Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to Georgia this upcoming Wednesday night (Jan. 15, 2014) at The Arena in Gwinnett Center in Duluth. And despite the lack of star power or proper promotion for this mid-week mixed martial arts (MMA) card, there are at least a couple of significant fights that pertain to the long-term future of one particular division.
UFC Fight Night 34: "Rockhold vs. Philippou" features a pair of Middleweight bouts in the main- and co-main events.
In the headliner, Luke Rockhold will look to bounce back from a knockout loss, in search of his first-ever victory inside the Octagon when he takes on hard-hitting Costas Philippou. Both fighters, in fact, are coming off losses and will be motivated to make statements in the "Peach State" to regain their footing in the 185-pound division.
In the co-main event, Lorenz Larkin will meet Brad Tavares in a fight of up-and-coming prospects who are eager to toss their names in the Middleweight mix and move up the ranks.
With the majority of the excitement focused on these two bouts, let us look into the near future and map out what a victory on tomorrow night might mean for these four competitors.
There was once a time when Luke Rockhold was one of the best Middleweights around. He was not quite the best (especially since he was competing in Strikeforce and the best fighter on the planet, Anderson Silva, was on the other side of the fence), but he was damn good.
The American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) mainstay won the Strikeforce Middleweight championship over Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in just his ninth professional fight, defending the belt twice afterward against Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy before jumping ship to the UFC. However, In his Octagon debut, Vitor Belfort issued him a rude welcome, finishing him fast with a spinning kick from hell into round one.
This is the perfect bounce-back fight for Rockhold, who with an impressive win, could make the case that the loss to Belfort was just a case of "getting caught." He already has wins over "Jacare" and Kennedy, and he is well rounded enough to challenge someone like the winner of Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi at UFC Fight Night 36 ... and make it a competitive fight.
Rockhold is not in dire straits; however, another loss would be a huge setback to start 2014. If he wants to be champion again, he needs to put the rest of the division on notice, starting with the "Cypress Slugger."
The heavy-handed Costas Philippou could earn the biggest victory of his life this week, but it will not be easy.
Philippou had immense trouble against Francis Carmont at UFC 165 a few months back, getting dominated on the ground for nearly the entire fight.
Rockhold could implement a similar plan, but it is apparent that Philippou needs to work on being stronger in the grappling department (more specifically, wrestling) if he wants to find success in a division that is more or less wide open right now. His defense really is not all that bad; however he has some holes that can be exploited, which were evident in his last fight.
Everyone knows that Philippou has the ability to do well on the feet, and if he can clip Rockhold, it would be a huge feather in his cap. It would undoubtedly mark the biggest victory of his career. He has not had too many setbacks since losing to Ricardo Romero in his first-ever fight, with just two blemishes (Nick Catone and the aforementioned Carmont) on his record ever since.
The skill is there for Philippou -- the adopted New Yorker has beaten Court McGee, Tim Boetsch, Jorge Rivera and Uriah Hall, among others. Rockhold, though, will prove whether or not Philippou is a legit contender or just another pretender.
The former Strikeforce fighter started to raise a few eyebrows during his time with the now-defunct promotion, scoring victories over Robbie Lawler and Gian Villante. Despite Larkin's loss to Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal being overturned to a "No Contest" because of the latter's failed drug test, Larkin has only officially lost once, a controversial decision to Carmont at UFC on FOX 7 in April 2013.
All that experience benefits Larkin moving forward, and he has been one of the most exciting strikers to watch in all of the sport. A win for Larkin would have him challenge an opponent who is also gunning for Middleweight supremacy (not exactly a title contender, but one that is not too far off). And depending on how Larkin gets the job done, there could be more positives for him moving forward as time elapses.
"The Monsoon" is not a household name, nor is he someone who the fans are itching to see on a constant basis. With that being said, he is young, hungry and has the tools be a threat to anyone in his way.
Having already faced a topsy-turvy bunch in terms of caliber, remember that Larkin has a win over Lawler, who is now fighting for the title. That was not too long ago, and if Larkin can win over opponents like that, greater opportunities could soon transpire.
To say something like Brad Tavares would be ready for the big leagues if he defeats Larkin on Wednesday night would be extremely overdone, although a statement of similar fashion would not be far off.
It's the truth: Tavares would prove that he turned into the real deal after competing on the promotion's reality show without the finalist treatment.
McGee stopped Tavares by rear-naked choke in the semifinals of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 11 and he would go on to win it all. Tavares bounced quick, though, with an impressive knockout of veteran Phil Baroni at the Finale. Wrestling powerhouse Aaron Simpson may have been too much to handle shortly after, but then Tavares strung together four victories over tough opposition such as Tom Watson and Bubba McDaniel, among others.
Possessing a record of 11-1 besides the win streak, the Hawaiian has been one of the top Middleweight prospects in the past few years. And if the 26-year-old can overcome the favored Larkin, he should graduate from prospect status, making the transition toward a Top 15 ranking come a little easier. Surely, he would have to face a few more opponents to really cement his standing in the division, yet there would be no denying that Tavares would be a fighter to watch.
For news and updates regarding UFC Fight Night 35: "Rockhold vs. Philippou" be sure to check out our complete preview story stream here.