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Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Top 10 under-the-radar fights

By Brett Okamoto

Thompson
If you're like most MMA fans, you probably can't wait to see Stephen Thompson in the cage again.
If you’re a mixed martial arts fan, things are about to get crazy.

The UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator have announced 17 shows scheduled to take place within the next 17 weeks. That’s nearly 200 confirmed fights, not including the ones airing on (either version of) “The Ultimate Fighter."

How are you going to catch all that?

Let’s be real: You probably aren’t. As it is with all sports, it’s tough to watch absolutely everything.

Going out on a limb, I’m guessing the highly anticipated Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen rematch in June won’t get lost in the summer shuffle. Ditto for the heavyweight title fight between Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem in May.

Certain other fights, however, might; and that’s a shame. Hanging out in the shadows of these monster headliners are more than a handful of potentially memorable scraps.

Here’s a quick list of some of the best under-the-radar fights confirmed for the next 17 weeks. In addition to excluding UFC main and co-main events, bouts expected to generate significant interest weren't considered.

No. 10 -- Matt Brown (13-11) versus Stephen Thompson (6-0), UFC 145: April 21

Why you should care: All anyone could say after Stephen Thompson’s UFC debut in February was, “Uhhhh, how soon can we see that again?” The highly touted kickboxer won "Knockout of the night" at UFC 143 for the stunning head kick he landed on Dan Stittgen in the first round. Honestly, I’m not ready to proclaim him the next big thing at welterweight based on that performance alone, but it proved beyond a doubt that this guy can finish a fight at any time. Brown, though, isn’t one to back down from a standup war and I bet you didn’t know he’s never been knocked out in his entire career. Not bad ingredients for a free prelim fight.

No. 9 -- Jim Hettes (10-0) versus Steve Siler (20-9), UFC on FX 4: June 22

Why you should care: Everyone went crazy for Jim Hettes after watching him own Nam Phan at UFC 141. But step back, calm down and you’ll see this is anything but an easy fight for him. We all underestimated Siler in his last matchup against Cole Miller, probably because the memory of his 30-second knockout loss on TUF was still fresh. Siler has a strong grappling base and while he’s not that flashy on his feet, he’s technical and he can actually take a punch. The masses will be on Hettes going into this fight, so if Siler has his moments early it will feel like an upset -- and everyone loves an upset. These two will make each other work and I think when all is said and done, we’ll have a gutsy, close fight on our hands.

No. 8 -- John Dodson (12-5) versus Darren Uyenoyama (7-3), UFC on Fox 3: May 5

Why you should care: The UFC’s decision to add the flyweight division to its roster this year has already generated a lot of buzz, but for how long? Everybody is high on Joseph Benavidez, Ian McCall and Demetrious Johnson but six months from now we’re inevitably going to be asking, “So ... who’s got next?” Most would say that answer is Dodson. Like others in this division, he’s finally fighting consistently at his comfortable weight. He’s on a terrific hot streak, knocking out three of four opponents during TUF -- all of whom were bigger than him. Watch this so you can still be excited about the flyweight belt after the tournament dust settles.

No. 7 -- Diego Brandao (14-7) versus Darren Elkins (13-2), UFC 146: May 26

Why you should care: Brandao is wickedly violent. If you opted to skip the 14th season of TUF, you missed out on Brandao. This kid fights with emotion, for better or worse. He can be a ton to deal with, which is what makes him so fun to watch, but that aggressiveness might get him into trouble against the elite competition he’s about to face in the UFC. Elkins would be well advised to not stand at all here. Get this to the ground, control the position and then set up his submission. If he’s successful, this fight won’t be "Fight of the night", but even so, it should still be a fun battle to watch on the ground if that’s where it ends up.

No. 6 -- Zach Makovsky (14-2) versus Eduardo Dantas (13-2), Bellator 65: April 13

Why you should care: Everybody likes a prospect and at the age of 23, Dantas (13-2) is one of the best in all of MMA. The Brazilian will record more than his share of highlight-reel finishes (see the flying knee finish over Wilson Reis) -- but more importantly, the sky really is the limit considering how polished he is at such a young age. He’ll face one heck of a test in Makovsky (14-2), who is eager to defend the 135-pound belt for the first time since winning it in October 2010. Both guys are well-conditioned and difficult to finish. This will be a good one.

No. 5 -- Michael McDonald (14-1) versus Miguel Torres (40-4), UFC 145: April 21
Miguel Angel Torres
We'll know soon enough how much Miguel Torres, right, has left in the tank.
Why you should care: What is Torres at this point in his career? Is he still a legitimate bantamweight contender or has he, on the verge of entering his 45th (documented) professional fight, lost a step? It’s unclear. One thing we do know is he’ll be crazy motivated for this one. No one doubts the former champ at the age of 31, but things have never quite been the same for him since that Brian Bowles right hand. If he wishes to return to the glory days, Torres needs this one. Add in the fact he and McDonald are naturally aggressive, and this could be a headliner-quality fight.

No. 4 -- Leonard Garcia (15-8) versus Matt Grice (14-4), UFC on FX 3: June 8

Why you should care: It’s Leonard Garcia. Even if you hate on the way he fights, you can’t hate on the action that comes because of it. Why do kids crowd around a fight in the schoolyard? Because it’s going to look like a Leonard Garcia fight. No feinting the jab to set up the double leg to set up the ground-and-pound to set up the decision victory. This is “let’s go, my will versus yours, hit me so I can smile and hit you back.” Would you want a full card of this? Probably not. But if you’re a UFC fighter, do you want to compete on the same card as Garcia? No. Because that’s one less bonus available at the end of the night. And even if Grice isn’t willing to fight a Garcia-type fight, there’s always the good chance he’ll get sucked into it. Garcia's opponents usually do.

No. 3 -- Alexandre Bezerra (13-1) versus Marlon Sandro (21-3), Bellator 64: April 6
Marlon Sandro
Win or lose, Marlon Sandro always brings it.
Why you should care: This is just an awesome fight. These two Brazilians are fun to watch and either one would be a good future opponent to featherweight champ Pat Curran. Sandro is dialed in after that loss to Curran last August and is bent on a rematch, which everyone must earn the hard way in Bellator’s tournament format. Standing in his way is a very confident Bezerra, who is looking for easily the biggest win of his career. These guys move well around the cage and are offensive minded, which can, at times, lead to defensive lapses. A finish is likely, but not before what should be some terrific back-and-forth action.

No. 2 -- Edson Barboza (10-0) versus Evan Dunham (13-2), UFC 146: May 26

Why you should care: You’re about to watch five straight heavyweight fights on pay-per-view and that’s either really awesome or really scary. Get a lightweight appetizer before hitting the heavyweight buffet. Terrific matchmaking by the UFC here. Barboza is a bright prospect, but he’s not invincible. He’s managed to squeak out decisions when he’s had to, but he hasn’t had to do it against anyone as crafty or well rounded as Dunham. On the other side, Dunham has pretty much lost just one fight -- to Melvin Guillard -- where he was overwhelmed by speed, which Barboza has. They are perfect tests for each other.

No. 1 -- Ross Pearson (13-5) versus Cub Swanson (16-5), UFC on FX 4: June 22

Why you should care: This is not just my favorite “under the radar” fight, this is one of my favorite fights of the entire summer. Period. Swanson has his swagger back, completely, for the first time since the eight-second loss to Jose Aldo in 2009. Not to say he had become shy in the cage, but in his last few fights you can see him visibly enjoying himself out there and he’s stringing together some insanely fluid offense because of it. He figures to be the quicker man, but Pearson, a former lightweight, is a bull. He’ll walk Swanson down, go to the body and set a furious pace -- all to slowly break down his opponent’s speed advantage. I don’t see this being anything but a standup fight. Swanson will dazzle with flash here and there, but Pearson will wear it and respond with his own combinations. This has the makings of a special fight and I think it will be largely ignored during that week.