Tonight the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), mixed martial arts' premiere organization, will return to the Twin Cities for the first time since UFC 87 in August 2008 with UFC on FX 5 at Target Center. While the last UFC event featured a Welterweight title fight between Georges St. Pierre and John Fitch along with Brock Lesnar facing Heath Herring, this one doesn't feature the top two pay-per-view draws in MMA. Or even one.
That doesn't, however, mean UFC on FX 5 is devoid of any excitement or stakes among its eleven fights. Friday's card was benefitted by the cancellation of UFC 151 last month and features plenty of great and meaningful fights. They include a heavyweight battle between two fighters on the cusp on the division's elite, a number one contender match in the flyweight division and a pair of Minnesota fighters hoping to turn things around in front of their home crowd.
Those two Minnesotans, Jacob Volkmann (a former University of Minnesota wrestler) and Marcus LeVesseur (a former Augsburg wrestler who went undefeated en route to four Division 3 individual championships) are both lightweights fighting on the preliminary card, which begins at 4 p.m. CT. However, despite the same size and hometown they are in different places in their career.
Volkmann (17-3) is a veteran of the UFC who saw his five fight winning streak in the lightweight division snapped against Paul Sass at UFC 146 in May when the Brit submitted him by triangle. He faces Shane Roller, who just snapped a three fight losing streak against John Alessio, in his ninth fight inside the Octagon. Roller is another All-American wrestler, competing at Oklahoma State, and has been able to submit opponents; something Volkmann hasn't done since 2009 as all 5 wins during his streak were by decision.
LeVesseur (21-6), meanwhile, might be fighting for his UFC life as he faces Carlos Prater in only his second time inside the Octagon. His previous fight against Cody McKenzie in May came on short notice and saw him fall victim to the "McKenzitine" (McKenzie's patented guillotine choke) in just over three minutes. He isn't alone as his opponent's only win this year came when Prater's opponent Erick Silva was controversially disqualified for blows to the back of the head.
LeVesseur also has knockout power - despite being a wrestler 10 of his wins comes from knockout or TKO - and could be in line to use it. Regardless, both fighters are desperate to leave it all the line and make a better second impression because the loser likely won't get another.
Besides the two Minnesotans, three other fights at UFC on FX 5 have large implications in their divisions. Jake Ellenberger (27-6), an Omaha native who saw his six fight winning streak end by getting knocked out against Martin Kampmann in June, faces returning UFC fighter Jay Hieron (23-5) in a welterweight showdown. This was actually initially the co-main event at UFC 151 before Dan Henderson got hurt and the event was scrapped but what was Las Vegas' loss is Minnesota's gain as the two had an extra month to prepare.
Hieron has not fought in the UFC since 2005 but has been considered one of the better 170 lb fighters outside the organization. In the last five years he has fought in a number of promotions, including Strikeforce, IFL (where he was their welterweight champ) and Bellator, and only lost a controversial split decision against Bellator champion Ben Askren for his title during that time. This is a great chance for Hieron to prove he is an elite Welterweight against a tough opponent in Ellenberger and that his wins outside the UFC mean something.
For Ellenberger, fighting Hieron gives him a chance to get back on track after stumbling while defeating the man who gave him one of his losses. The two actually fought in the IFL in 2006 when Hieron gave the then-undefeated Ellenberger his first loss by unanimous decision.
Since joining the UFC in 2009, however, the 27 year-old has been on a roll going 6-2. While his losses to Kampmann and interim UFC Welterweight Champion Carlos Condit (in Jake's debut by split decision) were to top fighters, Ellenberger has defeated big names like Jake Shields and Ultimate Fighter season 1 winner Diego Sanchez. With Hieron, Ellenberger would like to add another to the list.
Although the flyweight division is less than a year old in the UFC and still filling out its depth, that doesn't matter to John Dodson (13-5) and Jussier Formiga (14-1). The winner of their fight will be the first person to challenge newly crowned UFC Flyweight Champion Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson. It is a great opportunity for both but especially for Formiga, who is making his UFC debut. The 27 year-old has won his last four fights by submission and is seen by many to be the number 3 flyweight in the world.
He faces Dodson, who won season 14 of the Ultimate Fighter as a bantamweight before dropping to 125 lbs, and is one of the few flyweights to utilize knockout power. Dodson has natural athleticism - he celebrates wins by doing a backflip off the cage - and speed which makes for a frantic pace. It's a treat to watch as both fighters can go all out for 15 minutes if they need to but also have ways to finish and the new number one contender.
Last but not least, UFC on FX 5 is headlined on the other end of the weight spectrum by heavyweights Travis Browne (13-0-1) and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva (16-4). Both fighters are looking for a big performance to leapfrog themselves into title contention and rest assured, this one isn't likely to go all five rounds.
Browne is coming off a first round submission win over Chad Griggs at UFC 145 in April. He's 4-0-1 inside the Octagon with the only blemish being a draw against Cheick Kongo. Despite that, the 30 year-old has looked good while staying under the radar. Not even a superman punch knockout of Stefan Struve has done much for Browne but a win over Silva in his first headlining fight may change that.
Silva, meanwhile, is on a two fight losing streak following the biggest win in his career. After knocking out the legendary Fedor Emeilianenko (who spent a decade going undefeated in MMA) in the Strikeforce Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament, the former Elite XC champion was stopped by Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez. "Bigfoot" has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, however, most of his wins come from knockouts as the 6'4", 266 lb giant (Silva actually suffers from acromegaly) can use his size advantage. That's something the 6'7" Browne, who weighed in at 246 lbs Thursday, will have to find a way around in both weight and reach (Silva has a reach of 82 inches compared to Browne's 78".)
The good news for Silva is that a third loss won't mean a pink slip. Cormier, the Grand Prix winner, and Velasquez, who is fighting Junior Dos Santos in December to try to regain his UFC Heavyweight title, have recently tasted gold but losing to Browne means "Bigfoot's" first UFC headlining gig is likely his last for a long time.
Hopefully that isn't also true for the Twin Cities.