Ortiz headlines UFC 73
In the year and a half since Tito Ortiz returned to the Octagon, he has shown that he is still one of MMA's best showmen and one of UFC's most marketable fighters. However, the results inside the cage have been less convincing for the former UFC light heavyweight champ. Ortiz won a controversial decision over Forrest Griffin in his return to the Octagon and pounded overmatched legend Ken Shamrock in two subsequent bouts. In his first true test -- a title fight against Chuck Liddell at UFC 66 last December -- Ortiz was TKO'ed in the third round.
Ortiz hasn't fought since that loss. But, tonight at UFC 73 he returns to action against quickly rising TUF light heavyweight Rashad Evans. The winner of this bout will make a strong claim for a shot at the title currently held by Quinton Jackson. Ortiz and Evans have been feuding through the media in the weeks and months leading up to this fight, engaging in psychological warfare that is a staple in Ortiz' strategy.
However, Ortiz must be wary. While UFC has chosen to use his fight as the marquee matchup for the night, how much longer will the promotion or fans care about his antics if he loses tonight? Evans is unbeaten as a MMA fighter and has won his last two fights by knockout even though he is more well-known for his wrestling ability. His last victory was a devastating Cro Cop-esque kick to the head that put opponent Sean Salmon to sleep for a scary amount of time.
Ortiz faces the prospect of having to choose between standing up against a quickly improving striker or go to his bread-and-butter ground-and-pound against a very good wrestler. Tonight, we will find out whether Ortiz is truly back to being a MMA fighter or if he is content being an entertainer and a businessman.
While Ortiz-Evans is the most talked about fight of the night, there are two title fights, the debut of a former PRIDE heavyweight champ, and the return of a TUF 1 darling that also serve as intriguing storylines for the night. Here's what else to look for tonight at UFC 73:
Middleweight Title Fight -- Anderson Silva (champion) vs. Nate Marquardt
This is Silva's first title defense since he brutally defeated Rich Franklin in UFC 64 to claim the belt. Silva's first defense became a non-title affair when TUF 4 victor Travis Lutter couldn't make weight. Silva has tremendous striking ability (as Franklin found out first-hand) but is also a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt and showed some of that ground skill in his submission victory over Lutter.
Marquardt has an impressive MMA record (25-6-2 according to Sherdog.com) and is 4-0 in the UFC. With the middleweight division fairly weak, he has been presented with the opportunity to grab the belt from Silva. Marquardt has won most of his fights by submission and is himself a BJJ black belt, so his best chance of winning may be to take the fight to the ground. Still, Marquardt does have a number of victories earned by striking so this looks to be a very formidable matchup for Silva.
Lightweight Title Fight -- Sean Sherk (champion) vs. Hermes Franca
Sean Sherk won the vacant lightweight crown last October by defeating Kenny Florian at UFC 64. This is Sherk's first title defense since then. Franca begged UFC president Dana White for a title fight after his TKO victory over Spencer Fisher in January and White gave the Brazilian his wish.
Both fighters like to take fights to the ground and win there, with most of their victories coming by way of submission. However, both also have a substantial number of victories by striking. So, this fight can truly be won by either fighter either on their feet or on the ground.
If this title fight is anything like other recent fights in this division, look for back-and-forth action that transitions often from stand-up to the ground game and back and an exciting pace all the way through.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira makes his UFC debut
In 2007, clearly one of UFC's main goals has been to shore up its previously weak heavyweight division. The promotion has done this by pilfering the ranks of the Japanese PRIDE organization. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is the latest PRIDE heavyweight to make his debut in UFC and he comes to the States with impressive credentials.
Nogueira is a former heavyweight champ in PRIDE and has taken on the best in PRIDE, coming away with victories over Mirko Cro Cop, Dan Henderson, and Josh Barnett and winning twice against tonight's opponent Heath Herring. About the only fighter Nogueira was unable to defeat while in PRIDE is Fedor Emelianenko, widely considered the best heavyweight in the world.
Herring came to UFC with some fanfare but struggled and lost in his debut against Jake O'Brien in January. He righted the ship somewhat with a UFC 69 decision victory over Brad Imes but faces a tall task in tonight's matchup against Nogueira. Herring lost their first fight by decision and their second fight in 2004 by submission.
Nogueira has world-class BJJ skills and stand-up skills as well and hopes to show UFC fans what the rest of the world already knows -- that he is one of the top heavyweights in the world.
Stephan Bonnar returns from steroid suspension
The up-and-down career of TUF 1 darling Stephan Bonnar came to a screeching halt last summer after Bonnar not only lost a rematch against Forrest Griffin but also tested positive for steroids after that match. Bonnar has served his nine-month drug suspension and returns to the Octagon tonight in a match against TUF 3 alum Mike Nickels with a number of questions left to answer.
For one, has Bonnar improved his game enough to be considered a serious light heavyweight title contender? So far -- with a UFC record of 3-3 and a current two-fight losing streak -- the answer is no.
And, can Bonnar rehabilitate his image with the fans after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug? It will be interesting to see how the ARCO Arena fans respond to Bonnar during the pre-fight introductions and how they respond to him after the fight -- win or lose.
For the entire UFC 73 card, visit ufc.com.