While he might still be holding down a No. 3 ranking in the latest UFC bantamweight rankings, there’s no doubt that it’s been a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind for talented Brazilian Raphael Assuncao. The 33-year-old veteran had been on a tremendous seven-fight stretch of success before running into serious injury issues. This past year has seen some intriguing developments in the 135-pound landscape that have likely pushed the idle Assuncao further back in the pack when it comes to his title pursuit.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist has seemingly become the forgotten man with all of the recent drama revolving around champion T.J. Dillashaw’s bitter exit from the Urijah Faber-led Team Alpha Male camp. “The California Kid” has already had three unsuccessful title bids, but don’t be surprised if he gets either Dillashaw or former champion Dominick Cruz if he’s victorious at UFC 194 against Frankie Saenz. Dillashaw is scheduled to square off against “The Dominator” at Fight Night 81 in Boston on Jan. 17.
Assuncao’s tale of woe is a lengthy one. He had to turn down a title fight against Renan Barao at UFC 173 because of a rib injury sustained in his unanimous decision win over Pedro Munhoz. Assuncao’s pain proved to be Dillashaw’s gain as he secured gold with a stunning upset of “The Baron” in Las Vegas. Dillashaw became an overnight star and has climbed the pound-for-pound ladder with a pair of dominant title defenses.
Assuncao is the last man to defeat Dillashaw, as he eked out a hard-fought split-decision win in Brazil against Dillashaw at Fight Night 29. The entertaining back-and-forth battle produced the Fight of the Night. It appeared a rematch was in the cards after Cruz tore his ACL in late December. Unfortunately, Assuncao would also announce that he’d broken his ankle during training and has been on the shelf since. He hasn’t fought since a dominant unanimous decision win over Bryan Caraway at Fight Night 54 in Canada.
The Ascension Mixed Martial Arts stalwart saw his nagging ankle situation scuttle a possible rematch against Faber in March at Fight Night 62, and eventually Assuncao would undergo successful surgery. This year has essentially been a write-off. Not only will Assuncao have the Dillashaw-Faber-Cruz title triangle to contend with upon his return but others have risen to prominence in the division during his absence.
Unbeaten top-10 contenders Thomas Almeida and Aljamain Sterling have both raised their stocks with exciting recent performances, and the division has also added former flyweight contenders John Lineker and John Dodson to the mix. “Hands of Stone” made a spectacular 135-pound debut by defeating Francisco Rivera in an insane one-round firefight at UFC 191, while Dodson is moving on up to the bantamweight ranks after two failed bids to unseat current 125-pound champion Demetrious Johnson. Dodson owns a TKO win over Dillashaw and has made it clear he’s interested in a future rematch.
Assuncao has made the most of his move down in weight from featherweight by producing a perfect 7-0 record. His last setback was a first-round knockout loss to Erik Koch back at UFC 128. Assuncao’s hot-streak also includes a significant win over Johnny Eduardo.
As for what comes next, a matchup against former interim title challenger Michael McDonald would be a good fit. The explosive 24-year-old has been on the shelf for nearly two years because of hand and wrist issues. Perhaps a clash with fellow veteran Takeya Mizugaki might be a good way to shake off the Octagon rust. Another strong option to consider might be “The Magician.” Assuncao vs. Dodson would certainly make for a compelling battle.
While the Brazilian has 13 wins by knockout or submission in his 23 career triumphs, Assuncao has only produced a pair of finishes during this impressive stretch. His workmanlike style isn’t likely to wow top UFC brass in their desire to grant him an immediate title opportunity. He finds himself in the same type of situation that light heavyweight contender Ryan Bader has run into. Good enough to defeat top-level opposition, but apparently not entertaining enough to deserve a title fight.
The harsh reality is that the fight game is about more than wins and losses these days, it’s also about what sells. It’ll be intriguing to see if Assuncao can pick up where he left off, after having his momentum stalled in a major way.
Assuncao’s eventual return will unquestionably be an added boost for the 135-pound division. There are definitely some attractive fights to explore for him. However, it’s clear that he may require at least another victory or two before finally being granted that elusive title shot. Assuncao has shown during his time campaigning as a bantamweight that he’s up to that task.