Fortunes for Vitor, Bisping, Khabib Nurmagomedov and others change after UFC on FX 7
Saturday's UFC on FX show from Sao Paulo, Brazil was put together as a showcase for Brazilian fighters. Every bout had a native, and four bouts featured countrymen against one another. It was a good night for the home fans, as only two foreigners, American Nik Lentz and Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov, came out victorious.
Going in, all the focus was on the main event. The story of the show was the quest of Michael Bisping to earn a title match, facing the very dangerous but also unpredictable and inconsistent Vitor Belfort. For the third time, the U.K.'s first major MMA star was put in a position to earn a title shot. And for the third time he failed. As scary as this sounds for someone who has been in and out of the UFC dating back to his days as the teenage phenom in 1997, Belfort scored his first UFC win in a fight that got out of the first round. A head kick flattened Bisping and ref Dan Miragliotta called it off as he was throwing rapid elbows to the ribs on the ground at 1:27 of round two.
In looking at five fights who had their fortunes changed, you have to start with the main event, the only thing resembling a marquee fight on the show.
VITOR BELFORT - Whether you want to call it the return of the old Vitor, or a new older but wiser version, Belfort (22-10) has been deceptively strong for years. He's compiled an 8-2 record over the past six years, with his only losses coming to two of the most talented fighters the sport has ever seen, current middleweight champion Anderson Silva, and current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
When the fight was over, Belfort made an impassioned plea for Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta to pull Chael Sonnen, who he called a clown, out of the April 27 title fight with Jones, and put him in, champion vs. champion.
It was the kind of fired up post-match interview that gets people talking, although this was maybe not the way he desired. First, Belfort just won a fight at middleweight, not light heavyweight. Second, there is not a chance in the world Sonnen is being pulled out of the fight unless he's injured, given there is a The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season in the can that starts airing Tuesday building up Jones vs. Sonnen. Third, Belfort is not a champion, and only once was in UFC, a light heavyweight reign nine years ago based on a fluke win over Randy Couture when Couture's eyelid was slashed by the seam of Belfort's glove and the fight had to be stopped. Couture handily won the rematch. Fourth, Belfort would have been far better off calling out Silva, who suddenly has no contender on the horizon.
Chris Weidman, who Silva's side wants to see get a few more wins to build up a name so he can be a bigger draw, is out with a shoulder injury. Luke Rockhold, the Strikeforce champion, still needs to get some exposure with the UFC audience. Other possible contenders like Hector Lombard and Yushin Okami, who meet on March 3 in Saitama, Japan, have recent losses.
While both of his losses were decisive, and he did have a split second against Jones where it looked like he could win, they were two different types of losses. With Silva, it was a spectacular knockout from a front kick on the first serious blow of the fight. With Jones, aside from the one armbar attempt, significant enough that it injured Jones' elbow, he was completely dominated for three rounds until submitting in the fourth.
Part of the issue is Silva has made it clear he's not interested in fighting Belfort again, figuring nobody would want to see it based on how quickly he dispatched him the first time. But suddenly, when it comes to being the guy he can face that would draw the best (and that's how Silva makes much of his money) Belfort right now is that guy. With Jones, that's not the case, and probably wouldn't be any time in the future.
There are enough examples of guys being one-punched and coming back in rematches, Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos being the most recent. But there was nothing at all when Jones vs. Belfort ended that would make anyone clamor to see it again.
As it turned out, while this was probably not his goal, Belfort may have talked his way into a fight with Sonnen, who accepted the challenge Belfort didn't actually make toward him. Perhaps if Sonnen scores what would be a huge upset if he can beat Jones, Belfort's rant may allow him to do what Sonnen did, and leapfrog the pack into a title opportunity in a higher weight class.
MICHAEL BISPING - Bisping (24-5) in the last year noted the one record he didn't want was to be the guy with the most UFC fights in history, that never had a title match. And it's now the one record he's most likely to wind up with.
It was Bisping's 18th UFC fight. Three fighters who have never had title shots are ahead of him, Chris Leben and Chris Lytle, both with 20, and Melvin Guillard, with 19. It is likely Leben's UFC career is just about over, given his last showing. Lytle has retired. So it's up to Bisping and Guillard to battle for a record that neither really wants.
To his credit, Bisping has never complained about being overlooked, noting that he's been given his shots in matches where, if he had won, he'd get a title shot, and came up short. But he's about to turn 34, and while his cardio is at the top of the charts, and he's fought top names like Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen close, his biggest career wins are over the likes of Leben, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Dennis Kang and Brian Stann.
There is a real question now whether he is a fighter who is good enough to beat the majority of guys, but not good enough to beat the top guys. Any objective look at his record brings you to that as the obvious conclusion. And right now, in the middleweight division, with Weidman, Rockhold, Belfort, Okami and Lombard in the mix, and Silva not fighting often, time is not his ally.
BEN ROTHWELL - Rothwell (32-9), has had enough recent losses, his record shows alternating a win and a loss dating back to 2007, that he wasn't considered any kind of a contender. But he's a big heavyweight who likes to strike and has been in his share of entertaining fights. His role has really been as a solid trial-horse type fighter, but there is a spot on the roster for a guy like that, particularly a big heavyweight with punching power.
What's notable about Rothwell is for the second straight UFC show, a veteran mid-level fighter has talked about changing his lifestyle and reinventing himself. And for the second straight time, the result wasn't for the better.
On Dec. 29, it was Leben, talking about getting off drugs and for the first time eating healthy. And he showed up physically looking in better shape. Then he came out and he looked like an amateur fighter. Rothwell never had any drug issue, but had talked about for the first time in his career, following a strict diet and training smarter. Physically, he looked in the best shape of his career, being from a guy who was probably near 280 cutting to make 265, to a guy at 258.
But once the fight started, it was the same story as Leben. He looked like he was never in the fight, and lost to a guillotine that his teammates noted he was an expert in defending. Chael Sonnen, on Fuel, in the post-fight analysis, said that he liked Rothwell, but thought he was looking for a way out of the fight by that point.
Rothwell is only 31, but he's got a dozen years of hard fighting under his belt. It wasn't the loss to Gonzaga, but the overall performance, that makes one question if he's got any UFC future even in the veteran journeyman role.
KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV - The Russian Sambo stylist didn't exactly make friends on this trip to Brazil, sporting a shirt that read, "If Sambo was easy, they would call it jiu-jitsu."
He left the crowd with nothing but frustration, dropping countryman Thiago Tavares with a right, and destroying him on the ground with far too many hard elbows in just 1:55 of a fight that wound up with ref Dan Miragliotta being the center of controversy for how long he let it go.
There are three reasons people probably have to learn to spell and pronounce his name. He's only 24. He's 19-0, the type of a record rarely seen in a sport where there are so many ways to lose, and he trains at AKA in San Jose, one of the world's top camps.
The lightweight division is UFC's deepest, and after this performance, it should be a lock that Nurmagomedov's next test will be against a name fighter.
NIK LENTZ - While this is a story that few know about, Nik Lentz (25-5-2, 1 no contest) has proven to be one of UFC's great survivors. The former University of Minnesota wrestler was involved in one of the worst TV matches in recent years, when on the live Spike prelims for UFC 118 on Aug. 28, 2010, he won a decision over Andre Winner by spending three rounds holding Winner against the fence and failing to take him down. As it was going on, people in UFC were envisioning televisions shuts turning off, and swing viewers they were hoping to sell late pay-per-view buys to swearing off. While he won the fight, he was the one blamed for its lack of action. But since he won, he couldn't be cut.
But make no mistake about it, he was in grave jeopardy. Then he fought Tyson Griffin, got knocked down several times and got an almost inexplicable decision win in a fight that had he lost, it was almost a sure thing he'd be cut. But he worked his way back into good graces, with fight of the night performances against Charles Oliveira and Evan Dunham, before reinventing himself as a featherweight in August.
With his win over Diego Nunes in a fight he used his wrestling to dominate the first two rounds and most of the third, he's now a legitimate contender.
The featherweight division right now comes down to Jose Aldo defending against Frankie Edgar on Feb. 2, in Las Vegas, and a possible top contenders fight with Erik Koch vs. Ricardo Lamas this coming Saturday on FOX in Chicago. Aside from that, Lentz should be in the pack with Chan Sung Jung, Dennis Siver and Chad Mendes. But stylistically, he's a bad fit if Aldo, who is practically immune to takedowns and is an excellent striker while also still champion.