When UFC matchmaker Joe Silva goes hunting for an opponent for Rousimar Palhares, he rarely gets an immediate yes. But when he recently called Alan Belcher, Palhares wasn't the first option. Belcher was actually not interested in his original offer, and Silva said there was no one else unless he wanted to fight Palhares.
To Belcher, it was a matchup that made perfect sense.
"I’m getting close to being at the top," he recently told MMA Fighting. "I’ve been chasing that belt but I’m not in that picture of the top two or three guys. But I’m about to break into that elite group right there, and this is maybe the fight to do it for me."
The 27-year-old Belcher (17-6) has been a UFC mainstay since August 2006, but his recent stretch has been his best, winning five of six, including three straight stoppage wins.
But that momentum was temporarily delayed by emergency eye surgery in August 2010 that briefly threatened his career. It eventually put him out of action for 16 months. When he returned, he faced Jason MacDonald and promptly earned a first-round stoppage in a fight that effectively proved to be a tuneup for arguably his most dangerous opponent, Palhares.
The powerful Brazlian has gained a reputation as one of MMA's submission masters. He's won six of his last fights, with four coming via tapout, and his favored methods seems to be attacking the lower limbs. He's got three heel hooks and one kneebar tap during that stretch.
He's also gained a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon due to some of his antics, which have included him jumping atop the cage during the middle of a fight, turning his attention to the referee while an opponent finished him, and holding on to submissions a bit too long.
That perceived instability along with his violent submissions is what has caused many to back off from fights with Palhares, but Belcher says the matchup plays in his favor. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in his own right, Belcher says his complete game is tailor-made to beat Palhares at UFC on FOX 3.
"I’m not going to force a grappling match," he said. "I’m much better striking than him. Faster, longer, better boxing, better kicking. So I’m going to be smart, but when it comes to a grappling situation, it’s a natural action. I can choke anybody. I can take their back, choke them, I have a bunch of really good moves. But would I like to win by submitting him? Yes, it’d be awesome. People would realize I’m not just good, but one of the best grapplers in the division, too."
Belcher says Palhares' proven history of losing focus also weighs in his favor, feeling that he'll be able to frustrate him after shutting down repeated attacks.
In other words, he'll use Palhares' aggressiveness against him.
"When you’re going for something and trying to force it and it’s not happening, you’re always open for something," he said. "He’ll leave himself open, and I’m planning on countering with good position, punching, and then maybe a submission or something."
The suggestion that he might beat Palhares at his own game might sound like a stretch to some, but Belcher has nearly evenly distributed his wins by TKO (8) and submission (7), and tapped out other black belts like Denis Kang. Admittedly, Palhares is a level above anyone when it comes to ground skills, but rather than being a reason not to fight him, it's exactly why he embraces the challenge.
"I’m not scared of his strength," he said. "It’s not takedowns or striking, but submissions. He goes down on the ground. He doesn't really take you down. He's just going to go for submissions, so he can’t beat me out of a decision. He’s just going to go for leg locks. I’m just not scared of someone submitting me."
A solid win over Palhares would certainly make Belcher one to watch as the UFC looks for new contenders to the middleweight throne.
He knows he probably still has work to do, but beating Palhares at his own game would prove his complete skill. Now older and wiser and with the experience of nearly losing his career behind him, Belcher knows it's just as much about the journey as it is about the destination.
"I’m just going to win the fight, keep winning, and once you put together so many wins, you’re going to get to the belt," he said. "I’m just taking it one at a time, and just winning, winning. I’m not in a hurry. Before I felt I was in a hurry to get good, win and get the belt, and that would have been my life accomplishment. But I think to really make it happen, I have to take my time and take it one fight at a time."