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UFC 71: Preview and Predictions...By Jay Graziani

UFC 71: Liddell vs. Jackson Saturday, May 26, 10 PM ET MGM Grand Garden Arena, Nevada

Weigh-in: Friday, May 25, 7 PM ET

The UFC returns from its brief trip overseas, though it will cross the Atlantic once again for the next UFC event being held in Northern Ireland in mid-July. UFC 71 also represents the first UFC event that ESPN will be heavily involved with. ESPNEWS will broadcast live from the Friday weigh-in, as well as post-fight coverage on Friday night. This is yet another big step in the UFC's struggle to break into mainstream spectator sports.

The last installment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship brought us yet another huge upset - a trend that has been holding steady this year in UFC. The defeat of Mirko Filipovic as a 5-1 favorite put a dent in CroCop's title aspiration, while giving lesser-known Gabriel Gonzaga a shot at heavyweight champion Randy Couture. Underdogs were 5-5 on the night, for a profit of $460 for a bettor playing $100 on each underdog on the card. While this is unusual for UFC, it may help bring out the underdog bettors, giving the favorites some added value. Alternatively, perhaps we are finally seeing more parity in the UFC and the long-standing trend of favorites coming in may be beginning to reverse itself.

Here's a preview of Saturday night's fights, with current odds from

Carmelo Marrero (6-1-0) vs. Wilson Gouveia (8-4-0) Current Odds: Marrero +215, Gouveia -275

Marrero's only MMA loss has come at the hands of Gabriel Gonzaga, next in line with a shot at the heavyweight championship. He is a ground-and-pounder, whereas Gouveia is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert who also likes to mix in a good dose of heavy striking. The matchup is closer on paper than the odds suggest, and Gouveia has lost to worse, so Marrero is maybe worth a look as the underdog. Prediction: Gouveia by decision.

Jeremy "Lil' Heathen" Stephens (8-1-0) vs. Din "Dinyero" Thomas (19-6-0) Current Odds: Stephens +250, Thomas -325

Din Thomas has significant MMA experience, having been involved with UFC as far back as 2001 in UFC 32 (a loss to BJ Penn). Stephens is making his UFC debut and is known as a heavy hitter. I will lean towards Thomas with his well-rounded style and experience edge, but Stephens has not really been tested yet, making this bout tough to call. Prediction: Thomas, 3rd round submission.

Sean Salmon (9-2-0) vs. Alan "The Talent" Belcher (9-3-0) Current Odds: Salmon -125, Belcher -105

Salmon is an experienced wrestler. His UFC debut was in Fight Night 8, where he lost to Rashad Evans. Belcher took this fight on only 10 days notice when scheduled opponent Eric Schafer withdrew due to injury. He lost to Kendall Grove back in April in UFC 69, and is 0-2 in UFC pay-per-view events, though against decent competition. The shortened preparation time and layoff since the last fight will be a significant handicap to Belcher, and Salmon's grappling experience should overwhelm him. I think Salmon is far underrated and I am making this my best bet of the night. Prediction: Salmon, 2nd round submission.

Thiago Silva (9-0-0) vs. James "Sandman" Irvin (12-3-0) Current Odds: Silva -250, Irvin +190

Silva is making his UFC debut, fighting out of the highly-regarded Brazilian Chute Boxe camp. He is an experienced practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and is known as an aggressive striker, with seven of his nine wins coming by KO or TKO. He is undefeated in professional competition. His opponent, James Irvin, has appeared in 4 UFC matches, accumulating a record of 2-2 in those bouts. Though Irvin has more experience in the Octagon, Silva is much more talented and should end this fight quickly. Prediction: Silva, 1st round KO.

Kalib Starnes (7-1-1) vs. Chris "The Crippler" Leben (16-3-0) Current Odds: Starnes +185, Leben -225

This is a battle of reality show participants, with Leben appearing in the first edition of The Ultimate Fighter, and Starnes appearing in the third season. Starnes was beaten by eventual winner Kendall Grove via verbal submission (broken rib) during his TUF competition, but beat Danny Abbadi in the finale. He had never gone out of the first round until his most recent fight, a 3rd round TKO at the hands of Yushin Okami. We last saw Leben losing to Jason MacDonald at UFC 66. Interestingly, Kalib Starnes has previously beaten Jason MacDonald by 1st round TKO. Leben has been inconsistent and taking a shot with Starnes is recommended. Prediction: Starnes, 1st round submission.

Houston "The Assassin" Alexander (6-1-0) vs. Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine (12-2-1) Current Odds: Alexander +350, Jardine -500

Alexander is a newcomer to UFC, having put together a decent record in smaller promotions. His only loss came in his first professional fight back in 2001. However, he is inexperienced, with only 3 fights since January 2005, and is getting up in age at 35. Since his first loss by KO 5 years ago, Jardine has only lost one other match, a 3-round decision to Stephan Bonnar in UFC Fight Night 4. Jardine has a huge edge in experience and Alexander has little chance stepping up this far in opposition. Prediction: Jardine, 1st round KO.

Josh "The People's Warrior" Burkman (8-3-0) vs. Karo "The Heat" Parisyan (16-4-0) Current Odds: Burkman +235, Parisyan -295

While Parisyan has 4 losses, all have come at the hands of well-regarded opponents, and 3 of the 4 have been by decision. Both are grapplers, but Parisyan is far more experienced and has defeated better opponents. All 3 of Burkman's losses have come via submission, and I don't expect much different against Parisyan. Prediction: Parisyan, 2nd round submission.

Terry Martin (15-2-0) vs. Ivan Salaverry (12-4-0) Current Odds: Martin +115, Salaverry -145

Salaverry is a well-rounded fighter who can win by strikes or submission, although he has only fought twice in the last two years. Martin is a very strong striker with a good complement of wrestling skills. This looks to be a close match on paper and taking the odds is probably the safest bet. Prediction: Martin, 2nd round KO.

Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell (20-3-0) vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (26-6-0) Current Odds: Liddell -170, Jackson +140

Rampage Jackson represents the only of UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Liddell's 3 losses that he has not avenged. The Iceman is known as a dangerous knockout striker, although he has good ground skills that are often overlooked. Jackson is also primarily a striker, and while he had won a number of fights by submission early in his career, his recent efforts have focused on striking or his trademark slam. This is a great matchup between 2 experienced and well-rounded fighters, and has potential to be the most exciting match so far this year. Even though many bettors seem to be lining up on Jackson (the line has come down significantly), this is a great spot for Rampage to shine at a generous number. Since the line has already dropped, Rampage backers may want to wait until closer to fight night and hope some public money comes in on the current champ. Prediction: Jackson, 3rd round KO.

Picks (YTD: 6-4 -3.25 units; Best Bets: 2-1, +1.00)
Sean Salmon -125 (Best Bet)
Kalib Starnes +185
Kayo Parisyan -295
Quinton Jackson +140

Opinions (YTD: 9-9 +0.5 units)
Carmelo Marrero +215
Din Thomas -325
Thiago Silva -250
Keith Jardine -500
Terry Martin +115

Jay Graziani

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