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Nogueira, Velasquez take center stage Down Under at UFC 110


Sunday afternoons aren't often reserved for fighting. Not so this weekend in Sydney, Australia, where the Ultimate Fighting Championship charges onto its fifth continent boasting the second quickest sellout in its history.

If anything can be gleaned from 16,500 tickets getting scooped up the day they went on sale, it's that Australians -- who rank only behind the Québécois in their eagerness to watch elite MMA -- will pack Acer Arena for UFC 110. And this corner of the world is ripe for the type of boost that propelled the sport forward in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.

Namely, Zuffa's entry into the market.

While Australian MMA has quietly gone about its business for more than a decade, it took UFC barnstorming in Sydney to grab public attention and move the media from tired storylines about caged, bloodthirsty killers to discussion of skilled athletes competing on a metaphorical high-wire.

How important an occasion is UFC 110 for Oceanian MMA?

Not only does the event represent an attitudinal sea change among casual audiences and opinion makers, its live telecast on One -- Australia's only 24-hour free-to-air sports network -- equates to a deluge of exposure after years of drip, drip, dripping into the public consciousness.

Kicking off a busy stretch that finally gets ranked heavyweights back in action, UFC 110 (10 p.m. ET, UFC PPV) positions an all-time great against a prospect widely regarded as one of MMA's best.

Which man wins the evening's main event could depend heavily on how Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira looks on fight night, said Cain Velasquez's trainer "Crazy" Bob Cook.

If the 33-year-old Nogueira stays light on his feet, if he boxes, then Velasquez (7-0) should learn plenty about himself as a fighter. In front of him would be a submission icon stepping in tune with snapping jabs and crisp hand combinations. Nogueira doesn't carry a ton of power but he lands enough shots that hurt, which could bring Velasquez's sturdy chin into play.

However, if Nogueira moves like he's fighting on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, if all the plyometric and athletic training hasn't paid off, Velasquez's high-pressure style, which competently weaves wrestling with striking, should allow him to at least control his way to a decision. Stopping Nogueira would require an impressive effort. For it to happen Velasquez would likely be in the top position, where he could land blows during transitions or play a riskier ground-and-pound game inside Nogueira's fabled guard.

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The 27-year-old Velasquez, a valuable chip for Zuffa considering his in-cage upside and Mexican-American heritage, looked good in stopping Ben Rothwell last October. His striking remains a work in progress, though Velasquez has improved in each of his five fights in the UFC. Even if he falters against Nogueira (32-5-1), the young heavyweight would continue to enjoy a very bright future.

For the man on the other side of the cage, a former Pride champion widely recognized as the second-best heavyweight of his era behind Fedor Emelianenko, the remainder of his career trajectory will be revealed in Sydney. Win and he's in the mix for a UFC title shot against Brock Lesnar in July. Lose and any chance of that might disappear for good.

• Nogueira feels like a risky pick because of lingering questions over his health, but I feel comfortable going with his experience in the main event.

• Don't be surprised if Michael Bisping (18-2) wins his middleweight bout with Wanderlei Silva, the first effort at 185 pounds for the former Pride champion. Silva (32-10-1) remains a slugger, and most people picking him to win are doing so because of his tremendous power. But I'm unconvinced that Silva, who's 1-4 since 2007, including a couple bad knockout losses, has enough to beat a capable, young, hungry fighter with a chip on his shoulder. Bisping will lose if he's forced to rely on his chin to keep him in the fight. I don't think it'll come to that.

• George Sotiropoulos, one of four Australian fighters on the card, has to make the most of what should be tremendous support from the crowd. Perhaps it doesn't have to be as emotional as Ian Freeman's triumph in London at the Royal Albert Hall over Frank Mir, but Sotiropoulos (11-2) certainly needs to put together something special if he's going to get past a reinvigorated Stevenson (31-10). I don't like his chances no matter how loud the crowd gets.

• If Ryan Bader keeps things simple, he shouldn't have a tough time against Keith Jardine (15-6-1). Bader, the season eight winner of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter, is undefeated through 10 fights, and his superior wrestling should be the deciding factor in this one.

• Like Wanderlei Silva, it's almost impossible to know what Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic (25-7-2) is bringing into fights these days. In his last effort he was battered around the cage by Junior dos Santos, and I actually thought he displayed some spirit in spite of the result. Put it this way, if he can't get past Ben Rothwell (30-7) there isn't much of a point for the veteran Croatian heavyweight to continue fighting. Without knowing just how much "Cro Cop" cares, or what he has left to offer, picking this one is like flipping a coin.

• Sotiropoulos, Chris Haseman, and Elvis Sinosic are well-known commodities among Australian fight fans. James Te Huna might not be. That should change after UFC 110. The light heavyweight slugger, who leads off the night against Igor Pokrajac, is very aggressive and looks like a fighter who's fun to watch as long as the style matchup is right.

• Sinosic's rematch with Haseman (20-16) harkens back to a time when submission via "chin to the eye" was an acceptable outcome. The UFC 110 undercard bout marks the first all-Australian effort in the Octagon, and provides Sinosic (8-11-2) the chance to avenge a 1997 loss in the semifinals of a 16-man same-day tournament in Sydney. Haseman, twice, won by "chin to the eye" before Mario Sperry pounded him out in the finals to take the tournament.

• Fighter most in need of a win: Stephan Bonnar (11-6). Watching Randy Couture batter Mark Coleman could not have made Bonnar feel so great on the eve of his bout against Krzysztof Soszynski. Bonnar is making his return after a decision loss at UFC 100 to "The Hammer."

• To accommodate the traditional pay-per-view start time in the U.S. (10 p.m. ET), UFC is promoting the live event at 2 p.m. Sunday in Sydney, which is 16 hours ahead of New York. As previously mentioned, UFC 110 was the second-fastest sellout in UFC history. Top honors belong to UFC 83 in Montreal, which was a madhouse as over 21,000 fans packed into the Bell Centre to watch their favorite son, Georges St. Pierre, dominate Matt Serra in the main event.

• Quick picks on the undercard: Haseman def. Sinosic; Soszynski def. Bonnar; Brian Foster def. Chris Lytle; Goran Reljic def. C.B. Dollaway; Te-Huna def. Igor Pokrajac.