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When you're a fighter who has gone 1-4 since a second win over Tito Ortiz in 2006, a natural course of action might be to fight Ortiz for a third time, just to get your bearings back.
That's what the UFC had planned for Chuck Liddell on Saturday. Ortiz had to have neck surgery instead, which helped maintain "The Ultimate Fighter" statistic of having at least a third of coaches' fights fall between the cracks for one reason or another.
For Liddell, who has been knocked down or out in three of those four losses, fighting Ortiz represented a safer re-entry into a sport he's not yet ready to abandon.
Rich Franklin, the replacement, is not as daunting a task as if Liddell insisted on a top-five light heavyweight contender, but he is still a step or three above Ortiz's own elementary stand-up ability. He's also been the busier fighter.
Liddell has clearly been taking the opportunity -- one the UFC was originally adamant about never giving him -- seriously: he looks lean. But appearances aren't everything, and in tape from the reality series, Liddell has displayed evidence that three TKO losses and two decades of sparring and fighting may be catching up with him. If Franklin beats Liddell, he can thank himself, his camp, and Liddell's 28 other opponents.
What: UFC 115: Liddell versus Franklin, an 11-bout card from the General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia
When: Saturday, June 12 at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view, with a live prelim show at 9 p.m. ET on Spike
Why you should watch: Because Liddell's year off may have actually done him some good; because Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic has sworn up, down and sideways that surgery and training revisions have made him a new man; because Gilbert Yvel is never in a boring fight unless it's against a wrestler and Ben Rothwell is not a wrestler; and because the 20-year-old Rory MacDonald will be taking another step toward recognition against Carlos Condit.
Fight of the night: Filipovic-Pat Barry, a K-1 match with four-ounce gloves that will either signal Filipovic's official end as a UFC-level contender or Barry's end as a functioning, un-bibbed member of society.
Hype quote of the show: "Anybody says that 'Cro Cop' is out of his prime can feel free to fight him for me I'll defend that to the end. In my eyes, he is the man he's always been. It's just that everybody else has gotten better. It makes it a little more difficult nowadays." -- Barry, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, on Filipovic's perceived career slide.
Q: Can a year's layoff fix what's broken for Liddell?
A: For most fighters, taking a year or more off only results in problems: Your ring timing is erratic, your hunger has ebbed and the guy you're fighting may have squeezed in two or three fights in the time you were poolside. (Even today's schedules, where the upper echelon gets six to eight months between bouts, border on shiftlessness.)
Liddell, recipient of three TKO losses in recent memory, took 14 months to readjust his alignment -- but if the damage is upstairs, there's really no amount of vacation time that's going to compensate for it.
Q: Does Franklin have the power for 205?
A: It's been nearly two years since Franklin notched a stoppage victory against Matt Hamill. Since then, he's had to be content with decision victories, usually in catchweight bouts. Making a permanent move to 205 pounds doesn't appear to be encouraging when it comes to stopping significantly larger fighters -- and probably wouldn't have been Franklin's first choice, if not for the Anderson Silva effect.
Q: Are we sleeping on Paulo Thiago?
A: There's been relatively little discussion on Thiago, the Brazilian who made an instant name for himself by knocking out Josh Koscheck in February 2009. Thiago followed up with wins over Mike Swick and Jacob Volkmann, but a mixed-in loss to Jon Fitch cooled his momentum.
It shouldn't have: Virtually everyone, with the exception of champion Georges St. Pierre, loses to Fitch. It's a nonissue. Thiago fights Martin Kampmann on Saturday: a win could set him up for a significant fight against one of the doormen (Thiago Alves) to GSP's title.
Q: Does Rothwell have anything for the UFC's heavyweight division?
A: Despite a well-hyped stint in the IFL, Rothwell's postfight league career has been uneven at best. His first test against top-shelf competition ended with a KO loss via Andrei Arlovski, while his UFC debut was a proper mauling at the hands of Cain Velasquez. He might have a comparatively easier time against Yvel on Saturday, save for the fact Yvel is a precision striker who won't stay in one place long enough for Rothwell to bully him. If he can't land one on Yvel, he could be in for a demotion.
Considering that Liddell has never tapped in his career -- Jeremy Horn had to choke him unconscious to deliver his only submission loss -- it probably shouldn't come as any surprise that he doesn't want to bow out of fighting before he's ready. Despite a paltry 20 percent win percentage in recent bouts, he insists a year off and more diligent training will pay off against Franklin.
Not that he necessarily needed it: Franklin has turned into a more conservative volume striker since his losses to Anderson Silva, and Liddell's brawling, right-hand-cocked style may not be tested by Franklin's power. It won't be a zero-risk game, but at least Liddell won't be gauging his chances at 40 against someone known for head-hunting.
What it means: For Liddell, a chance to quiet doubters; for Franklin, an opportunity to make a formal entry into the light heavyweight division with a win over a name.
Wild card: Liddell's wrestling. He took Wanderlei Silva down on a whim, but if he finds himself in trouble standing, he should start to remember his impressive wrestling credentials.
Who wins: Liddell is further outside his prime than Franklin, but being the bigger man and the better MMA brawler should keep him out of retirement at least through the end of the year. Liddell by decision.