The underdogs emerged victorious from UFC Fight Night 88's bantamweight showcase, but the biggest upset of the night came early on, when Bryan Caraway gutted out an impressive victory over previously undefeated UFC contender Aljamain Sterling on the night's preliminary card.
The win was Caraway's fourth over his last five fights, and afterward Caraway was definitive when asked where he stood in the newly reshaped 135-pound division.
"I think this puts me in title contention," Caraway said at Sunday's post-fight press conference. "Aljamain Sterling, the only guys ranked above him are (Renan) Barao -- Barao moved up to 145 -- and (T.J.) Dillashaw and (Urijah) Faber. Faber is already fighting for the title. Dillashaw has already fought for the belt and he already has a match lined up with (Raphael) Assuncao.
"So I think I'm right there in the mix. (Cody) Garbrandt wasn't even ranked before tonight. I'm not saying he's not an amazing fighter, but he wasn't even ranked, so I think for him to leapfrog from not even being ranked to above me would be ludicrous. I think I'm the highest ranked guy now that hasn't fought for the belt."
Like Caraway, Garbrandt looked exceptional on Sunday in Las Vegas, crushing Brazilian phenom Thomas Almeida with a first-round knockout in the night's main event.
The performances of both Caraway and Garbrandt shook up a bantamweight division that appears to be very much in a state of flux, with young talent slowly overtaking old stalwarts, and Caraway's win was made even sweeter considering the sizeable amount of trash talk Caraway has endured over the past year at the hands of Sterling.
"You can't talk sh*t about me and my relationship and everything about me, then expect to come into a fistfight and expect to be all hunky-dory and expect to shake hands before the fight," Caraway said. "So I was just in the mindset that I was there to do work and beat this guy up. We hugged or whatever afterwards in the backroom and we're cool afterwards, but before that I was in the mindset that I was going out there to kill that guy.
"It was more about just beating the No. 4 ranked guy. That's where I got the satisfaction. I wasn't satisfied from beating him because of what he said. That didn't really do anything for me. It was the number that he had in front of his name, and that's what I wanted."
Caraway has quietly pieced together a quality résumé since debuting in the UFC in 2011 as a cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 14. The 31-year-old is 6-2 with notable wins over Sterling, Eddie Wineland, and Erik Perez, and is also a pivotal member of the coaching staff of his longtime girlfriend, UFC women's bantamweight champion Miesha Tate.
So while Caraway continues to find himself thrust into the underdog role, he relishes the opportunity to continue proving his doubters wrong and believes he is a different fighter than the one who first introduced himself the world on TUF.
"I'm just doing new things," Caraway said. "I'm working with a new mental coach and I have a new sports doctor keeping me healthy. I'm just training and acting like a world-class fighter. I'm doing the little things that I think a lot of other fighters let fall through the cracks. I believe that's the difference to being a champion, and I have my mindset right.
"Before, I've struggled in the past with performance anxiety, and letting that consume me a little bit with confidence. Now, my newfound self, I'm ready to compete. I know my value. I know my skillset, and I can compete with anybody in the world."