If you tune in this Saturday night looking for MMA action, you’ll find Mauricio Rua squaring off against Alexander Gustafsson on UFC on Fox 5. What’s the even better news? That’s not even the main event. In the year since the UFC debuted on Fox, the card coming from Seattle promises to be the most fan-friendly yet and it will be headlined by Benson Henderson taking on Nate Diaz for the lightweight title with Rory MacDonald facing B.J. Penn to boot.
Benson Henderson - Nate Diaz
Henderson [17-2] is unbeaten in the UFC so far. That’s impressive. Sure he may have been fortunate to have beaten Frankie Edgar twice, especially in a rematch victory coming by way of a split decision. But regardless he’s is the man to beat in the lightweight division. Sure, fans may know he’s not fireworks on legs, with most of his victories coming the way of decisions, but an undefeated record always counts for something in the UFC and it will count when Henderson stares across the Octagon at Diaz.
Diaz, winner of The Ultimate Fighter 5, might be a career 16-7 and a very unsavory 11-5 in the UFC but there is an ever growing chorus cheering Diaz’s chances against Henderson. A fair number of insiders are even picking Diaz to get an easy victory. Why? Well since Diaz returned to the lightweight ranks in late 2011 he’s provided the pyrotechnics Henderson has not. Aside from the size advantage the former welterweight possesses his overall game has improved. Defence? Much better. Wrestling? Certainly. Diaz might not be a polished article, he has too many blemishes on his record to ever be that, but he’s a better prospect than two years before.
Henderson may have the athleticism to last five rounds and the safe knowledge that no one can submit him to earn a decision again, but Diaz has the reach and wrestling noose to find a way way to possibly set Henderson up for some hard blows. Regardless it’s an intriguing matchup that will leave one man with a belt to show for his troubles.
Alexander Gustafsson - Mauricio Rua
Mauricio Rua [21-6] used to be something. He has titles to prove it. The problem is that he also has a 5-4 record in the UFC. A loss on Saturday will see him relegated to premier gatekeeper status - if he’s not there already.
The Brazilian is a respected veteran no doubt, but he’s also a fighter who many think has very little left in the tank. Aside from visible stamina issues, the former champion has tired in later rounds, the ability to step up gears against lesser opponents has not given encouraging signs either. Rua’s lackluster loss to Dan Henderson was a war, but it was also a sure fire indicator that Rua may be finished as a top level premier fighter who struggles to go a full five rounds.
As for Gustafsson, there’s no doubt the UFC has plans for him. Gustafsson may be considered a prospect now, but the skill set on show everytime he fights is clearly one Dana White would love to be pitted against light-heavyweight supremo Jon Jones. In the meantime the talented Swede must get past Rua, a victory over whom would be the most significant name on his resume to date. Gustafsson is tall, rangy and will look to land shots from distance on his opponent who will likely tire in the later rounds. But with two pairs of dynamite gloves in the octagon, fans can expect fireworks at any point.
Rory MacDonald - B.J. Penn
B.J. Penn is a UFC legend. Fact. He’s also a legend who retired. Deciding to come back against one of the rising stars of not only the division but of the sport as a whole in the shape of MacDonald may prove to be foolhardy. MacDonald fights off comparisons to his superstar teammate Georges St-Pierre, while Penn could not fight off Nick Diaz in a face-mangling loss.
The reasons for Penn coming back are unclear, maybe he has something to prove. But fans may see on Saturday that even legends of the sport need to stay retired.
Igor Guryashkin is a freelance journalist whose extensive work on combat sports has been featured in ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He splits his time between New York and Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @IGuryashkinESPN.