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Even without title fight, UFC 102 will answer questions


UFC 102 rolls into Portland, Ore., with an intriguing main card littered with hometown heroes, headlined by Washington native Randy "The Natural" Couture facing off against fellow MMA legend Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira.

Despite rumors of troubled ticket sales and the lack of a title fight to carry the card, UFC 102 is an outstanding collection of important fights that will affect the title picture.

Let's take a look at some of the questions that will be answered Saturday night.

Which legend will emerge with a title shot?

While this fight may have been even more compelling a few years earlier when both were at the top of their game, Couture and Nogueira enter this fight with a singular purpose of returning to the top of the heavyweight division.

Each man lost a portion of the heavyweight title in his last fight, and with Brock Lesnar having subsequently unified the belts at UFC 100, the number of opportunities to compete for the crown has been cut in half.

With Shane Carwin set to face Lesnar at UFC 106 and Cain Velasquez waiting in the wings, the winner of this fight will face a bigger, younger, and stronger challenger when his chance at redemption arrives.

Skill and ability are not questions for either man; both are veterans with a multitude of talents inside the ring and numerous noteworthy wins in their careers.

Still, you have wonder when age will catch up with each fighter.

Couture will enter the cage Saturday night at 46, 13-years older than his opponent. Though he has made a career of defying the idea of age, time eventually catches up with everyone.

Nogueira's 10-year career has included numerous wars and more rounds than you can count. His streak of never being stopped came to a halt against Frank Mir, and there have been rumblings of repeated knockouts during sparring sessions preparing for this fight.

With their name recognition and decorated careers, the winner will be on a short list of title contenders, while the loser will be at a career crossroads.

Keith Jardine hopes that nothing changes, but Thiago Silva and his dangerous hands will certainly have something to say about that.

Over his past six fights, "The Dean of Mean" has alternated between wins and losses, following upsets of Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell with quick defeats at the hands of Houston Alexander and Wanderlei Silva.

A win over Brandon Vera was followed by a loss to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. That would mean nothing, if you were to ask Silva, the talented American Top Team product with just one loss to his name.

That lone loss came the last time Silva entered the Octagon at UFC 94, when he was left looking up at the lights by current light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.

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Now, it's time for Silva to answer some questions of his own. Did he simply fall to a better opponent, or was his unblemished record a result of walking through weaker opposition?

Although Dan Henderson was proclaimed the next challenger for the middleweight champ following his vicious knockout of Michael Bisping at UFC 100, Silva has stated his lack of interest in mixing it up with the Team Quest member once again.

Enter Demian Maia and Nate Marquardt.

Before Henderson and Bisping built their heat through "The Ultimate Fighter," this fight was viewed as a No. 1 Contender match, and rightfully so.

A black hole of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Maia is undefeated in his career, including going 5-0 with five submission wins since entering the UFC.

While some question how he will fare if this fight remains standing, those same questions have circled each of his previous encounters. And the answer has always been the same: Maia via submission.

For Marquardt, this fight is a chance to get back into the ring opposite Anderson Silva. After losing to the middleweight champion at UFC 73, the former King of Pancrase has gone 3-1 with wins over Jeremy Horn, Martin Kampmann, and Wilson Gouveia.

The loss, a split decision to recently released Thales Leites, came at UFC 85, where two points were deducted from the Greg Jackson student for different infractions.

Finding a way to prevent Maia from imposing his will and dragging this fight to the ground is the true test for Marquardt. Even though every opponent knows that Maia is masterful on the ground and unproven on his feet, no one has managed dictate where the action takes places against the Brazilian.

Marquardt has the benefit of super strategist Greg Jackson in his corner and a training camp full of top-tier opponents, but no one in the Albuquerque gym can match the precision Maia shows on the mat.

However, Marquardt hasn't suffered a submission defeat in over six years despite competing at the top level in both Pancrase and the UFC, while his striking has looked lethal in earning stoppages in each of his last two fights.

This is actually the fight many fans want to see most, and with good reason. It has the makings of a terrific technical battle.

Brandon "The Truth" Vera was once a highly regarded heavyweight prospect with designs on holding both the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles simultaneously.

Since storming out of the gates to an 8-0 start, Vera has gone 2-3 in his past five fights, relocating to the light heavyweight division at the urging of the UFC three fights ago.

While he's won two of three matches since dropping to 205, wins over Mike Patt and Reese Andy were far from surprises, and his uneven performance in a loss to Jardine is still the most relevant recent event.

Krzysztof Soszynski is almost the anti-Vera: A former IFL fighter who had been marred by inconsistency throughout his career before gaining some attention through season eight of The Ultimate Fighter.

Since losing to Vinny Magalhaes in the semifinals, Soszynski has reeled off three straight impressive wins and looks to have a bright future both in the ring and on camera, as his wry assessment of Michael Bisping's predicted knockout of Dan Henderson on UFC 100 Countdown was easily the best moment of the show.

Now Soszynski steps in on short notice for the second consecutive fight, filling the shoes of an injured Matt Hamill, to take on Vera. It is the stiffest test of his career to date, as both men look to solidify their standing in the stacked light heavyweight division.