Two former champions and a former No.1 contender.

That’s a lot of talent to grace a preliminary card, but when the UFC stacks an event, as they’ve done with UFC 136, it is all but inevitable.

The night’s prelim action will be topped by two fights, airing on Spike TV beginning at 8 p.m. ET, that feature a former Sengoku middleweight champion, a former UFC No. 1 contender middleweight and the final WEC lightweight champion.

The former Sengoku kingpin is none other than Jorge Santiago.  Santiago lost in his return to the Octagon at UFC 130 against Brian Stann.  However, Santiago gets another chance against a significant name in the division when he battles Demian Maia on Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Houston.  Maia fell short in an April 2010 title bid against Anderson Silva and has gone 2-1 since, with a decision loss in his last outing against Mark Munoz.

The other champ on the preliminary portion of the night’s festivities is known for his flashy moves, most notably the “Showtime Kick” that put an exclamation mark on his WEC 53 title clash with Benson Henderson.  The kick was part of a display that earned Anthony Pettis championship gold and put him in line for a UFC title shot.  Rather than waiting around for a championship match-up, Pettis entered the Octagon against Clay Guida and suffered a loss.  Now, he finds himself on the prelims of UFC 136, looking to rebound from the defeat at the hands of a solid wrestler and earn his way back to contender status by taking on a man known much more for his striking, Jeremy Stephens.

Earlier in the evening, fans who visit the UFC’s Facebook page at 5:45 p.m. ET will be treated to a war between heavyweight Joey Beltran and UFC newcomer Stipe Miocic, Mike Massenzio welcoming Steve Cantwell to the middleweight ranks, a clash between middleweights Aaron Simpson and Eric Schafer and a featherweight duel between Tiequan Zhang and Darren Elkins.

The MMA Corner panel of Brian McKenna, Sean Smith and Rob Tatum breaks down all six preliminary card bouts in this edition of the Round Table.

MW: Steve Cantwell (7-4) vs. Mike Massenzio (12-5)

Tatum: These two former light heavyweights will battle at 185 pounds, as Cantwell makes his middleweight debut.  Both of these fighters are on thin ice, as Cantwell has dropped three straight fights inside the promotion, and Massenzio dropped a UFC 131 bout, which he took on late notice.

Cantwell, the former WEC champ, had only suffered defeat to Brian Stann prior to joining the UFC.  However, despite a win in his debut, Cantwell would fall by decision to Luiz Cane, Stann, and Cyrille Diabate over his next three bouts.  A series of injuries kept him away from the cage for nearly a year, but the 24-year-old’s return against Diabate was a lopsided beating.  His drop in weight is a last-ditch effort to save his job.

Massenzio returned to the Octagon as a late replacement at UFC 131 after going 1-2 in his previous stint with the promotion.  The bout was at light heavyweight against Krzysztof Soszynski, who despite a significant size advantage, was unable to finish the New Jersey fighter.

Both fighters rely on their ground games, as the two Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts have ten submission wins between the two of them.  With similar styles, it’s a tough fight to predict.  Massenzio’s slight experience advantage leads me to believe that he’ll take home a decision win.

Smith: It would come as a shock if the loser of this fight continues to fight under the UFC banner, so expect both middleweights to bring everything they have to UFC 136. With both fighters being most skilled on the ground, this fight could turn into a stand-up fight with each fighter’s jiu-jitsu game cancelling the other’s out.

With a technical knockout victory over Stann on his record, Cantwell may be the more well-rounded fighter than Massenzio. If this matchup does take place with both fighters standing, Cantwell should have the edge, which sounds odd to say after the embarrassing performance he had against Diabate.

In a closely contested bout, Cantwell should record a decision victory, which will likely send Massenzio back to the regional circuit.

McKenna: When your contract is on the line, you need to be willing to put it all on the line and claw for the victory in whatever format it will come.  That is what these two guys need to realize when they enter the Octagon this Saturday.

It is tough to pick who has a clear edge in this fight, but Massenzio regularly fights at middleweight and this will be Cantwell’s first fight at the 185.  Something has to give here, and I see Cantwell emptying his gas tank early and Massenzio winning an unimpressive decision.

MW: Aaron Simpson (10-2) vs. Eric Schafer (12-5-2)

Smith: Using his strong wrestling background, Aaron Simpson has bounced back from back-to-back losses to Chris Leben and Mark Munoz with consecutive victories over Mario Miranda and Brad Tavares. The former All-American at Arizona State will now look to earn another fight against a middleweight contender with a win over Eric Schafer at UFC 136.

Eric Schafer (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Schafer, who was released by the UFC after a unanimous decision loss to Jason Brilz in March 2010, was welcomed back to the organization as a replacement for Nick Catone. A torn achilles forced Catone out of his scheduled bout with Simpson, which gave the 34-year-old Schafer what could possibly be his final chance with the UFC.

With losses to Brilz and Ryan Bader, Schafer has faced difficulties against top-notch wrestlers during his two prior stints in the world’s largest MMA promotion. Look for those same problems to show up in the fight. Simpson, a training partner of Bader, will look to use his wrestling to keep Schafer on the defensive.

In his usual grinding style, Simpson will edge Schafer via a unanimous decision.

McKenna: I honestly don’t see this being much of a fight to be honest.  Simpson had a hiccup earlier in his career with the two consecutive losses that Sean mentioned, but has bounced back after being given a couple of stepping-stone style fighters to get back to where he is now.

Aaron Simpson (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Catone would have been a bigger step up in competition than his new opponent, but he will have to do.

Stepping in is Schafer, who has had an extremely unimpressive Octagon career.  Knocking off Houston Alexander is the biggest thing he is able to boast about, which really sums it up.  I trust the talent department of the UFC, and considering he was released not once, but twice already from the promotion says a lot.  Due to the injury, Schafer was dragged back for one last fight with the UFC and something tells me this fight will be officially his last with the promotion.  While Simpson indeed grinds, he will get the stoppage with the TKO in the second.

Tatum: Even with Schafer dropping down to middleweight, his style is not conducive for a fighter like Simpson.  Schafer wants top position so he can work his submission game, but against a wrestler like Simpson, it is unlikely to happen.

Rather than drag this out any further, like an Aaron Simpson fight, I’ll agree with Sean’s outlook and take the former Sun Devil by decision.

FW: Tiequan Zhang (15-1) vs. Darren Elkins (12-2)

McKenna: The third fight of the evening is a bout between two fighters who are trying to make a name for themselves even though they have been with Zuffa for three fights each.

Tiequan Zhang (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Hailing from China, Tiequan Zhang has only tasted defeat once in his professional MMA career, which came against Danny Downes in the WEC.  In that particular fight, “The Wolf” lost a close decision in which he appeared to gas out, most likely due to the fact that he had finished each and every previous fight in his career prior to the nine-minute mark.  The fatigue clearly got to him, which was the outlying factor as to why he ultimately lost the fight.  His next fight came under the UFC banner, as he took on Jason Reinhardt and finished the fight in under a minute.

Across the cage will stand Darren Elkins who has won two of his three career fights with the UFC.  Elkins won his first fight due to an opponent getting injured and quickly lost his second fight after Charles Oliveira slapped a triangle on him.  From there, “The Damage” decided to drop the extra ten pounds and fight at featherweight, where he got back on track by decisioning Michihiro Omigawa.

I look at this bout and see Elkins trying to grind the fight out to the later rounds because of Zhang’s questionable gas tank, but considering “The Wolf’s” experience and ability to end the fight, something tells me that he will be prepared for the fight to go the distance, but it won’t.  Zhang will choke out “The Damage” in the first round.

Tatum: Brian nailed this fight on the head.  While Elkins’ resume may show he’s 2-1 under the UFC banner, anyone who watched his bout with Omigawa (including UFC President Dana White) knows “The Damage” should be 1-2.  And as Brian pointed out, his other victory came by way of freak injury, as opponent Duane Ludwig’s ankle became trapped under the fighters near the fence and snapped.

Zhang quickly impressed in his WEC debut, choking Pablo Garza by guillotine.  Against Downes, he was clearly overmatched, but quickly rebounded against Reinhardt.  For the only fighter to hail from China in the UFC, Zhang has shown a lethal submission game, finishing 12 of 15 wins.

Darren Elkins (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Hard to argue with Brian’s assessment at all.  Elkins wants this fight to go into deep waters, but to do so, he’ll have to avoid Zhang’s ability to finish.  I don’t see it happening.  Zhang claims another victim by guillotine just minutes into the fight.

Smith: Luck has been on Elkins’ side in his two UFC wins, but it’s likely that his luck will run out against Zhang. The Chinese featherweight has a dangerous ground game and could score another submission in this bout.

Elkins isn’t a slouch on the ground, but it just seems he is overdue for a setback. Had his fight against Omigawa been judged properly and if Ludwig not injured his ankle against him in March 2010, Elkins could be fighting outside of the UFC already.

Much like he did in his lone UFC loss to Oliveira, Elkins will be caught in a submission after an early takedown attempt. Zhang wins this fight and adds another submission via guillotine choke to his record.

HW: Joey Beltran (13-5) vs. Stipe Miocic (6-0)

Smith: After winning the first six fights of his career with stoppages before the midway point of the second round, Stipe Miocic will make his UFC debut against one of the organization’s toughest heavyweights to finish.

Joey Beltran (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Coming off of a win in a slugfest against Aaron Rosa, Joey Beltran isn’t the type of fighter to shy away from Miocic’s power. His style might not be conducive to winning a lot of fights, but Beltran is going to put on a show every time he steps into the Octagon.

As usual, Beltran will walk through some big shots to land a solid punch or two of his own, but the majority of the fight will see Miocic picking his opponent apart. Again, Beltran will somehow battle through three rounds of punishment that no man should be able to endure.

Miocic takes this fight on the scorecards and becomes another bright prospect in a quickly deepening UFC heavyweight division.

Tatum: While I can’t fault Sean for taking Miocic based on his credentials, I’m not buying into the hype.  Sure Miocic is a former NCAA Division I wrestler and has a Golden Gloves championship on his resume, but he’s also only been fighting for less than two years.  The six finishes on his resume have come against fighters on the regional circuit and he’s yet to even see a third round in any of his fights.

Stipe Miocic (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

For comparison, Beltran has spent more time in the Octagon in his last two fights than Miocic has spent in his entire career.  Experience is not something to ignore in the sport of MMA.  And Beltran’s ability to survive against the likes of Pat Barry and Matt Mitrione leads me to believe that there’s no way he’s going to get finished by the prospect.

Beltran has a propensity for spoiling fighter’s UFC debuts, as both Rolles Gracie and Aaron Rosa can attest.  This fight won’t be any different.  I do agree with Sean that this fight will see the judges’ scorecards, but it will be the hard-nosed Beltran taking home the decision win and putting the first blemish on Miocic’s record.

McKenna: Rob was able to beat me to what I wanted to say in this fight.  Sure, “The Mexicutioner” has not looked good during his time in the Octagon, but he hasn’t looked bad either.  He stood in there with both Barry and Mitrione, which isn’t easy to do.  Surviving against the striking of Barry alone is impressive, despite Barry’s own recent struggles.

The aforementioned experience does go a long way, and I really can’t trust Miocic in this fight.  Entering the huge stage of the UFC will take a lot out of the newcomer and it will all be too much for him to take in as Beltran TKO’s a tired Miocic late in the fight.

LW: Anthony Pettis (13-2) vs. Jeremy Stephens (20-6)

Tatum: For the WEC’s last lightweight champion, Pettis, his Octagon debut was hardly what most expected.  The flashy striker known as “Showtime” was dominated by rising contender Clay Guida in June.  Guida’s wrestling forced Pettis to work from his back and he was unable to mount much offense from the position.  The decision loss cost the 24-year-old a shot at UFC gold.

Jeremy Stephens (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

His second foray into the UFC spotlight will come against the heavy-handed veteran Stephens.  “Lil’ Heathen” has been a knockout machine, finishing 14 of his 20 wins by strikes.  Stephens has picked up wins in four of his last five outings and has taken home two Knockout of the Night and one Fight of the Night bonuses along the way.

While this fight has a recipe for fireworks on the feet, as Pettis’ kickboxing and Stephens’ boxing make for quite the match-up, it will be the ground game that decides the outcome.  Neither fighter is an expert on the ground, but Pettis is much more fluid on the mat.  A closely contested fight through two rounds will end when Stephens gets caught in a triangle choke, giving Pettis a submission win.

McKenna: Rob hit a home run in his description of this fight.  Both of these fighters are great and it is a great way to open up the televised portion of the night.  You have Jeremy Stephens, who is known for his great striking and his power, taking on Anthony Pettis, who became an overnight sensation with just one kick.

Anthony Pettis (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Unfortunately for Pettis, people didn’t really know who he was prior to that WEC lightweight title fight at WEC 53.  He landed the kick of the year, won the fight, won the title, and when he took on Guida in his next fight everyone expected him to be jumping off the cage with reckless abandon.  If you really look at that fight, you will see him being dominated by wrestling, but at the same time being able to put in some great work off of his back while trying to land submissions.

As it was mentioned, this will be the ground game that will propel Duke Roufus’ product to victory in this fight.  Stephens is just too one dimensional for my liking of this match-up, which will ultimately be his downfall here.  I see it happening sooner than Rob does though, as I see the submission coming in the first.

Smith: With three of Stephens’ six losses coming by submission, picking Pettis by submission is a safe bet here. However, the crafty Joe Lauzon is the only fighter to submit Stephens in the last four years. Stephens has been working on his ground game part-time at Alliance MMA, so we could see a lot of improvement in that area.
That being said, Pettis is the more technical fighter in all aspects. Stephens should be able to survive on the ground, and his power always makes him a threat when standing, but this fight is Pettis’ to lose.

Whether on the ground or standing, this fight will live up to the expectations for entertainment. Pettis will be the clear winner, though, in a fight that goes to the judges.

MW: Demian Maia (14-3) vs. Jorge Santiago (23-9)

McKenna: When the UFC started showing preliminary fights on television, it was for the purpose of teasing casual fans into ordering the pay-per-view due to seeing an explosive fight.  Well, when you look at the fight leading into the main card, you have just that: An explosion waiting to happen.

Demian Maia (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Former middleweight No. 1 contender Demian Maia is praised for his amazing jiu-jitsu, and rightfully so.  Eight of the 14 wins by the Brazilian have come by submission, and it should not surprise anyone who has seen him fight that he has a third-degree black belt in the discipline.  Unfortunately, though, the southpaw crashed into a road block in his last fight and was outpointed by Mark Munoz after he was riding a two-fight winning streak of his own.  While his grappling is elite, it is his striking that has always been questionable.  He will need to have trained hard on his striking to be able to compete while on his feet.

The other stick of dynamite in the cage on Saturday will be Jorge Santiago, a fighter who came to the UFC with great fanfare and ultimately did not live up to the hype.  Also from Brazil, he is currently in his second stint with the promotion after being released due to a 1-2 record.  Being released was likely one of the best things that ever happened to him, because from there he went on to win nine straight fights and claim the Sengoku middleweight championship.  While fighting in Japan, he showcased his great jiu-jitsu and striking, which is most of the reason as to why he was brought back to the Octagon.

It should be interesting to see what happens with this fight because both fighters have a lot of victories from submissions, yet neither has ever been submitted.  Typically, elite jiu-jitsu cancels each other out, but we still have room for fireworks here grappling-wise.  However, Santiago will use his superior striking ability added onto his need for a victory to knock Maia out on his feet in the second round.

Smith: The key to determining the winner of this fight will come down to whether or not Maia can take Santiago to the ground. Outside of Rousimar Palhares, there isn’t a single middleweight in the UFC capable of even threatening Maia on the ground. Santiago may have the ground game to survive three rounds against Maia, but there’s little chance of the former Sengoku champion winning if he can’t keep this bout standing.

Maia did show improved striking in his most recent appearance against Munoz. However, the grappling ace is likely still at a disadvantage against most opponents while on his feet. Though, having secured a takedown against a high-level wrestler like Chael Sonnen, Maia shouldn’t have any problem putting Santiago’s back on the canvas.

Jorge Santiago (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

Since Santiago has never been submitted, he deserves the benefit of the doubt in the prediction. However, the benefit of doubt in this situation is the difference between being finished and going the distance rather than winning and losing.

Maia gets back on track with a unanimous decision over Santiago.

Tatum: One of my favorite lines in regards to the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that black belts are not created equal.  This contest is a perfect example of that.  Maia is one of the top practitioners on the planet and certainly one of the most successful to transition to MMA.

As both panelists have pointed out, neither fighter has ever been submitted.  While Maia is leaps and bounds ahead of Santiago in the grappling department, I tend to agree that he won’t be able to finish his fellow Brazilian.

What is intriguing is the striking.  As Brian pointed out, Santiago is the much better striker and that has spelled Maia’s doom before (see Marquardt, Nate).  In fact, since that knockout loss at UFC 102, Maia hasn’t managed to submit a single opponent.  And as Sean mentioned, Maia’s striking has shown marked improvement over his last few fights, making this fight an even tougher call.

Santiago is in for a difficult night if he can’t connect on Maia’s chin early and often.  Echoing Sean, Maia bounces back from the loss to Munoz with a unanimous decision win.

Top Photo: Demian Maia (L) (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)