beat Thiago on Saturday to get a shot against ‘Rampage,’” White explained. Thus adding incentive for Evans to emerge victorious against the dangerous Silva. But for Evans, Jackson is the furthest thing on his mind. The only fighter that matters is Silva.

“When I took the fight with Thiago, ‘Rampage’ wasn’t even on the horizon,” Evans explains. “We weren’t even sure if he was coming back. I took this fight just with the intention to fight Thiago. It doesn’t change anything.”

Lost in the hype and star power of Evans is how dangerous of an opponent Thiago Silva is. Some may forget that American Top Team fighter amassed an impressive 13-0 MMA record - which featured an array of brutal finishes - before running into the buzz saw known as Machida. Even after his KO loss to Machida, Silva quickly rebounded and knocked out Evans’ teammate Keith Jardine in August at UFC 102. It’s no secret that Silva is looking to duplicate the thrashing he delivered to Jardine when he steps into the cage with Evans.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Silva responds when asked if he feels slighted as all the attention is being paid to Evans. “I’m here to fight the best. Evans is one of the best. I’ll fight anyone the UFC puts in front of me.”

Regardless of how much attention Evans receives, Silva seems to prefer letting his actions speak louder than his words and hopes to do his talking in the cage on January 2nd at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

“This is a great opportunity for me,” Silva said as he spoke in English instead of his native language of Portuguese. “I’m here just to fight. That’s it.”



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