Around the octagon: What to watch at UFC 74

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After an absence of almost two months, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to action Saturday night with UFC 74: Respect at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Here are eight storylines to keep an eye on as the evening unfolds, one for each side of the octagon:

1. Did you hear about that old guy who is champion?: Randy “The Natural” Couture is defending the UFC heavyweight title against Gabriel Gonzaga at the age of 44. If you’re reading this and didn’t already know, feel free to go click on one of Yahoo! Sports’ other fine pages, like golf or tennis, instead.

2. About Randy and ground fighting: The rap on Couture has long been his trouble handling larger ground fighters. His losses to Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett convinced him to drop down to light heavyweight five years ago. But last November, Couture faced one of the world’s top submission artists, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, in a non-striking grappling match in Culver City, Calif. The two battled to a scoreless draw, which helped convince Couture to make his MMA return at heavyweight.

Granted, taking strikes out of the mix changes things considerably, but the mere fact Couture could hang with one of the world’s best grapplers – after a nine-month break from competition – is an indication his ground skills have improved.

3. Just how good is Gabriel Gonzaga? We just might be watching the ascension of the next great MMA heavyweight. Gonzaga’s pedigree is top notch, as he earned his jiu-jitsu black belt under the great Wander Braga, and learned MMA at Brazil’s Chute Boxe. Any doubt about whether he belongs in main events were erased with his dominant performance over Mirko Cro Cop in April. If Gonzaga can beat Couture on the heels of the Cro Cop victory, he needs to be considered one of the world’s Top 10 pound-for-pound fighters.

4. St. Pierre the “head case:” Has anyone in mixed martial arts ever gotten more grief for one loss than Georges St. Pierre? For those who have forgotten, as many apparently have, the Montrealer boasts a record of 13-2 and has already avenged one of those losses (Matt Hughes).

GSP went on one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport in his build-up to the welterweight title. St. Pierre sent Jason “Mayhem” Miller packing from the UFC just as soon as he arrived. He TKOd Frank Trigg right out of the company. He sent Sean Sherk scampering to the lightweight division. He took all B.J. Penn could dish out, then roared back for a win. He then handed Hughes the worst loss of his career to take the 170-lb. title last November.

But GSP suffers just one bad loss, to the underrated Matt Serra, and everyone from Dana White to the crew that puts together the octagon reacted like he’s some type of bust. St. Pierre responded to the loss of the title by canning his Quebec crew and joining Greg Jackson’s camp. A win over Josh Koscheck will put him right back in line for a title shot. But no doubt his naysayers will continue to pick apart every little flaw.

5. Just be-Kos: That said, GSP’s opponent is no walkover. Koscheck has been working his way up the ranks. The former NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion has just a submission loss late in a match he was dominating against Drew Fickett blemishing his record. The American Kickboxing Academy fighter had trouble getting name opponents, but he forced the issue by taking out “Ultimate Fighter” poster boy Diego Sanchez at UFC 69. A win over St. Pierre would vault Koscheck into the elite mix in the deep welterweight division.

6. Roger Huerta vs. someone you never heard of, take six: We get it, Dana. You think Roger Huerta is the future of the lightweight division. His heritage will bring in the Latino fans and his looks will bring in the girls. Now, will you let us see if he can handle himself against top competition? Huerta faces UFC newcomer Alberto Crane on Saturday. This is coming on the heels of his win over UFC newcomer Doug Evans. Which followed his win over UFC newcomer Leonard Garcia. Which followed his win over UFC newcomer John Halverson. Which followed his win over UFC newcomer Jason Dent. White has often criticized boxing promoters for building up fighters against tomato cans, but in Huerta’s case, he’s been handed enough to make tomato sauce for everyone at Mandalay Bay.

7. The best match you probably won’t see: If you have tickets for the live card at Mandalay Bay, make sure you get there in time for the opener. Clay “The Carpenter” Guida takes on Marcus Aurelio in the non-televised lightweight show-starter. Guida, is coming off a split-decision loss to Tyson Griffin at UFC, which is considered by many one of the fights of the year. Many also considered Guida the real winner of the match. Aurelio is 14-4 with three split-decision losses, two of which were those unique sort of Pride split decisions which made you go “hmmmm.” This fight could end up airing if the main card runs short.

8. Mir’s last chance? Former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir has never looked the same in the octagon since his 2004 motorcycle accident. He lost to Marcio Cruz via quick TKO at UFC 57; looked listless in an uninspiring decision win over Dan Christison at UFC 61; and was TKOd in just 1:09 by Brandon Vera at UFC 65. Mir will face Holland’s Antoni Hardonk, who looked tremendous in his UFC 65 win over Sherman Pendergarst and horrendous in his April loss to Justin McCulley.

Mir has done an outstanding job as a color commentator for the WEC’s telecasts on Versus. But he needs a solid showing here to keep from getting pushed into the announcing booth for good.