By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
The UFC has a massively packed schedule to close out 2012, with four separate events bringing over 40 fights to fans on free TV and pay-per-view. There's lots and lots to like this month, and a lot of really exciting and relevant fights will be happening throughout the month. Here are the ten fights I'm most looking forward to in closing out the year:
10.) Raphael Assuncao vs. Mike Easton - UFC on Fox 5 - Dec. 8
The preliminary card on next week's UFC on Fox 5 card brings a highly relevant fight in the UFC's bantamweight division. Though Easton had two other opponents previously scheduled for this event, Assuncao is actually an even better option than what was initially planned. Easton's eight-fight winning streak has him trying to carve a path to a title shot, and he'll run up against a very tough test in Assuncao on Saturday in Seattle. It's a great fight, and should be very entertaining to watch.
9.) Brad Pickett vs. Eddie Wineland - UFC 155 - Dec. 29
I've made it no secret that I love watching Brad Pickett fight. Loss to Renan Barao aside, the 135 lb. Brit is one of the most talented and exciting fighters to watch in the bantamweight division, and after bouncing back from the loss to Barao by taking out Damacio Page and Yves Jabouin in consecutive fights I can't wait to see him continue trying to move back up the ladder. Wineland, despite losses to Urijah Faber and Joseph Benavidez, kept himself relevant with a knockout over Scott Jorgensen earlier this year, and this fight gives both he and Pickett an opportunity to shine on the FX prelims. It's just a great bantamweight matchup, and it should be an excellent fight in Las Vegas.
8.) Melvin Guillard vs. Jamie Varner - TUF 16 Finale - Dec. 15
It's downright impossible for this to be a bad fight. Varner, the former WEC Champion, is coming off a disappointing submission loss to Joe Lauzon in what was easily one of the best fights of the year at UFC on Fox 4 in August. Guillard is coming off a knockout loss in a crazy back and forth fight with Donald Cerrone from August himself. Both are almost always entertaining, and with backs against the wall will be out to put on a show on FX. This is just some great matchmaking from Joe Silva, and it should be one of the most exciting fights of the month.
7.) Joe Lauzon vs. Jim MIller - UFC 155 - Dec. 29
Speaking of Lauzon, he's out to build upon that win over Varner, which came after a head kick KO loss to Anthony Pettis in February. Miller steps into the fight on short notice after Gray Maynard was forced out of the event due to injury, but he also makes a suitable replacement, and an interesting opponent for Lauzon. Miller himself needs to bounce back from a loss, his coming against Nate Diaz in May in a fight that moved Diaz into a fight with Ben Henderson next weekend. Miller's as good of a replacement as they could have gotten for Maynard, and it makes this a really intriguing lightweight fight in Las Vegas.
6.) Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson - UFC on Fox 5 - Dec. 8
This was a fight that always made sense as a progression up the ladder for Gustafsson, and after Rua added a win over Brandon Vera in August, this is a crossroads fight for him. Stop the momentum for the rising challenger, he can see one last run at the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. Lose, and he'll be on the tail end of his time as a title-worthy competitor. For Gustafsson, it's a fight he needs to win to keep himself on track for a shot at the title. That's something that could come as soon as one fight after this one, though he'll have a couple of others vying for a shot as well. But this is a huge opportunity, and a very good fight in the light heavyweight division.
5.) Alan Belcher vs. Yushin Okami - UFC 155 - Dec. 29
Belcher's been battling a ton of injuries in the last several years, and it's unfortunately hindered his chances at being in the conversation for a Middleweight Title shot. However, a win over Okami can shoot him right back up that ladder, and get him a fight or two in 2013 that move him into contention. Okami rebounded in August from the first consecutive losses of his career, but he's facing a fearless competitor in Belcher, who will be out to prove his wroth at 185 lbs. This is a huge fight for the careers of each fighter, with Okami wanting to stay relevant as an elite talent in the division, and Belcher trying to prove that he belongs in that conversation to begin with.
4.) Hector Lombard vs. Rousimar Palhares - UFC on FX 6 - Dec. 14
Lombard's last fight was a disappointment. There's no two ways around that. Palhares was tooled by Belcher despite getting the fight to where he's comfortable. However, this matchup in a vacuum is incredibly interesting. This is the two shortest and stockiest 185 lb. fighters in the UFC squaring off, one who prefers to keep his fights standing, the other who wants to rip the legs off of every man he faces. It's a dynamic style matchup, and is going to either be fantastic, or a complete stalemate, depending on how both fighters approach the bout. I'm optimistic for the former, and it's a fight I really can't wait to see.
3.) Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez (UFC Heavyweight Championship - UFC 155 - Dec. 29
Yes, I know we just saw this fight play out in decisive fashion just over a year ago, but there's a part of me that really does believe we didn't see the best of either fighter in that first Fox main event. Both were battling injuries coming in, which affected the gameplans each brought into the cage. With the way Velasquez dispatched of Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in May, and with how excellent dos Santos has been throughout his UFC run, I think we're going to see both fighters a lot closer to their best this time around. That doesn't mean we'll get a different outcome, necessarily, but there was enough negatively affected due to injury the first time around to make this rematch really interesting, and I really can't wait to see it in the final UFC fight of 2012.
2.) B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald - UFC on Fox 5 - Dec. 8
This fight bumps past the Heavyweight Championship for two reasons. 1) Penn is in excellent shape, and 2) yes, I buy into that despite my better judgment. Look, B.J. Penn is one of the most fun fighters to watch, and he always has been. Yes, he's been out of action since a shellacking at the hands of Nick Diaz last October, but he's gotten himself in phenomenal shape over the last several months, and he's coming back because he's got something to prove. He wants to do so against one of the more promising up and comers the UFC has seen in some time, but MacDonald has to prove he can beat elite competition at welterweight as well. He's taken care of some lesser competition in his last few fights, and though Penn's been off a year, he's still a step up. This is a great matchup, and should be a really exciting welterweight fight on Fox next week.
1.) Ben Henderson vs. Nate Diaz (UFC Lightweight Championship) - UFC on Fox 5 - Dec. 8
To get it out of the way immediately: I still think Frankie Edgar should be in this spot. I think he won the rematch against Henderson in August, and the fact that the decision went against him was wrong in that fight. With that said, this Henderson-Diaz matchup is still quite fantastic. Henderson, despite a lack of finishes in his recent successful run, is a dynamic and well rounded fighter who is nigh impossible to finish. Diaz has reemerged as a legitimate force at lightweight by doing exactly that in a number of fights, and capping that off by submitting another nigh un-submittable opponent in Jim Miller makes him a very game challenger here. Because this fight can go so many different directions, and because both fighters are so much more than one dimensional fighters, this makes for an incredible Fox main event, and the most exciting fight on paper for the remainder of this year.