Let the race to become the next title contender in the UFC middleweight division begin.
Saturday night, Vitor Belfort walked into the main event knowing that if he lost, his opponent Michael Bisping would be fighting Anderson Silva for the belt later this year. The same opportunity was not at stake for Belfort, but that didn’t stop the former light-heavyweight champion from dashing Bisping’s hopes with a thunderous headkick early in the second.
Belfort staggered Bisping with a similar kick late in the first, winning the round on the strength of the accompanying flurry. He threw it again just over a minute into the second frame, sending “The Count” to the ground before putting the finishing touches on the victory.
With Belfort coming away victorious, the already muddled middleweight ranks become even murkier.
Even though this was an emphatic finish, Belfort lost to Silva too recently to warrant a rematch, and the champion isn’t a fan of giving guys second chances anyway. There are a few different directions UFC matchmaker Joe Silva could go with the 35-year-old Belfort at this point, but how about thinking outside of the box a little and pairing him with fellow elder statesman Cung Le?
Both are coming off highlight-reel victories, and the pairing could easily headline a televised fight card later this year. Neither man is really in consideration at the top of the division at this point, but the winner would certainly be one step closer to being on the list of title challengers.
Matching Belfort with up-and-coming contenders like Chris Weidman or Luke Rockhold would be risky; he showed why on Saturday night, dashing the best-laid plans of the UFC by stopping Bisping. A fight with Le is guaranteed entertainment, but doesn’t put any potential title challengers at risk at the same time.
I say book it!
The UFC should also book Bisping in against Alan Belcher as quickly as humanly possible. The two have been chirping each other for quite some time, with Bisping taking great pleasure in needling Belcher following his loss to Yushin Okami at UFC 155. You can be sure “The Talent” will have some harsh words for his nemesis over the next few days, and putting together this potential firefight makes perfect sense right now.
As much as he’s out of the title mix for the foreseeable future — and perhaps for good — Bisping is still a solid draw, and a pairing with Belcher is an easy co-main event on FOX or pay-per-view, and a tremendous television main event as well.
Much to the displeasure of the Brazilian fans, C.B. Dollaway earned an ugly split decision win over TUF: Brazil standout Daniel Sarafian, pushing his record to 7-4 in the UFC. After getting out-worked for most of the first two rounds, Dollaway connected with a right late in the second that dropped Sarafian, and used his wrestling to eke out the third frame on two cards.
The former TUF finalist has now won back-to-back fights for the first time since putting together a three-fight run that ended in September 2010. At this point, he’s a somewhat recognizable name in the middle of the middleweight division, and is a likely candidate to welcome one of the incoming ‘85s from Strikeforce. My pick is Tim Kennedy, the former two-time title challenger who enters off a third-round submission win over Trevor Smith.
It’s not the sexiest match-up for Kennedy, but the division is fairly deep — and there aren’t a ton of top-end guys coming off wins — so a pairing with Dollaway might be the best he can get at this point. For Dollaway, it’s a chance to earn a big win over a solid veteran and prove that he’s more than a placeholder in the 185-pound ranks.
There has never been a time when the UFC heavyweight ranks have been deeper and more full of talent, and you can officially add Gabriel Gonzaga’s name back to the list of solid heavies doing work in the Octagon. Saturday night, “Napao” earned his second consecutive submission win since returning to the UFC, tapping Ben Rothwell with an arm-in guillotine choke early in the second round.
While his conditioning is always a concern, Gonzaga’s blend of striking and grappling make him a tough out, and I think a battle with Cheick Kongo for the opportunity to be the division’s low-end gatekeeper not only makes sense, but could produce some excitement. Kongo’s been sidelined since beating Shawn Jordan at UFC 149 in Calgary, so bringing him back against someone just below the upper echelon like Gonzaga fits, with the winner landing on the fringes of contention.
One fight card into 2013 and there are already more exciting lightweights making noise with impressive performances that should earn them a step up in competition next time out.
Khabib Nurmagomedov completely smashed veteran Thiago Tavares, dropping him with a perfectly timed and perfectly placed lunging uppercut. Once they hit the ground, the unbeaten Dagestani prospect unloaded a torrent of unanswered elbows to earn his 19th consecutive win, and third straight in the UFC.
At this point, it’s time to find out just how much of a threat Nurmagomedov is, and pairing him with someone like Jim Miller would be a great way to find out. The gritty New Jersey native is fresh off his bloody battle with Joe Lauzon, so the timing should work, and right now, we need to see how Nurmagomedov stacks up against someone with a bunch of top-end experience and a multi-faceted skill set.
I also would have no problem with the UFC indulging the ambitious young lightweight’s request to fight Nate Diaz either. Training at AKA, Nurmagomedov would like to get on the April FOX card in San Jose, and pairing him with the Stockton, Calif., standout would be a nice way to kick off the televised main card.
For the second straight year, Edson Barboza made a splash with an impressive knockout fighting in his home country in January. One year after his Knockout of the Year finish of Terry Etim, the Brazilian striker ended the unbeaten run of Lucas Martins, dropping the late replacement with a straight left down the pipe before pounding him out on the ground.
Though I don’t yet consider Barboza a serious title contender, he’s a top-20 lightweight, and a pairing with former Strikeforce contender K.J. Noons seems like one that would deliver beautiful violence if it came together. Noons lost a controversial decision to Ryan Couture last weekend, but will likely be handled as if he won. With all kinds of depth in the division, this would be a great opportunity to put together a fight that is sure to entertain that also moves the winner one step closer to being a contender.