Rockhold, Philippou headline UFC redemption card

Tuesday January 14th, 2014

Luke Rockhold (right) got knocked out by this Vitor Belfort blow during their May bout in Brazil.
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Superfights are super, even if in all but the rarest occasions they're all talk and no fight. A battle of unbeatens -- "someone's 'O' has to go" matchmaking -- has massive appeal, well worth nurturing beyond the archetypal stage of dream and negotiation. Any championship fight, or fight for the right to take part in one, is a treasure, really.

But high-and-mighty glory seeking isn't the only game in town. The drive to preserve an unblemished record or a comfortable home at the top of the hill is noble, but it has nowhere near the gravitas of a fight for survival.

We're talking athletic competition here, of course, not hand-to-hand combat to the death. But battling to preserve and prolong a career that puts food on your family's table the best way you know how can feel like a life-and-death struggle. When a life of boundless opportunities is on the verge of being emptied of attractive options, there's nothing to do but fight.

On Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), the UFC will present us with an opportunity to bear witness to that fight.

Luke Rockhold has competed exactly once in the last 18 months. That bout changed everything for him. Going into last May's card in Jaraguá do Sul, Brazil, the American Kickboxing Academy fighter was at the top of the game, or at least in the vicinity. His reign as Strikeforce middleweight champion had ended not because of a loss -- on the contrary, he was riding a nine-fight winning streak dating to 2009 -- but because the entire fight promotion had been absorbed by its corporate partner, the UFC. Rockhold walked to the octagon for the first time knowing he had an opportunity to elevate his status to dizzying heights.

Minutes later, he walked out of the octagon dizzy, the victim of a Vitor Belfort head-kick knockout.

Now the 29-year-old Californian stands on a precipice. It's not that a loss to Costa Philippou in the main event of Wednesday night's UFC Fight Night card outside Atlanta would end his career. But it would push him far out onto the fringes of relevancy in the 185-pound division.

Philippou knows that territory well. Whereas Rockhold was as highly regarded as No. 5 in the middleweight rankings before falling to Belfort, Philippou never rose above No. 9 and slipped a notch following his loss to Francis Carmont in September. Another loss for Costa and it's off to the oblivion of the unranked for him.

You catching a theme yet?

You know how Jon Jones has been known to walk out to the cage to Bob Marley songs? Well, one that the light heavyweight champ has yet to use -- because he hasn't had to -- would be perfect walkout music for not just the main eventers but also several fighters on Wednesday's card. It's called "Redemption Song."

Consider the predicament faced by T.J. Dillishaw, who was rising in the bantamweight ranks before an October loss to Raphael Assunção. On the undercard, he faces Mike Easton, who has dropped his last two and could be facing a fate worse than irrelevancy. Both men will be trying to stop the bleeding ... by making the other bleed, naturally.

As falls from grace go, however, none has the potential to be as dramatic as John Moraga's. Just look at the list of fights, in which his flyweight bout with Dustin Ortiz sits far down the pecking order. The last we saw Moraga, he was challenging Demetrious Johnson for the UFC championship, riding in on a seven-fight win streak. It was not a good night for Moraga. He was dominated by "Mighty Mouse" on the way to a fifth-round submission defeat. He looked out of his league.

Now, in order to show he belongs, Moraga must separate himself from Ortiz, who has fought just once in the UFC -- a knockout of Jose Maria Tome in November -- and will be jockeying for the same thing his opponent already has had.

So much yearning, up and down the fight card. Such high stakes all around -- if not in the grand scheme of UFC, certainly in the lives of these athletes.

That guarantees us observers nothing, of course. Fighters putting everything on the line are as likely to hold back as they are to let loose. But it doesn't take much on these nights to trigger something special. Sometimes a vision of the future -- a glorious one, not just the dim one they've feared -- can be the spark. Rockhold already has mentioned his goal of getting back in the cage with Belfort, and Philippou has respectfully called for a fight with Michael Bisping. The road in that direction passes through this Georgia night, and it's not wide enough for both of them.

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