Following up on Sunday's WEC 46 card, the UFC makes a rare Monday night appearance, landing at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia for Ultimate Fight Night 20.
It will showcase Ultimate Fighter winners and contestants, as eight of the 22 fighters on the card were a part of the hit reality show. Three of those eight won the whole thing—Nathan Diaz, Amir Sadollah, and Efrain Escudero took home the six-figure contracts at the end of their respective seasons.
Each of those three winners has an interesting night ahead of them, as Sadollah looks to build some consistency against Brad Blackburn, Escudero tries to remain unbeaten against fellow undefeated lightweight Evan Dunham, and Diaz faces top contender Gray Maynard, a man he submitted en route to winning Season Five two-and-a-half years ago.
Lots to discuss, so let's get to it.
Nick Catone (7-2-0) vs. Jesse Forbes (10-3-0)
Forbes was a member of Season Three of The Ultimate Fighter , and makes his return to the UFC after going 10-2 fighting all over Canada and the US since losing to Matt Hamill.
For Catone, his UFC experience can't get any worse. Unbeaten when he signed with the company, he was originally slated to meet Amir Sadollah in his post-TUF debut, but that didn't happen. Instead, he was beaten by "Crazy" Tim Credeur, and has since taken a second-straight defeat courtesy of Mark Munoz at UFC 102.
Winner sticks around, loser goes home in the first fight of the night. No idea which of these two I'm backing, as of yet.
Gerald Harris (13-2-0) vs. John Salter (4-0-0)
Sadollah seems to be a recurring theme for this event, as Harris was eliminated from Season Seven by the then-unknown "murse" despite being one of the favorites to win the show. He most recently claimed the Shark Fights Middleweight title over former WEC competitor Nissen Osterneck.
John Salter comes in as a very late replacement for Mike Massenzio, but has a solid wrestling base and a win over former UFC competitor and BJJ ace Roberto "Spider" Traven. A last minute call-up is usually a tough task, so expectations need to be hedged going into this bout.
Kyle Bradley (14-6-0, 1 NC) vs. Rafael dos Anjos (12-4-0)
The lone win of Bradley's UFC career came in controversial fashion, as many believe his bout with Philippe Nover was stopped prematurely by Yves Lavigne. Prior to that victory, Bradley was beaten up by Chris Lytle and Joe Lauzon.
Rafael dos Anjos is one of the most frustrating fighters for me to watch. He's got talent and an assortment of skills in the cage, but I can't shake the image of him catching Jeremy Stephens' super-telegraphed "Uppercut from Hell" with his face at UFC 91 out of my mind.
He looked great utilizing leg kicks and solid grappling against Rob Emerson last time out, and if he does the same against Bradley, he'll get a bump up in competition. Of course, he could also catch another punch in the mouth and fall like a house of cards.
Mike Guymon (11-2-0) vs. Rory MacDonald (9-0-0)
"The Joker" is a tough veteran who finally gets a chance to compete on the big stage after stringing together five-straight wins on the California King of the Cage circuit. Unfortunately, it might be a short-lived stay, as Guymon is facing an impressive 20-year-old Canadian who has had some KOTC success of his own.
Rory MacDonald is one of the top five prospects in the sport, and has ran through everyone who ever stood across from him in the cage. The supremely self-confident kid from Kelowna, British Columbia recently knocked out former KOTC Light Heavyweight champ Nick Hincliffe in just his second fight at welterweight.
Nine fights, nine stoppages; "The Waterboy" is for real.
Thiago Tavares (14-3-0) vs. Nik Lentz (17-3-1)
Once upon a time, the Brazilian was viewed as a possible title contender in the lightweight division, but then three losses in four fights put a halt on those plans. Now, after a year off, Tavares returns to face a tough wrestler looking to earn his second straight win inside the Octagon.
Since he comes from the same Minnesota Martial Arts Academy as Brock Lesnar and Sean Sherk, you have to know Nik Lentz has a strong wrestling base. If you're not convinced, take a look at Lentz' debut win over Rafaello Oliveira, where the former Golden Gopher won the final two round with takedown after takedown.
Tavares is better on the ground than Oliveira, but a year away from the cage makes it hard to know what kind of performance he's going offer.
Rick Story (8-3-0) vs. Jesse Lennox (11-1-0)
My sleeper pick for Fight of the Night.
Story put on a great performance last time out against Brian Foster, earning Submission and Fight of the Night honors for the battle he ended with an arm triangle from inside Foster's halfguard. He also holds a win over Jake Ellenberger, a fighter who has been extremely impressive to date in the UFC.
Lennox was in a war last time out, too, earning a TKO over Danillo Villefort due to a cut from an undetected and unintentional headbutt. Previous to that, the Miletich Fighting Systems product scored a win over Blas Avena in the WEC, and enters on a four-fight winning streak.
Chris Leben (18-6-0) vs. Jay Silva (5-2-0)
Raise your hand if you're sick of Chris Leben.
For the record, my hand is held high. There is no doubting his charisma or his punching power, but "The Crippler" can certainly be questioned on his dedication, integrity and overall interest in being a UFC competitor. The original bad boy of The Ultimate Fighter , Leben could be on his last legs with the company that made him a household name having lost two-in-a-row.
Silva comes in off a loss to C.B. Dollaway in September, a fight he took as a late replacement to an injured Dan Miller. A purple belt in BJJ under Renzo Gracie, Silva has said in the build up to the fight that he's willing to stand-and-bang with Leben.
Apparently, the contents of Silva's cranium can be questioned as well.
Amir Sadollah (2-1-0) vs. Brad Blackburn (17-9-1, 1 NC)
Once again, Amir Sadollah has a very important fight in front of him. His post-TUF debut lasted only 29 seconds courtesy of a Johny Hendricks flurry, and while he bounced back and looked solid in beating Phil Baroni at UFC 106, it was Phil Baroni.
Now the former nurse and Ultimate Fighter gets a tough test in former IFL competitor Brad Blackburn. A win moves him up the ladder and validates some of the promise he showed early and the faith the UFC has shown as of late, while a loss could be catastrophic.
All of which makes Blackburn even more dangerous. The guy has nothing to prove and nothing to lose. He's 3-0 in the UFC and signed a new contract prior to injuring his knee, so a pink slip isn't in his future. A win moves him up the rankings, while a loss isn't all that bad, considering he's been out of action for almost seven months and it came to UFC darling Sadollah after all.
This bout has "trap fight" written all over it for Sadollah.
Tom Lawlor (6-1-0. 1 NC) vs. Aaron Simpson (6-0-0)
Simpson is undefeated, hyper-athletic, and very well-respected by his Arizona Combat Sports teammates. He's looked great thus far in his UFC career and is in better shape at 35 than I have been in at any point in my life.
Remembered for his time on TUF Eight and his appearance at the UFC 100 Weigh-Ins as "The Just Bleed Guy," Lawlor is an unquestioned character who doesn't get enough credit for his talents in the cage. That's what happens when you walk out to your last fight with Seth Petruzelli on a leash and "Who Let the Dogs Out?" blaring through the arena.
Efrain Escudero (13-0-0) vs. Evan Dunham (9-0-0)
Someone is leaving Virginia with their first career loss, and opinions are split on whether it will be the lightweight winner of TUF Eight or the kid from Oregon who now trains with Xtreme Couture.
Escudero has solid wrestling chops and comes from an emerging camp, the MMA Lab in Arizona, home of WEC star Ben Henderson among others. He showed power in knocking Cole Miller to the canvas before finishing him with some serious ground-and-pound in his last bout, and admitted to wanting to fight Ghandi when we spoke earlier in the week.
Evan Dunham made a splash in his UFC debut, clocking veteran Per Eklund, and followed it up with a unanimous decision over Marcus Aurelio. Dunham probably has the edge when the fight is standing, and having a training camp filled with top-quality lightweight wrestlers like Gray Maynard and Tyson Griffin certainly won't hurt his chances in this fight.
Gray Maynard (8-0-0, 1 NC) vs. Nathan Diaz (11-4-0)
Not only is this a rematch of their semifinal battle from TUF Five, but an impressive performance from Maynard all but guarantees his a shot at BJ Penn's Lightweight title. Of course, all UFC guarantees need to be consumed with numerous grains of salt.
Diaz is a very talented fighter and highly opportunistic; if you give him an opening to sink in a submission, your night is over. That's what happened the first time around for these two, just as it did for Melvin Guillard when Diaz submitted him at Fight Night 19.
But the Gray Maynard who lost to Nate Diaz on the Ultimate Fighter isn't the same guy who stands across from him on Monday. Since that time, Maynard has greatly improved his boxing and become more aware of how to use his outstanding wrestling and strength to dictate where fights take place.
He's also beaten far better competition than Diaz, having earned wins over Roger Huerta, Jim Miller, and Frankie Edgar, while Diaz was beaten by Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson before stopping "The Young Assassin."
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