The UFC is finally set to kick off 2013 this weekend, and the promotion has given us a huge fight in the middleweight division as the first main event of the New Year.

Michael Bisping is stepping into enemy territory to take on longtime star Vitor Belfort in “The Phenom’s” native Brazil, and after failing multiple times to earn a UFC title bid, this is the biggest fight of “The Count’s” career.

Also on the card is the debut of TUF Brazil finalist Daniel Sarafian, who takes on C.B. Dollaway in the co-main event of the evening, and a heavyweight bout between Ben Rothwell and Gabriel Gonzaga.

UFC on FX 7 takes place on Jan. 19 from the Ibirapuera Gymnasium in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The main card airs on FX beginning at 9 p.m. ET, with prelims on Facebook (5:35 p.m. ET) and Fuel TV (6 p.m. ET).

The MMA Corner’s Vince Carey, Gregory Chase and Rob Tatum break down the entire card in this edition of The MMA Corner’s Round Table.

LW: Khabib Nurmagomedov (18-0) vs. Thiago Tavares (17-4-1)

Tatum: If you watched either of these fighters’ last fights, you know that both are anxious to score a decisive finish in this match-up. Both earned controversial decision wins that left the crowds quite upset.

Tavares (Sherdog)

Khabib Nurmagomedov has amassed an impressive record through 18 bouts, with his last two coming in the UFC. His promotional debut saw him outclass another high-level wrestler in Kamal Shalorus, eventually submitting the WEC veteran. But his second fight leaves a lot of questions about the Russian fighter. His takedowns were ineffective throughout the fight and he took a lot of shots from Gleison Tibau. Somehow, he earned the decision on the scorecards, but against Tavares, he’ll have to land his takedowns and avoid being submitted.

Like his opponent, Thiago Tavares was the beneficiary of a questionable decision against Sam Stout last January at UFC 142. The Brazilian has been out of action ever since, battling a variety of injuries. When healthy, Tavares has showcased a willingness to engage in firefights on the feet, but his bread and butter is the ground game. Although it’s been more than two years since he scored a submission win, Tavares’ best path to victory is on the mat.

This will be a tactical ground battle, as Nurmagomedov will hope to control Tavares for three rounds. Can he do it without tasting defeat for the first time? I don’t think so. Tavares has faced much tougher competition over the course of his career, and the Brazilian should take home a third-round rear-naked choke win.

Chase: Nurmagomedov has been on a tear and has shown his versatility in his abilities. He can finish a fight wherever it goes and usually does so in quick fashion. But regardless of his undefeated record, I think he has his work cut out for him.

As Rob mentioned, Tavares is the one with the true experience. He has had some ups and downs these past few years, but has faced much tougher competition than Nurmagomedov. While the Russian’s win over Shalorus was his first test in the UFC, I think he will have a challenge with Tavares and will have to work for this win.

Nurmagomedov (James Law/Heavy MMA)

At the end of the day, I see Tavares coming in with the right mindset and hunger to beat Nurmagomedov. I think it will be a decision victory for him, however. If the fight ends in a finish, Nurmagomedov will be the one with his hand raised.

Carey: Don’t get me wrong, I think Tavares is a talented fighter, but he’s never been able to really get on a roll in the UFC. I don’t think he’s going to start now.

Every time Tavares earns a big win, it seems like he finds a way to come up short his next time in the cage, and now that he’s riding a two-fight winning streak, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s going to happen again. Tavares has been a solid fighter in the UFC’s lightweight division for years now, but we’ve seen a legitimate changing of the guard over the last few months and it’s going to continue with Nurmagomedov.

The young Russian looked like a fighter to keep an eye on in his win over Shalorus a year ago, and although he had a rough outing against Tibau last July, he did enough to convince the judges he deserved the win. Now, the undefeated Nurmagomedov is quickly becoming a potential contender at 155, but he needs a concrete win over Tavares to prove he’s ready to compete with the best the division has to offer.

As Rob suggested, this fight is going to come down to Nurmagomedov’s ability to protect himself on the mat and not succumb to a submission. Although he may get into trouble a few times, Nurmagomedov will remain poised enough to avoid getting tapped and will win a hard-earned decision.

HW: Gabriel Gonzaga (13-6) vs. Ben Rothwell (32-8)

Chase: It’s always entertaining to see Gabriel Gonzaga fight, whether it results in a win or a loss. He will take on Ben Rothwell, a true veteran in the sport and a dangerous opponent.

Rothwell (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Although Rothwell has had a shaky career since leaving the IFL, he still possesses some dangerous striking. Keeping the fight standing with Gonzaga will be Rothwell’s tactic.

Gonzaga can certainly hold his own on the feet, but he has the advantage on the ground. Gonzaga’s strategy should be to keep Rothwell on the ground and smother him. After wearing Rothwell out, he can then look for submissions.

The cardio for this fight is the variable, though. Rothwell is confident on his feet, but if the fight goes into the later rounds, we could see the tables turn. I think a quick finish is more likely, but if it goes to a decision, it won’t be pretty.

Both men have faced tough opponents and are coming off of great wins. It just becomes a matter of who wants it more. I think Rothwell will pose issues for Gonzaga on the feet initially, but ultimately I see Gonzaga taking this one home.

Carey: There’s something about a fight between two true heavyweight veterans that gets people excited, but this fight has fallen off the radar a bit.

Gregory is correct in pointing out that Rothwell’s game plan has to be to try to keep this fight standing. Even though Gonzaga can probably get the fight to the floor, it’s not hard to draw the Brazilian into a striking battle. “Napao’s” jiu-jitsu has always been his best weapon, but after his incredible head-kick finish of Mirko “CroCop” a few years ago, it seemed like he was too content with sitting in the pocket and throwing bombs. This stand-and-bang strategy eventually forced the UFC to send Gonzaga a pink slip, but it may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Gonzaga (Sherdog)

When Gonzaga returned to the Octagon two years later, he was back to using his smothering BJJ as his primary weapon. If Gonzaga comes out and looks for a quick takedown, he could possibly finish this fight in the first. However, Rothwell has the takedown defense to make things difficult in the early moments of the fight. “Big Ben” could easily land a big punch or two and put Gonzaga away in the first, but the longer the fight goes on, the harder it is to trust that Rothwell’s suspect cardio will hold up.

For that reason, I think Gonzaga survives a scary first few minutes and eventually gets the fight to the floor, where he’ll slap on a choke and finish the fight.

Tatum: My fellow panelists are on the right track with this match-up.

Rothwell is one of those fighters that, on paper, is just a warm body. But, when you throw him in the cage, he finds ways to win fights that he’s not supposed to. That’s what should concern both Gonzaga and the Brazilian crowd. Gonzaga has been knocked out before and Rothwell has the power in his hands to do it again.

There’s little doubt that the path to victory for “Napao” is to take this fight to the ground and smother Rothwell from the top. Can he refrain from falling into an old habit and turning this into a kickboxing fight? That remains to be seen, but I’ll echo Gregory and Vince in taking the Brazilian to submit Rothwell with a rear-naked choke sometime in the second frame.

MW: C.B. Dollaway (12-4) vs. Daniel Sarafian (7-2)

Carey: The Brazilian crowd is going to be riled up for the debut of Daniel Sarafian, one of the best fighters to come off the first season of TUF Brazil.

Sarafian (Aline Baktchejian Djehdian/The MMA Corner)

Sarafian was impressive on the show, winning all three of his fights impressively and earning a trip to the finals against Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira. However, an injury forced the American Top Team prospect out of the finale, and he’s yet to compete inside the Octagon since leaving the show.

His first test in the 185-pound division isn’t going to be an easy one either, as he drew a fellow TUF finalist in C.B. Dollaway, who is looking to build momentum off a big win in his last bout. “The Doberman” ended the career of Jason “Mayhem” Miller when he smothered the Bully Beatdown host with his overwhelming wrestling at UFC 146.

Although it wasn’t the most impressive win of Dollaway’s career, it was a victory over a high-profile fighter on one of the biggest fight cards of the year. And his reward was a main card fight against a Brazilian in enemy territory. Ouch.

But, despite Sarafian’s home-cage advantage, I think Dollaway has enough to pull off the win here. Octagon jitters are a very real thing for some debuting fighters, and for Sarafian, who’s going to have a ton of fan support on Friday night, it may be a bit overwhelming.

Throw in Dollaway’s ability to grind out his opponents, and a unanimous decision win for “The Doberman” seems like a near certainty.

Tatum: Vince’s take on this fight is understandable, but that doesn’t mean that’s how this fight will play out.

What is most concerning about Dollaway is his lack of consistency and poor performances in all three of his last fights. He has shown holes in submission defense in the past, as well as a suspect chin. He will have a significant height and reach advantage in this fight, but will he put it to use? Or will he play it safe and wrestle like he did against Miller? It is hard to ignore his recent performances.

Sarafian appeared to be the most well-rounded fighter on TUF Brazil and, as Vince pointed out, the 30-year-old fighter will be fighting in his hometown. Now comfortable at middleweight, the Brazilian has rattled off four straight wins (and three more on the reality show). Where he holds a significant edge in this match-up is the ground game. He’s got a lethal ground game from both the top and bottom, which will help him should Dollaway put him on his back.

Dollaway (Fight! Magazine)

This is good test for both of these fighters, but ultimately Sarafian’s ground game will prove to be better than Dollaway’s wrestling. Look for the Brazilian to coerce a tap with a second-round armbar.

Chase: Dollaway brings a strong wrestling game to the table, but, as Rob pointed out, there are holes in his game. Outside of Dollaway’s wrestling, I don’t see much of a challenge here for Sarafian. Dollaway’s best bet is to get this to the ground, but there lies Sarafian’s greatest asset.

Dolloway will want to use his strength to try to hold and control the Brazilian, but technique is going to stop him. While I do think Sarafian will take home a win here, it’s not to say Dollaway doesn’t have anything working for him. Sarafian is coming off an injury, and I would stress, more importantly, that he has never fought inside the Octagon before. The debut curse could very much affect him, and we could see a different fighter mentally that night. Still, I will say Sarafian comes out the victor with a submission.

MW: Michael Bisping (23-4) vs. Vitor Belfort (21-10)

Chase: Nowadays, any fight that has implications for Anderson Silva is very intriguing. This one is no different. Both men are doing everything they can to get to Silva—Vitor Belfort trying to redeem himself for the infamous front kick he received from Silva, and Michael Bisping trying to get his first shot at the champ and finally get his dues.

Bisping (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

For Bisping, this is a life-and-death, all-in situation. If he loses this fight, he may never get his shot at Silva. I personally don’t think he deserves a shot even if he goes out there and knocks Belfort out with a front kick himself, but the UFC may see it differently.

Belfort, though, poses a significantly different challenge for Bisping than most of his past opponents. Belfort has power in his hands, just as other opponents have, but the Brazilian has a speed and explosiveness about him that will make Bisping want to be very careful.

Belfort is coming off a loss, so the momentum here certainly goes to Bisping, but most of the time when Belfort has taken a loss, he comes back with a great win. Bisping has shown a continuous evolution in his game, but I think he will have an issue with Belfort here. I predict Belfort gets a TKO victory, and Bisping is forever sealed as the Middleweight Gatekeeper.

Tatum: There certainly is a lot at stake for Bisping in this fight. The Manchester native fell short in his previous No.1 contender bout against Chael Sonnen last January. Now, with a rebound win over Brian Stann under his belt, an impressive performance against Belfort would give him victories in six of his last seven.

In order to beat Belfort, Bisping will have to fight in a similar way to how he did against Stann. Belfort, like Stann, packs a ton of power in his hands. Bisping was able to avoid that by establishing his jab and staying outside. However, Belfort is a southpaw, which will make Bisping’s strategy and footwork all the more important. The Brit’s kickboxing has always been his best weapon, and he’ll need to find a way to make it effective for a full 25 minutes.

For Belfort, there’s no shame in losing to Jon Jones, especially after he nearly pulled off the major upset with a first-round armbar. But now, he’ll need to shift his focus to the former Ultimate Fighter winner so that he can get revenge on Silva. Belfort’s time in the sport is limited, but the veteran still has some of the fastest hands in MMA. Bisping has been knocked out before after being baited to circle the wrong direction, and if Belfort can line up his devastating left hand with Bisping’s chin, don’t be surprised if it happens again.

Belfort (Sherdog)

Don’t expect this fight to find the mat unless someone gets dropped on the feet. Both fighters prefer their stand-up skills, meaning this is likely to be a kickboxing affair. The longer this fight goes, the more it favors Bisping. His cardio has never been an issue, and Belfort tends to fade as fights progress. Unless Belfort connects with a heavy shot in the first two rounds, look for Bisping to punch his ticket to a title fight with a unanimous decision win.

Carey: This isn’t the most stacked card the UFC has given us in recent months, but the main event makes up for the lack of high-profile fights in the lineup.

Rob and Gregory both mentioned how important this fight is for Bisping, and Gregory was exactly right when he said a loss for the Brit will cement him in place as a middleweight gatekeeper. However, I have to disagree with Mr. Chase’s take on the fight and give the edge to Bisping here.

Belfort has a bad habit of fading in the later rounds of fights. Although people love to criticize Bisping’s ability to take a big punch, his only true knockout loss came in his fight with Dan Henderson. “The Count” has the footwork to stay out of trouble in the early moments of the fight, and as long as he is able to stay on the outside and stick and move in order to tire Belfort out, he’ll be able to sneak away with a decision win here.

Bisping has spent years working to get to the top of the middleweight division, and I think it’s finally his time to shine. Bisping lands more often and comes up big in the later rounds, earning a shot at Silva this summer.

Preliminary Card
LW: C.J. Keith (8-1) vs. Francisco Trinaldo (11-2)

Tatum: Both of these lightweights need a win, but C.J. Keith much more so than “Massaranduba.” Keith looked good for the first minute of his UFC debut, before he was taken down and outclassed on the ground by Ramsey Nijem. Francisco Trinaldo scored a big win in his UFC debut, but came up short against veteran Gleison Tibau in his last bout. Trinaldo’s stand-up is anything but technical, but he’s tenacious and won’t allow Keith to utilize his height and reach advantage. Look for the Brazilian to score a second-round TKO over Keith.

Carey: Keith may be a pretty good lightweight, but he isn’t going to get a chance to showcase his skills this weekend. As Rob said, Keith was outclassed by a superior grappler in his UFC debut, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Trinaldo put him through more of the same.
“Massaranduba” is a big lightweight (he competed on TUF Brazil at 185 pounds), and whether he knocks Keith down or takes him down, eventually he’s going to end up on top. From there, he can start raining down punches and eventually end Keith’s night with a stoppage victory.

Chase: I have to agree with my fellow panelists here and predict that Trinaldo will beat Keith in this match-up. He has a little more experience and is a finisher. This fight will be a big test for Keith, but look for the submission victory for Trinaldo.

LHW: Ildemar Alcantara (17-5) vs. Wagner Prado (8-1)

Carey: The younger of the two Alcantara brothers fighting on the card, Ildemar is making his UFC debut, and he’s taking on a fellow Brazilian prospect on under ten days’ notice. Alcantara has amassed a solid resume on the regional scene in Brazil, earning the Jungle Fight middleweight strap and winning the vast majority of his bouts by stoppage. He should be a solid addition to the UFC’s roster. However, it’s a bit concerning that the natural middleweight is taking this fight at 205 pounds, and while he does have knockout power, Wagner Prado has a lot more. It’s dangerous to stand and trade with a powerful striker, and, with Alcantara’s size disadvantage, it’s likely going to be tough to get the fight anywhere else. Prado takes this one by knockout inside the first ten minutes, but Alcantara could make some noise if he gets a chance to fight at 185 in his next bout.

Chase: As Vince pointed out, there are some interesting dynamics to this fight. I have to agree that Prado takes this one decisively using his hands. This will be a rude awakening and welcome into the UFC for the younger of the Alcantara siblings, and it will put Prado back on track in his winning ways.

Tatum: I think my colleagues are ignoring two things in this fight. For one, Alcantara actually has a significant experience advantage. He’s faced UFC veterans Fabio Maldonado and Marcelo Guimaraes, albeit in losing efforts. Also, despite competing at light heavyweight, Prado does not have a size advantage. He’s soft for the weight class and a move to 185 pounds could be in his future as well. Alcantara fought just one month ago and scored a one-minute TKO, so he should still be in shape. That said, based on the fact that two of Alcantara’s losses have come by TKO, unless he gets this fight to the ground and exploits Prado’s submission deficiencies, Prado is going to turn his lights out.

BW: Iuri Alcantara (28-4) vs. Pedro Nobre (14-1-2)

Tatum: Iuri Alcantara had his 13-fight winning streak snapped in June against Hacran Dias, and the Brazilian will look to start a new one in a new weight class against his debuting countryman. Alcantara has been a well-rounded wrecking machine for most of his career and holds a big experience advantage over Nobre. Nobre is going to find out that competing in the UFC is a whole different ballgame as Alcantara scores a brutal first-round knockout.

Chase: Somewhat the reverse of the other Alcantara fight, I see Nobre getting a wake-up call, and he will have to rethink his game and how to evolve it. Alcantara may be coming in off the loss to Dias, but this guy will come out a beast for this one and prove that decision wins are not his favorite. Look for him to knock out Nobre and issue him the second loss of his career.

Carey: I’m going to have to agree with my cohorts here. This is Alcantara’s fight to lose. Alcantara looked like a prospect to watch after his first two fights in the UFC, and despite the loss to Dias, he’s still an up-and-coming fighter. In his loss to Dias, Alcantara was out-muscled and out-grappled en route to a unanimous decision loss, so the featherweight prospect is attempting to solve those problems by dropping to bantamweight in his Octagon return. Cutting the additional 10 pounds may not help Alcantara become an instant contender, but he has a chance to make a statement to the rest of the 135-pound division on Friday, and I think he gets the job done by ending Nobre’s night inside the first frame.

LW: Edson Barboza (10-1) vs. Lucas Martins (12-0)

Chase: You have to be excited when seeing Edson Barboza on a card these days. After his amazing knockout of Terry Etim, he has sent a great ripple through his division. He is a very dynamic striker and certainly comes to scrap. This is a fight that will end the undefeated streak of Lucas Martins in quick and brutal fashion. Having Barboza as your debut opponent on the biggest stage in the sport is going to cause great mental and physical issues for him. Barboza with a first-round stoppage.

Carey: I’m in agreement with Gregory on one thing: there is no way not to get excited about a Barboza fight. Barboza’s striking is amongst the best in the entire lightweight division, and his ability to end a fight both quickly and beautifully makes him one of the most fun fighters to watch in MMA right now. However, despite all of his skills, he’s not going to have an easy time with Martins. Martins is young, hungry and hasn’t tasted defeat in his MMA career, which makes him dangerous, if only because he hasn’t learned to lose yet. I still expect Barboza to get the win here, but Martins has the skills to make it competitive and will probably do so before getting caught and finished in the final round.

Tatum: This fight is a striker’s dream. Barboza is a highly technical Muay Thai practitioner who made himself a household name with his spinning wheel kick knockout, but my colleagues are ignoring the fact that he wilted under the pressure of Jamie Varner in his next outing. And now he’ll face a hungry, undefeated Chute Boxe product in Martins that is even more aggressive. At range, there’s no question this is Barboza’s fight, but if Martins can overcome his nerves and push forward, he can win this fight. In a “Fight of the Night” candidate, look for Barboza to edge his younger foe on the scorecards.

FW: Nik Lentz (22-5-2) vs. Diego Nunes (18-3)

Carey: This is my favorite fight on the prelims, and don’t be surprised if it’s in the running for “Fight of the Night” honors when all is said and done. Nik Lentz had his momentum at lightweight stalled when he ran into a three-fight stretch without a win, and he made a much-needed change by dropping to 145 pounds at UFC 150, where he completely destroyed Eiji Mitsuoka in under four minutes. The win was proof that Lentz needed a tough test at featherweight, and the UFC obliged him by throwing him in the cage with a top-tier fighter in Diego Nunes. Nunes may be more of a gatekeeper than a contender at the moment, but he’s the king of gatekeepers, and a win over “The Gun” proves you mean business at 145. However, Nunes’ downfall may end up being his takedown defense, and Lentz has wrestling skills in abundance. “The Carny” gets the unanimous decision win in a close bout.

Tatum: Like Vince, I agree this fight could be “Fight of the Night” material, especially because there is a high likelihood that it goes the distance. In one of the more bizarre stats you’ll find in MMA, Nunes has gone the distance in 10 straight fights, all under the Zuffa umbrella. The Brazilian has a well-rounded attack, but has been unable to find a finish since 2008. Lentz was very impressive in his 145-pound debut, but against a much less durable (and talented) opponent. Lentz’s stand-up has a ton of holes, and Nunes is bound to exploit them. Look for Nunes to get his hand raised when the scorecards are read.

Chase: Rob and Vince said it well: “Fight of the Night” potential here. Nunes fights hard and usually goes to a decision these days, but I think he may find some new success against Lentz. Lentz has some tenacity with his abilities, but I think Nunes is a better caliber of opponent. This could go to a decision, but I will say that Nunes gets a finish instead.

MW: Andrew Craig (8-0) vs. Ronny Markes (13-1)

Chase: Both of these men are on tears and have finished most of their fights. Both have a great ground game, but I think Ronny Markes takes the advantage there. While Markes has been fighting to some decisions recently, I think he will come out and hand Andrew Craig the first loss of his career.

Tatum: Craig’s last outing was very impressive, as Rafael Natal is not an easy man to finish. The same could not be said for Markes, who despite looking better at 185 pounds could not find a rhythm against Aaron Simpson. This has all the makings of slow, grinding fight. Both fighters are looking to break into the next tier of the middleweight division, but after 15 minutes in the cage, look for Markes to take home another decision win.

Carey: Let’s make it unanimous. Craig was actually getting beaten up by Natal before landing an incredible head kick to score the comeback win, and he’s going to have a lot of trouble with a grinder on Markes’ level. This won’t be the most exciting fight of the night, but Markes could impress if he can score a stoppage win here. At the very least, Markes is taking home a lopsided decision.

FW: Godofredo “Pepey” Castro (8-1) vs. Milton Vieira (13-7-2)

Tatum: Old meets new in this clash of Brazilian featherweights. Godofredo Pepey tasted defeat for the first time in his career in his UFC debut in a decision loss to Rony “Jason” Bezerra. The veteran Milton Vieira battled to a split draw on the same card. Both fighters have found success on the mat in their careers, but Vieira has a clear edge there. His record is very deceiving as he’s fought the likes of Jake Shields and Hayato “Mach” Sakurai in the past. Look for that experience to be the difference as Vieira takes a decision over the younger Pepey.

Carey: Like Rob, I view this as old school versus new school, but I’m going with the young lion in this one. Vieira is tough as nails and nearly impossible to finish, but he also owns a pedestrian record and hasn’t picked up a win over any of the top-level fighters he’s fought. Meanwhile, Pepey was undefeated before jumping into TUF Brazil, and his loss to Rony Jason was far from a blowout. Pepey’s decision loss to Bezerra was the only time the fighter has gone to the judges’ scorecards and he’s a legit threat to earn a submission win if the fight hits the mat, but Vieira hasn’t been stopped in any of his seven career losses. Don’t expect Vieira to get finished, but I think he loses this fight no matter where it goes. Pepey will earn his first UFC win.

Chase: The changing of the guard here is what is going to happen. I think the younger Pepey is going to show the energy he brings and will overwhelm Vieira. Vieira only has lost by decision, but he is taking on a whole new breed of opponent. Pepey needs to get his head right since losing his UFC debut, but if he can mentally hold himself together, Pepey walks home the victor. Like Vince said, I don’t expect him to get finished, but I think Pepey takes a decision win or stops Vieira early with strikes.

Photo: Vitor Belfort (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.