The Stakes Are High for the Major Players at UFC 160
The promotion's annual Memorial Day weekend event in Las Vegas will feature four of the top heavyweight fighters in the world, as champion Cain Velasquez will look to defend his title against Antonio Silva in the card's main event and former titleholder Junior dos Santos will attempt to earn another championship opportunity when he squares off with knockout artist Mark Hunt in the co-main event slot.
While the heavyweights have received the lion's share of the spotlight in the lead-up to the event, a high-profile lightweight scrap will have an immediate impact on the divisional picture at 155 pounds. Former No. 1 contender Gray Maynard and T.J. Grant will step into the Octagon to determine who will be the next to challenge for Benson Henderson's lightweight crown.
The promotional tag line for the event says, "Heavyweights. Heavy hands. Heavy stakes."
Let's take a look at what is on the line for the major players at UFC 160.
Cain Velasquez vs. Antonio Silva
The general consensus in the MMA community was that we would be seeing Cain Velasquez face Alistair Overeem at UFC 160 this weekend.
"The Reem" was coming off a year-long suspension back in February, and his return to the Octagon was highly anticipated. The only thing the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion had to do was get past Antonio Silva at UFC 156, and the Dutch wrecking machine appeared confident that he would accomplish that.
Unfortunately for Overeem, "Bigfoot" had much different plans. After being on the business end of things for two rounds, the American Top Team fighter unleashed the beast and unloaded his heavy hands on the former K-1 champion to pull off an upset via brutal knockout.
The victory earned Silva not only a chance to compete for Velasquez's heavyweight strap but also a shot at redemption. The two heavyweights squared off one year ago at UFC 146, and the AKA product steamrolled the Brazilian. It was a violent, lopsided bloodbath, as Velasquez brutalized Silva with a torrential stream of elbows that resulted in a first-round stoppage.
That being said, Silva will have a chance to avenge the loss and get his hands on UFC gold if he can defeat Velasquez this Saturday night at UFC 160.
With the division heating up and a batch of contenders on the rise, this may be the only chance the Brazilian gets to compete for the title—at least for the time being. There will be more opportunities for Silva to fight his way back up the ladder, but with the current depth in the weight class, doing so will be a difficult road to travel.
This makes his fight with Velasquez the most important fight of his career, and he's coming into the bout as a heavy underdog. Nevertheless, the 33-year-old has been on the other side of doubt before, and each time he's answered the call with devastating results.
But while the Silva underdog story sounds nice, the reality is that he's fighting a machine in Velasquez. The former standout wrestling star from Arizona State University is coming off a five-round dismantling of Junior dos Santos at UFC 155. The fight with "JDS" showed the 30-year-old champion has finally returned to full health and is looking to make a lengthy run in his second go as the heavyweight titleholder.
Velasquez stumbled in his first attempt to defend the belt during his initial reign as champion, and he's determined not to make that mistake again. Should he come up short against Silva at UFC 160, all the doubt that lingered after his loss to dos Santos will return in force. That has to be ample motivation for Velasquez heading into the fight.
Junior dos Santos vs. Mark Hunt
Being a UFC champion defined Junior dos Santos, and he wants nothing more than to get back to the top. "Cigano" will earn the opportunity for another title fight if he's able to defeat Mark Hunt this Saturday at UFC 160.
The bout with the "Super Samoan" will be the first action that dos Santos has seen since losing his heavyweight title to Velasquez at UFC 155 last December. For the first time in his UFC career, dos Santos appeared human in his rematch with the current champion.
Whereas "JDS" had been the hunter throughout his previous nine fights under the UFC banner, he was the prey for five rounds against Velasquez.
While both fighters have proven knockout ability, dos Santos has the better all-around skill set—at least on paper. The heavy-handed Brazilian has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under the Nogueira brothers. And while he's yet to show off any of those ground skills inside the Octagon, the bout with Hunt could provide the opportunity to do so.
While a victory will earn him a title shot, a loss would be devastating for dos Santos. The 29-year-old Brazilian and Velasquez are widely recognized as the two best heavyweights in the world. Coming up short against Hunt would push dos Santos out of the immediate title picture and into the fold of the heavyweight division.
Things look a bit different on Hunt's side of the table. The fight against dos Santos is all gain where the 39-year-old is concerned. The New Zealand native is riding the momentum of a four-fight win streak into UFC 160, and a victory over a former titleholder would make his case for a title shot difficult to deny.
While UFC president Dana White has only anointed dos Santos as a title challenger with a victory, Hunt would put himself front and center if he can pull off the upset. The former K-1 champion has the better striking pedigree in the matchup. If Hunt knocks out dos Santos on Saturday, the Twitter campaign to get him a title shot will be lively.
On the other hand, a loss in the co-main event will erase any hopes Hunt has to become a UFC champion. He hasn't been the UFC's "golden child" throughout his time with the promotion, and a loss would close the door on any talk of him being a contender in the near future. The story of the UFC trying to pay Hunt not to come over from the now-defunct Pride organization is well-known throughout the MMA community.
Nevertheless, the heavyweight knockout artist has been defying the odds, and Hunt has the biggest opportunity of his career ahead of him at UFC 160.
Gray Maynard vs. T.J. Grant
At the beginning of 2011, Gray Maynard came as close to becoming champion as a fighter can actually be without winning the belt. The former three-time All-American from Michigan State University had champion Frankie Edgar on roller skates during the first round of their title bout at UFC 125. The Ultimate Fighter alum battered "The Answer" around the cage, dropping the Toms River native on several occasions as the referee hovered over the action.
Unfortunately for Maynard, Edgar survived the round and surged back over the next four frames, and the fight resulted in a draw.
In the aftermath of the bout with Edgar, the 34-year-old's career hit turbulence. A series of injuries prolonged his trilogy bout with the champion—a fight Maynard would go on to lose at UFC 136. Immediately following the first loss of his professional career, the Santa Cruz transplant severed ties with his longtime home at Xtreme Couture and made the move to California.
Following a brief stint in Brazil and some training at a collection of other gyms, Maynard joined the team at American Kickboxing Academy. The San Jose-based facility is one of the most heralded gyms in MMA. Maynard will be looking to show off the work he's invested under new training.
The fight comes at a crucial time in Maynard's career. It has been a year since his split-decision victory over Clay Guida at UFC on FX 4, and he's looking to regain his status in the lightweight division. With a guaranteed title shot on the line at UFC 160, Maynard has the opportunity to accomplish this goal while setting the stage for the ultimate prize.
On the other hand, if Maynard comes out on the business end of the Grant fight, he will be reshuffled into the deck of one of the UFC's most competitive divisions.
The same holds true for T.J. Grant. Since dropping down to the 155-pound weight class, the 29-year-old Canadian has been on a tear.
The former welterweight has collected four consecutive victories and battered his way up the divisional rankings. His last performance was a brutal drubbing of TUF alum Matt Wiman at UFC on Fox 6, where Grant hammered the "Handsome" and consciousness out of Wiman with a series of standing elbows.
Following his victory in Chicago, Grant asked for a top-ranked opponent, and the UFC answered with Maynard. The bout presents the opportunity for Grant to knock off a staple of the divisional upper tier and take the final step toward title contention.
Then again, should the Nova Scotia native lose this weekend, he'll move to the back of a long line of fighters looking to become contenders.
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