Josh Gross
Friday August 28th, 2009

Two great fighters searching for relevance in a bout dripping with questions over legacy; in a sentence, that's what fans should expect from the main event for UFC 102 Saturday when Zuffa brings its brand of mixed martial arts to Portland, Ore., for the first time.

The Pacific Northwest has a longstanding tradition of promoting mixed martial artists into a larger prominence, and no one has exemplified that more than Randy Couture. For 13 years The Natural lived in Oregon, where he cultivated his hard-nosed cerebral approach alongside other no-nonsense wrestlers like Olympic medalist Matt Lindland.

Couture, 46, has since moved to Las Vegas, where his Xtreme Couture training center houses some of the sport's biggest names. Still, his roots remain near Team Quest's Gresham, Ore., gym, and the opportunity to fight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira -- regarded by most as the second best heavyweight in MMA history behind only Fedor Emelianenko -- in front of family (he was raised in Washington state) and friends at the Rose Garden has him energized.

Unlike in his last fight against Brock Lesnar, Couture (16-9) won't face a monstrous size deficit. Though Nogueira possesses slight reach and height advantages, the pair should be within 10 pound of one another, meaning Couture focused on honing his submission and grappling technique instead of banging heads with 300-pound sparring partners in preparation for yet another fight.

"I have to be especially attentive there," Couture said. "I think whatever happens, we'll be ready to go there on the ground."

Nogueira certainly will. Even though he's 33, some have quipped the longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu stalwart is closer to his mid-40s than Couture. And there's something to that. Nogueira has not looked particularly healthy since matriculating to the U.S. after Pride folded in 2007. He survived against Heath Herring and Tim Sylvia before staph infection, a bum left knee and Frank Mir stopped him for the first time in his career last December.

Surgery on the knee and a spirited three-month training camp away from his family and friends in Brazil have Nogueira (31-5-1) talking like it's 2005 all over again, when he could still move with ease and was far and away the best heavyweight submission fighter on the planet.

"I still have a lot to show," Nogueira said. "That's why I've been training so hard. I want to show the best of my performance in my next fight. That's why I'm still in the game."

In a fight worthy of five rounds, the pair only gets three. With their standup games a wash -- Nogueira is a decent boxer but can't bust a grape, while Couture prefers roughing people up on the inside -- Saturday's winner could very well be determined by who controls the clinch. That certainly favors the Greco-Roman literate Couture. Presuming age hasn't caught up to him (he says it hasn't since he met every training camp benchmark), Couture should be fine as long as Nogueira doesn't find a way to secure top position. Fighting from his back for any length of time would severely hamper Couture's chances.

All things considered, I slightly favor Couture, who amazingly has faced fewer questions than Nogueira over what he has left to offer in competition.

As intrigue and high stakes go, pay special attention to a middleweight contender fight between undefeated Brazilian jiu-jitsu maestro Demian Maia and the well-traveled, highly-skilled Nathan Marquardt.

Maia, a 31-year-old Brazilian world-champion grappler, is unbeaten in 10 fights, with eight wins coming via submission. He isn't one of these jiu-jitsu artists who gave MMA a shot for a payday or rite-of-passage ritual; he always wanted to fight, and began his BJJ career with that in mind.

Five wins since entering the UFC netted four "submission of the night" honors against mostly middle-of-the-road opponents. If nothing else, an increase in the caliber of competition will provide a definitive answer on how dangerous a mixed martial artist Maia has become.

Against Marquardt (28-8-2), Maia is tasked with facing someone with plenty of experience against every conceivable type of fighter. Marquardt, 30, of Denver, Colo., is the better striker. He's more physical. And his submission game, honed early in Japan's grappling-influenced Pancrase organization, could go a long way in neutralizing Maia's flawless technique.

The thickly-muscled Marquardt has to be concerned with Maia's clinch-based, trip-heavy takedown game. Life will be much easier in this fight if he can eliminate ground fighting altogether, and it's not a stretch to think Marquardt can manage that. Most important, Marquardt cannot allow Maia to establish top position. Otherwise it's game, set, match. Maia is that good.

Perhaps the biggest prize is the chance to be Anderson Silva's next challenge at 185 pounds. Marquardt earned a shot in 2007 and was put away within a round. But he hasn't disappeared and, has worked himself back for a possible second chance. A win for Maia would reveal the Brazilian to be a true test for Silva, who if he's going be beaten, would likely fall against a top grappler with sublime submission skills.

Maia may very well be the real deal. The southpaw might get Marquardt to the floor and find a way to end the fight. But I favor Marquardt by decision. His athleticism, overall skill and experience against a higher class of competitor will allow him to control how things play out in the cage.

Alternating wins and losses against some of the top fighters in the division, Keith Jardine (14-5-1) has been hit and miss since 2007. His chin is vulnerable and Brazil's Thiago Silva (13-1) could certainly muster enough power to put the Dean of Mean down for the fourth time in his career. But power alone won't be enough for the brawling striker.

He looked terrible during the first loss of his career in January when Lyoto Machida ran circles around him. Considering the odd footwork and angles Jardine brings with him, Silva, 26, could face a rough go against an opponent known for fighting with awkwardness.

Against a lower class of fighter, Silva looks like a killer. But he was knocked down a peg against Machida, and should suffer a similar fate against the 33-year-old UFC veteran.

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