At UFC 135, the journey begins for another Ultimate Fighter champion.

Just under four months removed from capturing the coveted reality show crown, Tony Ferguson returns to the Octagon at the Pepsi Center in Denver for a preliminary card match-up with veteran Aaron Riley.  Ferguson marched through his competition in the TUF house and needed just under four minutes to dispose of Ramsey Nijem at the TUF 13 Finale.  Can the lightweight keep his run of success alive against a grizzled veteran such as Riley?

It might seem odd that “El Cucuy’s” first test as TUF champion comes on the preliminary card of a pay-per-view, but with Spike TV airing two prelim bouts live beginning at 8 p.m. ET, Ferguson will receive guaranteed airtime on the broadcast.  Ferguson’s spot on the card will allow him to showcase his skills in front of the same audience that followed his rise through the TUF house.

Another former TUF competitor will also be featured on the Spike portion of the prelims, as Nick Ring locks horns with Tim Boetsch in middleweight action.  Ring saw injuries derail his chances on The Ultimate Fighter, and the once highly-touted prospect has experienced a shaky start to his run in the UFC.  Now he’ll have to deal with a veteran in Boetsch who is seeking success at 185 pounds after experiencing mixed results at light heavyweight.  Can Ring convince skeptics that his undefeated mark is a sign of a future contender or will Boetsch put the first blemish on “The Promise’s” record?

Rounding out the preliminary card are three match-ups that will air live via the UFC’s standard Facebook stream, which begins at 6 p.m. ET.  Junior Assuncao makes his Octagon return, this time as a featherweight taking on former Tachi Palace Fights champ Eddie Yagin.  Takeya Mizugaki and Cole Escovedo clash in a battle of bantamweights.  And light heavyweights James Te Huna and Ricardo Romero kick off the card.

The MMA Corner panel of Brian McKenna, Duncan Price and Rob Tatum break down all five preliminary card bouts in this edition of the Round Table.

LHW: James Te Huna (12-5) vs. Ricardo Romero (11-2)

Tatum: The opening bout of UFC 135 will feature the traditional striker vs. grappler affair, as two light heavyweights coming off recent losses will look to get back on track.

Australian James Te Huna used a five-fight win streak to earn his way into the promotion in February of 2010 at UFC 110. Te Huna defeated Igor Pokrajac by TKO in his debut, scoring a fifth consecutive knockout. Te Huna suffered a broken arm in the fight and was then forced out of UFC 120 due to injury before returning at UFC 127. Te Huna suffered his first loss in four years to rising contender Alexander Gustafsson. The loss was the fourth submission loss of his career, something that is concerning against Romero.

Ricardo Romero (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

New Jersey-based Ricardo Romero won 10 of his first 11 fights inside of the Ring of Combat promotion, with his only loss coming by DQ. He then submitted Seth Petruzelli at UFC 116, but fell victim to a streaking Kyle Kingbury at UFC 126. The TKO loss came from knee strikes just seconds into the fight and could spell trouble against the power-punching Te Huna.

The bottom line is that something has got to give. Romero’s resume includes wins over current and former UFC fighters Constantinos Philippou and James McSweeney, which I believe will give him the advantage in this fight. Romero by second-round kimura.

McKenna: Rob is right, this fight really is a fight between a ground fighter and a stand-up fighter. Te Huna has impressively used the knockout to win most of his fights, and has thrown a couple of submissions in there along the way, which has to keep anyone that he is fighting honest. But overall, he loves to knock out people as he did against the aforementioned Pokrajac. The biggest gripe on the Australian is that he doesn’t perform against solid competition, which is pointed out by his losses against Gustafsson and Bellator great Hector Lombard.

Across the cage will be respected grappler Ricardo Romero, who is the opposite of his opponent, using submissions more than using his striking to win fights. The biggest name that he defeated was in his UFC debut when he took down Petruzelli. While “The Silverback” isn’t the biggest name in MMA, it is definitely a name that people know, which helps his cause.

The biggest thing that is going on in this fight is that Romero has won six fights by submission and Te Huna has lost four fights by submission. The fight will stay standing for a while, but look for Romero to work some takedowns and eventually pull off the submission sometime in the second round.

Price: I agree with both Rob and Brian, Romero has a history of making people tap and Te Huna has shown a weakness against submissions in the past. Te Huna has shown ability on the feet in the past, but Romero has never been officially knocked out and I don’t see anything changing here. For me, this match-up makes it to the third, where Romero picks up the victory by rear-naked choke.

BW: Takeya Mizugaki (14-6-2) vs. Cole Escovedo (17-7)

McKenna: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Takeya Mizugaki. His career could be described as a tale of two careers: His pre-Zuffa career and his Zuffa career.

Takeya Mizugaki (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Pre-Zuffa, Mizugaki was 11-2-2 and one of the best bantamweight fighters on the globe. Since signing with Zuffa, he has gone 3-4, with two of those victories coming by split decision. The Japanese fighter is in trouble because if he loses this fight, it will likely be time for him to go job hunting.

Escovedo has also had struggles of his own in his career, having once held a record of 11-1. While he was on that run, he held the WEC 145-pound championship belt, which he lost to eventual WEC superstar Urijah Faber. He lost his next couple of fights, but bounced back beautifully, ripping off five straight wins after moving down to bantamweight. From there came more struggles, as he is currently 1-3 in his last four, including losing his UFC debut in his last fight to Renan Barao.

When it comes down to it, this very well could be a “loser gets a pink slip” fight. Both of these guys need a victory, which is why I feel that this fight could make some noise. Escovedo has been knocked out three times in his career and it will be four after his fight on Saturday. Mizugaki by knockout.

Price: Brian mentions Escovedo’s previous pedigree, but before meeting Barao at UFC 130, he was readying himself to compete for Tachi Palace Fights, which may give you more of an idea of where he is at this stage in his career. Since his loss to Faber in 2006, Escovedo has not beaten a top-twenty competitor, never mind top-five or ten.

On the opposite end of things, Mizugaki has only really lost to elite fighters in the division, the likes of Brian Bowles, Urijah Faber, and Miguel Torres, and has been victorious each time he has faced anyone ranked lower.

Cole Escovedo (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Mizugaki is also a really tough guy to finish and I can’t see Escovedo submitting him or having the power to knock him down, let alone out.

All of which leads me to agree with Brian in his assessment that Mizugaki wins this one, but my gut instinct leans towards a victory by judges’ decision as opposed to a stoppage.

Tatum: This may very well be the loser goes home fight that my colleagues have described. Neither fighter has been lighting up the world of late, but luckily for both competitors, the bantamweight division is lacking the depth of some of other divisions.

Mizugaki’s strength is his ability to survive. He can take a beating and still move forward and pressure his opponent. He has only been finished twice in over 20 fights, but has struggled to find consistency under the Zuffa banner.

Escovedo’s story is one of the most inspirational in all of sports, having overcome an infection that paralyzed him temporarily. He triumphantly returned to win five straight fights, but has had a rough go of it since. “The Apache Kid” has fallen victim to UFC competitors Michael McDonald, Michihiro Omigawa and Barao over the last 18 months, however his performance against Barao proved how much heart he possesses.

This fight is going to the scorecards unless Escovedo finds one of his unorthodox submissions. While I give him the edge in terms of finishing, I give Mizugaki the edge on the feet, which should lead to the Japanese fighter claiming a W.

FW: Junior Assuncao (12-4) vs. Eddie Yagin (15-4-1)

Price: The name Junior Assuncao has a familiar ring to it and so it should. In fact, the Brazilian competed in the UFC as far back as 2006. After a relatively unsuccessful run and a few years in the wilderness, Assuncao finally gets another crack at the big time. Although he is primarily a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, he has gained extensive experience in boxing, judo, Muay Thai and wrestling over the past few years as head trainer at Ascension MMA in Atlanta.

Junior Assuncao (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

This information might lead you to believe that Assuncao is almost unbeatable, but in fact his most notable victory came over Dustin Hazelett more than six years ago. Since then he has competed sporadically, but never defeated anyone else of real note. A drop to featherweight should enable him to compete at a more advantageous size and hopefully give his career the kick-start it needs.

Yagin may not be well-known to casual MMA fans, but he is an 11-year veteran of the sport. Recently, he showed how dangerous he could be by defeating former Bellator notable Joe Soto by rear-naked choke. A good solid all-round fighter with five wins each by knockout, submission and decision, Yagin should be looking to keep the fight on the feet, as he will surely want to avoid the submission game of Assuncao.

Both men have skills on the ground and on the feet, which makes this a difficult fight to call. Genuinely, either man could win by any given method. In a back-and-forth battle, Yagin should show his experience at the lighter weight and have enough to defeat Assuncao by a closely contested judges’ decision.

Tatum: A late addition to the card, these featherweights are strong additions to the division.

The Brazilian Assuncao returns to the promotion after winning seven of eight fights since his release from the UFC. The BJJ black belt and Capoeira stylist is a difficult match-up for anyone. His losses to Nate Diaz and Kurt Pellegrino came when he was fighting above his weight class.

Eddie Yagin (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

Yagin enters the UFC after winning the Tachi Palace belt against Joe Soto in August. Another fighter who has competed out of his division, his losses to Vitor Ribeiro and Rich Clementi are nothing to be ashamed of.

This fight is going to be a war of attrition. I’ll disagree with Duncan and take the Brazilian by choke late in the third round.

McKenna: When the WEC merged with the UFC recently, a lot of fighters exhaled a big sigh of relief. The addition of featherweight and bantamweight to the roster not only allowed more fighters to be with the promotion, but a lot of the lighter fighters were able to fight in a more comfortable and true weight class, rather than keeping on weight that they didn’t necessarily want to in order to be a lightweight and fight with the UFC. Sure, a few fighters here and there made the move down to the WEC from the UFC, such as Manny Gamburyan, but more often than not fighters stayed at lightweight because of the bigger paycheck coming from the bigger promotion.

With that being said, we have Assuncao returning to the UFC, but this time at 145 pounds rather than 155 pounds. The weight change will better suit him for the challenge at hand that is Eddie Yagin. “The Filipino Phenom” has yet to taste the glory of the larger promotion as the Brazilian already has, which will be one big key to this fight. I have to go with Assuncao in this fight, as he will not only be the bigger fighter on fight night, but he will also have experience running with the biggest promotion on this planet and have less jitters this time around.

MW: Nick Ring (12-0) vs. Tim Boetsch (13-4)

Price: After a stint on The Ultimate Fighter where he was forced to withdraw from the popular reality show due to injury, Nick Ring is still out to prove he can be a middleweight contender. He finally made his promotional debut at UFC 127, where he scrapped to a contentious decision win over Riki Fukuda and followed that up with a more decisive victory over James Head. Ring has always been a noted prospect in the sport, but arguably has not lived up to the hype so far. Whilst some may argue that he is unbeaten, which is true, you could also argue that he has not yet faced a top-ten opponent.

Nick Ring (The Ultimate Fighter/Spike)

A true all-round martial artist, Ring is a skilled striker who also possesses a real submission threat. His downfall may be that whilst he is proficient is all areas, to a certain extent he excels in none. In this fight, Ring needs to keep the action standing and try to pick Boetsch apart with strikes.

This will be the second bout for Boetsch at 185 pounds and, believe me, he is a big guy for a middleweight. After having little success as a light heavyweight, Boetsch made the wise decision to drop down a weight class. He showed how well he could utilize his additional size and power in his divisional debut with a victory at UFC 130 over Kendall Grove where he dominated his leaner opponent for the entire three rounds. The game plan for Boetsch would appear to be centered around using his wrestling ability and brute strength to nullify the offense of Ring.

Whilst this bout may not end up close, you can see an argument for either fighter. With his greater size and imposing style, Boetsch takes this one by judges’ decision after three tough rounds.

McKenna: This is a fight between two people that I personally am not sold on. Duncan said it well when he stated that Nick Ring has looked good, but hasn’t fought top-ten competition. You would think by now that he would have been scheduled in such a fashion after holding an undefeated record and two Octagon victories, but the reality of it is that he should have lost that fight against Fukuda. The fact that he bounced back and silenced his critics by choking out Head was a step in the right direction, and a victory against a UFC veteran like Tim Boetsch could earn him that top-ten competition we are looking for.

Tim Boetsch (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Boetsch has had a strong career with a couple of hiccups along the way. While fighting at light heavyweight, “The Barbarian” was good but not great. He held his own for a bit, but ultimately was released by the UFC because he wasn’t good enough. He worked hard in the minor leagues for a bit and was brought back, only to be a lot of the same of what he was before, which led him to drop the additional 15 pounds. He controlled the fight against Grove, but considering that Zuffa doesn’t cut checks for Grove anymore, we truly don’t know about his ability at middleweight.

Wrestling has been the staple of Boetsch’s career thus far, and considering he will have a size advantage over “The Promise” in this fight, the wrestling will be the story here. Boetsch will control the fight and accumulate takedowns en route to the decision.

Tatum: I completely agree with both of my fellow panelists in regards to this fight.

Unless Ring gets another gift decision from the judges like he did against Fukuda, he does not have a clear path to victory. While Ring is the better kickboxer, Boetsch is the type of fighter that will pressure his opponent, force a clinch and prevent Ring from throwing significant strikes.

A sloppy, sluggish fight ends with “The Barbarian” taking home a second straight unanimous decision win in the middleweight division.

LW: Tony Ferguson (11-2) vs. Aaron Riley (30-12-1)

McKenna: Like a lot of fighters already mentioned on this card, Aaron Riley is in the club of competitors that are in big-time need of a victory. The Indiana native has a lot working for him, as he holds 14 career submission victories and trains with Greg Jackson’s team in New Mexico. Having Jackson in your corner is like having a wild card while playing poker, but with that being said, he has not had the best of UFC careers. His only promotional victories have come against fighters who are no longer with the promotion, which tells you that he defeated relative nobodies.

Tony Ferguson (Spike TV)

On the other side of the cage, we have the winner of the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter. Tony Ferguson had to win four fights to win the contract, and he won all four by knockout. While only one of those wins is on his official record, these have to be considered when taking “El Cucuy” into consideration. When you tack those three unofficial knockouts onto the fact that he has seven official knockouts in his career, you find that you have a fighter who does some great work with his fists. Because of this, and the fact that Riley has six career losses by knockout, you have the recipe for another knockout by Ferguson.

Tatum: A lot of people are underestimating the veteran Riley in this fight. While Brian does bring up a valid concern by mentioning Riley’s six knockout losses, he fails to mention that those have come in 43 career bouts. And one of them was a referee mistake, which Riley avenged against Shane Nelson. And it’s not like his losses were against nobodies. He has fallen victim to Robbie Lawler, Chris Lytle, Eddie Alvarez and Yves Edwards; all respectable foes.

Meanwhile, Ferguson’s biggest wins have come against former wrestlers Ramsey Nijem and Brock Jardine. His knockout power cannot be ignored, as he has claimed knockout victories in seven of his 11 wins. It is his level of competition that worries me. His loss to former WEC competitor Karen Darabedyan is concerning as he faces the veteran Riley.

Aaron Riley (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

I’m going to disagree with Brian and take Riley by unanimous decision.

Price: Both of my colleagues make compelling points and this is a tough one to call, as one guy is perceived as a veteran on the way down and the other is a relative rookie on the way up. Just where they meet on the career scale will determine the winner of this fight.

Riley is a solid fighter and is not short on experience. However, rather than looking at who he’s lost to, I prefer to see who he has beaten. Riley’s last fight was over a year ago when he was unable to finish the distinctly average Joe Brammer at UFC 114. In fact, looking at his record, his only victory of real note was way back in 2005 when he beat Michihiro Omigawa in Pride.

Ferguson looked very good in his win over Nijem back in June. Just based on his performances in TUF and at the finale, Ferguson looks like a man with a plan. He seems to have a hunger for success and doesn’t care who he has to go through to get it. I like that “take no prisoners” attitude and I think that passion will be enough for Ferguson to see Riley off with the judges’ nod after a tough three-round battle.

Top Photo: Tony Ferguson (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)