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Fortunes changed for five on busy UFC weekend

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Mark Kolbe

The UFC's dual weekend events across the globe were shows that were almost exactly opposite to what we were told a few months ago was the business strategy of international shows in different time zones.

The original idea was to get them in prime time in the local market, so they could air live on local television when the most fans possible would be watching. The UFC has a fan base that may watch shows in early afternoon or at 3 a.m. if need be, but continually running in bad local time slots will make it difficult to expand past the hardcore base.

But for reasons of wanting to get the shows in prime time in North America, the show in Sydney, Australia started on a Saturday morning local time, and went through the early afternoon. The Brazil show started at 11 p.m. local time, and didn't end until just before 4 a.m. If rumors are true regarding some bigger events in Europe in 2015, there will be a similar situation with middle of the night type events locally geared for prime time in the U.S.

Then again, North American television is going to always have a hand in dictating starting times, as there were U.S. events on the West Coast that started at 1 p.m. previously on Fox Sports 1 before the decision was made that Wednesday shows weren't working out. It's only the Fight Pass exclusive shows where UFC can fully determine when the show will take place. But in Sydney, the decision on Friday was to make it the right time for North America, not Australia.

It's also doubtful many in that country who went to the show are complaining today.

The 11 finishes in 11 fights in Sydney was unheard of in modern UFC circles. At the earliest UFC shows, at a time when fights were almost all short and nobody went the time limit because the knowledge of submission defense was so limited, and training for late in the fight cardio was in its infancy, fights usually ended quickly and decisively. UFC 2 in 1994 had 15 finishes in 15 fights, with 12 submissions. In fact, there wasn't a fight that went the time limit, in some cases because there was no official time limit, until UFC 5. But since Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie went the unique time of 36:06 before it was called off as a draw, there have only been three shows, UFC 6, UFC 40 and the TUF season five finale where no fights went to the judges.

That was lucky for the winning fighters, since there was some controversy the next night. The first was a Leon Edwards vs. Claudio Silva fight that was close enough that it could have gone either way. The other decision was more shocking. In the match with TUF Brazil champion Warlley Alves vs. Alan Jouban, the decision for Alves was heavily criticized on the air by Kenny Florian.

Alves was given rounds one and two on all three cards.

The sight of the formerly unstoppable Alves being picked apart standing, backpedaling, looking at the clock, exhausted and trying to call for timeouts made it even more shocking that he won a unanimous decision. But this decision wasn't the result of a flawed system. While Jouban actually outlanded Alves in significant strikes in all three rounds, few would argue that Alves deserved round one and Jouban round three.

The fight came down to the scoring of round two. Jouban outlanded Alves 15-11. However, Alves got a takedown and held Jouban down for several minutes, but did little but hold him down, doing no significant damage in the round. Once the fight went standing, Jouban hurt Alves with one flurry. Aside from that, it was even. But hurting someone standing should take precedence over holding someone down and doing no damage at all. The key round wasn't so lopsided that one could call for a robbery, like the Diego Sanchez vs. Ross Pearson fight a few months ago. But it was a bad decision.

Both shows were mostly devoid of name fighters past the main events. Because of that, the interest level was limited. The, Australia show, with the main event hype for a grudge match, was among the most fun shows of the year to watch. The biggest downside from a UFC standpoint was having to choose bonuses, but that's the kind of problem that every promoter would want to have.

The second show was more of a normal night. There were good finishes, a fun fight, a dull fight, a couple of bad decisions, all capped off by a genuine legend of the sport, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua being dropped by the first solid punch and losing in 34 seconds to an opponent he'd have likely destroyed a few years earlier. But that's the cycle of life in the sport and the end game of that cycle is that careers aren't forever.

Fighters have come back from worse. Mark Hunt, thought to have an iron chin, was knocked in 18 seconds by a middleweight Melvin Manhoef eight years ago, and in a week is headlining for the interim heavyweight title.
Whether Rua fights again or not, we've almost surely seen the last of the Rua that was always a legitimate top contender. Aside from a quick knockout over James Te Huna last year, we haven't really see the "great" version of Shogun since 2011, in his legendary war with Dan Henderson, his blitzing of Forrest Griffin, and his destruction of Lyoto Machida the year earlier when he won the UFC light heavyweight title. He gave no signs in that 34 seconds that it was a fluke finals. Even in that short period of time, it was clear Shogun's reflexes were slower and he was getting caught before the left hook that ended his night.

The lone fight of the weekend that looked to create a direct championship challenger, the flyweight Ian McCall vs. John Lineker fight, was called off when McCall was ill.

While there may have been red tape preventing it, thinking out of the box when McCall went down could have led to a more appealing television show. Instead of moving a fight with two unknowns in Dhiego Lima and Jorge de Oliveira to the main card, there would have been far more to gain to just have replayed the Luke Rockhold win over Michael Bisping from the night before.

The audience that had seen that fight was limited, since it aired originally on Fight Pass. Whether it was Rockhold's biggest win of his career can be debated, since he once beat Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in Strikeforce. But this was his highest profile fight, in the sense it was a UFC grudge match. But more importantly, Rockhold has a very good shot of headlining a pay-per-view in 2015. He's probably one win from a title shot. Given the injury rate of late, the idea that either Vitor Belfort of Chris Weidman could go down before their Feb. 28 fight in Los Angeles is hardly a long shot. Rockhold right now is in a prime position to be plugged in if that was necessary.

The added exposure for a fight in which Rockhold looked like a title contender and came across like a guy who could legitimately challenge for the title works in UFC's favor. It also would have worked in FS 1's favor, as they would get two major names, even if not live, on a show weak in star power. Even the Fight Pass subscribers would likely not complain. It could have been sold as a one-time special bonus, and explained it was only due to a major match falling out at the 11th hour. And anyone who would have watched the Sydney show and complained afterwards about anything, except perhaps the difficult question of picking bonus winners, is someone whose voice is not worth listening to.

Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five of the weekend's stars:

LUKE ROCKHOLD - While Rockhold (12-2) was a heavy favorite to do exactly what he did, he was still the first person who has ever finished Michael Bisping without TRT running through his blood in the British fighter's long career.

As a safety measure, Rockhold should be booked on the Feb. 28 show in Los Angeles. It's his home state. The timing is right. If Weidman gets hurt, Belfort is the guy, even more than Bisping, that he seemed to want to face again. If Belfort gets hurt, Rockhold in most people's eyes would give Weidman a tougher fight than a first-time fighter off testosterone, who will be almost 38 years old come fight time.

And there are only two viable opponents otherwise for Rockhold, Souza (21-3) and Yoel Romero (9-1). Rockhold has been negative when Souza's name is brought up, noting that he beat him in Strikeforce. But that was three years ago, and while both have improved significantly since that fight, they are also different fighters today and Souza's wins over the last three years are more impressive than Rockhold's. Romero is the wild card. His wrestling ability as a former Olympic silver medalist, has been hot and cold in MMA, but when it's on point, it doesn't look like anyone can stop him and thus even has the tools to beat Weidman at his strongest aspect.

JAKE MATTHEWS - The 20-year-old Matthews (9-0), the second youngest of the more than 500 fighters on the bloated UFC roster, is a name to watch. Australia has already proven that it can be an MMA hotbed, and that's without ever producing a top UFC title contender. With George Sotiropolous long gone, there is no fighter to fill the all-important local hero role.

While untested against top competition, he's mowed through everyone so far, with only one fight going the distance. The last time a fighter of his age looked as impressive in UFC competition was Rory MacDonald.

Matthews has a huge frame for the weight class, is far steadier under pressure than his age would indicate, and seems to have skill at every facet of the game, including submitting a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Given his age, he's likely to improve as a strong clip. He's also from Melbourne, which is key for ultimate marketability in the country. While the UFC has had great success in Sydney, it is Melbourne that has more UFC fans than any city in Australia. The problem is, MMA is legal in Melbourne, but fights in a cage are not. The UFC is not willing to put on a show in a boxing ring.

Provided things go in the country's upcoming election as expected, the ban against MMA in a cage in Victoria is expected to be rescinded. The UFC has even provisionally booked a date for later this year in the 53,000-seat Etihad Stadium if the ban is lifted. That's the kind of a show that could be even more of a coming out party for a new national star.

Whether it's good or bad, Matthews himself doesn't appear to be patient. Most fighters when asked who they want next, usually give the vague answer about letting Dana White and Joe Silva decide. They often don't realize that's exactly the answer neither White nor Silva wants to hear, Matthews said he wanted Jake Ellenberger on Jan. 18 in Boston. He gave the date saying he wanted to be on a show with Conor McGregor. But Ellenberger is such a big step up from Wagner Rocha, who Matthews finished on Saturday, that maybe White and Silva will think it's better to take things a little more slowly.

MICHAEL BISPING - Bisping's streak of always faltering in the fight that would likely lead him to a title fight continued. Bisping (26-7) will continue, and there are potential fights for him, such as Gegard Mousasi (35-5-2), or maybe the loser of the Dec. 20 fight with Lyoto Machida (21-5) vs. C.B. Dollaway (15-5).

He's been around so long that if he gets a UFC win, his 16th, he'll have more wins than anyone in history except the biggest stars of all-time, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. Everyone of them had long runs as champion. Bisping, by never winning the big one, has never even had a title shot.

OVINCE ST. PREUX - St. Preux (17-6) bounced back after a dismal performance against Ryan Bader in his last fight. In that fight, he seemed to have the ability to beat Bader, but not the gas tank. While it's hard to look more impressive than beating a legend in 34 seconds, in doing so, the gas tank questions weren't answered.

There are no shortage of potential opponents as one would expect a number of light heavyweight fights to be made in the next few weeks, involving Alexander Gustafsson (16-2), Anthony Johnson (18-4), Phil Davis (13-2), Jimi Manuwa (14-1) and Glover Teixeira (22-4). St. Preux and the other five should be booked in three fights likely for early 2015. Gustafsson should really only be in with Johnson or Davis, and he's already fought Davis. That leaves St. Preux likely for one of the others.

JOHN LINEKER - As a flyweight with four knockout wins in his last five fights, Lineker (24-7) shouldn't be too far from a title shot, considering only one fighter ranked ahead of him, Jussier Formiga, hasn't already been turned back by champion Demetrious Johnson.

But there's a huge question, and even in not fighting this weekend, Lineker did nothing to help his cause. Lineker had missed weight in three of his previous six fights. On Friday, he missed weight again at first, but managed to make it in a late weigh-in. The problem is the weight he just barely made was 126, and the championship fight weight is 125. Lineker has missed often enough that one has to question his getting a title shot even if his wins deserve it.

It would make sense to do the match with Ian McCall that was scheduled Saturday and postponed when McCall took ill. If that's not possible, new opponents could be Wilson Reis (19-5) or Kyoji  Horiguchi (14-1). A win over either could get him a title shot. But words to the wise. Next time, Lineker should plan to not just make weight the first time he steps on the scale, but to come in at 125. It'll ease the minds of people who make the decisions that have enough problems without stressing over a title fight falling apart the day before the show.