UFC 72 is fighting Irish

Neil Davidson

, Last Updated: 10:41 PM ET

BELFAST (CP) — The next chapter of the UFC world domination plan unfolds in Northern Ireland on Saturday with former middleweight champion Rich Franklin headlining a card seemingly short on star power.

UFC 72: Victory is the UFC’s second mixed martial arts show outside the U.S. this year, following the successful UFC 70 in Manchester, England, in April. UFC 75 is scheduled for London on Sept. 8.

The Belfast card was supposed to have showcased Franklin against Martin Kampmann, but the Danish fighter — hardly a household name in his own right — withdrew because of a knee injury. Japan’s Yushin Okami replaced Kampmann.

Light-heavyweight Forrest Griffin and Canadian middleweight Jason MacDonald add to the Odyssey Arena card and Griffin’s opponent, hard-hitting Hector (Sick Dog) Ramirez, should ensure some fireworks. The rest of the card could make for entertaining fights, but the names may not convince fans back home to open their wallets for the pay-per-view.

The show also suffers in comparison to upcoming cards. July’s UFC 73 in Sacramento features titles fights between middleweights Anderson Silva and Nate Marquardt and lightweights Sean Sherk and Hermes Franca plus Rashad Evans, Tito Ortiz, Antonio (Minotauro) Nogueira, Stephan Bonnar, Chris Lytle and Frankie Edgar.

The card for UFC 74 in August in Las Vegas has yet to be fully finalized but features heavyweight champion Randy (The Natural) Couture versus Gabriel Gonzaga and Canadian welterweight Georges St. Pierre against Josh Koscheck. UFC 75 pits newly crowned light-heavyweight champion Quinton (Rampage) Jackson against Pride title-holder Dan Henderson.

The UFC is putting on so many shows these days that it is hard to showcase a champion each time. It can be argued Saturday’s card, on the surface, is a valley among peaks.

Still, UFC 72 is attracting interest in rain-soaked Belfast. Franklin opted for a baseball cap adorned with a shamrock at Thursday’s news conference and other overseas fighters have been claiming Irish blood wherever possible, although heavyweight Colin Robinson was quick to trump them. “I’m not from Irish ancestry,” he noted. “I’m actually Irish.”

Franklin and Okami both weighed in at 185 pounds before a modest crowd at the Odyssey Arena on Friday. Griffin and Ramirez were each 204 pounds and showed no love as they posed off, sharing only nasty looks.

MacDonald weighed in at 185, one pound less than Singer.

The venue will only seat about 9,000 Saturday with president Dana White acknowledging it will be the first non-sellout “in a long time.”

“It’s part of our expansion movement into other countries,” he explained. “We’re going to take some on the chin. You have to be willing to do that to grow the business. I mean look how long it took us in the United States.”

Franklin and Griffin have the most to lose on the night. Franklin is rebuilding after a lopsided title loss to Silva that severely dented his image as a relentless, well-rounded and hard-to-beat fighter.

Franklin thumped MacDonald at UFC 68 in his comeback bout and disposing of Okami would set the stage for a title shot against the Silva-Marquardt winner. A loss and Franklin slides down the 185-pound standings.

While Franklin-Silva would probably be easier to sell, Okami-Silva would also work since the Silva lost to the Japanese fighter via disqualification for an illegal kick the first time they met in January 2006.

Okami is a big, methodical and patient fighter who has shown the ability to wear down his opponents. Mike (Quick) Swick had a painful reality check after five consecutive wins in the Octagon when he was overwhelmed by Okami’s strength at UFC 69 and couldn’t get up when taken down. Okami’s other UFC wins have been over lesser opponents: Rory Singer (MacDonald’s opponent Saturday), Canadian Kalib Starnes and Alan Belcher.

The Japanese fighter has won his last six bouts.

“I look for him to take me to the ground, ground and pound,” said Franklin, who had to retool his strategy when his opponent changed.

Kampmann is a six-foot standup kickboxer with good submission skills. The six-foot-two Okami has size, strength and Greco-Roman wrestling expertise.

“He’s every bit as big as I am,” says the 6-1 Franklin, who used to fight as a light-heavyweight and who cuts some 25 pounds to make 185 pounds. He expects to be 200 pounds in the ring Saturday.

Okami’s also a southpaw.

“He’s going to get a little taste of his own medicine, something he’s not so used to doing throughout his career,” said MacDonald, referring to Franklin. “He’s going to be fighting a big physical opponent.”

Still the Canadian favours Franklin, who appeared relaxed and ready at the pre-fight news conference.

“Yushin has a lot of experience but I think Rich has been in those big fights,” MacDonald said. “We’ve seen in some of Yushin’s past fights where he’s been in a position to finish the fight and hasn’t been able to finish it. He was in the mount against Mike Swick and wasn’t able to finish. Whereas Rich has the experience and ability that if he gets you in that position, he’s going to finish you. And I can say that from experience.”

Singer, who knows firsthand what Okami can do, believes the big Japanese fighter will be able to take Franklin down if he gets him in the clinch.

“He’s got good gas, he’s very strong, he’s got good top position,” Singer said. “So I think if he puts Rich on his back, he’s going to keep him there and he’s going to do some damage.

“If Rich keeps it on the feet, keeps active, keeps angles, doesn’t let Yushin stand in front of him long enough to grab him or force him to take a bad shot, then Rich can win that fight.”

The loss to Silva aside, Franklin usually bosses his opponents in the ring. He has not spent much time on his back recently, so looking up at Okami could be a new and unpleasant experience.

It’s also a big night for Griffin, who was destroyed last time out by Keith (The Dean of Mean) Jardine. On paper, Griffin should match up well against the straightforward Ramirez in that the former “Ultimate Fighter” winner has a good takedown defence and likes to trade punches.

After questioning his own chin in the wake of the Jardine loss, it will be interesting to see if Griffin looks to use some other weapons rather than engage in a slugfest.

Elsewhere on the undercard, look for MacDonald to dispose of the quirky Singer as he rebounds from the Franklin loss. MacDonald likes the matchup.

“Going into this fight, I’m certainly confident in what I’m bringing to the table,” MacDonald said.

Singer has said his standup is better than MacDonald’s, a claim the Canadian disputes.

“The truth is really no one’s seen much of my standup,” said the native of Red Deer, Alta., by way of New Glasgow, N.S. “I’ve fought two left-handed sluggers (Franklin and Chris Leben). It was not part of our game plan to stand and trade punches with them. If he thinks his standup’s better, so be it.

“I’m pretty confident that all around, my skills, my conditioning, my experience are against tougher competition and are at a higher level than his. So I’m going into this fight to prove that, to prove that to everyone and more importantly to prove it to him.”

Notes

: American lightweight Dustin Hazelett welcomed the chance to fight at UFC 72, thinking his Irish ancestry would mean a warm reception. Then he found out he was fighting Belfast’s own Stevie Lynch. “There goes that plan,” said Hazelett. … Former champion Rich Franklin has taken his UFC Hummer off the market after failing to get the price he wanted on Ebay. While he has put a lot of work into the vehicle, he says it’s big, bad on gas and draws attention. He’s had it since November and has put less than 16,000 kilometres on it … Franklin, a Cincinnati native, only had to drive 90 minutes for his last fight, UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio. This time, he spent 101/2 hours in a plane. His opponent, Japan’s Yushin Okami, is used to such commutes, of course … Despite the ups and downs of his sport, Franklin says he still loves to fight. “I’ve got a choice in life. I can either do this or a nine to five and I know sure as hell I don’t want to do a nine-to-five job,’ said Franklin, a former high school teacher. … Local fighters on Saturday’s card are Lynch and Colin Robinson.


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