Don’t anoint Luke Rockhold as the UFC middleweight No. 1 contender-in-waiting just yet.
While the American Kickboxing Academy product appeared to leave no doubt about the division’s pecking order with his thrashing of Lyoto Machida in the UFC on Fox 15 main event on Saturday night, promotion president Dana White isn’t so sure.
After all, it wasn’t Ronaldo Souza’s fault that fellow contender Yoel Romero pulled out of their co-headlining bout at the last minute due to injury. Instead, “Jacare” was left with an uninspiring rematch against Chris Camozzi, an opponent he handily defeated in his UFC debut nearly two years ago. Despite facing a lose-lose situation, the Brazilian dispatched Camozzi via first-round submission yet again.
With all that in mind, White doesn’t believe there is a clear-cut choice between the two Strikeforce veterans when it comes to picking a challenger to face the winner of the Chris Weidman-Vitor Belfort middleweight title bout at UFC 187 next month.
“Luke looked unbelievable tonight. Look at what he did and look at who he did it to,” White said. “Beating Machida like that is a big deal. People are probably gonna say, ‘Jacare fought Chris Camozzi again.’ Let me tell you what, Chris Camozzi stepped up on six days’ notice to take this fight, and I agree with Chris Camozzi -- he’s not the same fighter he was two years ago.
“Jacare had everything to lose and nothing to gain. He’s fighting the same guy, he’s not ranked. He didn’t complain about it once. He didn’t say one word. He went right in there, he fought and handled his business,” White continued. “So we’re in a position right now where we’ve got two guys who looked unbelievable who can fight for the title next. It’s a good problem to have.”
Not surprisingly, Rockhold doesn’t think the decision is all that difficult. He became one of only three people to finish Machida on Saturday night, something Weidman was unable to do when he took a five-round verdict against “The Dragon” at UFC 175 last July. Rockhold also owns a unanimous decision victory over Souza under the Strikeforce banner, which he believes only strengthens his case.
“I said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is my show. I was gonna come out here and make it my show. I was gonna dominate whether he was fighting me well or not,” Rockhold said. “No offense to Jacare, but I am the No. 1 contender. I’m the best guy around and it’s my title shot. I’ve dominated everybody in my path. I’ve beaten Jacare, and I deserve it.”
Of course, Souza sees his status, as well as his closely-contested loss to Rockhold, which occurred in September 2011, a little bit differently. The Brazilian has won five straight in the UFC and eight in a row overall.
“I believe 100 percent it’s my time. I’m the No. 1 contender,” he said. “I fought Luke a long time ago. Everybody knows he didn’t beat me. The judges fight for him. I’m ready for the title. It’s my fifth fight in the UFC. I can finish anybody in my division. It’s my time.”
Before Weidman can even begin to worry about either Rockhold or Souza, he must get through Belfort. “The Phenom” remains the only man to defeat Rockhold in UFC competition, and while the Californian would welcome the chance to avenge that defeat, he expects Weidman to retain his belt on May 23.
“I’d love to have a rematch [with Vitor]. All the greats get caught,” he said. “It’s the champions that come back and prove themselves and get on top. I’m the best in the world. I believe I’ll beat Chris, I’ll beat Vitor and I’ll beat anyone else in my path. I want the title next. I want the winner.”