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Fortunes changed for five at UFC on ESPN 6

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Thomas Lakes, MMA Fighting

Three years ago, if I told you that five middleweights of note in the UFC, Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos, were moving to light heavyweight, you’d probably be intrigued by the first three, and not care much about the other two.

If I then said two of them would get a title shot at Jon Jones, and one would take Jones to a split decision with both knees blown out, and two would get blown out in the new weight class, nobody would have ever been able to pick who ended up where.

Weidman, Rockhold and Souza had been dominant middleweight fighters for years, three of the best in that division in UFC history. Weidman and Rockhold held UFC titles, Rockhold and Souza held Strikeforce titles and Souza also held the DREAM title.

Smith and Santos were guys in the division who never were even in the title mix.

But such is the unpredictable nature of the sport. Weidman and Rockhold moved up, at 35 and 34 respectively, when they started in the new division. In both cases, the idea was to be groomed for what would have been major fights with Jones. Instead, Rockhold was knocked out so badly by Jan Blachowicz that he’s contemplating not fighting again. Weidman’s end result was the same, a first-round blowout loss to Dominick Reyes, although he made it clear he’s still fighting again.

Souza, who is 39, takes his first step in the new division when he faces Blachowicz in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Nov. 16.

Santos, who is the same age basically as Weidman and Rockhold, was 10-5 as a middleweight, but losing to people like Eric Spicely, Uriah Hall, Cezar Ferriera, David Branch and Gegard Mousasi. Of that group, only Mousasi would have been considered in the category of Weidman, Rockhold and Souza.

But he moved up, won four in a row, and took Jones to a split decision, being the only person to go to a decision with Jones and have a scorecard in his favor.

Smith was 4-2 as a middleweight, and moved up early last year when Santos knocked him out. But he also lost to Ferreria and had no wins over any legitimate contender. The one difference is he was 29 when making the move.

He blasted through name fighters Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at light heavyweight. But they were both past their primes. Aside from losing decisively to Jones, he’s continued to win, beating former title contender Volkan Oezdemir, and most recently finished longtime leading contender Alexander Gustafsson.

This epitomizes both the unpredictable nature of the sport, and how different people are when you change weights. All five appeared to have the necessary size to move up, but that far, there was a big difference in how they were able to handle being punched by larger men.

The jury is out on Souza, but age for him is clearly a main factor. For Weidman, the reality is he’s lost five of six, all by knockout. His only win, over Kelvin Gastelum, was in a fight he was nearly finished early before he was able to get the fight to the ground and win via submission. Prior to that he had never lost a fight, and more than held his own standing with some of the best strikers the sport has ever seen. That’s not a good pattern for a guy who, when he was younger, stood up to Anderson Silva’s firepower twice.

Weidman was the top star on Friday night’s Boston show going in, but coming out, it was a great showcase for Reyes as an immediate title contender for Jones, Maycee Barber as a rising star and Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens delivered in their grudge match stemming from Stephens’ eye injury from a poke last month in Mexico City.

Let’s look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of the show.

DOMINICK REYES - Reyes improved to 12-0 and in finishing Weidman via strikes on the ground in just 1:43, established himself as the legitimate next contender for Jones (25-1). If for some reason, something gets in the way, such as a movement to put Jones against Johnny Walker (17-3) if Walker looks impressive enough on Nov. 2 in Madison Square Garden with Corey Anderson (12-4), or Jones wants to fight against the heavyweight champion, Reyes could fight the winner of Jan Blachowicz (24-8) and Souza (26-7, 1 no contest). But the win was strong enough, and over a big enough name, that combined with his undefeated record, it feels like the obvious next contender.

CHRIS WEIDMAN - If Weidman (14-5) does want to fight. and he stays at light heavyweight, Ilir Latifi (14-7) would be a good test. Latifi is a powerhouse who isn’t a walkover in wrestling, would be the right opponent to see if Weidman can hang in the new division.

YAIR RODRIGUEZ - Rodriguez (13-2, 1 no contest) looked like a title contender for two rounds with Jeremy Stephens. But he took enough of a beating in round three that leaves a question as to what would happen if Friday had been a five-round fight.

That third round makes a title shot feel premature. He should instead face the winner of the Dec. 21 fight with Brian Ortega (14-1) vs. Chan Sung Jung (15-5) in South Korea.

JEREMY STEPHENS - Just by the nature of surviving round two when he appeared paralyzed by a body shot, and then coming back to have Rodriguez in trouble in the latter stages of the fight, Stephens (28-17) probably came out more popular in losing. A next opponent for him could be Ricado Lamas (19-8).

MAYCEE BARBER - Barber, at 21, was the other breakthrough star on the show. Barber (8-0) talked big before the fight, and delivered with an impressive standing onslaught leading to the stoppage. Barber pushed the idea of a fight with Paige VanZant (8-4). It’s clearly the right fight for her career. VanZant will put Barber in a bigger spotlight fight than anyone in the division other than champion Valentina Shevchenko. It’s a fight Barber would be heavily favored in, and would likely be heavily promoted.

It’s also not that likely to happen, even though, for the UFC, it’s the right fight to make Barber a star. Even though Joanne Calderwod (14-4) or Molly McCann (10-2) would be tougher competition, the fights wouldn’t be as talked about and the wins wouldn’t vault Barber to the top as fast. But they are more likely next opponents in a division where Shevchenko at this point looks like she’s at a different level than the rest of the contenders.