Anderson Silva, "The Spider," the most decorated champion the UFC has ever known is coming back.
Thirteen months removed from a failed drug test following UFC 183, Silva will return to the Octagon this Saturday, February 27 (4 P.M. EST, UFC Fight Pass), having served a yearlong ban at the hands of the Nevada Athletic Commission. Facing the former middleweight champion at London's O2 Arena will be England's own Michael Bisping, who has not fought in his homeland since 2010.
Silva (33-6 1 NC, 16-2 1 NC UFC), who owns many of the UFC's most coveted records, and won his first 16 bouts inside the Octagon, has not officially won a fight since November 2012 (he initially beat Nick Diaz via unanimous decision at UFC 183 before the NAC overturned the result). And still, it's no surprise that Silva is pegged as the favorite in this bout.
Bisping (27-7, 17-7 UFC) has been one of the UFC's most durable fighters over the last decade. A former winner on The Ultimate Fighter, Bisping has spent the majority of his career near the top of the UFC's middleweight division, but has never fought for the title. On several occasions he came close to earning a chance at then-champion Silva, but Bisping always fell short. Saturday is his chance to finally earn a crack at the belt.
A bout between two strikers, this fight will likely take place on the feet, where both Silva and Bisping are known to do the majority of their damage. And while Bisping is an adept kick boxer with a wealth of cage experience and crafty dirty boxing against the fence, Silva is a few steps ahead in every aspect of the game.
Of course, it's possible that time off may hurt Silva, who turns 41 in April. But it's even more likely that Silva is looking to make a statement after his name and reputation were smeared by last year's PED test failure.
Look for Silva to take this one via TKO in the middle rounds.
Co-main event: Gegard Mousasi vs. Thales Leites
Another pair of top-10 middleweights will go at it in the evening's penultimate bout, as Dutchman Mousasi takes on Brazil's Leites.
A former champion with the Strikeforce promotion, Mousasi (37-6-2, 4-3 UFC) has been inconsistent inside the Octagon. He has the striking skills, but has yet to rattle off a significant win streak during his run with the UFC.
Leites (25-5, 10-4 UFC), a former title challenger, is a high-level Jiu Jitsu expert, who returned to the UFC in 2013 after being cut by the promotion following consecutive losses. Leites has looked good during his most recent stint with the UFC, but in his most recent loss to Bisping in 2015, it became clear that Leites might have plateaued.
It's a very tough matchup to call between these fighters with opposing skill sets. Mousasi can use his kicks and punches to keep Leites at bay, but the Brazilian has also showed improved striking of late. Conversely, if Leites wants to go to the ground, Mousasi does have some skill on the floor as well.
After 15 minutes, look for Mousasi to score a close decision.
Tom Breese vs. Keita Nakamura
England's Breese has looked phenomenal during his two fights in the UFC. A big and tall welterweight, standing 6-foot-3, Breese (9-0, 2-0 UFC) retired Ireland's Cathal Pendred with a vicious knockout in his last bout, and is still considered a rising prospect.
Nakamura (31-6-2 1 NC, 1-3 UFC) delivered one of 2015's more memorable submissions, coming from behind to choke out China's Li JingLiang, but Breese is an entirely different specimen.
This fight should be rather quick, with Breese pressuring forward to back Nakamura up against the cage. And with Nakamura unable to strike with the bigger Breese, it should be lights out early on.
Look for Breese to land the first round TKO.
Francisco Rivera vs. Brad Pickett
This bantamweight bout has Fight of the Night written all over it, as both Rivera and Pickett are known for getting in close and winging heavy, wild punches until someone falls.
Rivera (11-5 1 NC, 4-4 1 NC UFC) is a gritty brawler who lost his most recent bout to John Lineker via submission. Still able to stand and trade, Rivera has the power to knock down anyone at 135 pounds. He just needs to find the opening before taking too much damage.
Last we saw of Pickett (24-11, 4-6 UFC), he was on the wrong end of a Thomas Almeida flying knee at UFC 189. Despite the loss, Pickett was able to briefly drop Almeida early on, and the bout was an integral part of the 2015 Event of the Year. But at 37 years old and riding three straight losses, Pickett is in the twilight of his combat sports career.
Both Rivera and Pickett will come straight out and throw bombs, and the pair will likely rough each other up immediately. So this fight basically comes down to who can withstand the most damage, and that will be Rivera, who will land the knockout.
Rustam Khabilov vs. Norman Parke
Lightweights Khabilov and Park are both in desperate need of an impressive win.
A hot prospect just a few years ago, Khabilov (17-3, 3-2 UFC) has had a rough go of it of late, losing his last two bouts. And while Parke (21-4-1, 5-2-1 UFC) did win his most recent bout, it was a rather lackluster affair.
Don't expect any fireworks here, as both Khabilov and Parke will come out hesitant to feel each other out. The bout will likely move to the fence, where Khabilov likes impose his wrestling and where Parke prefers to implement his arsenal of Judo throws.
And after 15 minutes of cage riding and wall-and-stall, look for Khabilov to earn the decision on account of his superior takedown game and control.