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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Norfolk

UFC put together a strong show on paper Saturday night in Norfolk, and the fighters delivered both in their matches and afterward.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Norfolk-Poirier vs Pettis
Dustin Poirier defeated Anthony Pettis at UFC Norfolk.
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

If UFC could bottle what they had on Saturday night, the television ratings, depth of stars, and anticipation for future shows would all take a major turn upwards.

The UFC Norfolk event from the Ted Constant Convocation Center had great fights, a raucous crowd, memorable finishes, and once it was over, the card had built anticipation for a slew of potential future matches. It clicked on just about every button that you want from a Fight Night style show.

It was a show that looked strong on paper. There were more fighters recognizable to the casual fan than the usual Fight Night, where prelims often feature fighters that only the most ardent fans would know.

The UFC Norfolk prelims alone felt like a normal main card. The main card was a free show that, if a good title match had been added, could have easily been sold as a pay-per-view main card.

Of course, the one thing about MMA is that it is unpredictable. Often shows that don't look interesting deliver great action, while shows filled with names can often disappoint. But when you put action fighters like Marlon Morales, Joe Lauzon, Clay Guida, Matt Brown, Diego Sanchez, Anthony Pettis and Dustin Poirier all on the same show, your odds of success look strong going in, and ultimately UFC Norfolk delivered.

Poirier's third-round win over former lightweight champion Pettis was not only the biggest win of Poirier's career, but a star-making overall performance. In a back-and-forth fight, with a lot of blood spilled, the only negative to say about a fight that was headed to Fight of the Year levels until Pettis tapped out of nowhere — evidently due to the belief he had broken a rib — was that it ended anticlimactically.

Poirier's declaration that it wasn't a broken rib, but that Pettis was mentally broken, wasn't the most respectful thing to say about a former champion who gave him a great fight. The rest of Poirier’s mic time was spent demanding to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby that Poirier fight the winner of the Dec. 2 bout between Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje. His direct challenge was a direction all ranked fighters after a big win should be ready to do on television.

In the UFC, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Poirier was reasonable, in the sense that the winner of Alvarez vs. Gaethje is a fight that Porier could ask for after beating Pettis. Obviously, the end game for any fighter in the lightweight division is to fight Conor McGregor, as long as McGregor is the money machine. But Poirier was not going to get that fight right now, and taking on the winner of Alvarez vs. Gaethje is probably his quickest direction to get there.

A win in that fight would put Poirier maybe one or two fights from McGregor, or whoever the champion is by next summer or fall. In addition, based on the way the styles match up, either Alvarez or Gaethje make it a high percentage that it'll be a crowd pleasing fight. With Alvarez, there is also a story involved, given Alvarez fought Poirier on May 13, and the exciting fight was stopped prematurely after Alvarez landed an illegal knee. That bout was ruled a no contest when Poirier probably should have won via disqualification.

The lack of respect shown to Pettis was a stark contrast to the No. 2 bout, where Matt Brown, who may or may not have fought his last fight, said after his win that there was nobody in the sport he admired more than his opponent, Diego Sanchez. He called Sanchez the sport's truest warrior.

Raphael Assuncao, after his win, campaigned for a bantamweight title fight against T.J. Dillashaw. Marlon Moraes, who won earlier, made an impassioned plea for a shot at Jimmie Rivera — a fight that, if it does happen, could net the winner a bantamweight title shot.

And then there was Clay Guida, who after scoring his first TKO win in more than nine years, campaigned, at 35 years old, for a new UFC contract. Guida was so effective that he turned back the time machine back about six years ago, when he may have been the most popular fighter in the company who never really came close being a top-tier contender. Between the win and making his contract situation public, he greatly upped his standing at a time he was at a career crossroads.

In many ways, the fighters handed the matchmakers ideas for fights that the public already is interested in. And it also makes it easy to look at how Fortunes Changed for Five.

DUSTIN POIRIER Poirier (22-5, 1 no contest) was the star of the show. One could argue he's the poster boy for not trying to get as small as humanly possible to fit into the lightest weight class. He's looked far healthier, stronger, and has been more effective fighting at lightweight than at featherweight. Still, featherweight must have its temptations right now, since he has a first-round submission win over current featherweight champion Max Holloway.

Poirier went 9-4 in the smaller division, but has gone 6-1 with 1 no contest since moving up. While Holloway may look like Poirier’s biggest win, Holloway was not a known fighter at the time, making Pettis clearly his biggest career win.

Poirier made it clear he wanted the winner of the fight between Alvarez (28-5), a former champion, and Gaethje (18-0), who dominated the lightweight division for years in the World Series of Fighting.

If you look at the lightweight division, McGregor vs. Tony Ferguson looks like the next title fight, with the winner of the Dec. 30 bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Edson Barboza as the likely next contender. If the direction is Poirier vs. Alvarez/Gaethje winner, that person should be the next person in line after that.

MATT BROWN Brown (23-16) is similar to Guida in the sense the quality of his fights have made him as popular as anyone with, what on paper, is hardly a championship level win/loss record.

Before his fight with Diego Sanchez, Brown was talking like it would be his last fight. He's 36 years old and had lost five out of his previous six fights. But he got a big knockout win over Sanchez with one of the nastiest elbows ever delivered in UFC competition, and was able to share the Octagon in celebration with his two sons. Few fighters get that kind of a fitting end to their careers, usually because a performance like that is intoxicating and makes you want to do it again.

If Brown is looking at fighting again, a good opponent would be the winner of the Dec. 30 fight between Neil Magny (19-6) and Carlos Condit (30-10).

RAPHAEL ASSUNCAO Assuncao (26-5) aimed big after handing Matthew Lopez (10-2) his first career loss by knockout. He campaigned hard for a title fight with T.J. Dillashaw (15-3), noting their past history. Assuncao defeated the current champion in 2013 via close decision, then Dillashaw won the 2016 rematch by clearly taking all three rounds.

Assuncao is unlikely to get Dillashaw this early. More likely next opponents would be John Lineker (30-8), Cody Garbandt (11-1), or Jimmy Rivera (21-1).

MARLON MORAES Moraes (19-5-1) said he wanted Rivera, who has no opponent for Dec. 30 due to Dominick Cruz suffering a broken arm. It's a quick turnaround, but Moraes made his intentions clear.

If Moraes is willing to take the fight this close, he should get the shot at it.

TATIANA SUAREZ Suarez (5-0) dominated Viviane Perreira (13-1) in a one-sided decision.

Suarez's career seems to be the story of having all of the skill and none of the luck. After winning bronze medals twice in the world championships, the combination of a neck injury and a battle with thyroid cancer ended her 2012 Olympic dreams.

She moved to MMA, won The Ultimate Fighter in the spring/summer of the 2016 season, but a torn labrum kept her from following up on her early success. Suarez showed against Perriera that she's a master on the ground and at scoring takedowns, but she needs more ring experience and stand-up work at this point. But she's got elements of being a star, including the back story. A good next opponent for Suarez right now would be Alexa Grasso (10-1).

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