When Cody Garbrandt and Thomas Almeida were announced for the main event for Sunday's UFC Fight Night, is was something of a shock.
It's not that neither hadn't looked strong, as you had two young unbeaten fighters who looked like down the line they would be potential contenders. But neither had ever headlined a UFC event. And they were booked on top of a match that included Renan Barao's move to featherweight. Barao was the former bantamweight champion who has headlined three pay-per-view shows and at one time was seriously talked about as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. Jeremy Stephens, his opponent, had been with UFC for nearly nine years and had beaten major names like Rafael dos Anjos and Dennis Bermudez. Plus, stylistically, and it turned out to be the case, Stephens vs. Barao looked to be a great fight.
Almeida was the one with most of the hype. He was 21-0, one of the best records of anyone on the roster. He was ranked No. 7 in the bantamweight division and people were talking about the 24-year-old Brazilian as one of the rising stars of the sport.
Aljamain Sterling and Bryan Caraway were put on the Fight Pass prelims, and they were ranked No. 4 and No. 8 , respectively, in the same division. Of all the fighters on the show, Sterling was the one who looked like he was closest to a title shot. Garbrandt, while clearly someone to watch, hadn't even cracked the top 15 in the division.
But part of the job of matchmaking has to do with creation of new stars. Had Garbrandt knocked Almeida out lower on the television show, or on Fight Pass, while people would have still taken notice because he looked fast and powerful, his win wouldn't be the last thing on the show, and be the show's most lasting impression.
The 24-year-old Garbrandt's first-round knockout and willingness to promote himself Sunday night made him go from unranked to someone who isn't far from a title shot. It would be hard to have any better of a showing in a main event. If people didn't know Garbrandt before, at the very least, everyone who saw the show knows him and thinks he's somebody, no matter where in the top 15 he ends up.
"I'm thankful they trusted me," Garbrandt said about being put in the main event spot. "It was a stacked card. There were my idols fighting on the card."
Garbrandt and Almeida may have gotten the nod over the higher ranked bantamweights because they were expected to deliver fireworks. With a Sterling fight, it was expected to be more wrestling-oriented.
"I want top-five fights and I truly believe that's where I'm at," he said.
Garbrandt mentioned no names in specific, only that he wanted to fight on UFC 203 in Cleveland, since he grew up an hour and 20 minutes away from the Quicken Loans Arena, where the show is taking place.
"I was fighting a 21-0 guy who ran through everyone and I knocked him out in less than three minutes," he said. "Let me at least be in the top 10."
No doubt he'll get his top-10 wish, and maybe then some.
The loss by Sterling to Caraway opens up the division. Sterling, who came in at 12-0, wasn't likely far from a title shot. If TJ Dillashaw beats Raphael Assuncao at UFC 200, Dillashaw would almost surely face the winner of the Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber title match later that night. If Assuncao would have won and Sterling would have won, Sterling could have very been at least in the discussion over getting that shot.
Garbrandt is in a great position. As a main event winner, he had more exposure and had a more explosive finish than Caraway, whose win was via split decision. Plus, he's a Team Alpha Male fighter. That could be great, or not so great, depending on what happens next.
If Faber wins the title, which would be a major upset, Garbrandt would be unlikely to get a title shot, at least right away. But if Cruz wins, or Dillashaw ends up as champion, Garbrandt would have storylines with both. Cruz has constantly knocked the camp, calling it "Team Alpha Fail," because of how many fighters have reached the top of the rankings only to lose in the title opportunities. Dillashaw broke the streak of title match losses for Team Alpha Male. But he then left the team, so Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt is an easy-to-market fight.
But Caraway doesn't see it that way.
"I think this puts me in title contention," he said after the win. ... "Garbrandt wasn't ranked, not to say he's not an amazing fighter, but he wasn't even ranked," Caraway. "So I think for him to be ranked above me would be ludicrous. I think I'm the highest ranked guy who hasn't fought for the belt."
And those words may be enough to build the next fight for both.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changes and what is next for the stars of Sunday's show.
CODY GARBRANDT - The three names that stand out as potential opponents are Caraway (21-8), John Lineker (27-7) and John Dodson (18-7). Realistically, if it's a battle where a title shot is at stake, Caraway, having beaten Sterling, is the most logical match, with Dodson, a well-known former flyweight contender, next. And the timing is such that if fights with Cruz vs. Faber and Dillashaw vs. Assuncao, and the eventual winners meeting, don't necessitate a rematch, Garbrandt with a win over Caraway could be in line for that shot.
BRYAN CARAWAY - Caraway has had the natural name recognition from being known as women's bantamweight champion Miesha Tate's longtime mentor and boyfriend. But he was expected to be the victim Sunday in Sterling's rise to the top. He's been around for years, but until Sunday, had always lost when it came to top-ranked bantamweights.
His prospective opponents could also include Lineker or Dodson, as well as the Cruz vs. Faber or Dillashaw vs. Assuncao loser. But Garbrandt looks like the best fight for both parties from a timing standpoint.
JEREMY STEPHENS - Stephens (25-12) scored a win in the kind of fight that people take notice of. He's a consistently exciting fighter who is hard to put away having only been stopped once, by Yves Edwards, since 2008. But he still has decision losses in the division to Max Holloway, Charles Oliveira and Cub Swanson.
The win could springboard him to a match with Chad Mendes (17-4), a former top contender coming off a loss. If he could get that fight, and score an upset, he'd probably have to next go against one of the fighters who had beaten him in the past. More than anything, this solidified his reputation of somebody to go to if you want to have an action fight.
RENAN BARAO - Barao (35-4-1) had a question that had been asked a lot a few years ago when teammate Jose Aldo was the sport's star featherweight and he was the dominant bantamweight king.
The question was regarding Barao, a large bantamweight who had issues at times with making weight, and if he'd be better off at featherweight. This fight indicated the answer was negative. Barao can hang with featherweights, and probably give most of the good ones exciting fights.
Because of Conor McGregor, featherweight is more focused on and if he could win a series of fights and score the jackpot with McGregor, that's life-changing money. But he didn't come across as someone who was going to be top tier and it's almost impossible to think such a fight would be in his future.
Based on this fight, bantamweight is his best bet for being a contender. Whether there's a health issue of cutting to that weight at this point is a different question.
LORENZ LARKIN - Larkin (17-5, 1 no contest) scored a split decision win over Jorge Masvidal. While Masvidal could have gotten round three, it's hard to make a case for round one or two for him. One could argue that Larkin could have been penalized a point in the first round for an eye poke, which would have made the fight a draw, but the point wasn't taken away. And perhaps that would have also changed his third-round strategy if he was aware of that.
Larkin is now 3-1 as a welterweight, only losing via split decision to Albert Tumenov at UFC 195. If there was someone for him to ask for, it would be Matt Brown (20-14). Brown is one of those fighters who due to attitude and style, people are intrigued by no matter what his win-loss record is. If that's not in the books, than Rick Story (19-8), who defeated Tarec Saffiedine on Sunday makes sense for both men.