The UFC bantamweight division may be in chaos at the current time, but that isn't slowing down Raphael Assuncao's assault on the 135-pound weight class.
The 31-year-old Brazilian-turned-Atlanta transplant has started his bantamweight campaign on a flawless run as he's picked up victories in every one of his four showings in the division. With each outing, Assuncao has shown increased comfort at his new weight as the submission savvy and knockout power that made him a former WEC featherweight title challenger have returned with force.
"It has been a great move for my body," Assuncao told Bleacher Report. "For my size and frame, 135 pounds fits me better, and a I feel really good here. I've actually gotten stronger because I've done a lot of strength and conditioning to actually lose the weight. It made me better.
"As a featherweight I was walking around at 155 pounds and would just have to cut those 10 extra pounds. I wasn't being very professional. I would fly in to the city where we were having the event and make the weight right there. I didn't diet prior to the camp. I would eat normally and then cut the weight to make the fight. Competing at bantamweight has only made me that much more professional."
The strength of his performances in the bantamweight ranks—especially his two most recent victories over Mike Easton and Vaughan Lee—have ignited talk of a run at the 135-pound title. But while Assuncao has looked impressive in those bouts, neither opponent carried enough clout in the divisional picture to launch him to the front of the line, which means the immediate road ahead will undoubtedly carry the most weight where his title hopes are concerned.
"I think I'm picking up more momentum," Assuncao said. "Everyone knows that every fight is different and there are different challenges every time you step out there. The Easton fight was short-notice and I had never fought on short-notice before in my career. I wanted to fight him but the matchup was never put together. I liked his style to the point where I always wanted to fight him and I believed I could beat him.
"Then I got the call a few weeks before and got the fight. I don't think it was my best performance. However, I was able to nullify Mike Easton and beat him, but suffered a broken forearm in the fight. For my next fight, I was coming off the injury, fighting in Brazil against Vaughan Lee. He has two losses in the UFC but he's a very talented striker and I was able to beat him. I think both of those wins were good but I have more challenges ahead."
Assuncao knows the best the division has to offer is coming up around the bend, and while this is enough to light the fires of motivation, the next step of his journey has provided a different kind of inspiration. While the date is yet to be set for the official showdown, the surging contender will face fast-rising prospect T.J. Dillashaw at an event later this year.
The TUF alum is a member of Team Alpha Male, a squad headed up by perennial contender Urijah Faber. Assuncao and "The California Kid" locked up back in 2010 inside the "little blue cage of the WEC," and while he doesn't harbor any personal ill-will with Team Alpha Male, he sees the bout with Dillashaw as his chance to even out the score with the Sacramento-based collective.
"I think it's going to happen and I believe the UFC wants that matchup. I'm preparing for T.J. Dillashaw right now. He's very gifted and he's very talented. He has great work ethic and I know he is a great athlete. I'm not leaving anything back on this. I'm focused and it will be a great fight. I'm not going to lose. I've lost to Urijah Faber before and I'm not going to lose to Team Alpha Male again.
"For me, it's not personal. I respect the Alpha Male guys a lot, but this time it is going to be a little bit different. I fought Urijah Faber and this time around, I'm not going out there with respect. Against Faber, I was caught up in the hype, and this time things are going to be different.
"There are a lot of factors for title shots," Assuncao added. "It all depends on performance and how good you look on the night of the fight, but I'm looking at this fight to be for the No.1 contender spot. I'm taking it very seriously and I'm looking forward to it, man. My last fight was only seven weeks ago, so everything is fresh and I'm going into training feeling great. I'm putting all of my focus on the next chapter and this next fight."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.