It would certainly be no surprise if Lyoto Machida emerged from UFC Fight Night 36 with the next available middleweight title shot sewn up.
In fact, if you’re the kind of person who only reads the headlines, you might think it’s already sort of a done deal.
So long as Machida defeats Gegard Mousasi in Saturday night’s main event, he’ll likely get the nod over the winner of the evening’s dueling 185-pound contender battle between Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Francis Carmont.
That was certainly the predominant takeaway from Dana White’s appearance on Fox Sports 1 earlier this week, when the UFC president mentioned Machida as the likely candidate during a wide-ranging eight-minute interview with host Charissa Thompson.
"Yes,” White said at one point, “if Machida wins, he could possibly be next in line for a title shot."
Makes sense. Machida certainly has the highest profile among the current crop of middleweight contenders, all of whom have had a hard time getting a word in edgewise as Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort have dominated the discussion during the last six months.
Despite the fact he’s got just a single win in the Octagon at 185 pounds, Machida is a former light heavyweight champion, a popular figure in the UFC landscape and a known commodity for matchmakers.
Guy once had an entire era named after him, for Pete’s sake.
If you actually listen to what White said during that much-publicized television appearance, it makes the division sound a lot more wide open than all that.
Focus a bit more on the “ifs” and “possiblys” during his 50-second answer to Thompson's question on the subject and you come away feeling like Jacare Souza has just as good a chance to end up as the next opponent for the Belfort-Weidman winner.
Certainly, the lion’s share of the story will be told this weekend, when both Machida and Souza enter their bouts as significant favorites, via Best Fight Odds.
If Machida falters against Mousasi, or even wins via the kind of tepid, unsatisfying decision that was often his calling card at 205 pounds, the No. 1 contender spot could be there for the taking.
And Jacare could be just the man to grab it.
You can’t argue with much about Souza’s resume. The five-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion flashed moments of greatness throughout his eight-fight run through Strikeforce, but really seemed to hit his stride as a mixed martial artist after coming to the UFC last May.
|Yushin Okami||W||TKO (punches)||R1 (2:47)||9/3/13|
|Chris Camozzi||W||Tech. Sub. (arm triangle)||R1 (3:37)||5/18/13|
|Ed Herman||W||Submission (kimura)||R1 (3:10)||1/12/13|
|Derek Brunson||W||KO (punches)||R1 (0:41)||8/18/12|
He’s looked good—borderline great—in crafting back-to-back victories over Chris Camozzi and Yushin Okami. We’ve always known Souza was among the most decorated submission grapplers in the sport, but it was the Okami victory five months ago that served as his proper coming out party in the Octagon.
In that bout, Souza overwhelmed the perennial contender on the feet—kicks, winging punches, even a standing elbow—before dropping him with an overhand right and swarming until the referee stepped in.
If you didn’t know before, it was the sort of showing that proved Souza could be a problem for anyone in his weight class. Even at 34 years old, his athleticism allows him to look leaps and bounds better each time we see him, transforming himself bit by bit from a pure grappler into a competent, even dangerous striker as well.
Moreover, he’s been something Machida can’t always boast—exciting.
We all know that carries more weight in this sport than it probably should.
Who is best-equipped to beat Chris Weidman? a) Vitor Belfort b) Lyoto Machida c) Jacare Souza d) other. Love 185 right now.— Jon Anik (@Jon_Anik) February 7, 2014
Against Carmont, Souza will get a stiff test of most of his faculties, including his ability to entertain the masses. Through six consecutive wins in the UFC (11 straight overall) Carmont has established a reputation as a man who wins through inactivity more than anything else.
He’s got stoppage wins over Karlos Vemola and Magnus Cedenblad, but has otherwise wrestled his way to the bulk of his UFC wins.
It’s the style more than the substance of Carmont’s attack that means nobody is mentioning him alongside Machida and Souza as a potential immediate title contender. That’s probably not fair, but it’s how our system currently works.
Because of that style—and because this fight is in Brazil—Souza will have considerable support, both from the live crowd and the UFC faithful watching at home.
If he can do something impressive against the decision-prone Carmont—a highlight submission or bonus-worthy knockout—then we shouldn’t take for granted that it’ll be Machida fighting for the title later this year.
Instead, it could be Souza grabbing all the headlines.