It was like watching a boat marooned in an ocean storm, riding waves impossibly high only to survive each one en route to making it to safe harbor. And after fighting off a dizzying series of leg locks and assorted submission attempts by Rousimar Palhares, Alan Belcher found himself parked safely on top, with room to punch at the UFC on Fox 3: "Diaz vs. Miller" event last night (Sat., May 5, 2012) in New Jersey.
And then, he brought the pain.
Hammering down a series of brutal shots that turned Palhares from would-be victor into a middleweight chunk of lifeless flesh, Belcher showed considerable moxie and fire in scoring an epic first-round stoppage of one of the division's most dangerous fighters. The fact that he showed little fear in braving Palhares' lethal mat attack further endears him to fans. The pre-fight conventional wisdom suggested that his best and virtually only chance was to keep it standing and avoid a ground engagement at all costs.
That's the kind of attitude fans respond to, especially in a division ruled by Anderson Silva, the most dominant fighter in the game, whose mere presence can intimidate and freeze even the best challengers (Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson notwithstanding, both of whom were vanquished despite this).
The relatively thin ranks of the 185-pound division mean that Belcher's huge win goes even further than a similar performance in, say, the lightweight division, where a virtual Murderer's Row exists for any 155-pounder looking to smash his way to a title shot.
Belcher has positioned himself pretty well for being a win (two at most) away from a title shot, depending on how things shake out.
From June 23 to July 21, three events offer a bonanza of middleweight clarity.
Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva square off in the The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) Brazil finale at UFC 147 on July 23; July 7's UFC 148 is headlined by the Silva vs. Sonnen championship rematch. On July 11, Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman will hook 'em up in the main event of UFC on FUEL TV 4. Then, Tim Boetsch will do battle against Michael Bisping at the UFC 149 event on July 21.
Depending on how things shake out, particularly in Sonnen vs. Silva, which will really set the tone for future match-ups, there's not a lot between Belcher and getting a title shot. A huge win by Belfort over Silva (quite likely given recent performances by both) could land him a rematch against Silva, but it might be a tough marketing sell. Boetsch and Bisping aren't quite at the level they need to be to convince the public they are viable challenger material, unless one of them comes up huge with a showcase stoppage. Weidman and Munoz are talented and dangerous, but it's just as likely their styles negate one another in a workmanlike match as it is the bout will deliver a big win for either guy.
That puts Belcher, an always-exciting scrapper, in a pretty good position for negotiating his way up the final rungs of the ladder.
Whoever beats Anderson Silva is going to have to be someone who can ride out considerable danger and adversity. Saturday night, Belcher showed he has the ability to do that. It will be fun watching "The Talent" make his case in the months to come.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or at twitter.com/jasonprobst.