Ready to rumble

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

With the last page of the calendar ripped out of 2008, there is plenty to look forward to in the new year.

The UFC's well-feathered nest should be enough to see it through any economic downturn and with an increasing talent pool, there is little chance the world's biggest fight club will be dethroned any time soon.

So with that in mind, here are three fighters to watch in 2009.

- Georges St. Pierre -- Canada's greatest MMA export will be tested early this year when he puts his welterweight belt on the line against lightweight champion B.J. Penn on Jan. 31. The match marks a change in direction by UFC brass, who have in the past frowned upon the idea of fighters changing weight classes to collect titles. St. Pierre beat Penn in March of 2006 by split decision and both fighters have undergone major rebuilds since that time. St. Pierre, who seems to have invented his own 'Georges-jitsu' fight style, boasts a relentless ground-and-pound, with a solid wrestling base. His largest nemesis -- his mental state -- seems to be under control and he will be Penn's toughest test since the last time the two met. If St. Pierre is successful in his title defence against Penn, look for him to move up a weight class and challenge for Anderson "'Spider" Silva's middleweight crown. If Penn is thwarted in his bid to become the UFC's first double-belt champ, the honour may fall to St. Pierre.

- Brock Lesnar -- The beast from Minnesota now has a full year in the big leagues under his heavyweight championship belt. First up for the behemoth will be a rematch with Frank Mir to unify the world title. Mir was Lesnar's first exposure to the UFC, where the former WWE star dominated Mir before falling victim to a kneebar. For his part, Mir looked better than he has in years with his win last week over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. But Lesnar seems to get better and stronger with every fight. Should he be successful against Mir, the list of heavyweights worthy to contend looks thin.

- Fedor Emelianenko -- By most pundits' scoresheets, the best heavyweight on the planet. But beating up Hong Man Choi, Tim Sylvia and Matt Lindland is hardly a test for a fighter of Emelianenko's calibre. He fights Andrei Arlovski on the Jan. 24 Affliction card with his WAMMA heavyweight belt on the line. Should Arlovski pull off an upset, it paves the way for UFC president Dana White to bring Emelianenko over to the UFC and finally pull the trigger on the much-anticipated showdown with Randy "The Natural" Couture, or even a true heavyweight champ fight with Lesnar. At any rate, 2009 will be the year that Fedor finally comes to the UFC. There's too much to gain for all involved.

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IN THIS CORNER

RICH FRANKLIN, MIXED MARTIAL ARTS

Former UFC middleweight champ Rich "Ace" Franklin, a math teacher before becoming a full-time fighter, has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's in math. He's shown up on fight nights with at least one black eye due to his intense training. He was champ for most of 2005-06 and the mayor of Cincinnati declared Feb. 21, 2006 Rich Franklin Day. The born-again Christian says he got his nickname because of his resemblance to Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura.

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ON THE CARD

FUTURE FIGHTS AND EVENTS

- UFC 93 pay-per-view from Dublin, Ireland goes Jan. 17. Main event features Dan Henderson against Rich Franklin, as well as Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua taking on Mark Coleman.

- Affliction Day of Reckoning pay-per-view goes Jan. 24, featuring WAMMA heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko vs. Andrei Arlovski.

- TNA Genesis pay-per-view, Jan. 11, features the return to the ring by wrestling legend Mick Foley in a six-man tag match.


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