It was a big night for Brazilians, who won 12 of 13 bouts before a hot partisan crowd at Arena Jaragua in Santa Catarina, Brazil on Saturday night.
Vitor Belfort's knockout of Luke Rockhold in the main event was both a thing of violent beauty, and of controversy, due to the elephant in the room of testosterone replacement therapy being used by a fighter who had earlier in his career failed a steroid test. While the technical skill to pull off that move can't be tied much to artificial enhancement, the power for it to be a finishing blow immediately became the subject of debate.
But TRT remains within the framework of the rules, and in knocking out Michael Bisping and Rockhold in succession, Belfort has to be considered the top contender for whoever emerges from the Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman fight on July 6 as the middleweight champion. And that creates a multiple stories, including a significance of location of a title fight that hasn't been the case for any fight in recent memory.
The show featured its most meaningful fights as the two middleweight fights that headlined, and two flyweight fights, which both only aired on Facebook, to a very limited audience.
So it's fitting that the Fortunes Changed for Five rundown consists of fighters in those two divisions.
VITOR BELFORT - Belfort (23-10) emerged from a knockout of the last Strikeforce champion in a scant 2:32 as the fighter who should be next in line for the title based on his last two wins. While he lost to Jon Jones in September, that was in a different weight division. His only loss as a middleweight was his Feb. 5, 2011, fight with Anderson Silva. The Rockhold win makes him 5-1 in the division, with three first-round knockouts and two second-round knockouts.
Given the high-profile nature of the last two wins, and Belfort's name, an established star dating back to his debut in 1997, not only is he the rightful contender based on his record, but also based on who in the division would draw the most as champion. As we've seen this year, the latter is always a consideration. The only thing, besides an injury, that should hold up Belfort getting that title fight would be if Weidman vs. Silva ends in a fashion where they would have to do a rematch.
Should Belfort get the title shot, for the first time in the modern era of MMA, the location becomes a big part of the story. Should Silva retain the title, a Silva vs. Belfort title fight would be the company's best bet short of the elusive superfight of champions, to pull off a soccer stadium show in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More importantly, the fight would capture the imagination of the general public in the country, elevating the already strong profile of the sport. Should Weidman win, the idea of Belfort as a Brazilian challenging the guy who upended Silva, should still be a massive fight in Brazil.
Silva and Belfort are the two best-known MMA fighters in the country. Their first fight, which Silva won via first-round knockout from a front kick, garnered so much mainstream interest that it was the key moment ushering in the explosion of popularity for the sport in the country often credited with its birth.
To take the Brazilian market over the top, that would be where you'd want the fight. The fight would still be huge in Brazil if it was held elsewhere, but being there live would be the cherry on the sundae when it comes to building interest in the sport in the market.
However, to make the most money on the fight, Las Vegas may still be the market, since the big money is still pay-per-view, and an event in the U.S., because of the publicity generated by more coverage the week of the fight, is going to draw more than one in Brazil. And that's where things get interesting.
There is a significant question whether Belfort would be approved for TRT usage in Nevada. The state has never approved TRT use to a previous steroid test violator. Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer in the past said there would be an issue in approving someone for TRT usage where there was documented evidence of previous steroid use.
Belfort tested positive for testosterone on Oct. 21, 2006, in Las Vegas, on a Pride show where he fought as a light heavyweight and lost to Dan Henderson.
Both location, an attempt to get a TRT exemption, and questions that would arise going into a fight no matter how the commission ruled, would create significant controversies before the fight would take place.
The first Silva vs. Belfort title fight did an estimated 725,000 buys on pay-per-view. With Belfort's impressive wins on televised events and Silva's continued wins, a second fight would be expected to do big numbers again. A Weidman win wouldn't be as big, but Belfort would, either in the U.S. or Brazil, still be the most marketable first opponent for the new champion aside from a title rematch.
LUKE ROCKHOLD - At 28, the former Strikeforce champion has plenty of time to rebound from a loss. But this was a huge career blow for a guy who was looking at a strong chance at a title shot with a win.
It was Rockhold's UFC debut, meaning for a large percentage of fans, they had never seen him before. The first, and only impression of him at this point to those people is as the guy whose head was kicked off his shoulders in a knockout that nobody who saw it will forget.
But his back is against the wall, because a second loss in a row would take years to rebound from, if he even could. Given he's one of the higher paid middleweights, he isn't going to get an easy opponent.
There are three major middleweight fights on the July 6 show, with Silva vs. Weidman, Roger Gracie vs. Tim Kennedy and Tim Boetsch vs. Mark Munoz. Depending on how the rubble clears from those matches, he could face one of those fighters, although if Silva loses, he'd probably be out of Rockhold's reach at this point. Costa Philippou, who pulled out of Saturday's show with a cut, is also a potential opponent.
Still, Rockhold has to find the answers as to why he, even with a stellar record of 10-2 with eight first-round finishes, has never quite been able to duplicate his level of performance in the gym when it counts.
RONALDO "JACARE" SOUZA - Souza (18-3, 1 no contest), is, by credentials, one of the best ground fighters in the world today. He not only has ten different world championships, dating back to 2001, in submission grappling, but has shown the ability to transfer those skills into MMA.
It took him little time on the ground with Chris Camozzi to pass into one dominant position to another before finishing him in 3:37 with a head-and-arm choke.
He's also shown flashes of stand-up prowess, such as in his Strikeforce knockout win over Bristol Marunde last year. And with his alligator crawl and alligator chomp, he shows a level of charisma that few in the division can match.
After the fight, Chael Sonnen was pushing for a fight with Souza against Yushin Okami, a former title contender who just beat Hector Lombard. But the fight I'd push for would be with Michael Bisping, who is coming off an April 27 win over Alan Belcher. Okami is a tough sell as a title contender and if he were to beat Souza, he'd eliminate Souza while only creating a weak contender with limited upside.
Bisping is a bigger star to the public, so a win would mean more in building Souza's name. If Souza did lose, Bisping could benefit more from it when it comes to being promoted into matches the public would care about. It also would probably make for a faster-paced and more exciting fight. But no matter which of the two Souza gets next, one more win should lock him in the top four and into title consideration.
JOHN LINEKER - The knock on the smaller guys in UFC is that they don't possess the punching power to score knockouts. The Brazilian-born Lineker (21-6), is known for his punching power, scoring his ninth career knockout.
It should also be noted Lineker has fought most of his career at bantamweight, against physically bigger opponents. In the second round, Lineker nailed Azamat Gashimov with a ripping body punch, and finished him with punches on the ground.
Lineker came in as the No. 8 contender. Now 2-1 in the UFC, he still has his UFC debut loss to Louis Gaudinot to overcome. While a title shot is out of reach without a couple of more wins, a battle with a top contender such as John Dodson, Ian McCall, or another winner on Saturday, Jussier Formiga da Silva, shouldn't be.
JUSSIER FORMIGA DA SILVA - Formiga (15-2) came into UFC with a reputation as a grappler who had a great ability to gain back control and dominate opponents on the ground. Opponent Chris Cariaso, ranked as the No. 7 contender coming in, did almost nothing on offense for two rounds, as that game plan largely transpired. Cariaso came on strong in the third, but it was too little, too late as Formiga took the decision.
Coming off his loss to John Dodson, Formiga, even with his No. 5 ranking, desperately needed this win. With John Moraga at No. 4, Formiga is not likely to move up with the win until one of the guys ranked ahead of him loses.
It creates a natural match-up with Lineker. Lineker and Formiga only appearing on Facebook fights that don't even air during the endless repeats on Fuel. So the number of people who saw them was tiny so to the public, they are still unknowns except to the most ardent of fans. But each should be in with top six opposition next time out, which hopefully will get them onto television.