UFC on FX 8 brings a collision of two champions in what is sure to be a barnburner. In the evening’s main event, live from Arena Jaragua in Jaragua do Sul, Brazil, former UFC light heavyweight title holder Vitor Belfort faces off against Luke Rockhold, the final Strikeforce middelweight champ.

Belfort, who has been bouncing between middleweight and light heavyweight, has lost two title shots in the last two years.  He is coming into the cage off of an impressive second-round TKO of Michael Bisping in January. In his last title shot, he nearly defeated the seemingly unbeatable Jon Jones by a first-round armbar, and, had he not let up, he would currently be wearing the light heavyweight strap for the second time in his career.

Rockhold is entering the Octagon for the first time after a 9-0 run in Strikeforce, which included a middleweight title and two subsequent title defenses.  He last fought Tim Kennedy in July 2012, pulling off a very long five-round decision victory.  Rockhold may not have the pedigree that longtime UFC veteran Belfort does, but at 28 years old, he is young, hungry and looking to make a big impact for his UFC debut.

The match-up between Belfort and Rockhold definitely has implications for a title shot.  If Rockhold wins, it will put him right in line for a unification bout.  However, if Belfort wins, he will finally get the chance to avenge his knockout loss to Anderson Silva, assuming Silva still holds the belt.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up. And as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Belfort – 10, Rockhold – 9

As much credit as the American Kickboxing Academy deserves for generating some fighters with amazing striking prowess, Rockhold will have his hands full with Belfort should this one stay standing.  Belfort has some of the quickest hands in all of MMA and, when combined with his devastating knockout power, very few can survive his striking arsenal.  He is also 1-0 as a pro boxer, though that bout took place 10 years into his pro MMA career.  Of his 22 wins, fifteen have come by way of knockout.

Rockhold’s only striking victories consist of two TKOs and one submission by punches.  His last TKO was of Keith Jardine, who has been knocked out six times due to his questionable chin.  Rockhold’s striking is good enough to keep up with some world-class competitors, but it is nothing compared to that of Belfort.

In the striking department, Belfort runs away with the victory.

Submission Grappling: Belfort – 10, Rockhold – 10

When it comes to submission grappling, this one is a toss-up.  Belts alone don’t really do justice to how closely matched up these guys are on the ground.

Belfort holds black belts in both Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and judo.  In 2001, he earned a bronze medal at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships by defeating world-famous BJJ expert Ricardo Almeida.  However, in his 32-fight pro MMA career, he has only won by submission three times and has been tapped out only twice, including his recent loss to Jones.  Although his BJJ skills are at a very high level, he has relied more on his striking throughout his MMA career.

Rockhold currently holds a brown belt in BJJ and has been training in the sport since high school.  He also had four years of judo as a child.  Before entering MMA, Rockhold competed in several grappling tournaments and, in 2007, won two gold medals at the IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu Championships.  He has utilized his experience in submission grappling to earn five submissions out of his 10 wins.  Even though he hasn’t competed at the ADCC level like his opponent, Rockhold is a solid grappler and could give Belfort a run for his money on the mat.

Wrestling: Belfort – 9, Rockhold – 10

Belfort’s raw strength and BJJ skills could make him a really good wrestler, but his game is very much striking oriented.  He does not utilize his strength to pin guys to the cage or maneuver on the ground like a pure wrestler does, a la Randy Couture.  Coincidentally, it was Couture that utilized his wrestling to manhandle Belfort early in his career to the tune of two TKO losses.  Dan Henderson out-wrestled Belfort on the Pride stage even though Belfort popped positive for elevated testosterone after the fight.  Wrestling is probably on the weaker end of the Brazilian’s arsenal.

Rockhold wrestled from seventh grade through high school and very briefly in college.  The interesting thing about Rockhold’s ground skills is that he was in judo at age six, prior to his wrestling days, then he trained BJJ side-by-side with wrestling while in high school.  This combined training in wrestling and grappling-oriented martial arts has translated well in his MMA career.  Rockhold was easily one of the strongest wrestlers in Strikeforce’s middleweight division and holds the edge over Belfort in this fighting modality.

X-factor

The biggest game changer in this fight is Belfort’s experience.  He has shared the cage with the very best fighters in history, from the guys mentioned above to other big names like Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin and Tito Ortiz.  He came onto the scene in 1996 at only 19 years of age and has been fighting nearly every year since, with the only exception being 2010.  Although Rockhold has faced a few fierce competitors, he has never faced the legends that have helped shape the sport.  In his most recent return to UFC action, Belfort has knocked out Michael Bisping, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Rich Franklin, has submitted Anthony Johnson, and only suffered two losses at the hands of UFC champions.  Belfort’s career is the X-factor in this battle.

Final: Belfort – 29, Rockhold – 29

Verdict: Although one could make a case for Rockhold if this one hits the mat, there is no guarantee that he will win on the ground.  Belfort made his slickster grappling skills very evident in his near-defeat of Jones and he  is a black belt in BJJ.  However, the ground is the only place Rockhold stands a chance.  On the feet, Belfort will take this one by stoppage, because that’s what he does.  Belfort is a top-10 contender at light heavyweight, but at middleweight, he is top three.  It’s been nearly six years since he went to decision and there’s no reason to think he’ll let this fight go the distance.  Even though this one technically scores as a tie, Belfort’s experience wins this one by a landslide.

Photo: Vitor Belfort (James Law/Heavy MMA)