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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Fight Night 70

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Forgetting about what he may have really meant to say, or did say, or regretted saying, the promise of Yoel Romero as a championship-level fighter could finally be coming to the forefront after he scored the biggest win of his career Saturday night over former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.

Romero is one of the most decorated wrestlers ever to come into the UFC, an Olympic silver medalist with a couple of wins over Cael Sanderson, this country's most successful wrestler of the last quarter-century. He was brutally knocked out in his U.S. debut four years ago as a light heavyweight in Strikeforce by Rafael Cavalcante. But since dropping to middleweight, his wrestling weight class, he's won six in a row, some days looking like a killer. Other days he's gotten in real trouble, before pulling things out late.

At 38, an age when the majority of top wrestlers in MMA are well past their career fade, he looks to be an intriguing opponent as he solidified himself as one of the division's big four, with champion Chris Weidman and challengers Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo Souza.

While he doesn't appear to have the cardiovascular conditioning of the other three, he looks to have the best wrestling and finishing power. But with those strengths, he's lost rounds and been in trouble in fights against lower-level competition, something that hasn't happened of late to the other big three members.

He may be, at the same time, the most dangerous man in the division, and the most vulnerable to losing of the big four.

Either way, it is likely the next year will tell the tale of his MMA career, either as one of the greatest athletes who made it big in the sport or a "what if" -- a guy who could have been something, had he not started so late.

He didn't do much wrestling with Machida, but when he finally committed to taking the fight to the ground in the third round, he finished it almost immediately. What makes him interesting is that he's shown, with nine knockouts in his 10 wins, that he's got the power to finish anyone. Machida had only been stopped by strikes once in his career, although strikes did set up his submission defeat in his prior bout with Rockhold. His wrestling, at least on paper, is at a different level from anyone in the division, and he could be the first opponent of Weidman who was a better wrestler.

In his prior fight, a war with Tim Kennedy at UFC 178 last September, he showed both vulnerability, as he was nearly finished in the second round, and power. Kennedy was another durable fighter who had never in his career been rocked quite the way a nearly finished Romero came back to handle him, to the point Kennedy hasn't fought since.

It's quite clear that if he is ever going to be a champion, this is the time, because starting in the sport at the age of 32 limited his window of opportunity.

Perhaps the story of the fight was the axioms regarding age, speed and power. Power is the last thing to go, as Romero showed. Machida had been considered for years as the worst match-up for wrestlers because of his takedown defense and standing speed and reflexes. But speed and reflexes usually go first. Machida, 37, has now lost three of his last four fights, all to fighters who came from a wrestling background.

While not slow, there was a difference in his movement in this fight. Machida's last fight, on April 18, was the most one-sided loss of his career, to Rockhold. The way he reacted to Romero's punches that were landing, particularly in the second round, made one question whether he rushed back too quickly from that beating.

His movement is still going to make him difficult for most, but there is a question of a fighter who has been a headliner for the last seven years, that now looks to be the downside. He's someone with a high contract for a non-contender. But he's also the perfect type of name value fighter that Bellator would be looking to pick up. Most likely, UFC will keep him and use him high on cards, given his name recognition, and the number of events UFC promotes.

Let's look at how fortunes changed for five stars on Saturday:

YOEL ROMERO - Romero's direction seems almost obvious. Whatever show the Weidman vs. Rockhold title fight is on, it should have Romero (10-1) vs. Souza (22-3) right underneath. In the event of an injury to either headliner, Romero or Souza would be booked and ready to fill the slot. If not, the Romero vs. Souza winner becomes the obvious next title contender.

Souza looks on paper to be a tough match-up, in the sense he is quicker on the stand-up, and also has finishing power. While Romero's wrestling is far superior, Souza is one of the most dangerous fighters in the UFC on the ground, and Romero throwing him around and keeping him down for long periods of time may not be the best option.

LYOTO MACHIDA - There are a slew of middleweights with name value outside the big four. Machida could viably main event or co-main event on a television show card against Thales Leites (25-4), Vitor Belfort (24-11), Gegard Mousasi (37-5-2), Michael Bisping (26-7) or Kennedy (18-5).

Leites faces Bisping in three weeks. Bisping would make for a better drawing opponent. Belfort and Machida have both been top fighters for the length of two normal careers, but have never crossed paths. It won't be the fight it could have been a few years back, but it may be the best viable fight either could do right now as far as public interest goes.

LORENZ LARKIN - Larkin (16-4, 1 no contest) has been an intriguing fighter since he showed up in Strikeforce as a light heavyweight four years ago.

He's shown flashes of striking brilliance, but his three losses in a row at middleweight to Brad Tavares, Costas Philippou and Derek Brunson put him at a high risk to be cut. UFC gave him one last chance moving down to welterweight.

Now, he will possibly break into the lower rung of the welterweight rankings. While he points out it was a long time ago, three years isn't an eternity and that's how long ago it was when he defeated current champion Robbie Lawler.

A good next test, which on paper would also be a fan-friendly fight would be with Erick Silva (18-5). There are two welterweight fights in two weeks, Matt Brown (21-13) vs. Tim Means (24-6-1) on July 11, and Jake Ellenberger (30-9) vs. Stephen Thompson (10-1) on July 12, in which either winner would also make sense.

THIAGO SANTOS - With a knockout of the year contender high kick on Saturday against popular Quebec minor league hockey enforcer Steve Bosse, Santos (11-3) seems like Brazil's next Erick Silva, a fighter who looks spectacular early, but has also lost enough to where he's not looking like a top-tier middleweight threat.

Since the start of 2012, Santos has fought eight times, going 5-3, but seven of those fights, every win and two of the losses, were in the first round, mostly early in the round. His 29-second knockout followed a 1:56 knockout of Andy Enz. He also had a 53-second knockout of Ronny Markes since coming into UFC off the second season of TUF Brazil.

There are a slew of middleweights possible for him next, but Robert Whittaker (14-4) would be a fight that could help his cause significantly with a win. Another potential match-up would be the winner of the July 12 fight with Josh Samman (11-2) vs. Caio Magalhaes (9-1).

HACRAN DIAS - Dias (23-3-1) scored a close split decision win over Levan Makashvili, but losses to Ricardo Lamas and Nik Lentz keep him in the UFC featherweight pack, as he came into the weekend as the No. 14 contender.

Dias would make sense against the winner of the July 11 bout with Jeremy Stephens (27-11) vs. Dennis Bermudez (14-4). For different reasons, two other opponents could be Clay Guida (32-15) or Brian Ortega (9-0). Ortega had a tremendous fight with Thiago Tavares three weeks ago, and Dias makes for a test one step up. Guida, as the best known name of his possible foes, is the kind of a victory that could vault him into the lower part of the top 10.

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