After capturing the middleweight title in dominant fashion at UFC 194, it’ll be very intriguing to see who Luke Rockhold draws for his initial title defense. Rockhold became the latest former Strikeforce champion to claim UFC gold when he battered Chris Weidman into a bloody pulp to earn a TKO victory in their 185-pound showdown in Las Vegas.
The tide of the co-main event clash changed for good in the third round when Weidman attempted an ill-advised wheel kick. Rockhold would capitalize by securing a takedown before raining down with a vicious barrage of ground-and-pound strikes. Referee Herb Dean would finally halt the bout in the next round as Rockhold’s offensive onslaught continued. It was the latest changing of the guard on the UFC title front in 2015 as Weidman sustained his first career setback.
The 31-year-old American Kickboxing Academy stalwart has looked sensational in his last five Octagon appearances. Rockhold has also produced finishes of Lyoto Machida, Michael Bisping, Tim Boetsch and Costas Philippou during this impressive stretch. The California native is an extremely athletic competitor who possesses excellent kickboxing, wrestling and submission skills. He’s clearly in the prime of his career and seems to be getting more dangerous with each passing appearance. Rockhold has secured 13 of his 15 victories inside the distance by knockout or submission. With no clear No. 1 contender, there would seem to be a number of interesting options to consider for his next assignment.
While it was believed the future of the 185-pound landscape would be mapped out after UFC 194, that isn’t necessarily the case. Yoel Romero kept his perfect Octagon record intact by eking out a split-decision triumph over Ronaldo Souza in a bout that had been pegged as a likely title eliminator. The powerful Cuban nearly got the finish in the opening stanza after a huge spinning back fist and subsequent ground-and-pound.
However, Romero would be involved in some controversy in the second round after a blatant fence grab to avoid a takedown. He received a severe reprimand from referee Marc Goddard. Romero would visibly tire as the bout progressed and managed to survive a furious “Jacare” rally in the third frame. The razor-thin win improved his UFC record to 7-0 with five of those triumphs coming by knockout.
Rockhold against “The Soldier of God” would definitely have some intrigue, but it appears as though the new champion has someone else in mind. Rockhold has been fixated for quite some time on a rematch with recent title challenger Vitor Belfort. “The Phenom” ruined Rockhold’s 2013 UFC debut when he recorded an explosive first-round knockout in Brazil.
With Rockhold wanting an opportunity to avenge his crushing defeat against the heavy-handed Brazilian veteran, it’s definitely a fight to consider. Belfort is currently holding down a No. 4 ranking and is coming off a first-round knockout of Dan Henderson in their trilogy bout. He’s been linked to a possible March showdown in Brazil against long-time former middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva. A victory in that fight could conceivably punch Belfort’s ticket to one more title opportunity. He was stopped by Weidman in their title affair at UFC 187 but still remains a marquee name.
Meantime the No. 7-ranked Bisping is hopeful that he’ll be considered for a title fight if he’s able to continue his winning ways in late February against Gegard Mousasi at Fight Night 83 in London, England. While “The Count” is currently on a two-fight win streak his immediate title hopes likely went up in smoke with the Weidman loss. Bisping was destroyed by Rockhold in their previous clash at Fight Night 55 in Australia, and there’s little need to see that matchup again in the near future.
While Rockhold ended Weidman’s title reign in emphatic fashion, there’s no doubt that both men could cross paths again down the road. They arguably remain the two best fighters in the division, and the prospects of another fight or two between them isn’t a stretch whatsoever. With the promotion’s affinity for immediate title rematches anything is possible. However, I think Weidman vs. “Jacare” should come next as it would be an exciting rebound opportunity for both standout competitors.
It’s clear that there are several intriguing options that matchmakers can explore for the new 185-pound kingpin. Whoever gets the nod will be facing a monumental assignment against the red-hot Rockhold. It’ll be fascinating to see if the newly-minted champ gets his wish to avenge the Belfort loss, or whether the organization has other plans.
Rockhold vs. Belfort II would be the more marketable matchup with the revenge angle and the name recognition, however Romero is certainly deserving after ending Souza’s impressive win streak. It’ll be a very interesting call.