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Gold Rush: The UFC Championship Calendar

Chael Sonnen vs. Anderson SilvaThis piece will undoubtedly curse at least one of the fighters mentioned in it. To anyone who is injured over the course of the next few months and is rendered unable to fight for (or defend) the UFC title in his respective weight class?

Consider this a preemptive apology. You are a professional mixed martial artist, however, so you probably know the risks involved. Therefore, my conscience is free and clear! From Rashad Evans pulling out of UFC 128 with Shogun to Brock Lesnar’s ongoing diverticulitis to GSP’s torn ACL in late December, it is safe to say that 2011 was a year of Madden Curse-like series of unfortunate events.

Given this injury-laden 2011, I am happy to say, with as much exuberance as I can from my computer, that “It’s title season!” for the UFC. Try to imagine that sounding like Vince Vaughn saying “It’s wedding season!” to Owen Wilson in the 2005 hit comedy Wedding Crashers. Anyway, two weeks ago at
UFC 144, Ben Henderson kicked things off with a very close decision win over Frankie Edgar to claim the Lightweight belt. This set off a flurry of “Who Gets the Next Shot?” blog posts, Facebook updates and tweets…until Edgar was awarded the rematch (and rightfully so, but we’ll get to that later). In the meantime, let’s take a look at the calendar:

UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans
Other than Silva/Sonnen, you’d be hard pressed to find a more heated rivalry in the UFC right now. We all know the story: training partners, close friends, betrayal, severed alliances, schedule delays and now the upcoming showdown (sounds like a really bad daytime soap opera). With Evans finally healthy and coming off back-to-back wins against a briefly-revitalized Tito Ortiz and a talented-but-still-green Phil Davis, he’ll get his shot at the most dangerous fighter in the UFC and arguably all of MMA. Jonny “Bones” Jones has torn through everyone he’s faced and will have a significant size advantage (I do expect him to win handily). However, and I preface this with the fact that Jones and Chuck Liddell are very different fighters at what would be different points in their respective careers, Evans did ruin the party for The Iceman the last time he was in Atlanta so you never know what could happen if he somehow finds his way inside Jones’ Stretch Armstrong-like reach.

UFC 146: Dos Santos vs. Overeem
UFC 146 will take place on May 26th at the MGM Grand and features Junior dos Santos defending the Heavyweight belt against Alistair Overeem. Please forgive my use of the following term, but this fight has “fireworks” written all over it. You can now throw up somewhere over my use of the “fireworks” cliché and comeback to your computer. On one hand you have a champ with some of the best boxing in MMA who’s finished 6 of his 8 opponents in the UFC taking on the 265-lb Dutch kickboxing behemoth in Overeem, who has not lost a mixed martial arts contest since 2007. I know his competition has been less than stellar with a TKO win over a checked-out Brock Lesnar, an ugly decision over a flop-happy Fabricio Werdum and a KO over the grossly overmatched Todd Duffee, just to name a few. Still, with his K-1 background, size and brutal use of knees in the clinch, he’s still earned the #2 spot in the weight class. Plus, with the UFC giving some collective marketing power to the pay-per-view by adding an all-heavyweight main card? This is a blockbuster start to summer 2012.

UFC 147: Silva vs. Sonnen 2
As I’d mentioned earlier, Middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen have the most intense rivalry in the UFC other than Jones/Evans, but for different reasons. While Jones/Evans is composed like a Shakespearean tragedy with their “friends to enemies” storyline, Sonnen’s trash-talking dismissal of Silva’s skills, accomplishments and country escalated their first contest to new heights to a pro wrestling faceoff. He became the perfect foil to the oft-demure Brazilian with his contrasting personality and stellar wrestling background that could potentially have been Silva’s Achille’s Heel (and it was for most of the fight until Silva’s jaw-dropping Hail Mary triangle win in the final frame). Sonnen’s suspension due to elevated testosterone levels delayed the sequel, but with both fighters rattling off two straight since their first go ‘round and, more importantly, with the fight expected to take place in Silva’s homeland of Brazil? Grab some friends, do a few shots of aguardiente and get excited for this one.

UFC 148: Cruz vs. Faber 3
Last Friday night the newly reformatted season of The Ultimate Fighter kicked off on FX. Current Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber will spend the next six weeks coaching their respective fighters and their frequent interaction will most certainly add fuel to the fire en route to their rubber match, slated for the July 7th in Vegas. Cruz avenged his only MMA loss by out pointing Faber at their last meeting at UFC 132 and then followed it up with a decision win over now-flyweight Demetrius Johnson at UFC Live in October. Faber rebounded with a submission win over Brian Bowles, earning him another shot at Cruz. With both fighters known for a breakneck pace and a penchant for exciting fights, unwind from your 4th of July debauchery a few days earlier and watch what should be a fitting end to the trilogy.

Without a date:
Four cards out should be enough, but we all know there are several more belts that may not have dates on paper, but will happen (again, barring injuries) this year:

– Henderson/Edgar II was recently confirmed and with Anthony Pettis, Jim Miller and Nate Diaz waiting in the wings, the Lightweight division continues to prove it may be the most stacked division in MMA

– We should have a confirmed final for the inaugural Flyweight tournament that took place last week, but the judging error (read: basic math) from Ian McCall and Demetrious Johnson’s fight left semi-final winner Joseph Benavidez without an opponent. Dana & Co. have assured us the Johnson/McCall rematch will happen and we’ll have a new Flyweight champion in 2012, which I must admit, excites me more than I thought it would. I mean, who doesn’t like watching what are essentially uber-athletic horse jockeys on speed throwing down in a cage?

– The most famous acronym in mixed martial arts (GSP) will return from injury to take on the always hungry interim champ Carlos Condit…if Condit doesn’t defend (and lose) his somewhat useless belt between now and the end of the year. HOPEFULLY, we’ll have a definitive, unified Welterweight champ by the start of 2013.

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