Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White left the door cracked, and Lyoto Machida burst through it.
Machida wrecked “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner Ryan Bader with an exquisite counterpunch in the UFC on Fox 4 co-main event on Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The punch, along with two subsequent blows, left Bader unconscious 92 seconds into the second round. Afterward, White stated publicly that Machida’s performance had earned him the right to vie for the light heavyweight championship against the winner of the Jon Jones-Dan Henderson title bout at UFC 151.
Bader never looked comfortable. Machida methodically drew him into danger with well-timed kicks to the legs and body. In round two, the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler charged forward with his powerful right hand cocked. “The Dragon” met him with a counter right, flooring him where he stood. Two clubbing right hands followed, one of them with Bader on the way down, and resulted in a no-questions-asked finish.
Machida has already tried and failed to dethrone Jones at UFC 140 on Dec. 10 in Toronto. After a strong start -- according to FightMetric figures, he equaled “Bones” in the significant strikes landed count through the first five minutes -- he succumbed to a standing guillotine choke from the champion in the second round. Machida’s one-sided triumph over Bader has afforded him the opportunity to sit back, rest and observe the Jones-Henderson showdown on Sept. 1 in Las Vegas, knowing he has a date with the victor.
In wake of UFC on Fox 4 “Shogun vs. Vera,” here are four other matchups that need to be made:
Mauricio Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson: Rua engaged in yet another taxing war of wills in the main event, as he outlasted Brandon Vera and forced a fourth-round stoppage. One has to wonder about the mileage “Shogun” has put on his 30-year-old body in his last two fights, which cover nearly nine rounds with Henderson and Vera. The 2005 Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix winner remains a factor in the 205-pound title hunt, though he was forced to take a backseat to Machida. Rua’s shot at revenge against Jones -- who throttled him en route to a third-round technical knockout in March 2011 -- will have to wait. In the meantime, options abound. White has hinted at a high-profile bout for the once-beaten and world-ranked Gustafsson, and “Shogun” would certainly fit the description. The surging 25-year-old Swede finds himself on a five-fight winning streak.
Brandon Vera vs. Ryan Bader: If it is possible to resurrect one’s career in defeat, Vera may have done so. The Alliance MMA representative held his own with one of the greatest light heavyweights of all-time before finally succumbing to punches from Rua in the fourth round. The bout presented Vera with plenty of chances to raise the white flag. He never did. Now, the 34-year-old must prove his performance was more than a one-fight renaissance. A matchup with Bader, who fell short in his bid to topple Machida, would present Vera with exactly that kind of opportunity.
Joe Lauzon vs. Evan Dunham-T.J. Grant winner: Lauzon long ago established himself as one of the UFC’s most consistent entertainers at 155 pounds. He did nothing to shed that label against Jamie Varner, as he submitted the resurgent former World Extreme Cagefighting champion with a third-round triangle choke in a memorable scrap that earned the two lightweights $50,000 bonuses for “Fight of the Night.”
Lauzon, 28, has appeared in 29 professional mixed martial arts fights, and only one of them has reached the judges. Still, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 alum remains on the periphery in terms of title contention in the UFC, and Lauzon will need to string together a few more wins -- he has not won more than two fights in a row since 2007 -- if he intends to improve his position. The Massachusetts native could start with the Dunham-Grant winner after the two collide at UFC 152 on Sept. 22.
Mike Swick vs. Che Mills-Duane Ludwig winner: Swick returned from a lengthy absence -- 910 days to be exact -- to knock out “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 9 finalist DaMarques Johnson in the second round of their welterweight showcase. Sidelined by various injuries and medical issues, the American Kickboxing Academy standout had not competed since his submission defeat to Paulo Thiago at UFC 109 more than two years ago; moreover, the victory was Swick’s first since June 2009. Considering the 33-year-old’s history and extended period of inactivity, the UFC figures to ease him back into the rotation at 170 pounds. Che Mills and Duane Ludwig will toe the line against one another at UFC on Fuel TV 5 on Sept. 29. Throw Swick the winner.