MMA: Hector Lombard

Woodley dismisses critics, wants title shot

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
video Tyron Woodley didn’t take off for any resort to celebrate his win at UFC 171.

The welterweight contender was at his American Top Team-affiliated gym in St. Louis on Monday morning working. Not working out, but working.

Following the biggest win of his career, a second-round TKO over Carlos Condit last weekend, Woodley (13-2) is not content to sit around and hope for a UFC title shot. He made full media rounds, voluntarily, on Monday to plead his case.
[+] EnlargeCondit/Woodley
Ed Mulholland for ESPNTyron Woodley, right, feels his fight with Carlos Condit was for a shot at the welterweight title.

He felt inclined to do so, partially because it seems as though many observers aren’t willing to give him full credit for the win. The fight ended when Condit suffered a knee injury, which appeared to initially occur during a Woodley takedown.

Woodley can’t comprehend why the victory is being tagged with an asterisk.

“I went out there and took the fight to him,” Woodley told “I beat him up.

“I went back and watched film and was like, ‘What are people talking about?’ He was coming back? Where? Show me where he had me in a bad position. Show me where he had me on the ropes or hurt. He was on his back, remember that?”

Woodley said he was guaranteed a title shot with a win over Condit. If need be, he is willing to sit and wait for it against newly crowned Johny Hendricks.

Asked how he would feel about an official No. 1 contender’s fight, Woodley responded, “That’s the fight I was just in.”

“I want the people to hear why I believe I’m next in line,” Woodley said. “I think once fans and media hear everybody’s story and lay them out across the table, mine should stick out more than the rest.”

Woodley on Robbie Lawler: There was no controversy. One of the judges scored it like an idiot, but everybody, including Robbie, thought it was 2-2 going into the final round. I think he eased up on the gas in the last 90 seconds. I’m bummed for the kid, but it was clear cut. No controversy. Maybe he wins one fight and he’s right back there.

On Hector Lombard: He had a great performance over Jake Shields. Granted, he beat Nate Marquardt, but I think Nate Marquardt was softened up for him by Tarec Saffiedine and Jake Ellenberger. I think he’s on his way out. He got a victory over Shields, but Shields is ranked No. 6. I think Carlos Condit was ranked No. 2. Based on merit and marketability, I’m ahead of Hector.

On Rory MacDonald: He lost to Robbie Lawler. He lost to Carlos Condit, who I just beat. He had the opportunity to fight for the world title against Georges St-Pierre and didn’t take it. I was prepared to fly out and meet with Robbie Lawler [had he won the title], have lunch with him and talk about it. I was prepared to fight not just my training partner, but my friend. I wanted to see him win the title. The willingness to honor my contract as a fighter in the fight business and be willing to fight a teammate under world title circumstances puts me in a better position than him.

On Nick Diaz: He’s never beat a wrestler. If he does get a title shot, I think Johny Hendricks will own him. He hasn’t won a fight since 2011. He had the opportunity to fight Carlos Condit, and thank God he didn’t because I got a chance to go in and do what he couldn’t do, which was beat Carlos Condit. He wants to sit back and watch the drama and then jump back in. This is not like a girl jumping double Dutch rope, step in when you feel like it. This is the fight business. You’re either in it or you’re not, and he’s been out of it.

Middleweight contenders and pretenders

May, 7, 2013
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto

The first time I saw Anderson Silva in action live was the week he fought Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 in August 2009.

I had seen him on tape previously, but it’s different in person. You see the fluidity of his motion firsthand and hear the crack of his punches -- and subconsciously cradle your own ribs as he throws knees from the Thai clinch.

I felt all of that while just watching him hit the heavy bag, by the way.

As far as the fight went, well, it was maybe the most tailor-made matchup I’ve ever seen for Silva’s skill set, but still. It was awesome.

That was nearly four years ago. Back then, there wasn't a great pool of talent to challenge Silva for the middleweight title, and he wasn’t interested in fighting for the 205-pound belt because his buddy Lyoto Machida was wearing it. The feeling was Silva would just hang on to that 185-pound strap, which he did.

What has changed? The main thing hasn’t. Sitting here, writing this today, I still say there is no middleweight in the UFC who beats Silva if the two fight tomorrow.

Looking ahead, though, Silva celebrated his 38th birthday last month. If UFC president Dana White was correct in comments made last month in New York, Silva has signed a new deal that keeps him around another 10 fights.

If Silva (33-4) enters the Octagon another 10 times, even if a superfight against Jon Jones never happens, that’s a lot of fights. Could a middleweight beat him?

With that, let’s get into our third installment of "Contenders and Pretenders." The question: Who will become the first middleweight other than Silva to hold the UFC title since Rich Franklin in 2006?

The Honorable Mentions: Alan Belcher, Tim Boetsch, Tim Kennedy, Hector Lombard, Mark Munoz, Yushin Okami, Costa Philippou

Lombard may be the honorable mention of the honorable mentions. If he could consistently fight the always confusing Rousimar Palhares, he might rattle off 18 knockouts in a row. A move to welterweight might help, but the problem is that he’s a bit of a one-trick pony -- along with most of the middles on this list.

Belcher is the pound-for-pound champ of “jumping into the camera with a crazy, happy look on your face for future promo reels.” He has perfected it. Skills-wise, he’s a bit one-dimensional like Lombard. We saw that in the Michael Bisping fight, with no adjustments round to round. It will forever be difficult to forget the frightened cat look Okami wore in the cage with Silva in 2011. Kennedy struggles when he can’t outgrapple his opponent. Boetsch is the definition of solid, but he lacks athleticism. Philippou would have lost to Boetsch if it weren’t for early injuries. Munoz, although 35, has the most upside of this group, but the clock is ticking.

The Reality Star: Uriah Hall

Take a second before blasting me for even mentioning Hall. Let’s make this argument in baby steps, because I feel I’m already close to losing you.

Even though Kelvin Gastelum upset Hall in the TUF Finale, we still walked away from this season thinking Hall has the most potential in terms of winning a title. With his potential, unlimited resources await him. He seems loyal to his East Coast team, but if he wants to travel and practice his craft, any gym or trainer will welcome him with open arms.

He’s got nothing but time. Let’s say he fights four times between now and December 2014. The UFC feeds him a couple stand-up fights and allows him to progress. Is it crazy to think Silva would still hold the belt by December 2014? No. That Hall would work into title contention in that same amount of time (19 months)? No. That Hall, turning 30, could actually stand with Silva, who would be pushing 40, by then? No.

The Old Lion and The Count: Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping

Let’s keep this simple. Discussions on these two could take up a lot of room, but the topic of the day is the middleweight title and who holds it next. I don’t see either of these guys, as talented as they are, as the answer. Maybe if Silva loses to a guy like Chris Weidman and then Belfort or Bisping get their shot, they could hold the belt. But if Silva is still there when these two arrive, it’s a nightmare matchup.

Belfort is a stationary, (at times) inactive target, and questions about his gas tank remain. Bisping probably can’t outwrestle Silva for five rounds and doesn’t have enough power to scare you on the feet.

Right Place, Right Time: Luke Rockhold

Rockhold really didn’t get any favors in his first UFC fight. Vitor Belfort? On TRT? In Brazil? The reigning Strikeforce champ has taken it in stride, and should he win, it really sets him up.

If Silva defeats Weidman in July, Rockhold looks like the No. 1 contender. He would either get Silva next or (maybe even better) take one more fight while Silva deals with the superfight business. Here’s the potential scenario: Rockhold, in his third UFC fight, gets Silva fresh off a megafight that’s been years in the making. If that were to happen, it would be a potential letdown spot for Silva and a great opportunity for Rockhold.

Right Place, Wrong Time: Chris Weidman

In many ways, Weidman feels like the UFC middleweight to finally beat Silva -- but the timing is off.

Weidman will be battling the effects of a year off when he fights Silva in July. Not the end of the world, but to a fighter still developing and heading into the biggest fight of his life, that layoff works against him.

He has earned the No. 1 contender tag, but he hasn’t had that one performance yet, the one where fans in the arena and at home are looking at each other saying, “Yeah, this is the guy.” Jon Jones didn’t have a long résumé when he fought for the title, but he had those performances. Weidman did what he had to in tough circumstances against Demian Maia. He caught Munoz with the elbow. He’s done enough to get here and get us thinking, but he hasn’t Jon Jones’d it along the way.

At 28, the chances of Weidman holding UFC gold during his career are very good. Does he do it now, against Silva? I don’t think he does, and it will take him some time to get back in that position.

The Teammate: Ronaldo Souza

It’s risky to put Souza atop this list, for many reasons. First off, he and Silva are teammates and may shoot down the idea of a fight between them. Second, and less concerning, he’s never fought in the UFC. Sometimes, martial artists find the going rather difficult in the Octagon, but I’m not worried too much about that with Souza. Last, he’s 33 -- not old, but if he refuses to fight Silva and waits for a vacated belt, time will work against him.

Souza is made of champion material. The fact he and Silva are teammates is truly awful, because their styles would make for a terrific fight. Souza’s stand-up is improving, and he’s dedicating himself heavily to wrestling. The athleticism and fearlessness is there to create a dynamic takedown artist, and we know how brilliant he is once his opponent is on the mat.

The final word on this is that even as Silva approaches 40 and the middleweight division adds depth, it’s difficult to find the next champion at 185 pounds. I don’t know if Silva will retire with the belt around his waist, especially if he signed a 10-fight deal, but I kind of feel the same way I did the first time I saw him live in Philadelphia. I can't point to any middleweight who is beating this guy.

Lombard considering drop to welterweight

April, 10, 2013
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
With a record of 1-2 inside UFC, middleweight Hector Lombard is considering a move to welterweight.

According to a report Tuesday night on Fuel TV, the former Bellator 185-pound titleholder might attempt a trial cut sometime after undergoing surgery on his broken nose.

Lombard, who is expected to have surgery within the next two weeks, injured his nose during a split decision loss to Yushin Okami in March.

It has been suggested that the UFC wants Lombard to move down to welterweight. Lombard, however, is unsure he can cut enough muscle to make the weight but seems willing to give it a shot.

Although Lombard has not officially said he will drop to 170 pounds, he has offered hints during the past few weeks.

“Trying to lean my muscles,” the 35-year-old said on Twitter last month. “Any tips besides running?”

On Monday he offered a stronger hint that a weight cut was in order: “Looking forward to working with [well-known nutritionist] Mike Dolce.”

The muscular striker generated a lot of excitement in April 2012 when he signed a multifight deal with UFC. And for good reason -- Lombard brought a 25-bout win streak into his new fighting home.

He has a professional record of 32-4-1 with one no-contest.
Michael Bisping claims Hector Lombard has been shown up to be very "average" in the UFC, although the Brit insists he would never call for any fighter to be cut from the organization. More »

Weidman getting title shot is the right call

March, 7, 2013
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall

On July 11, 2012, Chris Weidman defeated top middleweight contender Mark Munoz without so much as absorbing a single significant strike in six and a half minutes of fight time. It was a headlining spot, and he made the most of it. The “Strong Island” native slipped a punch and landed a ridiculous elbow in the second round, and won via TKO seconds later.

And that’s how you make a statement.

That same night, with a perfect 5-0 record in the UFC (9-0 overall), he called out the champion, Anderson Silva, who four days earlier defeated Chael Sonnen with a TKO of his own.

“I want Anderson Silva,” Weidman said, in the most polite callout in the history of callouts. “Every time I’ve had a full training camp, I’ve gotten a finish. Give me a full training camp, and I’d love a shot at the man, Anderson Silva. I really think I could do pretty good. So give me a shot, please.”

Just 239 days later, Silva-Weidman has finally been made. Weidman will get a full training camp, and so will Silva. The clash of styles and experience is on. And after all that time, and through all that haze and speculation, the question becomes: What took so long to make this fight?

It’s complicated. Depending on whom you listen to, it was either because Weidman was too green, too threatening, too unknown, too audacious, or too ... eh. It was because of Weidman’s shoulder injury, and that little Stephan Bonnar thing that Silva handled in October. It was Silva’s contract being up. It was because Silva wanted Georges St-Pierre (unrequited), and then wanted Cung Le (fun fantasy), and then wanted Luke Rockhold (posturing?).

Officially, Silva’s camp said Weidman was too low profile. They wanted big fights, with big-name opponents and equal-sized pay-per-view dollars. Unofficially, Weidman’s camp thought that excuse looked like timidity. Weidman, with his All-American wrestling pedigree from his days at Hofstra University, looked like a nightmare matchup for Silva. In seven rounds of Sonnen-Silva, Sonnen won five by wrestling before making critical errors.

Weidman, at 28 years old, is a fluid submission grappler with better stand-up skills than Sonnen. He’s not likely to try a spinning backfist against Silva. There’s been a lot of optimism at the Ray Longo-Matt Serra Fight Team that a title could soon return to Long Island, if the fight would only be made.

Two-thirds of a year later, the UFC made the right call by booking it. In that time, Weidman’s intrigue has become a lot of fans' intrigue. And given his skill set, he does present interesting challenges to Silva. He beat Munoz, who at the time was a top contender. He beat Demian Maia before that, who’d had a title shot in 2010. Those are fine credentials.

But really, it's all about simple deduction -- there’s nobody else at 185 pounds who deserves it more.

Le was a Silva pipe dream. Hector Lombard hasn’t panned out. Tim Boetsch got done in by Costas Philippou (Weidman's teammate who replaced him on the UFC 155 card after a shoulder injury forced Weidman out of the event). It’s too soon for a Silva-Vitor Belfort rematch. Rockhold was willing, but his merit (and star power) didn’t trump Weidman's. Yushin Okami? No way -- not again. Michael Bisping, who was supposed to get the shot, lost in the penultimate spot against Belfort. St-Pierre didn’t want to mess around with his weight, among other concerns. Jon Jones is booked with Sonnen in April, and he has his own contenders at 205 pounds to deal with after that.

That leaves Weidman, who realistically felt like the guy all along. If a superfight wasn’t going to materialize for Silva, the UFC needed to take the next legitimate contender within the weight class. That was, and remains, Chris Weidman.

He’s healthy, and he’s ready. Silva needs an opponent. Boom. The pecking order wins out. Rev up the hype machine.

It might have taken a long time for everyone to get on the same page, but the bottom line is everybody finally did. Come July 6 in Las Vegas, almost a year to the day since Silva’s record 10th title defense at UFC 148, it’s on.

The whole thing feels so old-fashioned. Weidman gets his wish. And it’s for all of us to see what he’s able to do with it.

10 Count: Hyped debuts that didn't deliver

February, 21, 2013
Rossen By Jake Rossen
An unprecedented level of media coverage has surrounded the UFC debuts of female fighters Rhonda Rousey and Liz Carmouche at this weekend's UFC 157. While Carmouche has enjoyed press for making history as the promotion's first openly gay athlete, it's Olympic Judo player Rousey that remains the show's main attraction.

Dimpled, quick-witted and savage, Rousey is expected to emerge as one of the sport's top drawing cards. Having barely broken a sweat in her MMA career, winning seems to be a foregone conclusion.

But magazine covers are no guarantee of success, and not all heavily hyped debuts have gone the way promoters had hoped. Here's a look at fighters who failed to meet expectations their first time out of the gate:

10. Brock Lesnar (vs. Frank Mir, UFC 81, 2008)

A Renaissance man of violent contact sports, amateur wrestler Lesnar acquired his celebrity through a stint as a World Wrestling Entertainment attraction. When he tired of that industry's grueling road schedule, he decided to try out for the Minnesota Vikings despite never having played a day of college ball. When he failed to make the team, his focus turned to MMA -- realizing his dream, he once told an ESPN reporter, to "pick a fight on every street. If I wouldn't lose money, I'd fight ... every day."

Lesnar's UFC debut wasn't his first sanctioned bout: months earlier, it took him a minute to pummel an overmatched Min-Soo Kim in a little-seen pay-per-view event. But coming into the industry's leading promotion meant an unprecedented level of attention: Much was made of Lesnar's "lunchbox-sized hands" and a frightening level of agility for being a 280-pound slab of lean mass. It was a promotional tactic used by Japanese matchmakers for years to see if the pro wrestler had any real fight in him.

For a good portion of the 90 seconds he spent against Mir, the answer was yes. Lesnar quickly took Mir down and pounded him through the mat. But referee Steve Mazzagatti's restart -- Lesnar was docked a point for hitting behind the head -- seemed to slow his momentum, and his lack of submission knowledge cost him when Mir locked in a kneebar, forcing Lesnar to tap and exposing his limited training.

It was a painful education, and one Lesnar took to heart considering he practically disfigured Mir in their 2009 rematch.

9. Karam Ibrahim (vs. Kazuyuki Fujita, K-1 Dynamite, 2004)

While MMA has hosted a number of Olympic-level athletes and medal winners, the majority have been either alternates, bronze/silver competitors, or years removed from their prime. The Egyptian-born Ibrahim, however, holds the distinction of being the only mixed martial artist to have a prizefight the very same year he won his gold medal.

A Greco-Roman style wrestler, he was enticed by the promise of a sizable payday from Japan's K-1 promotion. Ibrahim's credentials were impeccable, and their choice of opponent was seemingly a gift as Fujita, an experienced fighter who nonetheless had Greco skills (as a national champion in Japan), paled in comparison to Ibrahim.

Call it an adrenaline dump, pure instinct, or just a temporary leave of his senses, but Ibrahim entered the ring completely forgetting his superior wrestling ability and decided to slug it out with Fujita -- a man dubbed "Ironhead" by the press for his near-inability to be knocked out. Predictably, Fujita brushed off Ibrahim's rudimentary strikes and needed barely a minute to send him crashing to the canvas.

Despite being in his athletic prime and world-class in the same base of wrestling that brought Randy Couture great success, Ibrahim never again competed in MMA. He remains one of the sport's greatest "what if" stories.

8. Renato "Babalu" Sobral (vs. Mikhail Zayats, Bellator 85, 2013)

A 16-year veteran, Sobral has fought all over the world and for virtually every major promotion, cultivating a name that made him one of Bellator's highest-profile acquisitions.

"Sobral is an awesome addition to the Bellator family," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said at the time. "He's beaten some of the greatest fighters in the sport, and poses a tremendous threat to every fighter in our light heavyweight division."

While that may hold true, he posed little threat to Zayats, another debuting fighter for Bellator who held zero major wins over seasoned competitors. With seconds to go in the first round, Zayats uncorked a spinning back fist sending a dazed Sobral to the canvas where he was finished with strikes. Bellator's long game of having Sobral meet fellow 205-pound attraction Muhammed Lawal down the line was also TKO'd.

7. Satoshi Ishii (vs. Hidehiko Yoshida, Dream, 2009)

As Rousey and predecessors like Karo Parisyan have proved, Judo can be an extremely effective base for MMA since few athletes train enough of it to become proficient, and even fewer are prepared for some of the more unorthodox throws and trips that a seasoned Judoka can pull off.

Ishii won a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Games and almost immediately declared his intentions to pursue a fight career. His credentials were impressive enough for the UFC to take the rare step of entering into discussions -- despite Ishii being a neophyte in the fight game -- before he had even a single bout to his credit.

Owing either to failed negotiations or the realization of the caliber of opponent he’d be tasked with, Ishii instead opted to make history by participating in the sport’s first gold medalist-versus-gold medalist bout against Hidehiko Yoshida in Japan. While Ishii was fresh off his win in the Games, Yoshida was nearly 20 years removed from his Olympic appearance and had lost four of his previous five bouts. It was intended to be a passing of the torch, and the likely emergence of a new star in the fading Japanese fight scene.

Unfortunately for Ishii, Yoshida wasn’t discouraged by statistics: he dominated Ishii standing en route to a unanimous decision win, smothering Ishii’s hype and prompting him to make the unprecedented move of accepting two amateur fights after he had already competed as a professional.

6. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic (vs. Eddie Sanchez, UFC 67, 2007)

You'd have to go back to Mike Tyson to find a striker that prompted more tremors in opponents than Filipovic, a K-1-groomed kickboxer who made a grand entrance to mixed-style fighting in 2001, splitting open Kazuyuki Fujita's skull practically down to the bone. Where most strikers could often be nullified by wrestlers, Filipovic -- who had no amateur grappling background -- was able to defend tackles and expose the rudimentary stand-up of his opponents. "Cro Cop" was simply vicious, and his high kick carried the very real threat of serious injury.

Coming into the UFC after a long run in PRIDE, Filipovic had just enjoyed arguably his best success ever: winning that show's loaded Absolute tournament, pummeling names like Wanderlei Silva and Josh Barnett to claim the championship. Only months later, he was in the United States and facing the uncelebrated Sanchez, a grappler with little name recognition. Coming off a who's who of opponents in Japan, Sanchez seemed like a step backward.

Unlike most on this list, Filipovic did win his debut. But in doing so, he revealed a slower, more apprehensive fighter than he'd displayed during his run in Japan. In the end, there was no spectacular highlight-reel knockout that the announcers had practically guaranteed -- Filipovic knocked Sanchez down and threw some strikes to finish the job. After watching him fold men in half and rip away their self-awareness with a sniper's professionalism, this version of Cro Cop couldn't have been more unexpected. Or disappointing.

5. Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto (vs. Demetrious Johnson, UFC 126, 2011)

Before the UFC began to heavily publicize the lighter weight divisions, there was one name that made the trip across the Pacific: "Kid" Yamamoto, a dynamic 140-pound fighter with an amateur wrestling background who could easily be mistaken for a striker. Fighting kickboxing star Masato Shiozawa, he managed to knock the bigger, far more experienced striker down -- a losing effort that nonetheless opened up eyes to Kid's potential as an all-around threat.

For years, Yamamoto was considered the fantasy matchup for Urijah Faber, the WEC's featherweight champion. Kid's 2009 loss to Joe Warren in Japan dulled the shine of that bout, but the UFC still pursued Yamamoto when he was contractually available. Making his debut at 135 pounds, Yamamoto was expected to outhustle Johnson. But Johnson -- now the UFC's flyweight champion -- beat Kid at his own game, being evasive and landing swarming strikes. For someone who had been discussed as a UFC hopeful for nearly a decade, Kid's debut was too little, too late.

4. Shinya Aoki (vs. Gilbert Melendez, Strikeforce, 2010)

The sport's one-time tendency of elevating the reputations of Japanese fighters often came from their lack of challenging competition -- it's easy to look fearsome when your opponents are overmatched.

To Aoki's credit, his employers weren't shy about throwing him to the wolves. During a tremendous run in the DREAM promotion, he faced Joachim Hansen, Caol Uno, Eddie Alvarez, and Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante -- beating them all and displaying a world-class grappling game that defies description.

That history led to high expectations when Aoki made his U.S. debut in Strikeforce, facing the lightweight champion Melendez. But whatever magic Aoki could conjure in his country didn't seem to make the trip over. He put Melendez in no danger whatsoever, and instead faced 25 minutes of excruciating offense in a ridiculously one-sided fight.

If there is such a thing as a hometown advantage in MMA, Aoki certainly benefits from it: he won his next six fights in Japan.

3. Hector Lombard (vs. Tim Boetsch, UFC 149, 2012)

From his April 2009 debut to spring 2012 exit, Lombard delivered 13 wins under the Bellator umbrella with no losses. (He would take three of those fights in other promotions, with the organization's blessing.) Despite the fact that the competition was underwhelming, Lombard's record and marble-carved physique led to a lucrative UFC deal and the hint of a showdown with Anderson Silva. Boetsch, despite going on an impressive win streak at middleweight, was supposed to be a warm-up.

Owing to injury, nerves, or just getting the losing end, Lombard was unable to make any kind of statement against Boetsch, who landed more significant strikes to earn a split-decision victory. An anomaly? Possibly. Lombard went on to destroy Rousimar Palhares last December. But you only get one chance to make a first impression.

2. Bas Rutten (vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, UFC 18, 1999)

Rutten was a star of Pancrase, a Japanese fight league that didn't adopt striking with a closed fist until late into its existence. During his tenure, he was a tenacious fighter even with palm strikes. In signing with the UFC, the idea that he could now exchange proper punches seemed like a good reason to keep a plastic surgeon on standby. UFC didn't ignore that potential: the poster for the event discreetly billed him as "The World's Greatest Martial Artist."

Against Kohsaka, a durable grappler who cut his teeth in RINGS, Rutten didn't quite look the part. He was often shut down by Kohsaka's aggression and takedowns, and it wasn't until an overtime round that he finally turned on an offensive flurry that seemed to warrant his advertising copy. (Rutten would compete only once more in the UFC, beating Kevin Randleman in a controversial decision for the heavyweight title.)

1. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (vs. Forrest Griffin, UFC 76, 2007)

Rua's run in PRIDE was nothing short of Hall of Fame material. At 12-1 -- his only loss the result of a poor break fall that left him with a broken arm -- Rua tore through Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona to be crowned the 2005 Grand Prix Champion. At the time of PRIDE's demise and Jackson's KO of Chuck Liddell, Rua was considered by many to be the top light heavyweight in the world.

Griffin, meanwhile, had been alternating wins and losses after winning the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter," and was largely derided as a "reality TV star" who had little business against elite competition. At the time of the bout's announcement, Rua's fans seemed annoyed he wouldn't be getting to work up more of a sweat. A title bout with Jackson seemed inevitable.

But the Rua that dominated the PRIDE ring post to post was nowhere to be found against Griffin, who endured some early aggression before getting Rua's back and sinking in a rear-naked choke. Was Griffin underestimated, or did Rua fail to shift into second gear? Either way, no one has ever entered the Octagon with more hype -- or left with so little of their reputation left intact.

Solutions for the 'muddleweight' division

January, 21, 2013
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
SilvaJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesSix months since defending his middleweight title, Anderson Silva is still waiting for a challenger to emerge.
Anderson Silva has surveyed two potential foes up close, only to have things go haywire.

First he traveled to Montreal for UFC 154 as a prelude to a “superfight” against Georges St-Pierre. Then, two months later, he hit Sao Paulo, Brazil, to check out the latest hubbub, Michael Bisping.

St-Pierre won, but wasn’t interested in a bout with Silva. Bisping lost spectacularly, and now we’re right back to where we were long before Silva’s thrown-together gimmick bout with Stephan Bonnar: Who’s next for Anderson Silva?

These are always murky waters.

Silva, whether he admits it or not, wants a rare blend of marketability, worthiness, nonrepetitiveness and beatability in his opponents. He will settle, of course, but Silva’s camp is not afraid to air its druthers. And now that the St-Pierre reverie has past, and Bisping -- our modern-day Sisyphus -- has tumbled back down the hill, who’s out there?

Vitor Belfort beat Bisping on Saturday night, and had a long-shot case. Yet (somewhat inexplicably) he chose to call out light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, in hopes of a rematch of their UFC 152 bout. Dana White reiterated that Belfort would not get the crack at Jones, anyway, given the dramatic finish of their first fight at UFC 126. So no Belfort.

Alan Belcher lost to Yushin Okami very unspectacularly, so he’s out -- and so is Okami, who had his shot at UFC 134 and doesn’t do himself any favors with his grinding, unspectacular style. Feel free to exhale, because it won’t be Okami.

Hector Lombard, whom Bisping referred to as a “little poison dwarf” not so long ago, slipped against Tim Boetsch in his UFC debut, even if he redeemed himself a little against Rousimar Palhares a few months later. He’s an option, but he’s motivated in strange ways. Besides, he's fighting Okami next, and here's guessing he wouldn't mind Bisping after that.
[+] EnlargeAnderson Silva
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comFight fans aren't exactly clamoring for a rematch between Anderson Silva and Yushin Okami.
Mark Munoz slipped against Chris Weidman (badly), and Weidman lacks billboard appeal and experience (according to Silva, and Silva’s opinion has echoed down the media chambers). Tim Boetsch lost to Costas Philippou, and Philippou is too green, too new and too unproven.

There are out-of-division intrigues. Dan Henderson would do it, but Silva hates repeat customers, and besides, Hendo’s got a date with Lyoto Machida at UFC 157. Rashad Evans is a possibility, but he has business first with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. If Rory MacDonald wasn’t already locked up with a fight against Carlos Condit, maybe he’d use this opportunity to move up a weight class. But that fight is made, and don’t even try to talk to MacDonald about foregoing his chance to avenge that Condit loss.

Ronaldo Souza is interesting, but he’s not the reigning Strikeforce champion. That leaves Luke Rockhold, who was just a few days ago calling out a cusp top-10 fighter in Philippou. He is the reigning Strikeforce champion, but since dethroning “Jacare” he’s fought Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy. Should he be asked to fight Silva in his UFC debut, it would feel like he was being jumped into a gang.

The most logical name is Jones. Jones fights Chael Sonnen in April and, realistically, isn’t expected to encounter much turbulence there. Silva could wait it out. But that would be a long time between bouts.

So what is the UFC to do? It would be nice if things were simple, but they’re not. It’s either pick between Lombard, Rockhold or Weidman, or dredge up another Bonnar-type as a potboiler.

Or, the UFC could think bigger. Have Silva travel one more time to check out a potential foe. This time to New Jersey. Put him cageside for Sonnen/Jones, as a looming presence for Jones should he win. With no true No. 1 contender within the division for matchmaker Joe Silva, set the table for the fight people are most curious about.

Convincing Silva might be difficult, but if there’s going to be a superfight, then make a superfight already. The timing isn’t perfect, but given how complex superfights are to put together, it might be as good as it gets.

Lombard hoping to live up to his own hype

December, 13, 2012
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
Hector LombardRic Fogel for ESPN.comMiddleweight Hector Lombard, right, is preparing Friday to "show UFC fans what I'm all about."
This time around, former Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard promises there will be no excuses.

After losing a split decision to Tim Boetsch in his UFC debut on July 21, Lombard said that he had suffered a fractured sternum while preparing for the bout.

No one knows for sure how much the injury hindered Lombard's performance that night, but he did not exhibit the explosive punching power or aggression that helped him put together a 25-fight win streak.

But when Lombard (31-3-1, 1 NC) makes his second appearance inside the Octagon, this time against Rousimar Palhares, he won't have any physical ailments and plans to give UFC fans something to remember.

Lombard and Palhares meet Friday night (FX, 9 p.m. ET) in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.

"I'm going to be good for this fight -- fully healthy," Lombard told "I'm going to win this fight by knockout. There will be no excuses.

"I want to be the best and I have to start with this fight. I have to get my win streak back."

Lombard also stressed the importance of impressing his UFC bosses. His fight with Boetsch is one everybody would like to forget.

The bout lacked excitement as neither fighter showed a willingness take chances on offense. And with Lombard entering the UFC to tons of hype, he believes it's time to prove to UFC decision-makers that signing him to a multi-fight contract was a solid investment.

Lombard does not want to risk being released by the promotion.

"This fight is important because I want to keep my job and UFC is the place I want to be for a long time," Lombard said. "I don't want to go anywhere else."

As for his opponent, Lombard is aware of Palhares' submission skills but he isn't showing any sign of worry.

"I have to keep my eye on his ground game," Lombard said. "Besides that there isn't any other part of his game that I have to be concerned about. I will be in the cage with a guy not many people want to fight. This is an opportunity to show UFC fans what I'm all about."

Lombard's confidence is likely bolstered by Palhares' recent showing inside the Octagon.

Despite holding a record of 14-4, Palhares was knocked out in the first round in each of his last two defeats, including his most recent fight against Alan Belcher in May.

Seventeen of Lombard's wins have come via knockout.

Stann not buying Bisping's stand-up pitch

September, 18, 2012
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
After listening to middleweight contender Michael Bisping repeatedly express his intention of standing toe-to-toe with Brian Stann in Toronto, just about everyone is convinced he will stay true to his word.

“I have the advantage,” Bisping told “He has some punching power, but that’s it. I’m a way better boxer and a way better kickboxer. I’m faster, have better head movement and better foot movement.

“I recognize that he’s knocked some people out, but I have a good chin. I’ve been stopped just once in my career by Dan Henderson, and there’s no shame in that.”

With Bisping putting it so strongly, can anyone expect him not to fight Stann on the feet Saturday night at UFC 152? One man isn’t ready to fully take Bisping at his word. And that man would be Stann.

The former WEC light heavyweight champion respects Bisping’s striking skills and self-confidence, but he gives more credence to his opponent’s intelligence.

“I welcome him standing with me and trading shots,” Stann told “That’s an area where it’s always been one of my best opportunities to win fights.

“But I don’t think that’s exactly what he is going to do. He'll use his footwork. He’s not a pocket-puncher-type of guy. He’s a stick-and-move-type of guy.”

Trading strikes with Stann inside the cage has been proven to be a disastrous strategy. Stann, who is powerful and displays exceptional stand-up technique, also has a very sturdy chin, which he often invites opponents to test.
[+] EnlargeStann
Martin McNeil for ESPN.comAlessio Sakara, left, learned firsthand the dangers of trading with Brian Stann.

The invitation is difficult to resist, and fighters who have given in to that temptation have paid a hefty price. Nine of Stann’s 12 wins have come by knockout.

Stann’s devastating punching power was on display in his most recent bout, when he needed slightly less than 2˝ minutes to knock out Alessio Sakara in April.

Yet Bisping remains eager to take the bait.

“I stand with every one of my opponents, so why should Brian Stann be any different?” Bisping said. “He’s the one coming into the lion’s den with me. We’ll see what happens.”

In a few more days everyone will learn whether Bisping is playing coy. But on further thought, it might not be Bisping who is taking everyone for a ride. The more Stann responds to Bisping’s stand-up comments, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern if he isn’t the one pulling our legs.

After spending a good amount of time saying he welcomes a stand-up war, Stann tossed in this enticing tidbit: “I’m not expecting Michael to go out there and get into a kickboxing match with me. Mike’s going to try to mix it up, and that’s fine with me, too.

“I’m very excited to surprise him in the other realms of mixed martial arts. I feel he’s underestimating me in my other skills and that’s fine; I’m not going to tell him how good I am, I’m going to show him.”

I stand with every one of my opponents, so why should Brian Stann be any different? He's the one coming into the lion's den with me. We'll see what happens.

-- Michael Bisping, on striking with the heavy-handed Brian Stann

Despite his relatively busy fight schedule, Stann has spent additional time in the gym improving on all non-standing aspects of his game. He has fought four times since 2011, and none of those bouts have gone more than two rounds.

Aside from an injury to his right shoulder that knocked him out of a fight against former Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard in July, Stann has avoided the injury bug.

Staying healthy, active and getting out of the cage quickly has put Stann in a comfortable rhythm heading into Saturday night. It’s an advantage he expects to to come in handy against Bisping.

“That’s pretty common for me,” Stann said. “I have a lot of one-round performances. The layoff’s bigger for Mike. He’s been really spread out.

“He had a long layoff before he fought [Jason] ‘Mayhem’ Miller. And he had a decent layoff until he fought Chael Sonnen, and now he’s coming off another big layoff.

“For me it’s not about how long your fight is, it’s about going through the whole training camp, going through the actual fight and the events the week of the fight. That’s what keeps you in a rhythm. It’s not about how long the fight actually lasts in the Octagon. I’m in that rhythm. I’ve been fighting frequently -- three times a year. I don’t feel any rust; I'll be ready to go.”

That said, Bisping remains unmoved. More than proving that he is the better stand-up fighter, it is the stench of a disputed unanimous decision loss to Sonnen on Jan. 28 that fuels Bisping. The setback cost him a 185-pound title shot, and Bisping is determined not to be denied again.

“I want to put this guy away; I want to make an example of him,” Bisping said. “I have nothing against Brian Stann, but I want to send the message out that I’m the No. 1 middleweight contender. I’m going to put a beating on this guy. I’m not leaving it to the judges and get robbed again.

“I’m very confident I can put this guy away within three rounds. I’m predicting a second-round knockout or TKO. And I’m going for it 100 percent.”

The fights, the 'it' factor and the lost stakes

August, 6, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
UFC on Fox 4 in Los Angeles proved that interest can be drummed up in retreads, but it was our collective imagination that became the real hero of the night. Let’s face it, we were all squinting to see the title picture the way it was being drawn up by Dana White. This whole “he who does best gets the title shot” thing felt something like dramatic abandon.

When a figure finally emerged from the four-man 205-pound showcase it was Lyoto Machida, in a reduced 201-pound frame, dishing enigma on Ryan Bader. That was a good knockout.

Better yet, the whole main card scored the same. Every fight delivered. A good night of fights like that makes things, if not totally justifiable, at least somewhat rose-tinted. And that beats disaster, if you know what I mean, which is where things left off after the UFC 149 pay-per-view bust.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. In Calgary, stakes were being tinkered with, too. Hector Lombard was vying for a possible title shot with Anderson Silva. The interim bantamweight title was up for grabs in the main event between Urijah Faber and Renan Barao. Things “mattered.”

But for all the dangling carrots, something went missing -- and that was enjoyability. Guys didn’t “bring it” -- and everyone should know the center of the fight world is all about the “it” -- which had people asking for refunds and complaining about the watered-down product.

Not on Saturday night. As DeMarques Johnson’s premonition of a 100 percent chance of a knockout came through via the sudden hands of Mike Swick, this thing was off to a roaring start. Joe Lauzon, who is incapable of a boring fight, withstood heavy shots by Jamie Varner and, when the opportunity presented itself, came on like an incubus to finish him in the third. It’s what Lauzon, who has made nearly a half a million dollars in bonus money in his career, does better than anybody. The UFC on Fox Twitter feed called it possibly the “best fight we’ve ever had.”

These were undercard table-setters like we haven’t seen on the Fox shows.

And the co-main event raised the bar for the finale. Machida forced Bader’s aggression then punished it, downing him with a counter right. It was vintage “Dragon.” Machida was once again the abstractionist, doing things with body geometry.

Yet the main event was a crescendo. Here was Vera resurfacing, making it a war, looking like old Vera, the one we thought we lost. Here was Rua proving that his Dan Henderson and Mark Coleman fights were no flukes, that he can make any fight -- good or bad -- a battle of epic attrition. Rua just about did away with Vera twice in the second round with sallies, but Vera both times responded with big elbows and defiance.

Suddenly it was a storyline of Vera’s heart in the poetic sense, not the cardiovascular one. And fights are always more fun when they get like that. When fights transfer “will,” the meaning of the transaction comes back into play.

Better still, when fights go down like they did on Saturday night, the question of what’s on the line can be answered like this: "Who cares?" The moment transcends the stakes. The “it” factor is all that matters. Guys on Saturday night brought “it.”

This was the first Fox card that really delivered far more than it promised. From top to bottom on the main card, every fight delivered the goods. For whatever hung in the balance of the outcomes, it didn’t matter to real time. And you know what? That’s the kind of drama that you want on live television, especially in a sport still trying to communicate with the casual viewer.

PPVs won't always deliver bang for buck

July, 23, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Where did UFC 149 go wrong? What was the single, biggest offender?

Oh, where to start. What went on in Calgary was one of those perfect storms.

There was the eccentric that didn’t go eccentric (Brian Ebersole). There was hype that fizzled before our eyes (Hector Lombard). There was a passive observer masquerading as the third man in the cage (Yves Lavigne). There were heavy hands that were never deployed (Shawn Jordan/Cheick Kongo). There were gavels that ruled all wrong (Nick Ring over Court McGee). There was a clear body kick that was mistaken for a groin shot (Josh Rosenthal imagining things with Matt Riddle/Chris Clements).

And there was a perfectly decent main event that suffered the residual wrath.

Urijah Faber and Renan Barao needed to turn the main event into Dan Henderson versus Mauricio Rua to balance this ledger. As it were, it played out like Urijah Faber versus Renan Barao. The bout was doomed by its predecessors.

But the real problem, of course, was this: UFC 149 was a stretch to believe in to begin with, and it required some faith. Or that should say -- UFC 149 became a stretch to believe in by its fifth and sixth iteration.

The injury bug sapped this thing good and plenty before it got off the ground. Jose Aldo, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Michael Bisping, on down the line. Bibiano Fernandes wasn’t so much hurt as he was never signed.

Aside from the prelims, the people that the UFC were able to book simply didn’t (or couldn’t) deliver the goods. Shawn Jordan, the former LSU fullback who had a nice glow to his name coming in, was in a battle of leaning pillars with Cheick Kongo. He’s still green and didn’t know what to do in the big spot. Lombard was tentative. Ebersole was intending to move to lightweight when he got the call on a few weeks’ notice to step in. He did. And he looked like a man who wished he didn’t.

Of all the patchwork matches, only Riddle from the main card came correct. His arm-triangle on Chris Clements was cleanly executed viciousness that set a false premise for things to come. The thing that followed was disappointment. Disappointment that Lombard didn’t live up to billing. Disappointment that Kongo played clinch. Disappointment that the UFC played fast and loose with people’s disposable income.
[+] EnlargeCheick Kongo
Ric Fogel for ESPN.comHug of war: Cheick Kongo, left, and Shawn Jordan spent more time holding and posing than they did actually fighting.

Even the postfight news conference, where Dana White promised to update us on the bearings of the 185-pound weight class didn’t deliver. As for Lombard, who hadn’t lost since that Gegard Mousasi upkick back in 2006? Nowhere to be found. He wouldn’t be made available to scowl at trouble-making media types.

This happens sometimes. Not all cards deliver on the pay portion of the programming. White said it reminded him of UFC 33. Cynics might point to UFC 147. Only difference is, that card was so suspect that most people stayed away from shelling out the $50 to watch it. This time, there was an undercurrent of hope that UFC 149 -- for as cobbled and rearranged as it appeared on paper -- could turn into one of those rare gems. You know, one of those cards where White laughs at the people who criticized it beforehand while holding court with the media afterward.

White himself was certain that this card was going to deliver, appearing in Alberta on Thursday as a man who could barely contain his glee. But it couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t, which takes turns being nobody’s fault with being everybody’s fault. When a stinker happens, the people who bought the pay-per-view take it personally, and the crowd on-hand chants “RE-FUND” throughout the main event. The faith of a good product in spite of all the rejiggering came out to $50 and change (more if you ordered in HD). It wasn’t what the UFC wanted, nor what the fans wanted.

Everybody is complaining about the same thing from different perspectives.

But we order these fights knowing there’s a chance things won’t pan out. Look at the response to Clay Guida versus Gray Maynard on a free card. Had that fight been the main event on the UFC 149 PPV, Calgary might have turned into Vancouver after the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

It’s tricky stuff, this PPV business. The public demands its money’s worth. The UFC demands more of its fighters. The commissions demand competence of its referees and judges (or at least should). Everybody demands entertainment. It’s a demanding public, and it’s a demanding sport, and the UFC is a demanding business.

Yet as we learned on Saturday, demands can be what they want, but there are no guarantees.

Lombard debut a major disappointment

July, 22, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
CALGARY, Canada -- UFC president Dana White summed up Hector Lombard's first night in the Octagon pretty well.

"It's the most unfortunate thing about hype," White said. "When you have a lot of hype behind you and you don't back it up, it goes away real quick."

Following two slow, awkward fights on the UFC 149 main card, the feeling at Scotiabank Saddledome headed into the co-main event Saturday was an unmistakable “at least the next one can’t disappoint.”

Unfortunately, Lombard’s debut ended up doing exactly that. It wasn’t just the fact he lost a split decision to Tim Boetsch; it was the way it happened.

It was uninspiring enough to prompt UFC commentator Joe Rogan to walk over to White and convey that it wasn’t what he had expected. Adding to the weird feel of the fight, the UFC didn’t even interview Boetsch after the win. White later said it was due to time constraints.

For a fighter who approaches interviews and the game itself with so much fire -- a guy who has the reputation of alienating sparring partners for going too hard -- Lombard’s performance Saturday lacked passion.

“As the card was going on, I thought, 'Thank God Boetsch and Lombard are coming out right now, because this is going to save the show,’” White said.

“It wasn’t the fight I expected at all. I don’t know if I was sickened by it. It just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.”

To be fair, Lombard’s deal with the UFC came equipped with heavy expectations. The addition of a middleweight who hadn’t lost a fight since 2006 was big news in the mixed martial arts world.

Which is why it was demoralizing to see it develop as it did. The sellout Canadian crowd tried to rally more action out of Lombard during the second round with an encouraging cheer. Boos began prior to the final round and didn't cease until the round was complete.
[+] EnlargeTim Boetsch
Ric Fogel for ESPN.comFailure to launch: Hector Lombard, left, fell flat in his Octagon debut.

What happened in the fight was an unfortunate pattern of Boetsch wisely moving in and out of the 5-foot-9 Lombard’s range and Lombard absolutely refusing to alter his game plan -- which appeared to be based on landing counter right hands.

The frustrating part was Lombard had success when he did decide to move forward. His speed advantage showed when he let his hands go, and he caught a big break in the second round when Boetsch broke two bones in his right foot while throwing a kick.

The trademark Lombard flurry everyone anticipated seeing in the Octagon never happened, though. Even Boetsch, who said he was happy with the way he executed his game plan, admitted he wasn’t sure why Lombard never pressed.

“I knew he had potential for a real explosive flurry,” Boetsch said. “I don’t know if conditioning was a factor. I felt the altitude; the air was thin. Maybe that played a part [in] why we didn’t see that huge flurry in him to get the kill.

“I was prepared for it, whatever he threw at me.”

The fight played into what was a bit of a disappointing night for the UFC. Fans in attendance chanted “refund” repeatedly during the main event fight between Renan Barao and Urijah Faber.

Lombard (31-3) certainly will have opportunities to impress again. White was in no mood to announce fight matchups, but Boetsch expressed confidence Lombard will find success. He did allude, though, that his skill set wasn’t terribly difficult to prepare for.

“He has knockout power, but it’s at a very specific range,” Boetsch said. “If you find yourself in that range and stay there an amount of time, you’re going to get hurt. I knew that before this fight.”

Bisping says he's been promised title shot

July, 21, 2012
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
CALGARY -- Should Michael Bisping take care of business against Brian Stann when the two meet at UFC 152 in September, he’ll finally get his long-awaited title shot.

At least, he says, that’s what he’s been unofficially told.

“I’ve been told if I beat him -- and beat him well -- I’ll get a title shot,” Bisping said. “But I haven’t gotten it in writing, so it probably doesn’t mean anything.”

The UFC is expected to make several fight announcements Saturday in regard to its 185-pound division. One will almost certainly include newcomer Hector Lombard, depending on how he fares against Tim Boetsch at UFC 149.

Should the UFC elect to place Lombard into a title fight against Anderson Silva, despite holding just one win in the promotion, Bisping says he understands it from a business perspective but isn’t terribly optimistic on Lombard’s chances.

“People are saying he’s going to be next for Anderson Silva? Come on,” Bisping said. “There’s just no way he can fight Anderson Silva, because Silva’s game is to use range.

“I think it will be a terrible matchup for Hector Lombard. He’ll never get near him.”
[+] EnlargeMichael Bisping
Al Powers for ESPN.comMichael Bisping, top, is in full campaign mode in his quest for a title shot.

Despite coming off a loss in his most recent fight, Bisping (22-4) has built a case to compete for the title. The Brit is 4-1 in his last five and isn’t alone in his perception he actually edged Chael Sonnen when the two met earlier this year.

That said, Bisping says he takes full responsibility for the fact he’s gone six years in the UFC with no title shot. Key losses to Dan Henderson in 2009 and the one to Sonnen have derailed previous title hopes.

If the UFC keeps its promise though to push him through to Silva after September, Bisping remains confident he’s up to the job.

Seeing the success Sonnen had in two fights with Silva was encouraging -- but really, Bisping says he’s seen holde in the champ’s game before.

“Every time I watch him fight, I think he always looks mortal if you will,” Bisping said. “He always looks beatable. That’s the good thing about a champion: they find a way to win. Regardless of how bad the fight goes, how it ends is the important thing.

“Anderson always comes out the winner. My hat is off to him, but I see holes in his game.”

If or when Bisping does secure his first title shot, he admits he doesn’t envision it taking place in England, unfortunately.

“Zero,” answered Bisping, on his chances of talking the UFC into a title fight in his native country. “It would be my dream to fight in England but we don’t have the pay-per-view culture in England. It’s as simple as that.”

Mystery men make up co-main at UFC 149

July, 17, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
BoetschEd Mulholland for ESPN.comTim Boetsch, top, is quietly gaining momentum with each win at middleweight.
The curiosity in the UFC 149 co-main event isn’t Hector Lombard. It’s Tim Boetsch. Nobody saw him coming. Yushin Okami still isn’t sure what hit him that night in Saitama, when Boetsch came charging out in the third round with a mean salvo of uppercuts.

Boetsch has the “let’s see how long this can go” feel to him -- the mark of an overachiever. That’s why not very many people are talking about him as a threat to anything. Not to Anderson Silva. Not to Lombard. Not even to his original opponent, Michael Bisping (back when UFC 149 was a whole different event and people were talking about Erik Koch’s tan).

With all the conversation centered on “who’s next” for Silva, the focal point has been Chris Weidman (because he fought last) and on Lombard (because he can bench press the entire division). You can see why. Lombard has won 20 fights in a row, and hasn’t been defeated in 25. He comes from the other side of the partition (Bellator), where he’s been ruining careers for the last few years.

If Lombard wins and does it emphatically at UFC 149 in Calgary, he’ll look like the most marketable match-up of existing middleweights to get at Silva. Silva might welcome the chance, too. For starters, he’s not (necessarily) a wrestler. Weidman, a proud all-American Hofstra man, looks like a stylistic problem for Silva. Lombard, on the other hand, wants to knock you out.

You know what Silva does? He knocks out guys who want to knock you out. It’s his forte. This is a fight that would speak to him.
[+] EnlargeLombard
Dave Mandel for Sherdog.comA loud contingent believes Hector Lombard, left, wouldn't be worthy of a title shot after just one win.

And from the UFC’s perspective, Lombard/Silva isn’t an anticlimax to Sonnen/Silva. It’s a fight that puts Sonnen in the rearview mirror and opens up a new slate of intrigues. The "champion versus champion" plot; each fighter with a trail of winning streaks that snake around the block.

The UFC likes that.

Here’s the thing, though. People are complaining in advance that a single win in the UFC doesn’t merit a title shot. Bisping, who has hovered in contention for years, is leading the chorus on it. He’s got a point, but it feels like half of the story.

The full underlying suspicion is that a single win in the UFC -- especially if it’s a win over Tim Boetsch -- isn’t enough to merit a title shot. The Boetsch factor is strong. If Lombard fought and defeated Brian Stann, that’s one thing. But you know how it’ll be -- if Lombard treats Boetsch the same as he did Trevor Prangley and Falaniko Vitale, he will have added another journeyman to his collection. Nothing will have changed with UFC-centric types who hate on Lombard for not having knocked off name brands.

The spin on all that? Hey, it adds to his mystique.

But Boetsch is the true mystery here. He’s been around forever and has only just arrived.

He’s a guy who toiled as a light heavyweight, went 2-2 in his first stint in the UFC, beat up some guys in smaller theaters, then went 1-1 in his second UFC stint as a 205-pounder. When Phil Davis submitted him with a modified one-arm Kimura -- later renamed the “Philmura” -- Boetsch dropped to middleweight.
[+] EnlargeBoetsch
Susumu Nagao for ESPN.comTim Boetsch's come-from-behind win over Yushin Okami proved he's a force at 185.

Since then? Painstakingly quiet reinvention. Two fairly unspectacular wins over Kendall Grove and Nick Ring and a two-round, one-sided beatdown to Okami at UFC 144 until in the third round in that bout, when he stormed back for what has to be the forerunner for comeback of year.

Just like that, here he is; through circumstance and musical chairs, Boetsch is co-headlining a pay-per-view. And imagine if he wins? If Boetsch pulls it off he'll have exposed the greatest masquerade that ever was. In the told-you-so tradition of hindsight, Lombard then becomes grossly overrated. And part of why Lombard would then seem grossly overrated is because there’s something about losing to Boetsch that enhances the effect.

What are the stakes in this one? It might just be shaping perception one way or another.

Lombard could use Boetsch as a trampoline to Silva, and Boetsch could take one more step towards something unthinkable. But it’s safe to say Boetsch wouldn’t get an immediate title shot with a win. Whereas Lombard is marketable enough to do away with merit, Boetsch isn’t greatly marketable, and merit is slippery in his hands.

He’ll still seem like he’s overachieving, and, at some point, that becomes its own neat trick.

The middleweight division sans Silva

July, 12, 2012
Gross By Josh Gross
Chael Sonnen, Demian Maia and Rashad EvansJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesIt's possible Chael Sonnen wouldn't have to parade around with a fake belt if Anderson Silva retired.
Anderson Silva hung up his gloves after stopping Chael Sonnen on Saturday. The best middleweight in MMA history, arguably the top fighter over the first two decades of the sport's modern era, had nothing left to accomplish. So he did the sensible thing. He walked away healthy. Left with his legacy intact.

OK ... on the unlikely chance you're freaked out right now, relax. My lede is as real as Sonnen's UFC championship belt. Someday, though, Silva, 37, having established and maintained unparalleled records of longevity in the UFC, will leave the sport.

What happens then? A free-for-all at 185 pounds? Will a fighter emerge and establish his own dominant track?

Based on Wednesday's clash in San Jose, Calif., between Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman, the division won’t lack for talent. The unbeaten Weidman was to-a-T perfect, landing a beautiful standing counter elbow that sliced open the Filipino Wrecking Machine en route to a bloody second round stoppage. Perhaps the 28-year-old wrestler from Long Island is the next big thing and the man to end Silva’s reign. He sure looked like a force against Munoz, and whether or not Silva is around to test him, Weidman will surely have a say about the future of the middleweight division.
[+] EnlargeChris Weidman
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuChris Weidman would be one to watch in an Anderson Silva-free middleweight division.

While the perceived gulf between Silva and his 185-compatriots befits the Grand Canyon, perhaps emerging contenders like Weidman suggests it’s not as wide as we think.

At the very least, a cadre of contenders ensures a merry-go-round at the top of the class, a hint that winning the belt does not come with an implicit guarantee of retaining it.

Who are the best candidates to replace Silva when he finally walks (or maybe before he does)?

Chris Weidman

With less than 10 pro fights you’d think he doesn’t have the experience to challenge Silva. But history suggests this isn’t any kind of deterrent to championship aspirations in the UFC. Thus far, Weidman did everything that promotion has asked of him, and looked great in the process.

Over the long haul, among the contenders that exist today, Weidman has established himself (in my mind at least) as the front-running prospective champion. That could be the afterglow of Wednesday’s one-sided beatdown talking, but this is a guy with all the makings of a serious fighter.

He’s more than a wrestler. He’s a long wrestler. And if there was any doubt about his striking acumen I’ll refer you to the elbow that sealed the deal against Munoz.

Billed by his coach Ray Longo as a natural, Weidman plays the part well.

Chael Sonnen

Yes, Sonnen. He didn’t beat Silva, but who has? It’s a whole different (i.e. less difficult) scenario taking on the smorgasbord that would exist in the Brazilian’s absence. Sonnen’s most trying opponent is often himself. Negotiating mental hurdles to claim a belt, even if it’s not from Silva, remains his biggest challenge.

Michael Bisping

Collective groans from the peanut gallery on this one. But the man deserves more respect than he gets. No matter how vigorously some fans hate on Bisping, it’s clear he’s a threat and continues to improve, especially in the area of takedown defense. When he fights with composure there are few better at overwhelming opponents with angst and volume punching than the veteran Brit.

Hector Lombard

Here’s the thing with Lombard: no one knows how good he is.

You can surmise and infer all you want. The fact is Lombard, formerly the Bellator middleweight champion, hasn’t fought anyone at or near their prime in years. If he gets past Tim Boetsch (big if) then he’ll earn credibility. Without needing to fight Silva, whose length and accuracy are massive factors against the short yet powerful Cuban, Lombard could have a shot at making this happen.

Alan Belcher

Another big middleweight who can do more than a little bit of everything. Belcher’s win against Rousimar Palhares in May indicated the 28-year-old, fighting out of Biloxi, Miss., is nearing the top of his game. With his confidence soaring, Belcher is a test for anyone at 185 pounds.

Luke Rockhold

First things first, he has to matriculate to the UFC. For now let’s pretend that instead of fighting for Zuffa’s unfortunately low-rent Strikeforce, Rockhold has already made his way to the Octagon. The athletic, lanky, aggressive Californian should not be underestimated. He’s learning on the job, which is a strike against him, but so far so good. If he handles Tim Kennedy with ease this Saturday, there’s no reason Rockhold shouldn’t be mentioned in the same class as the cream of UFC’s 185-pound crop.