Jon Jones is one victory away from equaling the legendary light heavyweight title runs that Chuck Liddell and Frank Shamrock put together inside the Octagon. At UFC 152, Jones will have a chance to earn that win against Vitor Belfort.
Having earned the light heavyweight belt with a January 2004 win over Randy Couture, when Couture suffered an unfortunate cut in the opening minute of action, Belfort is the fifth straight former UFC champion Jones has squared off against. Though he is returning to the 205-pound division after three straight appearances at middleweight, Belfort will try to capture the title more convincingly against Jones.
At this point, every Jones fight is a big one. The 25-year-old appears to be closing in on a UFC record that has stood for nearly a decade. November will mark the 10-year anniversary of Tito Ortiz's fifth consecutive light heavyweight title defense in a bout with rival Ken Shamrock.
That said, there are plenty of other story lines heading into Saturday's event. These are UFC 152's hottest topics.
Following his appearance on Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, Kyle Noke was victorious in his first three UFC bouts. At that point, UFC matchmakers decided Noke was ready for a step up in competition, which came against a fellow TUF alumnus in Ed Herman.
Noke started off strong against Herman, scoring a takedown and chipping away with punches from the top position. However, Herman—a crafty veteran with a dozen career submissions—was able to catch Noke in a painful heel hook with 45 seconds remaining in the opening round.
That submission led to a badly sprained knee for Noke, who proceeded to re-injure his knee in his following bout against Andrew Craig. The Australian battled through the knee injury he sustained in the bout with Craig, but he was clearly hampered by the issue and proceeded to lose in a unanimous decision.
For the first time in his career, Noke had suffered back-to-back losses. A change needed to be made, and it was decided that Noke would make the move to the welterweight division for a bout with Charlie Brenneman.
Against Brenneman, takedown defense will be vital for Noke to avoid a third straight loss. In addition to having plenty of wrestlers to train with at Jackson's MMA, Noke has not been taken down more than once in any of his five Octagon appearances. Gaining a potential size advantage by cutting to 170 pounds could also aid Noke in this matchup.
A bout with Brenneman could provide a favorable stylistic matchup for Noke. The 32-year-old will likely never be a serious contender in the welterweight division, but Noke should be able to turn things around and remain on the UFC roster for awhile with his 170-pound frame.
Three straight UFC losses usually earns a fighter a one-way ticket back to a regional organization near you. So Walel Watson—in the midst of a two-fight losing streak—will be looking to earn some job security when he meets Mitch Gagnon at UFC 152.
While Watson is in a precarious position, Gagnon could also use a win after being submitted by Bryan Caraway in his UFC debut. Adding to the pressure to pick up his first win inside the Octagon, Gagnon will once again be competing in his home country of Canada.
Takedown defense has been an issue of concern for Watson. He will definitely want to avoid going to the ground with Gagnon, who has recorded all eight of his wins via submission. Though Gagnon is not as strong a wrestler as T.J. Dillashaw, who Watson lost against in his latest Octagon appearance.
This matchup gives Watson a chance to rebound, but he'll still have to show some significant improvement in order to remain on the UFC's bantamweight roster.
A winner of five straight fights since being released from the UFC following a loss against Brad Tavares, 30-year-old Seth Baczynski appears to finally be hitting his stride.
Though, despite picking up three victories inside the Octagon since returning to the big leagues, Baczynski has been matched up against a fighter who only just picked up a win in his UFC debut.
Simeon Thoreson is a bright prospect who has only lost once in his past 10 bouts, but he may not be quite ready for an opponent with as much UFC experience as Baczynski has. While his lack of experience is a concern, Thoreson could cause problems for Baczynski on the ground. The Norwegian has picked up 15 of his 17 career wins via submission, while Baczynski has been forced to tap in five of his eight losses.
Submission defense will be a point of focus for Baczynski as he trains for this bout, but he has not been submitted in over four years. So "Polish Pistola" may have already filled the holes in his ground game enough to survive on the canvas against Thoreson.
Baczynski is still waiting for the step up in competition that many felt he deserved after submitting long-time UFC fighter Matt Brown. If he can avoid being put on his back by Thoreson, there is a good chance Baczynski will see that bigger name the next time he steps into the cage.
Unfortunately, we probably won't get an answer to this question at UFC 152.
At least, Jimy Hettes hopes we won't, as it would likely mean he suffered the first loss of his career despite seemingly taking a step backward in competition.
A bout against Marcus Brimage won't shed much light on Hettes' skill level, as he is already coming off of a win over the more experienced Nam Phan. However, it will provide Hettes an opportunity to pad his undefeated record while getting some more work inside the Octagon.
The 25-year-old grappler has the potential to become a future contender in the featherweight division. He should be able to pick up a win against Brimage, but we wouldn't be able to deduct much from said victory. Look for Hettes to face off against a more veteran opponent in his following appearance.
Sean Pierson was originally booked for a bout against Dan Miller at UFC 152. However, Miller withdrew from that bout to see his son through a kidney transplant, which allowed Lance Benoist to step in as a replacement opponent for Pierson.
Coming off of a split decision loss to Seth Baczynski, Benoist can't afford lack of preparation to lead to a second straight defeat. The 24-year-old has had about one month to prepare for this fight, which should be enough time for him to be both mentally and physically ready, as long as he was in relatively good shape heading into his shortened training camp.
Benoist has already shown he has technique comparable to Pierson's, as he picked up a decisive win in his UFC debut against Matt Riddle, who Pierson also defeated on the scorecards in his first trip to the Octagon.
So, if Benoist is able to take conditioning out of the equation in this matchup, he should have a good chance to avoid back-to-back losses.
After a June 2010 win over Tyson Griffin, an undefeated Evan Dunham appeared ready to make a run at a lightweight title shot. However, the Xtreme Couture fighter followed his win over Griffin with a controversial decision defeat to former 155-pound champion Sean Sherk and a deflating first-round knockout loss to Melvin Guillard.
Dunham has since fallen out of title contention for most of the past two years, but he's now within striking defense of earning another contest against an elite lightweight. A win over T.J. Grant at UFC 152 would give Dunham three straight victories, which should be enough for the 30-year-old to get a long awaited step-up in competition.
A jiu-jitsu brown belt with 13 career submissions, Grant is strongest in the same areas as Dunham, a jiu-jitsu black belt who has also picked up several submission victories. Dunham may be taken out of his element in this matchup, but that might not be such a bad thing as he showed improved striking in recent wins over Shamar Bailey and Nik Lentz.
Following a knockout loss to Ryan Bader in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 8, Vinny Magalhaes was defeated by Eliot Marshall and released from the UFC perhaps prematurely.
Since being cut from the organization, Magalhaes has won seven of his past eight fights, which has earned him a return to the Octagon at UFC 152.
Magalhaes won't be eased back into UFC competition, though. Instead, he will meet Igor Pokrajac, a winner of three straight fights. Pokrajac may also have the wrestling to avoid going to the ground with Magalhaes, who is a former jiu-jitsu world champion.
During his first stint with the UFC, Magalhaes was seen mostly as a one-dimensional grappler. However, the Brazilian is coming off of a head kick knockout of Mikhail Zayats in an M-1 title fight, so it may be safe to assume we'll see a different Magalhaes than we saw in his last trip to the Octagon in April 2009.
The featherweight division is growing short on contenders.
So Charles Oliveira has quickly entered the title picture just two fights into his move to the 145-pound weight class. Submission victories over Eric Wisely and Jonathan Brookins have made the 22-year-old Oliveira one of the hottest prospects in the UFC, and a win over Cub Swanson at UFC 152 could set the Brazilian up for a title shot eliminator.
Swanson has also won back-to-back fights, making him relevant among top featherweights for the first time in years.
The Greg Jackson-trained fighter came closest to a title fight when he met Jose Aldo in June 2009. Aldo knocked Swanson out with double flying knees and proceeded to take the WEC featherweight belt from Mike Brown in his following appearance.
With Aldo still reigning over the 145-pound division, Swanson may have more work to do to earn a title shot than Oliveira. However, Swanson is equally dynamic as Oliveira, giving him a realistic opportunity to make a big statement on Saturday.
After Matt Hamill lost consecutive fights for the first time in his career in August 2011, the inspirational fighter decided to step away from the sport and into retirement.
One year later, Hamill returns for a fight against UFC newcomer Roger Hollett.
Hamill heads into his fight against Hollett with renewed motivation, something he believes he lacked in his prior appearance against Alexander Gustafsson. Motivated or not, Hamill should be able to defeat Hollett at UFC 152. Hamill has much more experience against elite competition and appears the more talented fighter, even at 35 years of age.
It is not as if Hamill's retirement followed two horrible losses. After beating Keith Jardine and Tito Ortiz, Hamill dropped a decision to former champion Quinton Jackson and suffered a defeat against one of the brightest young stars in the light heavyweight division in Gustafsson.
Hamill's first retirement came too soon, and he will prove that against Hollett on the UFC 152 main card.
Once barren, the land of the middleweight contenders is now overcrowded.
Chris Weidman appears to be leading the race for a title shot against Anderson Silva. But the champion is uninterested in 185-pound fights at the moment, as he is preparing for a light heavyweight bout against Stephan Bonnar and potentially a catch weight super-fight against welterweight titleholder Georges St-Pierre.
Arguably robbed of a title shot in a controversial decision loss against Chael Sonnen, Michael Bisping will look to make up ground on Weidman with a win over Brian Stann at UFC 152. Some believe Bisping could earn a title shot with an impressive win over Stann, but that seems unlikely considering Stann is still looking for a win over a Top 5 middleweight himself.
Instead, a win over Stann would probably put Bisping within one more win of earning a spot in a championship bout.
With Weidman locked into a bout against Tim Boetsch more than three months away, the question becomes: Who would that win potentially come against for Bisping?
At UFC 152, the UFC will introduce an eighth championship belt, which will be awarded to the winner of a flyweight bout between Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson.
Both fighters earned their spot in the title fight by picking up wins in the semifinal round of a four-man tournament to determine the first ever 125-pound champion. Benavidez knocked out former Shooto champion Yasuhiro Urushitani, while Johnson eventually bested Ian McCall after two action-packed bouts.
Benavidez and Johnson both came up short in bantamweight title shots against Dominick Cruz before making the move to the flyweight division, so both fighters will be looking to avoid massive disappointment in a second championship fight defeat.
With a win over Vitor Belfort, Jon Jones would tie Chuck Liddell and Frank Shamrock for the second most consecutive light heavyweight title defenses in UFC history.
Though he's only 25 years old, that could spark debate about Jones already being the greatest 205-pound fighter ever.
Currently, most would put Wanderlei Silva or Chuck Liddell at the top of the heap when it comes to career accomplishments at light heavyweight.
Though Tito Ortiz had one more consecutive title defense than Liddell, he was knocked out by "The Iceman" twice and lost to Shamrock just before capturing the UFC belt. Additionally, Shamrock reigned over the 205-pound division before there was a lot of highly talented fighters competing in the sport, which leaves his resume lacking in comparison to Liddell's.
Silva entered the picture by defending the Pride title on multiple occasions, but it could be argued "The Axe Murderer" wasn't consistently competing against top-notch competition. He also lost on multiple occasions during his time as champion. Silva beat the likes of Quinton Jackson and Kazushi Sakuraba during his reign in Japan, but his light heavyweight dominance was bookended by losses to Ortiz and Dan Henderson.
So, if Jones can do what is expected of him at UFC 151 by defeating Belfort, he could find himself edging past Liddell and Silva in the minds of many.
Jones would have an equal amount of title defenses as Liddell while persistently facing tougher challengers.
Where Liddell picked up title defenses against Renato Sobral and Jeremy Horn, Jones would have earned four straight title defenses against former UFC champions. Furthermore, if he can put Belfort away early, Jones will have matched the dominant nature of Silva's title run, beating stiffer competition and going the distance only once in his past 10 appearances, with Rashad Evans.
When Jones began making a name for himself in the UFC, many projected that he could become one of the sport's biggest stars based on his unmatched athleticism. Then, there was plenty of unearned hype surrounding Jones.
The 25-year-old has quickly turned potential into reality.
If Jones beats Belfort decisively, he will become the greatest light heavyweight in MMA history and will be able to begin focusing on closing the gap between himself and Anderson Silva.