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Five key matches get 2009 off to hot start

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The New Year gets off to a fast start in mixed martial arts, as the January schedule includes, in two cases, the first meeting of two opponents that people talked about years back for Pride vs. UFC champion dream matches, two rematches of famous fights, and a battle of unbeaten top contenders.

In 2005 and 2006, when Fedor Emelianenko was the heavyweight champion in Pride and Andrei Arlovski held the UFC belt, that match was considered a dream match that could never happen. The same applied to a match between the respective middleweight champions, Dan Henderson in Pride and Rich Franklin in UFC.

Georges St. Pierre beat B.J. Penn via split decision on March 4, 2006, when they were the top contenders for welterweight champion Matt Hughes.

Today, they are both champions, and on the verge of being all-time greats. Urijah Faber and Jens Pulver on June 1, had the biggest fight in WEC history, a top contender for the 2008 Match of the Year. They meet a second time, with Faber needing a win to get a title shot, and Pulver needing a win just to stay in the game. Also on this month's bill, underneath St. Pierre vs. Penn, is a battle of unbeaten light heavyweights, Thiago Silva and Lyoto Machida.

Jan. 17: Rich Franklin (24-3) vs. Dan Henderson (23-7): The first major match of this year, at UFC 92 in Dublin, Ireland, features two fighters who have been on the wrong end of matches against Anderson Silva. As a middleweight bout, one could argue they’d be fighting over the No. 2 spot in the world behind Silva, but this is a light heavyweight fight, the division both have moved to since neither had much of a shot at a rematch with Silva. There has been significant talk that the winner will coach the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, a U.S. vs. U.K.-themed show, as the U.S. coach battling a team headed by Michael Bisping.

Franklin coached the second TUF season in 2005, but has said he has no interest in doing so again. UFC president Dana White said he would try to convince the Cincinnati native otherwise. Henderson is the better wrestler and harder puncher, but at 38 he’s soon going to have to face the most unforgiving opponent, Father Time. Franklin’s edge is his significantly better technical stand-up skills.

Jan. 24: Fedor Emelianenko (28-1, 1 no-contest) vs. Andrei Arlovski (14-5): Affliction’s second main event, a five-rounder for the WAMMA heavyweight championship. There are two battles here, in the ring and at the box office, both of which are significant.

Emelianenko is generally considered the single greatest MMA fighter in the sport’s short history. Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champion, is Emelianenko’s most significant opponent in at least three years.

The Russian Emelianenko and Belarussan Arlovski share several similarities. Both started out in sambo, and learned striking later, but striking is considered each man’s strongest weapon.

Arlovski is training under famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach, hoping that learning high-level boxing techniques will pay off in what figures to be a standing fight. But the key point in looking at this fight is that Arlovski has historically been susceptible to a good shot – as evidenced by his UFC title loss to Tim Sylvia at UFC 59. Emelianenko’s boxing technique is hardly the best, but his power and finishing ability may be the best. With a guaranteed payroll for a show that will be one of the largest in MMA history, Affliction needs big pay-per-view numbers for the card at Anaheim's Honda Center, a difficult prospect without the UFC brand name.

Jan 25: Urijah Faber (21-2) vs. Jens Pulver (22-10-1): This is actually second from the top, beneath a Jamie Varner vs. Donald Cerrone lightweight title match, on the first World Extreme Cagefighting show of the year.

Faber, the best-known featherweight fighter in the world, will attempt to take the first step in garnering a title rematch with Mike Brown, who knocked him out on Nov. 5. In Pulver, he faces a rematch of the biggest match in WEC history on June 1. The first match did roughly triple the television audience of a usual WEC show, with a viewership level on the much smaller Versus network that no MMA card except on Spike or CBS has ever attained.

Faber won all five rounds of a fight that combined every element of MMA and finished high in many Match of the Year polls. Pulver, the WEC’s highest paid fighter, is coming off two straight losses and needs a win badly not just to stay in the upper echelon, but in the game itself. And he’ll be a heavy underdog. Not helping matters for Pulver is the death of Justin Eilers last week. Pulver and Eilers started in the sport 14 years ago when both were teenagers in Idaho.

Jan. 31: Georges St. Pierre (17-2) vs. B.J. Penn (13-4-1): As far as public interest goes, the UFC 94 main event in Las Vegas will likely be one of the two or three biggest fights of the year, and likely the biggest welterweight fight in the sport’s history. St. Pierre, the UFC welterweight champion, will be defending his title. Penn is the lightweight champion and a former welterweight champ.

St. Pierre and Penn are Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound poll. The winner likely becomes a Hall of Fame fighter. The loser, well, he may end up there as well. UFC and Spike TV are teaming up for a three-week reality television series modeled after the "HBO 24/7" concept to build up the fight. The series starts on Jan. 14.

The two fought nearly three years ago with St. Pierre taking a split decision at UFC 58. St. Pierre has looked unstoppable, winning all but one round in matches with Josh Koscheck, Matt Hughes and Jon Fitch in his last three outings, beating three of the sport’s best wrestlers at their own game. Penn, on the other hand, has destroyed and finished Pulver, Joe Stevenson and Sean Sherk, dominating every facet of the game in all three fights and not losing a round.

In a five-round fight, conditioning is likely the key. On paper, that favors St. Pierre. But Penn is mentally a different fighter since waking up on his 28th birthday two years ago and realizing that he was blowing his gifts by coasting on his natural talent. Penn may have the better stand-up, as he was stronger in that aspect until tiring in their first fight. On paper, he’s got the better ground game, but St. Pierre has been a destruction machine on the ground in recent fights.

Jan. 31: Lyoto Machida (13-0) vs. Thiago Silva (13-0): Neither fighter is a marquee draw in what will be the semifinal under Penn vs. St. Pierre, but both have been dominant thus far in UFC competition. The winner would almost surely get a light heavyweight championship match later in the year, possibly the next shot at Rashad Evans, or possibly having to wait for the outcome of Evans vs. Quinton Jackson.

Nobody has been able to figure out Machida’s elusive (many would call it boring) style of hit-and-run. How well does he take a shot? We really don’t know, because nobody can find his chin. The two are opposites stylistically, although based on what we’ve seen, both are complete fighters.

Machida dominates a points fight, stemming from his point karate background, although he’s hardly a karate fighter today. Silva is an aggressive finisher, with 12 finishes, nine in the first round. Machida should have the edge standing, and during his career has been strong at keeping the fight where he wants it. Silva has gotten almost everyone to the ground, and quickly finished them.