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Nine Ways of Looking at UFC 131

From big opportunities, big individuals, and big worries about being overshadowed by Canada's love affair with hockey, UFC 131 has plenty of storylines in the works. Here are just a few of them.

I. It's quickly approaching now-or-never time for Shane Carwin. He's 36 years old and has spent almost as much time with his surgeons as his trainers in the last couple of years. He can't do this forever. Judging by his absolute refusal to give up his full-time day job as an engineer, it doesn't seem as if he wants to try, either. If he doesn't get his title shot now, he may not get another chance while he's still young and healthy enough to do anything about it. A loss to dos Santos, and Carwin might soon decide that there's more of a future for him in his other career. He might even be right.

II. It's Brazil versus the USA...kind of...again. With the exception of the Einemo-Herman fight, all the main card bouts feature this familiar rivalry. Sadly, it's long since lost its novelty. Am I the only one who thinks we need a new international rival in MMA? We've done USA-Canada and even dabbled in USA-Japan. When is France going to hurry up and get its MMA act together? Chael Sonnen probably has tons of insults that are going to waste right now.

III. Kenny Florian doesn't need this, but he needs this. Florian is the rare fighter who could probably quit tomorrow and make his living exclusively as a commentator and on-air personality. He's articulate and charismatic, but he also knows what it's like to bleed for his cash, so he has the street cred that matters with many fans. As a color commentator and TV analyst, he's almost as good as Pat Miletich, and probably a little more appealing to the producers who wince every time they have to put Miletich's battered (but still loveable) mug on the screen. Florian doesn't really have to keep fighting for too much longer if he doesn't want to. But if he does want to – and if he wants to do it with a legitimate hope of being a champion some day – he has to win this fight. If he starts out his new life as a featherweight with a loss, it makes him look like a guy who's wandering around looking for easier game – and not finding it anywhere.

IV. How much does the city of Vancouver care about MMA right about now? With their hockey team in the Stanley Cup finals, having a traveling circus like the UFC pass through town is a much smaller blip on the radar. Canadians love them some prizefighting – this we know – but hockey is a religion in these parts. How many devotees still have the energy or cash to spend on MMA after so many nights in their national church of late?

V. The Carwin-dos Santos fight will be decided by range. Dos Santos wants to keep his distance from the big, burly wrestler and beat him with superior boxing and footwork. Carwin, however, will want to get into the clinch and/or on the ground and make sure he can smell the Brazilian's after-shave as he's battering him with those engine blocks he calls fists. They can't both have it their way, but the guy who gets the fight where he wants it is the one who'll get his hand raised in the end.

VI. Dark horse pick for Fight of the Night: Yves Edwards vs. Sam Stout.
It's an interesting stylistic match-up to begin with. But with Stout's desperation to string a couple wins together and stop doing the whole 'two steps forward, two steps back' thing, and Edwards' desire to keep his current win streak alive and prove his viability in what might prove to be his last big push in the UFC, both these guys have ample motivation to go out there and prove something. Fading options and exciting styles are two key ingredients to great fights.

VII. Anybody remember Demian Maia? Two years ago he was the submissions wizard who captivated our imaginations. Then after losses to Nate Marquardt and Anderson Silva – not a bad pair of guys to lose to, by the way – he kind of dropped out of the middleweight conversation altogether. Now he's just another very dangerous fighter who can beat 90% of the men in the division, but who few people are clamoring to see in a title fight anytime soon. Lately he's gone from spectacular submissions to forgettable decisions, but he's still a handful for just about any 185-pounder out there. Against Mark Munoz you kind of have to wonder what he's fighting for, though. A win won't vault him to the top of the ladder, and a loss won't drop him completely off it. Like many former title contenders, he's stuck in a holding pattern for now.

VIII. It's time for the (technically) undefeated Nick Ring to lay his cards on the table. Officially, he won the decision over Riki Fukuda in his first UFC bout in February, but the UFC sure didn't act like it. Fukuda got his win bonus anyway and the brass made it clear that they thought he got hosed, which is nice for Riki but couldn't have made Ring feel too great. He was coming off a long layoff due to knee surgery then, so it's possible he was just a little rusty. Now he's getting another UFC newcomer in James Head, so this is his chance to make everyone forget how mediocre he looked in his last outing. Will he do it? I think so. And after all the potential he showed on TUF, it'd be nice to see him parlay that into a career we can get excited about.

IX. Win or lose, Junior dos Santos has been a real team player lately. It can't be easy for a 26-year-old fighter in top form to give up nearly a year of prime money-making time when he's healthy and ready to go. Dos Santos suffered for the injuries of others, and he didn't even really complain about it. He even kept his good humor all through a season of TUF, and then saw his fight fall from the media spotlight after Brock Lesnar pulled out. Again, he took it in stride, kept whatever gripes he may have had to himself, and acted like a real company man. The UFC ought to remember what he did – and what he gave up – just to go along and get along.