There was an “Old Vitor” sighting in Philadelphia at UFC 133. | (AP Photo/The News-Journal, Suchat Pederson)
There was nothing rusty about Rashad Evans.
The former light heavyweight champion returned to the cage for the first time in more than a year and did so with a vengeance, as he stopped Tito Ortiz on second-round strikes in the UFC 133 “Evans vs. Ortiz 2” main event on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Evans blasted Ortiz with a brutal second-round knee strike to the sternum and finished him with follow-up punches on the ground, as he reminded the mixed martial arts world why he belongs near the top of the 205-pound division. After throttling Ortiz, Evans has his sights set on regaining the light heavyweight crown now held by former Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts teammate Jon Jones. A case could have been made prior to UFC 133 that Evans was the No. 1 contender for the belt. He did nothing to dissuade that notion in dispatching Ortiz, a competitor not easily finished.
A closer look at the matches we want to see after UFC 133:
Rashad Evans vs. Jon Jones-Quinton Jackson winner: Evans can now sit, rest and wait for the other shoe to drop. Jones, a seemingly supernatural talent, will defend his light heavyweight belt for the first time when he meets Jackson in the UFC 135 headliner on Sept. 24 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. A Jones victory there would set up the best of matchups for the UFC, as he and Evans have sniped at one another ever since the latter left the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts nest. No one benefitted more from Evans’ knee injury than Jones; he filled in for “Suga” on short notice at UFC 128 in March, capturing the 205-pound championship in a brilliant performance against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Chad Mendes vs. Jose Aldo-Kenny Florian winner: After his one-sided decision win over 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Rani Yahya, the time has come for Mendes to shed the prospect label. At 11-0, the Team Alpha Male standout has earned his keep and emerged as one of the world’s premier featherweights. A dominant wrestler with improved standup and excellent submission defense, Mendes figures to be a handful for anyone at 145 pounds. Still viewed as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, Aldo will defend his crown against two-time UFC lightweight title contender Kenny Florian at UFC 136 on Oct. 8 in Houston. Mendes almost certainly looms for the victor.
Vitor Belfort vs. Chris Leben-Mark Munoz winner: Belfort was brilliant in annihilating Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 133, wiping out the judoka with his one-of-a-kind blend of power, speed and precision. Outside of longstanding champion Anderson Silva, is there a more feared middleweight walking the earth today? Therein lies Belfort’s dilemma. Silva embarrassed him at UFC 126 in February, as he knocked him silly with a front kick to the face in the first round. Belfort desires a second crack at “The Spider,” but unless injuries or other unforeseen circumstances clear his path, a rematch anytime soon seems unlikely at best. Still, Belfort remains a significant factor at 185 pounds. Whoever emerges from the Leben-Munoz showdown at UFC 138 in November will be in position to push for a potential title eliminator. Perhaps UFC matchmakers would call “The Phenom” into service for just such an occasion.
Tito Ortiz vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira: Ortiz deserves some time off after fighting twice in a little more than a month. At 36, the body simply does not heal as it once did. Ortiz fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to keep his nose in the fight against Evans, as he was ultimately overmatched by the superior athleticism of a more complete mixed martial artist. Ortiz’s days as an elite light heavyweight are over, but he seems certain to have at least one or two more meaningful bouts left in him.
With Nogueira on the shelf recovering from a neck injury, a matchup between the two becomes ideal given their respective timetables and standing within the division. Nogueira has not set the world on fire since entering the UFC, and his vulnerability to takedowns and positional control would make it a winnable fight for Ortiz.
Rory MacDonald vs. Johny Hendricks: MacDonald has surfaced as the top young talent in the welterweight division. At just 22 years of age, he figures only to grow and develop from here -- a frightening thought for those who populate the ranks at 170 pounds. You can bet Jon Fitch, Jake Shields and Josh Koscheck have their eyes on him. MacDonald answered two Mike Pyle takedowns with his fists at UFC 133, as he blitzed the Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts veteran with savage ground-and-pound en route to a first-round stoppage. Outside of takedown defense, MacDonald has shown no glaring weaknesses. Hendricks, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Oklahoma State University, can wrestle with anyone in the welterweight division. He passed a significant test against the criminally underrated Mike Pierce, albeit by split decision, and his considerable wrestling chops, coupled with his natural punching power, make him an interesting proposition for someone like MacDonald.
Alexander Gustafsson vs. Vladimir Matyushenko: Largely forgotten after his submission loss to the unbeaten Phil Davis at UFC 112, Gustafsson injected himself back into meaningful talk at 205 pounds with his second-round technical knockout against Matt Hamill. The 24-year-old Swede, on a three-fight winning streak, showed off his potent finishing skills after buckling Hamill with a pair of uppercuts. That kind of killer instinct, when matched with obvious physical tools and the drive to succeed, is something to behold. Gustafsson was originally booked to meet Matyushenko, the grizzled former International Fight League champion, at UFC 133. That fight still makes sense, as the Belarusian is a more experienced, more skilled and more intelligent version of Hamill.