By Ryan Frederick, WrestlingObserver.com
The UFC heads back to New Orleans for the first time since 2011 on Saturday night for UFC Fight Night 68 from the Smoothie King Center. The event airs on FOX Sports 1 with a main card start time of 10 PM eastern time, with a full preliminary card slate beginning at 7 PM eastern time on UFC Fight Pass before moving to FOX Sports 1 at 8 PM eastern time.
The event will be headlined by a five-round middleweight bout as Tim Boetsch takes on MMA legend and former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion Dan Henderson. A pivotal heavyweight bout serves as the co-headliner as ranked contenders Ben Rothwell and Matt Mitrione square off to decide who could emerge as a contender in the title picture. Also on the card, lightweights Dustin Poirier and Yancy Medeiros meet in a bout that is flying under the radar but could end up as one of the best fights of the year. Let's take a closer look at the action on Saturday night and look at five storylines to keep our eye on for UFC Fight Night 68.
1. Will Dan Henderson show if he has anything left?
That is pretty much the story of Dan Henderson ever since the first encounter he had with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 139 in November 2011. That fight seemed to take years off of whatever career either man had left. Henderson suffered a bad knee injury after that bout and was out of action for 15 months, and he hasn't looked the same since coming back, and he isn't getting any younger with his 45th birthday getting closer. The fact that he is unable to use testosterone replacement therapy as he has in the past just seems to speed up the process that we are nearing the end of the career of one of the all-time great fighters.
The big question is can Henderson pull out the Hendo of old against Tim Boetsch in the main event on Saturday night. These two were put in the headline position when the original main event between Daniel Cormier and Ryan Bader was pulled due to the shake-up of the 205-pound division. These men are just a combined 3-9 in their last twelve combined fights, yet they are the most recognizable fighters on Saturday's night card, especially Henderson, a former champion in both PRIDE and Strikeforce. They also have the chance of having a solid fight ending with a big knockout.
Henderson still swings for the fences but he does get tired easily. He is fighting at 185 pounds, which is more natural for him, but he will be giving up some size to Boetsch, who is one of the bigger middleweights in the division. Henderson has that big right hand that he still throws, but he doesn't connect as much. It can still finish opponents if it connects, though, and Boetsch has a durable chin, but he can be finished. Boetsch also gets tired easily and fades late in fights. This could get sloppy and ugly if it goes into the deeper rounds. This fight won't make a dent in the rankings and won't have title shot implications, but it will show us what Henderson has left, and at his age, any fight could be the last fight for the MMA legend.
2. Who will emerge as a title contender between Ben Rothwell and Matt Mitrione?
The co-main event heavyweight bout between Ben Rothwell and Matt Mitrione could have arguably been named the main event of this card, and it would have a good reason. Both men are on win streaks, and in a shallow heavyweight division where contenders are becoming hard to find, the winner will put themselves in a good position to where they are in the conversation. Rothwell has won two straight fights over Alistair Overeem and Brandon Vera, both by knockout. However, those are his only two fights in the past 28 months as he had to take a year off after failing a drug test for elevated testosterone levels following the Vera fight.
Mitrione has been more impressive lately, winning three straight fights over Gabriel Gonzaga, Derrick Lewis and Shawn Jordan. What is more impressive is that all three of those wins have come by knockout in the first round, and Mitrione has been looking better on his feet. He still has trouble defending against the submission game and has had trouble as the competition has gotten better. Rothwell is the best fighter he has fought in recent times, but Rothwell is also an opponent who will want to keep the fight on the feet as he likes to finish opponents by knockout, as evidenced by his twenty wins by knockout.
Which one will emerge as a legitimate title contender on Saturday night? I do like Mitrione slightly in this fight, and it is a close bout as evidenced by the betting odds. Mitrione being more active lately and showing his true potential and getting better every time he steps in the Octagon is a big difference. Rothwell has probably reached his peak at 43 career fights, but he has the chance to show he can be a true challenger. The winner of this fight could be next for a bout with either Andrei Arlovski or Stipe Miocic, which would determine a true top contender, so the winner awaits some big fights.
3. Will Dustin Poirier and Yancy Medeiros deliver the fight of the night?
Dustin Poirier is a Louisiana native and was eager to get on this card after he won his lightweight debut over Carlos Diego Ferreira in April. Yancy Medeiros is a fighter coming off two straight submission wins in which he won "Performance Of The Night" on both occasions. They were paired up to square off on Saturday night in a lightweight bout that has all sorts of potential and could end up not being just the best fight of the night, but one of the better fights of the year.
Both men are willing to trade on their feet and both have good submission skills, and both are exciting fighters who have been in exciting fights. They have just a combined six losses in a combined 35 professional fights. Poirier has won 14 of his 17 fights by stoppage while Medeiros has won nine of his eleven fights by stoppage. Both men are on the outside of the top-15 of the lightweight rankings, and this is a big chance for the winner to break into that upper echelon of the lightweight division. They will come out fighting hard, and expect a finish in an all-out brawl in this fight. They have a very good chance of delivering the fight of the night.
4. Which remaining fight on the main card has the chance of delivering the best action?
This is a fairly stacked card for a free show despite the loss of the original main event, and the rest of the main card features a featherweight bout between Thiago Tavares and Brian Ortega, and bantamweight bouts pitting former title challenger Joe Soto against Anthony Birchak, and Francisco Rivera taking on Alex Caceres. Tavares has won two straight fights since moving down to 145 pounds, with both wins coming by submission in the first round. Ortega is undefeated in his career, but is coming off a blemish of failing a drug test following a win in his UFC debut. This fight has the chance to be a solid action-packed bout.
The two bantamweight bouts are solid match-ups as well. Soto is coming off the title fight against UFC Bantamweight Champion T.J. Dillashaw, a fight he took on just a day's notice. He gave Dillashaw his all before being finished in the last round, but now he takes on the man he was supposed to fight that night in Sacramento in Birchak. Both men are evenly skilled and this is a toss-up bout. Rivera and Caceres are both coming off two straight losses and looking to avoid getting cut from the roster as there is trimming going of right now. Both men have .500 records in the Octagon and both have trouble when they face stiffer competition. They need a good showing if they want to remain on the UFC roster.
5. What is something to watch out for on the preliminary card?
The preliminary card is a full slate of solid action capped off with a heavyweight bout between sluggers Shawn Jordan and Derrick Lewis. That fight has knockout written all over it, but who will be on the losing end of those fists? Jordan has won two straight fights and 13 of his 17 wins have come by knockout. He has also suffered four of his six losses by knockout. Lewis has won 11 of his 12 fights by knockout, but one of his three losses have come by knockout. They have fought once before, coincidentally also in Louisiana, a bout won by Jordan in a fight that actually went 15 minutes, the only time Jordan has won by decision. I don't expect it to go that far this time.
Veteran of 69 fights Brian Ebersole will be looking for his second straight win when he takes on Omari Akhmedov, winner of 12 of his last 13 fights. Ebersole is entertaining and known more for his chest hair than his fighting, but it should be a solid bout nonetheless. A big prospect to keep an eye on is lightweight Chris Wade, who is 9-1 in his career and winner of four straight fights. He has solid wrestling acumen and submission skills, but he gets a tough opponent in Christos Giagos, who is a solid striker looking to score his second straight win. They both have a shot of making waves at 155 pounds, and they get to showcase themselves on Saturday night.
Full UFC Fight Night 68 Fight Card, Betting Odds & Predictions
MAIN CARD (FOX SPORTS 1- 10 PM ET/7 PM PT)
Middleweights: Tim Boetsch vs. Dan Henderson
Betting Odds: Boetsch (-210), Henderson (+175)
Prediction: Henderson by knockout in round 3
Heavyweights: Ben Rothwell vs. Matt Mitrione
Betting Odds: Rothwell (+165), Mitrione (-190)
Prediction: Mitrione by knockout in round 2
Lightweights: Dustin Poirier vs. Yancy Medeiros
Betting Odds: Poirier (-185), Medeiros (+160)
Prediction: Poirier by submission in round 2
Featherweights: Thiago Tavares vs. Brian Ortega
Betting Odds: Tavares (-170), Ortega (+150)
Prediction: Ortega by decision
Bantamweights: Joe Soto vs. Anthony Birchak
Betting Odds: Soto (-170), Birchak (+150)
Prediction: Soto by decision
Bantamweights: Francisco Rivera vs. Alex Caceres
Betting Odds: Rivera (-120), Caceres (+100)
Prediction: Rivera by knockout in round 2
PRELIMINARY CARD (FOX SPORTS 1- 8 PM ET/5 PM PT)
Heavyweights: Shawn Jordan vs. Derrick Lewis
Betting Odds: Jordan (-105), Lewis (-115)
Prediction: Lewis by knockout in round 1
Welterweights: Brian Ebersole vs. Omari Akhmedov
Betting Odds: Ebersole (+120), Akhmedov (-140)
Prediction: Akhmedov by decision
Lightweights: Chris Wade vs. Christos Giagos
Betting Odds: Wade (-170), Giagos (+150)
Prediction: Wade by decision
Lightweights: Joe Proctor vs. Justin Edwards
Betting Odds: Proctor (-210), Edwards (+175)
Prediction: Proctor by submission in round 3
PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC FIGHT PASS- 7 PM ET/4 PM PT)
Middleweights: Ricardo Abreu vs. Jake Collier
Betting Odds: Abreu (-190), Collier (+165)
Prediction: Abreu by decision
Bantamweights: Jose Quinonez vs. Leonardo Morales
Betting Odds: Quinonez (+160), Morales (-185)
Prediction: Morales by decision