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Depth is on display in UFC stop

Times Staff Writer

The Ultimate Fighting Championship makes its only Southern California appearance of the year tonight with a Honda Center card noticeably lacking a title fight, and anchored by a main event that’s expected to be one-sided.

Nevertheless, in UFC 76, the mixed martial arts organization is not skimping on showcasing the depth of its strongest divisions, light-heavyweight and welterweight.

In addition to the main event fight pitting recently deposed light-heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell (20-4) against Keith Jardine (12-4-1), the UFC will unveil one of its latest PRIDE Fighting Championships signees, light-heavyweight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (16-2) of Brazil, along with a welterweight clash between top title contenders Diego Sanchez (19-1) of San Diego and Jon Fitch (19-2) of San Jose.

“If you look at our 205-pound division, it’s stacked. . . and a lot of people think Shogun is the No. 1 guy,” UFC President Dana White said. “He has high expectations.”

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In his UFC debut, Rua, 25, will fight Forrest Griffin (14-4), the ornery winner of Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter I” mixed martial arts reality television series.

Rua knocked out current UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the first round of a 2005 PRIDE fight, and he also defeated top UFC heavyweight contender Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera by unanimous decision that same year.

“Shogun’s a great stand-up fighter, he’s aggressive, loves to move forward,” White said. “He’s just a great athlete.”

While the UFC light-heavyweight division now includes Rua, Liddell and Jackson, along with former PRIDE champion Wanderlei Silva and current PRIDE welterweight belt-holder Dan Henderson, the line to a UFC welterweight title shot is similarly imposing for challengers.

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Sanchez knows.

In April, the 25-year-old appeared to be in position for a shot at champion Georges St. Pierre. But St. Pierre was upset by Matt Serra in Houston, and Sanchez (19-1) preceded that by suffering his first loss in a decision to Josh Koscheck.

Afterward, it was revealed that Sanchez had fought with a staph infection on his right thigh that forced him out of practice for a month after the Koscheck loss. Immediately before the fight, White said Sanchez was told by doctors he might have to “retire” because blood tests that were later proved incorrect had found he was possibly suffering from hepatitis.

“When Diego fought Josh, he just looked weird, he was just standing around,” White said. “He’s never wanted to use an excuse, but now he’s fully healthy.”

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In a fight some MMA observers are predicting will be the best of the night, Sanchez will meet Fitch, a 29-year-old former Purdue wrestler who is 6-0 since joining the UFC in July 2005.

Should he defeat Fitch, Sanchez will still have to wait out a December welterweight title bout between champion Serra and former champion Matt Hughes, and he’s probably also behind St. Pierre.

“St. Pierre and Hughes have already fought twice,” Sanchez said. “Let the people see a fight they haven’t seen yet: me and Matt Hughes.”

Returning to California for the first time since his lightweight champion Sean Sherk and challenger Hermes Franca tested positive for steroid use in their July fight in Sacramento, White said he was not extending additional precautions to fighters on the Anaheim card despite the previous “nightmare.”

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Officials from the California State Athletic Commission tested all 18 participants Friday and will again after tonight’s fights.

“These guys lose their ability to make a living if they test positive, they disappear,” White said.

Franca has already been handed a one-year suspension by state officials. Sherk is appealing his positive test, and a hearing is scheduled Oct. 31. UFC officials have said they’ll likely vacate Sherk’s belt if the year-long suspension is upheld.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com


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