If there is a template for what a company would want from a UFC on FOX show, you could argue Saturday was it.
While the show appears to be closer to a double than a home run ratings wise, what you want out of a FOX special is star-making performances of fighters on the way up, who come out of it with fans wanting to see them in higher profile matches, particularly on pay-per-view.
The main event delivered just that, and the post-fight antics did even more. Past a few hardcores looking down the line, a fight between middleweight champion Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, if it was to happen, looked like it would feel like another title defense. The combination of Rockhold's performance and his low-key but direct statements that he would be the champion and telling Weidman to do his part and eliminate Vitor Belfort; teammate Daniel Cormier hyping the fight from the announcers' desk, and Weidman saying that Rockhold is good everywhere, but not great anywhere and he'd "smoke him on the ground," turned that into what could be among the most anticipated fights of the year.
It was a very different Weidman than we've seen in the past, saying right to Rockhold's face that his wrestling and Jiu Jitsu was far superior, just minutes after Rockhold had made minced meat out of Lyoto Machida on the ground. Cormier, Rockhold's training partner, made sure to point out how Rockhold finished Machida in two rounds and had no trouble, while Weidman went to a five round decision with the same Machida.
The best interplay was on the post-fight show on Fox Sports 2, which produced a number of sound bites that will be great for countdown shows if this fight is to happen. But Rockhold, after winning on FOX, directly talked about a fight with Weidman in Madison Square Garden.
Later, at the press conference, Rockhold brought up the idea of he and Weidman being opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter, pushing the idea of a California vs. New York theme for the show, and even for the fight if and when it takes place. While White didn't seem receptive to the idea, it's far from the worst thing a fighter has suggested. On the surface, the timing even works, if Weidman is still champion after May 23, and if the bill to legalize and regulate professional MMA passes this year.
White has talked about a December date already on the books in Madison Square Garden, believed to be Dec. 5. Weidman, from Long Island, would be a natural headliner. This isn't the first time UFC has booked the Garden, but the tea leaves seem to indicate it's the first year there's actually a very good chance they'll be running the show.
"We have a date held in December at the Garden," said White at the post-fight press conference. "I expect to be there."
December is usually the time when the coaches fight for the fall/winter TUF season takes place.
Another interesting part of the Weidman/Rockhold interplay on Saturday night was discussion of May 23, when Weidman defends his title against Belfort in Las Vegas.
Ever since the Nevada commission nixed all future use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), Rockhold has not so quietly said that he didn't believe Weidman vs. Belfort would take place. He was saying it more than a year ago. Since that time, the fight was booked three different times, and didn't happen any of them. The first was delayed by a Belfort drug test result. The second date didn't happen due to Weidman needing surgery on his hand. A Feb. 28 date was delayed when Weidman suffered a cracked rib.
Rockhold and Weidman both verbally agreed that if something was to happen to Belfort, that each would accept a title fight on short notice. Rockhold said he would be staying in shape and be ready to walk into a title match.
Should that fight get thrown together at the last minute, both men are taking a big risk. Rockhold will at least train the next five weeks knowing what his potential target is. But we've seen countless examples of fighters trying to make the quick turnaround and being flat, because it's taxing on ones body to peak both training and go back to weight-cutting. Against a fighter like Weidman, Rockhold has to be near his best. And it takes a long time to get a title shot in a division like middleweight. One loss taking a fight while not peaked could be make a severe dent it ones career.
On the flip side, it's the same risk for Weidman. While there would be no change in the timetable of peaking his body, all of his work has been geared for Belfort. Rockhold is an entirely different type of fighter.
Even though Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza came into Saturday's show as the division's No. 1 contender, and he had no trouble in scoring a submission win at 2:33 of the first round over Chris Camozzi, his opponent was a far cry from Machida. Souza did all he could do, and he did try to campaign for a title shot, noting his ranking. But it was the potential of Weidman vs. Rockhold that everyone was talking about when the show was over. And just as it was brought up Rockhold had beaten Machida must faster and easier than Weidman, it was also noted Rockhold beat Souza. But that fight was in 2011, in Strikeforce, and both are far superior fighters today.
Rockhold lost to Belfort in 2013, while Souza has never lost in UFC, and hasn't lost since the Rockhold fight, winning his eighth in a row, only one of which went to a decision.
"I believe 100 percent it's my time," said Souza after the fight. "I'm the No. 1 contender. "Everyone knows he (Rockhold) didn't beat me," said Souza, questioning he judging of that fight. "Man, I can finish anybody in my division. It's my time."
It wasn't just Rockhold and Souza getting noticed. Featherweight Max Holloway made himself a star in one night by knocking off the favored Cub Swanson. Paige VanZant had a star making performance as the new "pretty blonde" who everyone knew was marketable, but had to answer the question about whether there was anything past that marketability. And even Beneil Dariush, Ovince St. Preux and Aljamain Sterling all had dominant wins that made all of them look like people to take very seriously.
Let's look at how fortunes changed for five of Saturday night's stars.
LUKE ROCKHOLD - There are a lot of moving parts in the middleweight division right now, with Weidman, Rockhold, Belfort and Souza as the key players. Rockhold (14-2) looks to be the guy in the drivers' seat when it comes to the winner of Weidman vs. Belfort.
There could also be controversy in Weidman vs. Belfort, necessitating a rematch. Or injuries to any of the big four can change the decision making process. So for now, it's not sit and wait, but train and wait, being ready if a fill-in is needed, ready for the winner. If there's a controversy in Weidman vs. Belfort, a Rockhold vs. Souza rematch is not out of the question.
RONALDO "JACARE" SOUZA - Souza (22-3, 1 no contest) appears to be in the on-deck circle for a title shot. What makes the most sense for him is finally taking care of the match with Yoel Romero (9-1). That fight was first scheduled for February, and next for this past Saturday, before Romero was injured in training.
MAX HOLLOWAY - At 23, Holloway (13-3) took a giant step up the ladder, coming into the fight ranked as the No. 10 contender. He is No. 6 in the new rankings.
That's the good news. The bad news is there is a very obvious next opponent--Mendes, who may be as a good a non-champion as there is in the sport today. While Swanson didn't seem like himself at all in Saturday's fight, and it brings up questions if he'd recovered from his beating at the hands of Edgar, that doesn't take away from how well Holloway used speed and movement to take Swanson apart standing the entire fight. Holloway seemed to have improved by leaps and bounds from his Feb. 14 win over Cole Miller.
PAIGE VANZANT - VanZant (5-1) would be the first genuine star in the promotion born after the first UFC event in 1993. Barely three weeks past her 21st birthday, she was facing someone with 43 prior fights between kickboxing and MMA, and ten years pro fighting experience. VanZant ran through Felice Herrig without stopping, getting a 10-8 score from all three judges in the third and most one-sided round.
There's a reality of women in sports that looks make a huge difference when it comes to recognition. Even though this was her first televised fight in the company, she's probably the most talked about fighter in the women's strawweight division. Herrig was a good test, whether she won or lost. As long as VanZant was competitive, it would show she belonged in UFC, and wasn't just a gimmick. But the one-sided win removed all questions.
The main positive out of this fight, and her prior win over Kailin Curran, is that she has great cardio. She never stopped for three rounds, and was good enough to get out of submissions and dominate positions on the ground. She's also with a great camp, so at her age, she should improve greatly in skills.
The key with her is to be a star, she doesn't have to be a champion. She only has to be a credible fighter and booked in spotlight fights. The right next test would someone who isn't even signed to the promotion, Invicta's Alexa Grasso (7-0). Grasso had the fight of the weekend at the end of February when Invicta and UFC had successive shows.
Grasso, also 21, has star potential as well, particularly for the Mexico and Latino market, because of her own fast-paced fighting style. Now that VanZant is a star, Grasso will get a partial spotlight on her for a UFC introduction if such a match is made.
BENEIL DARIUSH - At 25, Dariush (11-1) took a big step up as well, beating Jim Miller via decision, on the heels of wins over Diego Ferreira and Daron Cruickshank.
Dariush survived some early trouble to dominate the second and third round, largely on the ground, which had been Miller's world in the past.
The lightweight division is filled with good opponents, Al Iaquinta (13-3-1), coming off his controversial win over Jorge Masvidal, looks like a good next test. Edson Barboza (15-3), while coming off a loss, would also be a fight where Dariush could be spotlighted. Ross Pearson (17-8) is another fighter who has a name and could get Dariush high on a card.