Josh Gross
Sunday August 30th, 2009

Zuffa isn't promoting a UFC championship fight tonight in Portland, Ore., but one could certainly make the case that titles are on the line.

Legend. Old. Viable. Top contender. Dominant. Gatekeeper.

Pick one and UFC 102 will find a way to address it.

Two legendary fighters meet in the evening's main event at the Rose Garden when former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion (five times in all) Randy Couture (16-9) tangles with Brazilian great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (31-5-1). By sporting standards, Couture is ancient at 46. Physically, Nogueira is a decade older than his 33 years would suggest. Still, each maintains the veneer of competitiveness in an endeavor that's unforgiving at any age.

Hanging in the balance is status as one of the best heavyweights in the early years of mixed martial arts' modern history. Regardless of the result, both men will be remembered fondly, but a dominant performance one way or the other will cement their places behind Fedor Emelianenko on the MMA heavyweight pantheon.

Middleweights Demian Maia and Nathan Marquardt didn't receive co-main event billing from the UFC, but fans and media are looking past an overhyped light heavyweight bout between Keith Jardine and Thiago Silva in favor of what should be a tremendous clash at 185 pounds. Can Maia takedown Marquardt the way he did Chael Sonnen? If the answer is yes, he wins by submission, earning him at least the distinction of being a top contender to be the top contender for Anderson Silva.

Sandwiched between Maia-Marquardt and the headliner, Jardine and Silva slug it out for viability. But even with a win, "The Dean of Mean" may not be much more than a gatekeeper for the elite at 205 pounds.

Demian Maia is to Brazilian jiu-jitsu what Anderson Silva is to Muay Thai and Lyoto Machida is to karate. He is dominant on the canvas. But I wouldn't consider him one dimensional. He's not a technical striker. Not that it matters too much. For guys like Maia, the key is not being afraid to get hit. And sparring on a regular basis with Wanderlei Silva will prepare you there.

Round 1: A touch of the gloves to start. Maia stands southpaw and tosses a couple inside kicks. Marquardt stands, calm. High kick from the Brazilian blocked. And like a pitcher who goes to the fastball one time too many against Albert Pujols, Marquardt counters another body kick with a perfect -- I mean perfect -- right hand that takes Maia off his feet and floors him! Bam! The Brazilian's head slams into the canvas, and the fight is done. Good way to avoid grappling.

Official time, 21 seconds of Round 1. Right straight to the chin sent Maia forehead first into the canvas. Afterwards, Nate the Great says he's the man to kick Silva's butt. It didn't happen two years ago, but Marquardt is definitely qualified. There won't be much interest in Marquardt-Silva right now. It would be better for everyone involved if a true No. 1 contender was crowned with a fight against Dan Henderson.

Post-fight talk:

Tweet from @ACCBiggz: Thank Ye Nate!!! That was my point with Maia/Silva... he's just not ready.

Josh Gross: Marquardt represented a big step up in competition, but I don't think Maia losing was a case of him being ill-prepared. He just got clipped. It'll be interesting to see how the Brazilian responds. Relinquishing that "0" in the loss column won't be good for his stock. Still, everyone loses in MMA. Including Chris Leben, who was choked out cold by Jake Rosholt in the third round of their middleweight fight.

Fresh off a clean performance, Marquardt strolls out nonchalantly as part of Keith Jardine's corner. The Dean of Mean is a unique-looking fighter. UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg pulls this stat out of nowhere, because it's not remotely true: He says Jardine has fought eight top 10 heavyweights in a row. Not quite, Goldy. I'd say four ranked 205-ers in eight fights. Still, Jardine gets credit for fighting anyone (save Rashad Evans) the UFC will put in front of him.

Round 1: Jardine delivers heavy low kick to Silva's lead leg. Good opening strike. Good positional scramble after the pair went to the floor off a Jardine kick to the midsection.

Counter left hook from Silva puts Jardine on the canvas. It didn't look clean, but the shot was strong enough to stumble the veteran. A downward straight left from the Brazilian makes Jardine (14-6-1) go stiff as an ironing board 95 seconds into the fight. Quick night of knockouts in Portland. Phew. Big win for Silva (14-1), who look outclassed in January when he suffered the first loss of his career against Lyoto Machida.

Post-fight talk:

Tweet from @Dmerit: dude pretty sweet card so far no lackluster showings.

Josh Gross: Yeah, you can say that. But there haven't been any really competitive fights either. No wars yet. My gut says Couture-Nogueira will more than make up the difference.

Say this about Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, the man hasn't looked in better shape since his best days in Pride. He's 15 pounds lighter than December when Mir finished the Brazilian for the first time in his career. Officially, Couture is 11 pounds lighter than Minotauro and he owns a pretty noticeable speed advantage.

This fight might be taking place five years too late, but it's still pretty cool to realize Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are about to fight.

Round 1: Early exchange and they clinch. Couture moves away. Thirty seconds in and it's clear Couture is the quicker fighter. Nifty straight right from The Natural. Nice shot. Couture feels comfortable now, standing in the pocket bobbing and weaving, mixing in hooks and uppercuts.

Another lead right from Couture. Nogueira isn't moving all that well. Nog's circling back and to the left and counters with two right hooks. Couture is down and has to fight off a D'Arce choke. Noguiera has the submission deep. Couture is holding on. Holding on! Holding on ... wow. Randy manages to stand and they're once again boxing. Incredible will by The Natural.

Stiff right from Couture. A jab. They exhange on the inside and Minotauro gets the better. Lead left, right straight from Couture. Both land flush. They're trading with a minute to go in the first. So far this is the war both men deserve.

They're slugging it out in the clinch with 45 seconds to go. Crowd is screaming for more. Couture scored far better in that dirty boxing exchange. Holding behind the head and hitting.

Against the cage Couture digs with a left to the body and one to the head. They finish the round against the cage fencing earning an ovation from the crowd. Great round. 10-9 Nogueira.

Round 2: The pace stays consistent to open the second. Nogueira scores with a left hook and tries to pull a guillotine. But that was premature and for the first time in the fight, Couture finds himself in Nogueira's legendary guard. The kind of guard that changed how heavyweights were perceived in MMA.

In-tight brawling so far. Couture is working for wrist control. Mark Coleman once told me Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has the tightest grip he's ever felt. That's something coming from The Hammer. Couture is doing some hammering of his own. Good short elbows on the inside.

Nogueira sweep! Beautiful into mount. He baited Couture and moved circa 2003. Credit to The Natural. He's defended the mount and is now underneath Nogueira's half-guard. An arm-triangle now. Couture is in trouble again. Nogueira is doing this from full mount. So far Couture looks OK. His submission defense has been spectacular tonight. And he's free, though he's now mounted and taking punches.

Very, very good fight so far. Couture shoots his hips to the side, frees a leg and like nothing is back on his feet. Brilliant technique from the bottom.

Left hook cracks Nogueira's jaw, which is holding up well tonight. Solid knee to Couture's chiseled midsection. Applause from the crowd again as the fighters walk to their respective corners. Another solid round from Couture, but he had to fight hard not to go to sleep. 10-9 Nogueira in a fight that's only three rounds. Five more minutes to go. Couture must stay on his feet in the final frame.

Round 3: Inside leg kick from Couture. A three punch combo from Couture. Nogueira answers with a stiff 1-2, the right hand snapping Couture's jaw. Nog knows he has Randy hurt and he's pressing forward with punches. Couture is down, taking -- and mostly defending -- short hammer shots.

Nogueira relents, takes side control and presses Couture up against the fence. This is worst case scenario for The Natural. He can't escape to his left. He's trapped there.

Couture is bleeding from his let eye. But he's not done. Couture turns his back, gets on his knees and would love desperately to stand. But Nogueira won't let it happen. He's got Couture's back with one hook. Minotauro is digging for a rear-naked choke. And -- no shock here! -- Couture reverses. He's back on Nog's guard, not ideal but far better than his previous two and a half minutes in the cage. Finishes from this position -- the defensive position made famous by Royce Gracie -- don't seem likely.

Brock Lesnar, watching cageside, is shouting instructions to Couture. It's over. What a great 15 minutes. Fittingly, Nogueira finished the fight sweeping Couture to mount as the bell sounded. I have it yet again for Nogueira, 10-9 and 30-27. What a tremendous fight from two of the sport's best. Now and forever.

Judges have it unanimously for Nogueira: 30-27 twice and 29-28. That's the correct call. Couture may not have become the first man to win a fight in the UFC at the age of 46, but so what? He's probably just saving his next one for 47. For Minotuaro, this is an enormous win. He's unquestionably a legend. He's not old yet. He's clearly viable. He can still be dominant. And you can forget that gatekeeper stuff for now.

If you're on Twitter and want to discuss the results, I'm going to answer questions @SI_JoshGross for a bit. Thanks for reading.

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