Belo Horizonte is a city in eastern Brazil that was built on several hills and is surrounded by mountains. What a place for a bunch of UFC fighters to do a little climbing.
Glover Teixeira. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. Joseph Benavidez. Upwardly mobile, each one of them.
Teixeira entered Wednesday night's main event against Ryan Bader already slotted at No. 2 in the UFC's media-voted light heavyweight rankings, behind only Alexander Gustafsson, who in a little over two weeks will go for the gold against Jon Jones. Glover was next in line, it stood to logic, because he'd won 19 straight fights, a gaudy run that dated back eight years. But only the last four of those victories were in the UFC, and none over Top 10 opposition. He was in need of a flashy performance to solidify his standing.
Souza, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, was a few rungs down on the ladder he began climbing upon joining the UFC less than four months ago. He'd pulled off a slick submission in his debut with the promotion, his third straight first-round finish, but now he was taking a step up in competition. His opponent in the co-main event, Yushin Okami, was just a few fights removed from a title bout with Anderson Silva. The Japanese veteran's resume also listed encounters with former champs Rich Franklin and Evan Tanner. "Jacare" was a couple spots below in the UFC rankings, so this was an opportunity to make a move.
Benavidez, like Teixeira, also was already ranked near the top of his weight class. But unlike Glover, Joseph had proven himself against the iron of the division -- divisions, plural, actually. Benavidez entered his fight with Jussier da Silva with wins over Top 10 guys at both flyweight and bantamweight, and having lost only to Dominick Cruz, the champion at 135 pounds, and 125-poound king Demetrious Johnson. A win over another ranked opponent was going to make him difficult to overlook the next time the UFC goes searching for an opponent for "Mighty Mouse."
OK, so how'd the climbing expedition go? Well, it didn't last long.
Teixeira finished Bader at 2 minutes 55 seconds of the first round. Souza took out Okami at 2:47. Benavidez flattened Da Silva at 3:07.
Up, up and away.
On a night of boffo performances under the spotlight, Souza (19-3, 1 NC) stole the show. He never allowed Okami to get into the fight, keeping him at a distance with punches, kicks and feints. Yushin circled and measured, but couldn't pull the trigger. He landed but one strike, according to FightMetric, and in a stat perhaps just as telling, he threw only 11. Souza landed 28 shots, the most significant being a right hand that floored Okami and rendered him unable to fend off the Brazilian's finishing onslaught on the mat.
The victory, impressive in its dominance over a tough man, might well propel Souza to the head of the line that's waiting for the winner of December's Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva rematch. The victor of next month's bout between Michael Bisping and Mark Munoz will have something to say about that. And then there's Vitor Belfort, who, despite standing at No. 2 in the UFC's middleweight rankings, seems to be the odd man out in title talk. His fight with Dan Henderson in November will be contested at light heavy. Who knows what that will mean to the 185-pound mix?
Benavidez (19-3) also understands what it feels like to be invisible. He's been the No. 1-ranked flyweight in the UFC for as long as there have been flyweights in the UFC. Just under a year ago, he lost a split decision in the fight that crowned Johnson as the promotion's first 125-pound champ. Since then, two challengers have leapfrogged Benavidez to get at "Mighty Mouse." Meanwhile, Joseph has steamrolled three Top 10 guys, knocking out the last two.
His finish of Da Silva, who like many Brazilians chooses to be introduced by his nickname, "Formiga," was a thing of beauty. After sidestepping a spinning kick that despite hitting nothing but air drew a roar from the crowd, Benavidez landed a rapid four-punch combo -- left-right to the body, then left-right to the chin -- that made the Brazilian do an involuntary samba. Joseph took note and followed with a kick to the torso that crumbled Da Silva to the mat. Benavidez pounced with a blur of right hands before referee Mario Yamasaki mercifully interceded.
It's not Benavidez's style to call out the champ or anyone else, so after the fight he used his time on the microphone to state the obvious. "I think I've proven that I can beat, and finish, the top guys in the division," he said, leaving the UFC to do what it chooses with that information.
Teixeira (22-2) was in more of a calling-out mood following his victory. But he was hardly in position to do so.
Glover had his hand raised, yes, but before that he had to raise his whole body off the canvas. Midway through a first round in which Bader was the aggressor, a counter left hand dropped Teixeira. The Brazilian got up right away, but he could do nothing but cover up as Bader pounced. Had Ryan been a more precise striker, Glover could have been in trouble. But Teixeira's arms blocked the bulk of the wide punches coming his way, and as Bader was throwing an uppercut, Glover unleashed some lightning, a quick 1-2 that crumbled his opponent.
"As he knocked me down," said Teixeira, "I knew he was going to come with his guard open because he was going to try to submit me. That's the opportunity I used. I gave him a strong one between his arms, and I was able to end the fight."
The close call is a concern, though. Teixeira has won 20 straight fights now, but none have come against Top 10 competition. Bader used to be a ranked guy, but he's lost two of three fights, four of his last seven. The biggest name on Glover's resume is Quinton Jackson, but when they fought back in January, Jackson was a shadow of the fighter who long ago lived up to the nickname "Rampage." It seems crazy to question a man who's won 20 in a row, but Teixeira still is in search of the signature UFC victory.
He seems to understand that. It's not shaking his confidence, though. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't happy with this fight," said Teixeira. "It disappointed me that he was able to knock me down. I'm going to do more in camp. I'm going to train more so that I can get there. I'm telling you: This belt is going to be mine. It doesn't matter if it's Jon Jones or if it's Gustafsson. It's mine."