As former champions, Vitor Belfort and Luke Rockhold are no strangers to competing in situations where there is more on the line than a win or loss. And while there will be no title on the line when they step into the Octagon to square off for the main event at UFC on FX 8, there is no lack of importance surrounding the bout.
The last man to hold the Strikeforce middleweight belt will be looking to make his official UFC debut a memorable affair, as Rockhold has the potential to complete his transition from prospect to legit contender on the sport's biggest stage. Not to take anything away from the Strikeforce title he has held since late 2011, but the MMA world only recognizes one 185-pound king, a title currently held by Anderson Silva.
As talented has the 28-year-old has proven to be, the biggest question lingering over Rockhold is how he will handle fighting the best in the world under the bright lights of the UFC Octagon. That situation presents a unique brand of pressure in itself, but when a potential title shot is factored into the equation, it becomes clear there is a lot on the line for the Californian on Saturday night.
As for Belfort, the former light heavyweight champion is in the midst of a career resurgence since returning to the middleweight division and has every intention of making another run at UFC gold. The 36-year-old's stock suffered a minor drop when he was defeated by pound-for-pound great Jon Jones at UFC 152, but it rocketed back up the ladder when he scored a TKO victory over Michael Bisping at UFC on FX 7 in January.
The victory over "The Count" put Belfort back into the title conversation in the middleweight division. And with the headlining tilt against Rockhold this weekend in Jaraguá do Sul, Brazil, "The Phenom" has the opportunity to solidify himself as the next in line for a title shot in the 185-pound weight class.
Since breaking into the professional ranks in 2007, the word "potential" has been stamped upon Rockhold's profile. At 6'3", the NorCal native is primarily known for his rangy striking attack, where he keeps the fight at a dictated range and attacks his opponent from the outside.
But while his stand-up game may be what he has garnered the most acclaim for, the AKA product also possesses above-average skills when the action hits the canvas. Being proficient in wrestling and jiu-jitsu—in addition to his striking—gives Rockhold one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the middleweight division.
Nevertheless, the biggest drop on Rockhold is how he will fare when taking a step up in competition. While victories over Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Tim Kennedy and former UFC veteran Keith Jardine are all noteworthy additions to his resume, he has yet to face an opponent who carries the knockout power and elevated profile remotely similar to what Belfort carries.
The heavy-handed Brazilian is more than just a star in the realm of MMA; he is a legend, and one who has been facing the very best in the sport for the better part of two decades.
The "superstar" aspect becomes all the more amplified as the fight takes place in Belfort's home country of Brazil, a place where he is one of the most beloved fighters to ever compete in the sport. Therefore, Rockhold will have to overcome the hostile reception of facing a Brazilian fighter in Brazil, and one of their most celebrated fighters at that.
Putting those factors aside, the majority of the pressure surrounding Rockhold involves what follows a victory or defeat against Belfort. With the major players in the middleweight divisions all suffering setbacks over the past five months, the window of opportunity for Rockhold to jump to the front of the title picture is open. If the surging middleweight is victorious this Saturday in Brazil, he will solidify his place in the divisional hierarchy.
On the other hand, if Rockhold comes up short against Belfort, there is a good chance he will be shuffled to the back of the deck in the 185-pound division. Former contender Michael Bisping picked up a victory over Alan Belcher in his most recent outing, and with a collection of top-ranked middleweights returning to action over the next two months, the road back to where he currently stands in the divisional picture would be a difficult and lengthy road to travel.
Where Rockhold would face a long climb back to contention in defeat, Belfort's chances to fight for a UFC championship will most likely vanish entirely should he come up short this weekend. Over his lengthy career, the Team Blackzilians fighter once held the light heavyweight title and has contested for gold on several occasions, including failed attempts at both the 185- and 205-pound crowns over the past two years.
Nevertheless, the Brazilian knockout artist is enjoying a career resurgence that has him poised to make another bid for title contention. If Belfort is victorious over Rockhold on Saturday, it would be difficult to argue there is another middleweight closer to a title shot in the current divisional picture. The impressive win over Bisping put him back in the upper tier, and defeating the Santa Cruz native would put the position on lock.
While Rockhold presents unique challenges inside the cage, outside of the Octagon, Belfort has been under fire for his usage of testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT). The former title challenger is far from being the only athlete in MMA requesting and receiving exemptions for TRT, but what makes Belfort's case disputable is the fact that he has previously tested positive for banned substances—an offense that would disqualify him from receiving an exemption from commissions working inside the United States.
There is no doubt Belfort is one of the premier fighters currently competing in the middleweight division, but the questions surrounding his TRT usage have created a stigma of sorts.
Belfort's victory over Bisping came into question when news of his exemption was released, and Rockhold hasn't been shy in talking about the matter in the pre-fight buildup. This has created a scenario where Belfort is not only preparing to face a game opponent inside the cage, but also trying to defend himself in the court of public opinion.
At 36 years old, Belfort is undoubtedly writing the final chapter of his career. For nearly two decades, he has competed at the highest level of the sport and garnered the type of acclaim that has made him a future "Hall of Famer." With that in mind, there is a lot at stake in the upcoming fight with Rockhold. The momentum from a victory at UFC on FX 8 will carry him to the doorstep of another middleweight title shot, where a loss would push him out of title conversation and into the realm of "fan-friendly" fights.
If this turns out to be the case, there are still plenty of interesting matchups for Belfort to take before closing the book on his career once and for all. Yet, as a former champion and a fighter who has always pursued championship gold, it would be hard to imagine the "old lion" is ready to be anywhere but competing for a title.