Fortunes changed for five at UFC 168

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The last two months of 2013 may have brought an end to the two most significant careers in UFC history, and Anderson Silva's broken leg may be the symbolic end of the era.

If packed bars and if website traffic is any indication, UFC 168 lived up to its billing as the company's biggest show of the year, a rare show where two major stars, Anderson Silva and Ronda Rousey, headlined on the same night.

Yes, Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva for the middleweight title in July and this was the rematch. But no matter how many slow motion replays of Silva mocking Weidman's punching power and being put to sleep a second later while Joe Rogan sternly states, "You can't play games in the Octagon," Weidman felt like a guy who had the belt only on loan.

He was viewed by many as the modern version of his mentor, Matt Serra. In 2007, Serra won the welterweight title from Georges St-Pierre, Silva's main competition for the best UFC fighter ever mantle. There was no dispute that Serra won, knocking St-Pierre silly after getting the jump on him. But the Earth returned to its normal rotation around the sun when the inevitable rematch took place.

The saying is that lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place. Except when it does.

The MGM Grand Arena was the site of the first Weidman vs. Silva fight, and the rematch was there to answer the questions raised by the original fight.

In the buildup to the show, there was constant talk about which of the two title matches would garner the most interest. The promotion and advertising pushed Weidman vs. Silva as the biggest rematch in company history. In the building as the show went on, the 15,650 fans who packed the MGM Grand Garden Arena felt more like a crowd at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of Brazilians took over, chanting in Portuguese, "You're gonna die" and "Brazil" whenever a fighter of their nationality was out.

Silva ushered in that country's MMA boom nearly three years earlier with a front kick to Vitor Belfort that has been replayed so many times most UFC fans can close their eyes and visualize in memory. Every time Silva's face appeared on the big screens, it was obvious who the ticket buyers thought was the star of the show, and what match was the main event.

Yet after all that, after three rounds of Rousey launching Miesha Tate almost into orbit with hip tosses, and trying to set up armbars that weren't quite there until the finish, the crowd was emotionally spent when Tate finally tapped. For the most part, they loved Tate, partially because of how much many of them hated Rousey. That fight showed the power of The Ultimate Fighter reality show. Six months ago, the reaction would have been nothing like that.

But the roller coaster ride Tate seemingly was on, and the audience was with her, fed to a moment that will be the moment Silva will always be remembered for even if it doesn't get replayed one percent as often as that front kick.
The one-time greatest fighter in history's name will be synonymous with former NFL star Joe Thiesman, wrestler Sid Vicious, former UFC fighter Corey Hill and University of Louisville basketballer Kevin Ware, for the visual of a leg breaking literally into two pieces like a wooden baseball bat. You won't be seeing it replayed to death on UFC television, but it will live forever in memory, as well as on YouTube and still photography.

All sports eras have to end, but nobody ever expected this one to end with such an explanation point.
Whether Silva comes back, B.J. Penn wins again or Georges St-Pierre returns, they were the key links to the first generation of television made superstars. It was an era that officially ended when Weidman checked that kick.

The guys who built the sport, in some cases from the ground up, in other cases brought it to the next level, Silva, St-Pierre, Penn, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar, Matt Hughes, Forrest Griffin, Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, are all going to be absent from the upper echelon of the sport. Most were gone a long time ago, but after St-Pierre walked off into the sunset a few weeks ago, Silva was the last man standing of that crew near the top of the pound-for-pound rankings.

The baton has been officially passed to Weidman, Rousey, Johny Hendricks, Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez in the never-ending relay race of the history of the sport.

When people talk of a UFC without St-Pierre and Silva, three months ago, it would have been almost unthinkable. Yet, it was always inevitable at some point, just maybe without that moment of seeing Silva carried out as the moment the era ended.

There were a lot of major changes in the guard on Saturday night, as we look at Fortunes Changed for Five.

ANDERSON SILVA - After Saturday night surgery to repair what was a clean break of his lower leg, the question everyone is asking is if he can come back, and if he can, will he?

Silva publicly hinted he may retire, win or lose, before Saturday. Privately, within his camp, he expressed the idea that if he beat Weidman, he would retire and go out on top.

It would be the right storybook ending for Silva to come back in a year, and fight one last time and get a win. But the fight game almost never wraps up like a pretty storybook. With the exception of St-Pierre, most of the aforementioned fighters final moments were not standing in front of a sellout crowd with their hand raised for a final time. Many were left crumpled on the canvas. Some, like Ortiz and Shamrock, kept coming back to where their legacies almost became punch lines for jokes. Griffin couldn't even make it through a camp and was brought out at a press conference to say goodbye earlier this year.

CHRIS WEIDMAN - Who would have ever imagined that the man who finished Anderson Silva in two fights, both in the second round, would on the night of his second win, be the fourth-most talked about fighter?

But that's how the show went. Just like in July, Weidman beat the greatest middleweight in UFC history, only to find the focus somewhere else.

On that night, the big story wasn't that Weidman won, it was that Silva lost in a finish that looked surreal. In December, the news story was that Silva broke his leg and his career was in jeopardy.

But if Weidman is still on top of the mountain one year from now, at some point he's going to have to be the lead story. His next challenger looks to be Vitor Belfort (24-10), with both Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (19-3) and Lyoto Machida (20-4) waiting in the wings. There should be no denying Weidman his due now. But it would be impossible to do so if he lasts another year in the position.

RONDA ROUSEY - As ridiculous as this would have sounded two years back, Rousey (8-0), is probably the company's biggest star of all the company's champions. As ridiculous as this would have sounded in late February based on the reaction to her in her UFC debut, she may be following in the Jon Jones arc. Both started out as people that insiders pegged would quickly rise to the top. Both achieved a lot of fame, their respective top championship, and some degree of fortune, in a short period of time. Both lost popularity quickly after winning the title, from behavior issues, leading to the public doing almost a 180. Whether that is good or bad is not a simple answer.

The saying is how it's always better to be booed than ignored. But Jon Jones' pay-per-view numbers show that being perceived as the sport's best talent doesn't necessarily lead to people wanting to pay to see you if they don't like you.

But we don't have to wait long for Rousey's next test. Sara McMann (7-0), herself a one-time Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling will be the first battle of Olympic medal winners in UFC history, on UFC 170 Feb. 22.

It's an intriguing next step. McMann should give Rousey her toughest athletic challenge. It'll be a test of whether world class wrestling can be the kryptonite to world class judo.

It'll also answer all business questions. Will people pay to see her get beat and can she carry the top of the card on a consistent basis, particularly when put against a woman with very little major exposure or name value.

MIESHA TATE - Tate won the crowd over with every round she survived with Rousey. But she's in a weird position. She's the second-most well-known active female fighter on the roster. But the gap in skills between Tate and Rousey proved to be large a second time.

Past adding some star power to main cards, Tate's role looks to be that of a well-known stepping stone for future contenders to prove themselves worthy of a top position.

TRAVIS BROWNE - Browne (15-1-1) came into Saturday's fight with Josh Barnett as a significant underdog, elbowed his way into the top of the heavyweight pack. Browne seems on a collision course with Fabricio Werdum (17-5-1) to determine the top contender for injured champion Velasquez.

In 2013, he put up Fighter of the Year level credentials, with three first-round finishes, all name fighters like Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and Barnett. What makes Browne so intriguing is both Werdum and Velasquez want to get fights to the ground, and Browne's ability to knock someone out with a few elbows as they shoot for a takedown will force both potential opponents to having to adjust and avoid certain positions when going for a takedown.

He's got six wins in his last seven fights, five in the first round. The only loss came when he tore his left hamstring in the early moments against Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva.

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