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Fortunes changed for five at UFC on FOX 11

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Back in 2008, after Chuck Liddell, UFC's most popular fighter, had lost his light heavyweight title to Rampage Jackson, a rematch between the two would have at least challenged the company's all-time business records.
After Liddell beat Wanderlei Silva, he was put in a fight with Rashad Evans.

The result was a devastating knockout win by Evans. The possible biggest fight up to that time disappeared, never to return again.

A lot of promoters would have been crushed, so close and yet so far from a fight that would have increased the attention and popularity of a growing sport. Dana White on that night in Atlanta, while he was clearly upset his friend was knocked out in a scary way, the impression was that losing the potential Jackson vs. Liddell title fight didn't seem to even faze him.

When you promote, you have to choice to protect top fighters with mismatches, or risk big matches and understand the chips will fall where they may. Time after time, UFC has taken that risk, even when assured of big money fights if they just had everyone sit tight.

They risked the second Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen fight, one of the bigger fights in company history, by putting Sonnen in with Mark Munoz, who after an injury, became Michael Bisping, and Sonnen nearly lost that fight and his shot at Silva.

They risked a Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans grudge match, easily Jones' most anticipated fight of his career, by putting Evans in with Phil Davis.

They risked Nick Diaz vs. Georges St-Pierre with Diaz and Carlos Condit. In that case, even with the loss, they still made the money fight and the public backed up the illogical title shot by making it GSP's most anticipated fight of his career.

They risked Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate with a Tate vs. Cat Zingano fight, which also went the other way, but Zingano's injury led to UFC's biggest female fight to date still happening.

The perfect fight for a debut in Mexico, the company's next major expansion market, would have been Cain Velasquez (13-1) vs. Fabricio Werdum (18-5-1) for the heavyweight title. Velasquez, born to Mexican parents, is the most popular fighter south of the border. He gets mobbed at his public appearances in the country. Werdum, who lived in Spain for years, learned Spanish fluently. He's the UFC's Spanish language announcer. He's both familiar to the fan base and can most effectively promote the show.

Werdum could have easily been sat out to protect the fight. But with so many shows and a limited amount of top stars, the game is now always about all hands on deck. And even though the Diaz-GSP fight says differently, it is likely the only way Werdum would have gotten a shot at Velasquez in Mexico had he lost, was if it was a close fight and Browne would have been injured.

Werdum dominated Travis Browne for five rounds to take a decision Saturday night on FOX at UFC's debut in Orlando, Fla.

While nothing is official, White is so insistent on debuting in Mexico with Velasquez as the headliner, so much so that they delayed original plans for a debut in Mexico City earlier this year for a show when the heavyweight champion required surgery on his left shoulder in December due to a torn labrum.

UFC wanted to go in with the biggest splash possible, a heavyweight title defense by the Mexican-American champion. Velasquez is hopeful of being ready by November. He has been in the gym of late, but even four months later, can only punch and kick with his right arm and foot.

White has talked of Mexico as being the next major breakthrough market, with a debut season of Ultimate Fighter Mexico, which will be taped in a few months, likely late summer, in Las Vegas. Velasquez has been talked about to coach one team. White hasn't confirmed Werdum coaching the other, but smiled when the idea of it was brought up. It's obviously the scenario that makes the most sense. In many ways, it's the exact battle plan from nine years ago in the U.S., with Liddell and Randy Couture coaching the first season and leading to what was then the biggest fight the company had ever promoted.

Let's look at how Fortunes changed and where they are going for the big winners on Saturday night's show in Orlando.

FABRICIO WERDUM - Werdum, because of his submission skill, may be the biggest threat to Velasquez to date. Velasquez's game plan has always been about getting the fight to the ground. He's never been outwrestled in a fight, has never lost a round that was judged, and has never been in danger of being submitted.

But Werdum has submitted both Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who one could make the case are two of the three best heavyweights in MMA history, along with Velasquez. Werdum also showed a strong standing attack, with punches and knees, through five rounds with Browne. Certainly, five rounds with Browne is not equivalent to five with Velasquez. But Werdum came in about ten pounds lighter than expected with Browne, and seemed both quicker and in better condition than in the past.

Although Werdum's record at this point has its blemishes from years ago, if he does beat Velasquez, one would have to move him into a conversation as being among the best ever. That's not bad for a guy who was once cut by the UFC, thought to just be a stepping stone opponent for Emelianenko, and was the underdog against Browne.

MIESHA TATE - Whoever was going to win the Tate vs. Liz Carmouche fight on Saturday was the one with luck on their side.

Carmouche clearly won the first round. Tate (14-5) won the third round even stronger. So the entire fight came down to round two.

Carmouche got two takedowns. Tate struck more effectively and had a guillotine attempt. Tate, after the fight, readily admitted she expected Carmouche to be read as the winner. But the judges reasonably could have scored the round either way.

The UFC women's bantamweight division of late has had more talk about fighters who aren't signed, Gina Carano, Cris "Cyborg" Justino and Holly Holm. While Tate perked up when asked about a fight with her and Carano, that makes no business sense. If Carano is going to fight, for as much as the idea of someone who hasn't won a fight in five years getting a title shot will be criticized, Rousey is the way to go.

For Tate, the logical direction would be either Sarah Kaufman (17-2), who beat Leslie Smith on Wednesday, Sara McMann (7-1), or if she is ready, Cat Zingano (8-0). As much as Tate is the second most well-known woman fighter on the roster, after two title losses to Rousey, she's in a weird kind of limbo state if she keeps winning.

DONALD CERRONE - Cerrone (23-6, 1 no-contest) captured his 14th career performance bonus, the most in Zuffa history on Saturday. That breaks down to nine in UFC and five in WEC.

Cerrone is a man of high highs and low lows, often in the same fight. He was getting blitzed in the early minutes by Edson Barboza, yet finished him in the blink of an eye with a knockdown from a jab and a choke.

That gave him three wins in a row, picking up bonuses in all three fights. The name bandied about and asked to him after the fight is Khabib Nurmagomedov, who took the measure of Rafael dos Anjos earlier in the show. Dos Anjos handed Cerrone his last loss on Aug. 28.

But the idea that seems to fit better would be Josh Thomson (20-6). Both are fighters with histories of great fights, and who should be in the pack for a 2015 title shot with some wins this year. Thomson had the contract in hand for a title shot with Anthony Pettis, which fell through when Pettis was injured. Thomson then lost to Benson Henderson, in a fight he broke his hand in during the first round, but many thought he should have gotten the decision in.

Both have had a lot of experience on major televised fight cards, and histories of exciting fights. The next FOX show is July 26, in Thomson's home city of San Jose. With Cerrone making a strong impression on FOX, it would make sense to carry over that momentum.

YOEL ROMERO - Romero (8-1) has always been an intriguing fighter, simply because he won an Olympic silver medal in wrestling and has multiple wins on the international stage against Cael Sanderson, America's greatest wrestler of the last 15 years.

But in MMA, it was his striking, not his wrestling, that was his in-cage calling card. Every Romero win until Saturday came by knockout or TKO. From a wrestling standpoint, on Saturday he was a sleeping giant, showing more of it than in any fight to date, to the point Joe Rogan was fantasy booking him with middleweight king Chris Weidman as he was rag dolling Brad Tavares.

At first, the reaction would be that Romero isn't ready. Tavares was top 15, but Romero has no wins against anyone that should put him into the immediate title picture. But it is an intriguing match up, as Romero's credentials as a wrestler, and explosiveness, trump that of Weidman.

But like every Romero conversation, age quickly comes into play. He turns 37 in less than two weeks, so time is not on his side. Tim Kennedy, coming off his win over Michael Bisping, would make sense as a foe. It may be one fight early for someone like Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, who has looked impressive of late and should be ready about the same time as Romero after his elbow surgery in early March.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV - Sporting the best won-loss record in the UFC today, at 22-0, Nurmagomedov clearly won all three rounds from top ten fighter dos Anjos on Saturday.

The two-time world champion in Sambo has been a takedown machine in his two plus years in the organization. It would seem the perfect opponent for him would be Nate Diaz (17-9), a fight UFC tried to make, but Diaz is sitting out in a contract squabble. Assuming he is out of the picture, Cerrone is a possibility. Thomson would be very difficult, since both are teammates and training partners at AKA in San Jose.

TJ Grant remains a wild card, a top contender who was ready for a championship match when problems from a severe concussion put him on the shelf. There's no timetable for Grant to return, so his best bet, if not Cerrone, may be to wait to see if Benson Henderson beats Rustam Khabilov on June 7 in Albuquerque, N.M.