Last night at UFC on Fuel TV 8, Hector Lombard had the opportunity to break through into the title picture in the middleweight division. The only thing standing in his way was Yushin Okami and his grinding wrestling style, a tough but necessary test to see if the Cuban slugger was ready for the next step.
"Thunder's" game plan proved effective throughout the first two frames. Despite the former Olympic Judoka's strong base, the 31-year-old Japanese fighter was able to take the action to the canvas where he controlled the fight for the majority of the opening 10 minutes.
Knowing he was most likely down two rounds on the judge's cards, Lombard came out with an increased sense of urgency in the final round as he immediately set about swarming Okami with power shots.
But Lombard ultimately failed himself when he had Okami hurt on the mat, and rather than force the perennial contender to his feet, the former Bellator champion decided to jump into his guard. In that position, Okami was able to weather the storm and ride out the rest of the round, which resulted in a split-decision nod in his favor.
Lombard's loss in Japan makes him the latest high-profile contender to be turned back just steps away from the contender's tier of the division—a picture that looks drastically different than it did a year ago.
Where pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva once appeared to have the division thoroughly cleaned out, there are now plenty potential matchups to contest his throne.
Yet, the biggest problem for the future contenders in the division seems to simply be getting to that point, and if recent trends hold up, it may be some time before any of the top fighters in the 185-pound weight class get an actual title shot.
Okami is the Samurai Guardian to the Throne
The "gatekeeper" label is often used in mixed martial arts to describe a veteran fighter who holds the line between top competition and the prospect level. In the case of Okami, he's the most unique brand of guardian, as he has become the deciding factor to who goes up into contention and who is forced to take the longer route.
In his most recent bouts, the former No. 1 contender has held the line strong. By defeating Hector Lombard and derailing the trajectory of the always scrappy Alan Belcher at UFC 155, Okami has taken two potential title fights off the docket. The only fighter to get past the 17-time UFC veteran over this recent run has been Tim Boetsch, who pulled off a brilliant come-from-behind knockout victory over Okami at UFC 144.
A look at the Japanese grappler's record is proof to the theory. Aside from his loss to "The Barbarian" last year in Japan, the only setbacks on Okami's record since coming over to the UFC in 2006 have come at the hands of Anderson Silva, Chael Sonnen and Rich Franklin—all of whom are or at one time were the best middleweight fighters on the planet.
The biggest question surrounding Okami is exactly where he goes from here. The memory of his drubbing at the hands of Silva is still fresh in the minds of many MMA fans, and it would be difficult to imagine another dance with "The Spider" coming any time soon.
Therefore, it appears the only option would be to allow Okami to hold his position guarding the title realm. Judging from his call-out of Michael Bisping in his post-fight interview on Fuel TV, Okami seems to be perfectly content playing the role of title-shot spoiler.
Throughout All This Turmoil, Weidman's Spot Remains
It is crazy to think all of this shake-up hasn't affected Chris Weidman's status in the division. Despite the Long Island native being out for the last half of 2012 and at least the first half of 2013, Weidman's position at the top of the division remains. With Boetsch and Belcher being turned back at UFC 155 and Bisping's loss at UFC on FX 7, the 28-year-old is still in striking distance of a title shot.
Following "The Count's" knockout defeat to Vitor Belfort in Brazil, the road for an eventual show down with Silva appeared to be all but a given. But when UFC President Dana White stated former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans would get a shot at the middleweight title if he could defeat Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156, it looked as if Weidman was going to get passed over once again.
It was a fight Evans was heavily favored to win, but after a lackluster showing against "Lil Nog" in Las Vegas, "Suga" fell off the 185-pound radar and Weidman was once again back in the conversation.
While the Ray Longo-trained fighter has been working a public campaign to get his long-awaited fight with Silva, the champion appears to have zero interest in making the bout a reality. This has caused a debate in the MMA community about whether or not the UFC's most dominant champion is "ducking" Weidman, but it is a claim Silva's camp shrugs off effortlessly.
At 38 years old, Silva wants to finish his career taking the biggest fights possible, and Weidman's lack of name recognition or drawing power on the pay-per-view front has allowed the champion to dismiss him thus far. That being said, with all potential contenders being getting thumped in recent outings, Weidman's case for contention has only grown stronger.
Strikeforce Fighters, Old Lions and Last Chances
With the wave of previously mentioned contenders forced to fight their way back, there is now room for the next wave to make their way into the upper tier. This collection includes a solid mixture of new blood and a few well-known faces who could all break through, depending on the outcome of their next fight.
Luke Rockhold is the last man to hold the Strikeforce middleweight strap, and his UFC debut will be no easy task when he squares off with Vitor Belfort at UFC on FX 8 in May. The Santa Cruz native has been asking to face the best in the world since laying claim to championship gold, and locking up with a resurgent Belfort certainly fits that order.
If Rockhold can defeat "The Phenom" in their upcoming tilt, the credibility he's been lacking with the UFC fanbase would come in quick fashion. That could vault him into a title shot against Silva, or at the very least, a bout with Weidman to determine the No. 1 contender. This of course would mean Silva is still looking for better options, which could certainly prove to be true.
Where "big fights" are concerned, a rematch between Silva and Belfort in Brazil would provide the huge payday Silva is looking for. While it was only two years ago when Silva made Belfort permanent highlight reel material at the end of a brutal front-kick knockout, the 35-year-old has regained his footing in a major way.
If the former light heavyweight champion is able to follow up his knockout victory over Bisping with a win over Rockhold, another crack at Silva could definitely materialize.
Another fighter looking to make an immediate impact is former Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza.
The 33-year-old Brazilian has been on a tear since dropping his title to Rockhold in 2011, racking up three consecutive victories in the process. His most recent win came at the expense of UFC veteran Ed Herman at the now-defunct organization's final event, and steamrolling "Short Fuse" sent a strong message to the 185-pound fighters in the UFC fold.
His first test under the UFC banner will come against Costa Philippou at UFC on FX 8 in May. The heavy-handed Serra-Longo-trained fighter has collected five consecutive victories inside the Octagon, with his most recent coming by way of TKO against Tim Boetsch at UFC 155.
While neither Souza or Philippou necessarily carry the biggest names in the division, the winner of their upcoming dust-up will undoubtedly see "title talk" in the near future.
When it comes to the possibility of last chance runs in the division, the bout between Bisping and Belcher at UFC 159 has all the makings of a "loser leaves town" matchup. Both men have been close to title shots in the past, with Bisping being a step away on multiple occasions.
It would be difficult to imagine the loser of this fight getting being anywhere closer than two steps away from a title opportunity, but the loser will more than likely never know what it is like to fight for a UFC strap.
Those may be harsh circumstances to consider, but with the increasingly chaotic picture in the 185-pound weight class, winning matters more than it ever has before.