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After going 11-1 at bantamweight, Raphael Assuncao calls for next title shot: ‘I don’t know what else I’ve got to do’

Raphael Assuncao has won 11 of his past 12 fights.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Say a fighter, any fighter, had posted an 11-1 UFC record at a certain weight class. Say that fighter also held a win over the current champion, and after banking 30 minutes of fight time with said champion, the series between the two was split 1-to-1 down the middle.

In most cases, there’s a good chance a title shot heading that fighter’s way would be a foregone conclusion. But in the mercurial world of the UFC, no shot at gold is ever a foregone conclusion, and that uncomfortable limbo is exactly where Raphael Assuncao finds himself in following T.J. Dillashaw’s defense of the bantamweight strap over Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227.

With Dillashaw’s dreams of moving down to flyweight for a shot at glory against Demetrious Johnson dashed, if at least temporarily, a trifecta of contenders jockeying for the next shot at the belt has emerged atop the bantamweight division: Assuncao, former champion Dominick Cruz, and former World Series of Fighting kingpin Marlon Moraes. And considering Cruz’s two-year injury layoff and Assuncao’s recent win over Moraes, the 36-year-old Brazilian is confident that if merit plays any factor at all, he should be the next man to challenge Dillashaw and claim the rubber match he so covets.

“I don’t know any other reason I shouldn’t be the next guy, unless they go by Twitter followers,” Assuncao told MMA Fighting. “If they go by Twitter followers, then I probably won’t be that guy. And I can cry about it but that’s the truth, right? There’s nothing more I can do about it other than campaign and try to be a truthful guy. If they go by who has the most Twitter followers and Instagram followers, then I probably won’t be that guy. But if they go by the most deserving, the most consistent, and one of the best fighters in the division, I’ll be that guy. I’d definitely be that guy.

“I’ve never missed weight. I’m the most consistent guy in this division, probably up there with T.J., because T.J. is a pretty consistent champion,” Assuncao added. “I think he’s one of the most consistent guys out there. Other than myself and T.J., there’s no other fighter in there who’s as consistent as we are.”

Assuncao may not engage in the sort of theatrics or social media nastiness that has come to typify the fight game, but he has quietly been a world-class competitor at 135 pounds since his entry in the division in 2011. His résumé includes scalps from the division’s best — names like Dillashaw, Moraes, Aljamain Sterling, Pedro Munhoz, and Rob Font, to name a few. He’s also been as active as anyone, competing four times over the past 20 months. So when Assuncao hears UFC president Dana White explain his lack of opportunity to fight for gold by simply stating that Assuncao was “gone for a while, then he recently just came back,” he can’t help but wonder what else he’s supposed to do.

“I have no idea, man. I have no idea,” Assuncao said. “I’ve done everything that I have to do, I’ve done everything that I could do, and I don’t know what else to do. It’s a confusing time right now. It’s just a crazy time in the bantamweight division, I understand that, but let’s make this happen, man. I don’t know what else I’ve got to do. I really don’t.

“I’m starting to think of other options, like, get a good lawyer or something,” Assuncao added with a laugh. “I don’t know what to do. I really don’t.”

Of the three bantamweights seemingly in the running for the Dillashaw fight, Cruz has been the most vocal. A legend at 135 pounds, “The Dominator” owns a title win over Dillashaw from two years ago, however he has been sidelined with injuries since his Dec. 2016 loss to Garbrandt — the man who Dillashaw just beat twice. So while he doesn’t want to speak disrespectfully of Cruz, Assuncao is adamant that Cruz should not be the next man in line.

“Hell no, man. He doesn’t deserve a title shot,” Assuncao said. “He’s a respected athlete in the division, but heck no, he does not deserve to just get back out there. Me having been the consistent guy, doing my job, fighting, and even Marlon doing his job in second place, which is fighting, and then Dominick ... Dominick hasn’t fought. He’s not working. He’s doing FOX stuff. FOX doesn’t count here. If we’re talking fighting, FOX doesn’t count here. So, who’s fighting? Myself and Marlon after me. Marlon comes after me.

“I beat the guy.”

Although his style self-admittedly may not be a flashy one, Assuncao is certainly a crafty and effective performer inside the cage. And after studying Dillashaw intimately since his July 2016 loss to the American at UFC 200, Assuncao firmly believes he represents the division’s best chance to dethrone its current king.

“It would be a different fight, because I know the guy,” Assuncao said. “I know the guy’s style. I just know because I understand. And look, this is not me being cocky or anything. I understand the Muay Thai fundamentals that he’s got. I know what he brings to the table. No other guy knows in the division right now what he’s going to do. No other guys know. They’re all surprised when he’s switching stances and kind of faking, lateral fakes coming into a straight left. I know that game. I play that game in training every day.

“I know my weaknesses, I’ve got to keep working on my weaknesses, but what T.J. brings to the table, I know what he’s going to bring,” Assuncao continued.

“How many times did he kick me when we fought? Three or four times? It was like nothing. It was like, dude, this switch left kick here, don’t come with that. I know that. The straight left, the bouncing back right hook. He knocked out Cody with the same shot twice, that right hook, and that [showed] a pretty weak chin by Cody, first of all, but let’s not go there right now. But I know what he brings to the table, man. I know that game. I will adjust. I will adjust to any style and that’s what makes me unique.”

Assuncao added that he is healthy and ready to jump back into the fray whenever needed.

After being passed over for a title shot multiple times in the past, it goes without saying that he would be frustrated if it happened again, especially considering his history with the champion and having beating virtually everyone the UFC has put in front of him.

“I’m not the most intelligent guy out there, I don’t know how to break down my thoughts sometimes. Words are limited. I don’t know, maybe it’s the English a little bit,” Assuncao said. “But, I don’t know. This is a sport. … You’ve got television, you’ve got everything else around, the cameras, and you’ve got to be a character. I just think that the original [point] of martial arts should be kept. Let’s keep it simple as that. I think everything around it is okay, it can be forced, it can be funny, it can be crazy, it can be anything you want it to be, but the essence of martial arts should be kept. That’s all I have to say.”

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