One of the many reasons why the Ultimate Fighting Championship continues to flourish is that new champions enliven the scene and keep it vibrant – unlike boxing where gnarled, aging champs reign forever just by ducking the best and cherry-picking their opponents.
The UFC’s refreshing attitude to matching the finest with equally gifted talent was evident on a Fox TV show in New Jersey on Saturday night when two potentially marquee fighters emerged.
Luke Rockhold staked his claim as the UFC’s top middleweight contender with a rear naked choke in the second round to make former champ Lyoto Machida suddenly look old at 36.
Machida insisted beforehand that he can be king again, but that boast sounds like a court jester’s claim judging by how easily the 26-year-old Californian smashed into him.
“I am the No. 1 contender,” Rockhold said. “I’m the best guy around.” He certainly looked it.
Rockhold (14-2) should now be next in line for a pay-per-view title shot in the 185-pound division. With the dominant win over the veteran Brazilian, Rockhold positioned himself to take on the winner of the UFC 187 fight next month between champ Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort.
Machida (22-6) never put up much of a fight in his brief stint in the cage. He should retire because UFC, unlike boxing, does not allow fighters way past their prime to face lesser opponents just to extend their careers and bank accounts.
Rockhold lost his UFC debut in 2013, then rebounded with wins over Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch and Michael Bisping. He won his third straight fight via submission and looked sensational against Machida.
“I did my part,” Rockhold said. “Weidman, you’re going to do your part. Let’s take this across the way. Madison Square Garden, let’s make history.” UFC is not yet legal in New York but should be by the time of the contest at the end of the year.
“If it doesn’t happen, it’ll be crazy,” UFC President Dana White said.
Jacare Souza, the No. 1 ranked middleweight, made short work of Chris Camozzi in the co-main event. Souza won with an armbar submission in the first round.
Souza, who lost to Rockhold in the old Strikeforce days, has improved considerably – and may be good enough now to beat his nemesis in a rematch.
The other potential superstar is former ring card girl Paige VanZant.
In only her second bout, the 21-year-old strawweight proved why she is on the brink of MMA stardom.
The 5-foot-4-inch VanZant was all smiles and bounced on her heels as she watched the prefight video package on the big screen. Felice Herrig, her 115-pound opponent, said in the video that VanZant had yet to truly earn her spot and only had a personal endorsement deal with Reebok because of her looks.
VanZant beamed and waved on her way to the cage, hardly rattled by the pressure of the big night. Once inside, she absolutely crushed Herrig for three rounds and cruised to a unanimous decision victory. “It’s like my birthday every time I walk out to the cage,” she said.
VanZant (5-1) landed several knees after the opening bell of the first round and never let up. She stayed on top of Herrig (10-6) and landed fist after fist to the face as a part of her ground game and she never showed signs of fatigue.
VanZant pinned Herrig against the cage in the third round and finished her for good with a series of brutal elbows to the head.
VanZant was 18 when she won her first professional bout in Texas and stepped up to the all-women Invicta promotion in January 2013. With the Jersey crowd going wild for the perky and powerful VanZant, UFC might have found its next breakthrough female star to rival Ronda Rousey.
“I’m here for the fun of it and I’m so thankful,” she said. “I can’t believe I made it through that fight. It only goes up from here.” Dana White was impressed, and VanZant also received the thumbs up from a number of fighters, including Weidman.