March brings bevy of top bouts

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During a month loaded with important MMA, here are 10 bouts that stand out for more than just compelling matchmaking:

Easily the best fighter plying his trade in March, St. Pierre returns against an opponent he should dominate. Even still, his bout on March 27 against Hardy, who in spite of his deficiencies isn't a pushover, remains the month's most intriguing.

In his last three fights, the UFC welterweight champion needed 14 rounds to defeat Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn and Thiago Alves. Based on what St. Pierre has said leading up to the pay-per-view event in Newark N.J., the 28-year-old French-Canadian plans on an early finish at UFC 111.

Common wisdom suggests Hardy comes into the fight ill-equipped for this moment -- a belief based largely on his showings against mid-tier competition.

At stake: G.S.P.'s position among the world's three best mixed martial artists.

Under-the-radar storyline: UFC's long-term fortunes in the UK could hinge on whether or not Hardy usurps the belt from St. Pierre. It doesn't appear that another British fighter will get this close to a UFC belt for some time to come.

Early pick: St. Pierre. He's the better athlete, and has a style perfectly suited to defeat the hard-hitting Brit.

The "interim" tag makes this five-round heavyweight title tilt less important than it might seem from the outside. There remains, however, plenty to note when top-10 fighters Mir, 30, and Carwin, 35, meet at UFC 111.

At stake: A shot at Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title this summer.

Under-the-radar storyline: Is going big the only way to compete in the UFC heavyweight division? Will Mir's newfound size help or hurt him against an opponent as large and as physical as Carwin?

Early pick: Carwin. I've vacillated. At the moment I'm inclined to take the undefeated Coloradan.

Making his first defense of the Dream featherweight championship, Fernandes faces an interesting challenge on March 22 in Yokohama, Japan, against Hansen, a veteran who has campaigned primarily in the lightweight division. (The card is available to American audiences live on HDNet.) There is a significant gap between 154 pounds and Dream's featherweight limit of 139, and it's hard to imagine the cut won't be extremely difficult on the 30-year-old Norwegian challenger.

At stake: Fernandes' status as the top featherweight outside WEC.

Under-the-radar storyline: Can Hansen prolong his career in a new division?

Early pick: Fernandes. The 29-year-old Brazilian has all the tools, plus he's best at this weight.

A rematch of a 2006 bout that resulted in Fitch, 32, stopping Alves, 26. The fighters, ranked No. 2 and 3 in the world respectively, meet again March 27 at UFC 111. Both men have improved tremendously over the last three years, and each was overwhelmed in five-round decision loss to St. Pierre.

At stake: Standing next in line for a second shot at the UFC welterweight title.

Under-the-radar storyline: Can Fitch finish a fight? A decision against Alves would make seven in a row that went the distance for the former Purdue University wrestler.

Early pick: Fitch. He's a firm No. 2 behind St. Pierre because he doesn't make mistakes.

As dos Santos, 25, shot up the heavyweight ranks, Gonzaga, a former title contender in the UFC, sputtered. Based on their current trajectories, dos Santos should walk into the March 21 bout -- a first for UFC on Versus -- favored against a fellow Brazilian who has struggled against upper-crust opponents.

At stake: Dos Santos' rapid ascension at heavyweight, and his place among an intriguing mix of fighters.

Under-the-radar storyline: Is Gonzaga, 30, making his last stand? He split his last six fights, beating a lower class of fighter while falling short against established talent.

Early pick: Dos Santos. Too much aggression, power and youth.

In 2005, Gomi was considered the best lightweight in MMA. Not so anymore, although the 31-year-old Japanese fighter's entree into the UFC could go a long way in helping resurrect his career. He won't catch any kind of break in his first UFC-promoted bout on March 31 in Charlotte, N.C. Florian, 33, seems well suited to stifle an all-to-often under-motivated fighter.

At stake: Gomi's viability and legacy at lightweight.

Under-the-radar storyline: Invariably, this bout will give dredge up the old UFC vs. Pride debate.

Early pick: Florian. His conservative style, coupled with mistake-free striking, should give him enough advantages to out-point Gomi.

The headliner for UFC's first venture on Versus, Jones-Vera brings together athletic light heavyweights on March 21. Jones, 22, returns for the first time since suffering a disqualification loss -- the first blemish of his career -- to MattHamill in December. Because of his humbleness and ability to attack from any angle, Jones has quickly become a fan favorite. It wasn't long ago that Vera, 32, was thought to possess similar potential, but middling performances have considerably lowered expectations of him.

At stake: Jones' position as UFC's most intriguing prospect.

Under-the-radar storyline: OK, this one isn't so under the radar. Vera talks a big game, but rarely delivers. A loss makes him 3-3 at light heavyweight, with wins against Reese Andy, Mike Patt and Krzysztof Soszynski. Not good.

Early pick: Jones. Too much athleticism and confidence.

Attempting the fourth consecutive defense of his Shooto featherweight title (132 pounds), Ueda, 32, shouldn't have much trouble in Osaka, Japan, on March 22 against Katsumura, whose resume reads like a series of speed bumps.

At stake: Ueda's spot as Shooto's only top-10 ranked fighter, and more to the point, the international relevance of Japan's storied sanctioning body. Ueda ranks third worldwide among MMA's 135-pound fighters, behind Dominick Cruz and Joseph Benavidez.

Under-the-radar storyline: Ueda remains the lone ranked holdout from WEC's bantamweight contingent, though it appears UFC's sister organization has little interest in signing the Japanese champion.

Early pick: Ueda. Decision. That's what he does.

Nelson, who won Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, can be very marketable for the UFC. He just needs to win. Against Struve, a 6-11, 22-year-old Dutch fighter, Nelson, 32, doesn't get a gimme in his post-TUF UFC debut.

At stake: A potential big-money rematch between Nelson and Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson.

Under-the-radar storyline: Struve might actually be pretty good. His lone defeat on the UFC came in his promotional debut last year against Junior dos Santos.

Early pick: Struve. Nelson has a shot, but I'm not sure he can muscle Struve to the floor, which he'll need to do to win.

Lombard, a 32-year-old former Olympic judoka from Cuba, has a great-looking record, but his level of opposition leaves quite a lot to be desired. Santore, a journeyman from California, won't provide any boost to the way in which fans and media perceive Lombard's MMA ranking, but he certainly knows how to turn a professional fight into a brawl.

At stake: Bellator Fighting Championships' ability to effectively promote Lombard as its 185-pound champion without losing credibility.

Under-the-radar story: Cage Fighting Championships, which promotes the middleweight tilt March 12 in Sydney, returns for the first time since the UFC hit Australian shores last month. What impact did Zuffa's push have on MMA Down Under? CFC 12 should provide a good indication.

Early pick: Lombard. He needs to decisively beat Santore, 37, to maintain traction ahead of his return to Bellator later in the year.