The UFC will once again plant themselves right in the heart of the largest sporting weekend of the year when they travel to Columbus Ohio to the Nationwide Arena for UFC 96 March 7th. Although no titles are on the line, the weekend will go a long way in shaping 3 divisions and 6 fighters futures. They will each have an opportunity to climb closer to their ultimate goal – a UFC title shot. And when Brendan Vera is buried deep near the bottom of an undercard, you know the card is solid.

Two of the most promising stars in the UFC’s lightweight division will kick off the Main card at UFC 96 when Gray Maynard battles Jim Miller. Maynard is the one guy who is always brought up in the “who’s the best up and comer at 155 lbs” discussion. He’s pound for pound one of the best wrestlers in the world and his always improving striking and MMA game leaves him with a still undefeated 7-0 record. Training at Xtreme Couture hasn’t hurt him either. Miller’s wrestling as not as strong, but his BJJ game is excellent. His striking is good – not great, but looked very impressive in his latest win over Matt Wiman, taking the fight on just 4 weeks notice.

I see this one playing out in usual Maynard fashion. Using his superior wrestling to outpoint Miller. However, look for a much improved striking game from Maynard and for the UFC to begin building him for a 155 lbs title shot soon after. If Sean Sherk can win at UFC 98, look for Maynard and Sherk to battle in the fall for a title shot.

The co-main event pits former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Shane Carwin. Carwin is flying just low enough that he doesn’t quite meet the casual fans radar just yet. But here is a guy who is undefeated at 10-0, has won his first 2 UFC fights by KO in under 2 minutes, has an incredible wrestling pedigree and has to cut down from 275 lbs to make the 265 lbs weight limit. On the other hand, fans know Gonzaga. He is an incredible talent and hits very hard. He head kick KOed Mirko Cro Cop at UFC 70 and had an impressive vicious knock out over Josh Hendrick at UFC 91. But he’s had some bad moments too. He was TKOd by then champ Randy Couture at UFC 74 and seemingly gave up in his TKO loss to Fabricio Werdum at UFC 80.

White has said that the winner of this fight will be in line for a title shot. Look for Gonzaga to be closer to Lesnar’s belt than Carwin would be with a win. With a Carwin victory, the UFC would likely put him against one of the losers from the 4 man tournament. Either Mir, Lesnar or Noguiera depending on who is available and who does not hold the belt.

The main event is a no brainer. The UFC has gone on record stating the winner of Rampage vs. Jardine would get a title shot, with one caveat – It has to be Rampage.

This probably makes Jardine feels as though he’s being fed to the wolves, but it’s happened before. He was supposed to lose to Forrest Griffin at UFC 66 and he knocked him out. Chuck Liddell was supposed to clean his clock at UFC 76, but he won a decision. More recently, the UFC fed Jardine to Brendan Vera and what did he do? He won again.

Jardine has a way of coming up big when all the chips are against him. Jackson wants his title back and felt a decision lose to Griffin in the summer should have gone his way on the judge’s scorecards. Instead of an immediate rematch he had to fight Wanderlei Silva and knocked him out in the first round at UFC 92. He will now have to do the same thing to Jardine if he wants Rashad Evans belt at UFC 96.

It should play out like this. If Rampage can beat Jardine they will give him a title shot in the summer. If Jardine wins, the Dean of Mean will have to wait to fight Evans (his training partner) and the often under appreciated Lyoto Machida will finally get his long awaited opportunity to fight for the belt against Rashad.

UFC fans have been spoiled of late and once again the UFC will deliver in Ohio. No one should complain that this card has no title fights, since it has 3 fights which will determine the title picture in 3 different divisions. For 6 fighters, this card will determine their title future.

End Note: CrashMMA still has a few spots left for their UFC 96 trip. Sean Sherk and Chris Lytle have been confirmed as their UFC meet and greet. Hotel, bus and ticket all included starting at $500.