Victory over Okami Is Alan Belcher's Next Step Towards a Title Shot
Over the past few years the UFC middleweight picture has become chaotic. With reigning king Anderson Silva still holding court, the race to become next in line has been a storm of trash talk, hype and public posturing, as the best middleweights have jockeyed for divisional position.
The formula has provided short-term gains for some, but success for none, as no contender has been able to dethrone the champion.
As these various scenarios have played out, Alan Belcher has simply been handling his business and dispatching of everything thrown his way.
The Duke Roufus-trained fighter has quietly put together an impressive run of four consecutive victories, all coming by way of stoppage. In fact, the lone setback in his past seven outings came by way of a razor-thin split-decision loss to Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100.
On the biggest night in the organization's history, the two middleweights set the Octagon on fire, trading everything they had to offer from bell to bell. The end result may have come as a disappointment to the Arkansas native, but his performance made the sport's fanbase sit up and take notice.
Belcher would bounce back in his next showing against veteran Patrick Cote at UFC 113, but before he could build momentum, the 28-year-old was forced to undergo emergency eye surgery that stopped his career cold in its tracks.
There was a period following the procedure to repair his detached retina where it was uncertain if he would ever fight again. But Belcher came roaring back to action as he scored a dominant, first-round victory over Jason MacDonald at UFC Fight Night in New Orleans, LA.
The win over "The Athlete" put Belcher's name back in the middleweight conversation, but another strong performance complete with his second consecutive first-round finish in his next showing against Rousimar Palhares at UFC on Fox 3 raised his stock into the top 10 of the 185-pound weight class.
Belcher pounded out the leglock specialist in brutal fashion and moved another rung up the ladder in the process. Where in most divisions under the UFC banner, four consecutive victories all coming by way of finish would have a fighter rapping at the door of a title shot, "The Talent" understands the variables which have kept him at bay.
Injuries have managed to slow him down over the past two years, but now with a clean bill of health and a full head of steam Belcher is fired up and ready to get moving. He will look to make that next step in grand fashion when he squares off with Yushin Okami at UFC 155.
"I think it's huge for me and I have to make a statement," Belcher told Bleacher Report. "I have to prove that I deserve a big fight against one of the big-name guys—which I already have and I need to stay there. If I really want 2013 to be my run at the title, this is a great way to kick it off.
"I'm just looking for the 'W' more than anything else, but I think my drive and my abilities right now are going to make it a very strong statement. If it's not a real clean win for me, it's just because Yushin Okami is a very good fighter. It could very well be a really hard win for me, but I'll do what it takes to get the 'W' and I feel pretty confident about it.
"The only thing that has really held me back is my long lay-off. Then when I made my return, I took a long time between fights. After this last fight I had a broken hand and that injury kept me out for awhile.
"It's just been my long time in between fights. Why would they give somebody a chance to fight Anderson Silva who the fans don't really know, and that could go in there and take the belt from him? I have to prove that I'm able to fight more often and I have to let more fans know who I am. I have an underground fan base but that's about it."
The bout with Okami on December 29 will hold special significance for Belcher for a multitude of reasons. The fight not only marks the first rematch of his 24-fight career, but it will come against the man who spoiled his UFC debut back in 2006.
In his first matchup with "Thunder," Belcher saw his seven-fight win streak snapped when he came up on the wrong end of a unanimous decision. The opportunity to make good on his previous misstep is a unique experience, and one that has Belcher looking forward to their second go-around at UFC 155.
"It has its advantages and disadvantages," Belcher said regarding his rematch with Okami. "The advantages are I lost to him before and that makes me hungrier. Maybe he thinks he can beat me again and that gives me a little bit of an edge. The disadvantage could be that I lost to him and he feels really confident, but the main thing is this is the first rematch of my career and that is what really fired me up about doing this fight. It's against the right person and it is relevant in the rankings.
"Okami is going to be a legend in the UFC when it's all finished. He's fought some of the greatest guys and he'll always be a top fighter as long as he's competing. Now I have the rematch against him. He's really the only guy who's beat me that makes sense to fight again right now. The rematch really has me fired up. The idea of winning five straight and continuing on my streak is getting me pumped up."
Stylistically speaking the two fighters couldn't be more different.
Where Belcher brings an unpredictable and versatile attack into the cage, Okami is methodical and disciplined. It doesn't matter if the Japanese fighter's game plan is well-known, stopping it becomes the problem. It is a task Belcher is confident he can handle this time around, and he believes he has a variety of answers to the challenges the former No. 1 contender presents.
"[Okami] is threatening with what he does," Belcher said. "He's really tight and really athletic. He has a big body and throws fast punches nice and straight. He can kick a little bit, he's hard to hit, and strong. He pressures you, puts you against the cage, and tries to clinch up with you. He has good take downs. He is good on the ground and good at holding you down.
"He's good at what he does but at the same time, it's very easy to figure out what he's going to do. He's very predictable. I have a lot of options with the things I can do. I have a lot of different styles and strategies I use. I have a lot of different ways to beat him where for him to win, he has to keep pressuring me and has to take me down. That's pretty much it."
A victory over Okami would not only make it five in a row for Belcher, but also place a big feather in his proverbial cap. Where his past wins have all been impressive, coming out on top of a solid name like the one Okami carries would be a strong push to place him firmly in the upper tier of the middleweight division.
It would also further the blue-collar effort Belcher has put forth in climbing the rankings towards a title shot. Despite recent examples of surging contenders being passed over for higher-profile opposition, Belcher embraces both optimism and realism equally.
He knows it is a position he's scrapping his way towards, but at the same time, not a situation he's currently included in. That being the case, Belcher is looking forward to making his case undeniable and feels he has a versatile skill set few fighters can match.
"It is an interesting time right now," Belcher said. "I feel like the UFC is a little bit desperate to make big-money fights, but I don't really fit into that category right now. It sucks, but we'll deal with that when it comes. Right now, I have to win this fight and then probably one or two more.
"After I beat Yushin Okami, I'm not going to be mad if the UFC doesn't have me fighting Anderson Silva in February or March. I want to make it realistic. I want to work for it. I want to legitimately beat everyone in the division with no questions asked. That means if I have to beat Lombard, Bisping, Belfort, Weidman, all of them in 2013, that's what I'll do.
"There are things I've been working on for years and years I'm really good at. My grappling is dynamic but I don't think people realize the technical side of it. I'm always working it and I think my grappling is cleaner than most UFC fighters. I really pay attention to the details. The same goes with my striking.
"One of the things the fans love about my striking, and one of the things that makes me dangerous is my attitude. I'm very comfortable in there. I really get in my opponent's face and throw a lot of strikes. I mix it up and go for takedowns. Not to mention all my shots are clean and powerful. I have some really strong tools.
"I'll be the first one to admit I have some places I need to work on and I'm always working on them, but compared to everyone else in the division, and most fighters in the UFC, I would say my style is very versatile and I have a lot of tools."
As Belcher's fight towards the ultimate goal of becoming a UFC champion continues, his work outside of the cage carries on as well. Belcher and his wife Ashlee have been diligent in committing their time to various charities in their community and surrounding areas.
Their commitment has impacted situations large and small, as the Belchers have worked with groups ranging from the Humane Society to individuals in their community struggling to pay medical bills. It is a passion they share as a family and giving back to those in need remains a high priority.
"We are trying to team up with St. Jude's [Hospital] right now and put together a martial arts for St. Jude's program," Belcher said. "It's an organization I would like to team up with and I like that cause. I grew up close close to the Memphis Tennessee area in Northeast Arkansas, and St, Jude's Hospital there in Memphis really helps a lot of kids and families. They operate entirely on donations and it takes a lot to run that place.
"I'll be posting some links up on my website and Twitter pretty soon. I'm trying to raise some money for St. Jude's and get involved in that a little bit more. Right now, I'm just trying to help out around Christmas time. Trying to help some families is what I've been doing this year. I'm doing a little bit less for my family and trying to teach them it's not about having a bunch of Christmas presents under the tree. I'm trying to give my kids the gift of giving to other people."
Drive and determination are not things in short supply in the life of Alan Belcher. In a life full of complexities, setbacks, victories and lessons learned, he charges forward knowing he has an unwavering confidence in his abilities. Next Saturday night in Las Vegas, the time to once again put his skills to the test will arrive, and in his signature fashion, Belcher is going to leave everything he has inside the Octagon.
"As always I'm going to be fearless," Belcher said. "I'm a fighter who is going to leave everything in the ring and have no regrets. I'm going to leave it all out there and do the very best that I can at that moment, in that fight, for those 15 minutes. Win, lose, or draw; I guarantee I'm not just going to lay down and give it away."
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