After the huge success of UFC 134, it was only a matter of time before the Ultimate Fighting Championship returned to the land of samba. Opening their PPV account for 2012 is another card in Rio, this time featuring a featherweight title bout between Brazil’s own Jose Aldo, and arguably his toughest stylistic opponent to date, Chad Mendes, who many deem to be the most well equipped fighter to wrestle the title away from the dominant champion. Unfortunately, the rest of the main card isn’t quite as compelling, as many of the originally scheduled bouts fell through after the now familiar injury wave reared its ugly head. Nevertheless, an intriguing co-main event pits Brazil’s most popular fighter, Vitor Belfort, against rising prospect Anthony Johnson, who will be making his debut in the middleweight division, in a bout that could well put a dent in “The Phenom’s” hopes for a second outing against middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva.

Preliminary Predictions

* Antonio Carvalho to defeat Felipe Arantes by Decision
* Mike Pyle to defeat Ricardo Funch by Submission in Round 2
* Michihiro Omigawa to defeat Yuri Alcantara by Decision
* Gabriel Gonzaga to defeat Edinaldo Oliveira by TKO in Round 1
* Thiago Tavares to defeat Sam Stout by Decision

Main Card Predictions

Lightweight Fight: Edson Barboza vs. Terry Etim

After making short work of Miguel Faaloloto, British prospect Etim returns to the cage for a much sterner test in the form of Barboza. While Etim’s striking has proven to be dynamic enough against some of the lower echelon fighters, he will be at a disadvantage on the feet here. Throughout his career, Etim has made full use of his reach and lanky frame. He uses his jab and especially, his kicks, to dictate the tempo of the fight. However, in addition to not having the reach advantage in this one, Etim can’t afford to engage in a kicking contest with Barboza. In fact, his long legs will play against him, and will make for an obvious target for Barboza’s brutal leg kicks.

Barboza’s kicks are the backbone of his offense. As vicious as his leg kicks are, he does remarkably well to avoid getting too predictable, and often mixes things up by going to the head and body. The speed of his kicks, both with his lead and power leg, makes him even trickier to deal with. Since joining the UFC, he has worked on his boxing and it paid dividends. His jab has turned into quite a weapon, and he does well to follow it up with a stiff right cross. Crucially, he isn’t content to throw single strikes and is more than willing to move forward and throw combinations, occasionally finishing them off with a leg kick.

The key for Etim on the feet is to take a page out of Ross Pearson‘s book and get on the inside, where Barboza is less comfortable. While that isn’t quite Etim’s forte, he needs to stay clear of fighting on the outside. Pearson was able to give Barboza trouble by closing the distance, landing with short left hooks and body shots, and generally getting the better of his opponent from close-quarters. This was made easier by Barboza’s habit of backpedaling into the fence when pressed. A similar approach could well prove fruitful for the Englishman, especially as it would give him the chance to set up takedowns.

In fact, Etim’s grappling is greatly underrated, and if he is to get on top, the fight could be his for the taking. Despite improvement in his takedown defense, Barboza’s defensive wrestling is still not up to par. Etim isn’t the best offensive wrestler himself, but he could at least force some scrambles by going for takedowns. Moreover, Barboza’s tendency to sprawl immediately will give Etim the chance to get the front headlock position, which is where his grappling game shines most, as he possesses a terrific arsenal of submissions from that position; namely the guillotine and its variations.

The fight will almost certainly be competitive, and as long as Etim is willing to move forward and pressure his opponent, he will have his chances. Nevertheless, consistently getting past Barboza’s reach and dealing with his kicks will prove too much for Etim, as Barboza takes another hard fought decision victory.

Official Prediction: Edson Barboza to defeat Terry Etim by Decision

Welterweight Fight: Erick Silva vs. Carlo Prater

Siyar Bahadurzada‘s injury gives us a much less intriguing fight here, as Silva is paired up with another short notice opponent instead.

For Prater, this is an extremely tough match-up. He has made a career out of outclassing inferior grapplers with a solid top game, highlighted by some slick guard passing and transitions. However, not only is Silva more than capable of matching him on the ground — if not straight up get the better of him — but he also possesses a good base that will make takedowns hard to come by for Prater.

On the feet, Prater will be outmatched both in terms of power and technique. In addition to having the better boxing, Silva can inflict serious damage on the inside, with short power hooks and some brutal knees from the clinch. Silva’s killer instinct is equally noteworthy, as once he has his opponent hurt, he doesn’t let him off the hook. In fact, it is totally possible for him to hurt Prater standing before polishing him off with a submission on the ground.

Unless a major upset occurs, Silva will be able to notch his second win over a short notice opponent in as many fights.

Official Prediction: Erick Silva to defeat Carlo Prater by TKO in Round 1

Middleweight Fight: Rousimar Palhares vs. Mike Massenzio

In what could be the latest act in the Palhares lunacy story, the bizarre Brazilian is matched up with New Jersey’s Massenzio.

For all his eccentricities, Palhares is an otherworldly grappler, who is a bit more than a one-trick pony. Beyond his bone crushing leg locks, Palhares has freakish strength, which he uses it expertly to get takedowns. Unlike many of his BJJ peers, Palhares possesses the takedown ability to take the fight to his element, as he is more than capable of slamming most fighters to the mat and use his submission wizardry from there.

Massenzio is a capable wrestler with a decent overall grappling acumen, but surely he wants no part of “Toquinho” on the ground. This essentially forces Massenzio to abandon his usual game, and take a more striking oriented approach instead. The problem is, Massenzio’s striking is usually designed to help him rush his opponent, close the distance, and work for the takedown. His aggression could work against him here, as getting overzealous while chasing Palhares around will give the Brazilian the chance to switch levels and plant his foe on his back.

To his credit, Massenzio can rough his opponents up when he throws combinations while moving forward, and Palhares’ chin isn’t exactly impenetrable. Conversely, for all his lack of technique and defensive deficiencies, Palhares possesses serious power and could well catch Massenzio off guard in a wild striking exchange. However, despite minute improvements in his stand-up, Palhares is still mainly reliant on a sloppy overhand right and some whacky kicks that seldom land. Yet, his last bout against Dan Miller showed that Palhares is capable of being more accurate on the feet when he puts his mind into it (which for him, seems to be a tough ask).

Regardless, this is another fight that could be decided by Palhares’ leg lock game. The beauty about leg locks is that they require relatively little set up, and could be snatched from out of nowhere; an ability that “Toquinho” has mastered to perfection. Expect Massenzio to take “an arrow to the knee” in this one.

Official Prediction: Rousimar Palhares to defeat Mike Massenzio by Submission in Round 1

Middleweight Fight: Vitor Belfort vs. Anthony Johnson

Injury had forced Johnson to sit on the shelf for the entire duration of 2010, but he came back strong last year with dominant back-to-back performances against Dan Hardy and Charlie Brenneman. While Johnson’s edge in physicality will be somewhat reduced now that he’s moving up in weight, he still possesses a rare mixture of size, athleticism, and power. The one knock on Johnson is that, the Hardy bout aside, he isn’t as dominant with his wrestling as you’d expect from someone possessing all those attributes. Of course, having a good striking game and immense power means Johnson doesn’t exclusively have to rely on his wrestling, but he has yet to find the right balance between the two. In general, Johnson’s gameplan is very easy to spot in the first minute or so of a fight, and it becomes very apparent whether he’s in wrestling mode or striking mode, as he has yet to learn how to seamlessly combine them.

Against an opponent of Belfort’s caliber, Johnson can’t afford to be predictable. Belfort has historically struggled to deal with imposing wrestling games, and he has a tendency to mentally crumble once he’s stuck on the bottom. However, to take Belfort down, Johnson needs to be able to control the striking first, as he can’t afford to simply rush him the way he did against Dan Hardy. In fact, one of the most overlooked aspects of Belfort’s game is his ability to control the distance, and any rash attempt to hastily move forward by Johnson could be punished by Belfort’s counter-striking.

While he is mainly known for blitzing opponents by moving forward with combinations, Belfort possesses solid counter-punching skills. He is an expert at using his lead leg to cut his opponent off and blast him with a trademark straight left, and Johnson needs to be extremely wary of that fact, as few fighters — if any — can afford to taste the Brazilian’s power. Belfort has went through different phases in his fighting style. Lately, he’s developed into a much more patient striker. He has been mixing up some leg kicks in his arsenal, but he doesn’t quite use his jab with any sort of frequency. What he does however, is wait for the right moment to either counter or move forward, usually with a 1-2.

Johnson’s striking on the other hand, is mostly reliant on his power, and his right hand is not something any fighter would want to feel. To his credit, he rarely gets too trigger happy with said right hand, and is sneakily good at setting it up with the jab. Furthermore, Johnson has some diversity in his striking. In fact, his kicks — particularly his high kicks — are arguably his most dangerous weapon, with his lead snap kick being especially deceptive in its speed and accuracy.

While Johnson isn’t a power double leg type of fighter, he possesses a very quick and explosive first step when moving in for the shot. His single leg is arguably his best takedown, while his imposing clinch game could be key in this bout. Johnson’s top game on the other hand, is somewhat pedestrian and lacks dynamism, as he offers little in terms of guard passing or significant ground-and-pound.

Despite some good hips, Belfort has never shown remarkable takedown defense or the ability to scramble up from underneath an opponent. Johnson may not be able to secure clean takedowns early, but he could wear Belfort out in the clinch for the first few minutes before finally planting him on his back. From there, unless “The Phenom” shows improved defensive grappling, he is likely in for a frustrating night. Of course, the threat of Belfort crushing Johnson with a well-placed counter or a trademark flurry is a significant one, and it is a big possibility any time the fight is vertical. However, judging by Belfort’s history, he is going to have a hard time keeping it in his element.

Official Prediction: Anthony Johnson to defeat Vitor Belfort by Decision