NEWARK—The building was teeming with expectations, enough to reach across the river to where the UFC so desperately wants to be. The behemoth fight promotion dreams of the bright lights and big city, about which some Jersey guy used to croon that if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. Well, you can’t make it in New York if you cannot make it to there, and that long, treacherous road detours through Albany, where the upstate pols might finally be open to opening the octagon door.
That’s all in the hazy future, on a penciled-in December date that Madison Square Garden has reserved for an event that the UFC promises will be An Event. The organization has two champions from the Empire State, both with engagements on the same night next month. So if light heavyweight king Jon Jones and middleweight poobah Chris Weidman hold onto their belts at UFC 187, it’s a good bet that they’d share the marquee again in December at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
On Saturday evening, Weidman showed up at One of New Jersey’s Most Famous Arenas, also known as the Prudential Center, for FOX 15 to check out what name the UFC might be jotting down onto his dance card. Three of the top five 185-pound fighters on the planet were at the top of the bill, the other two being Weidman, of course, and his May 23 challenger, Vitor Belfort.
So what was churning through the champ’s mind at the end of the evening as he made the trip home to the Island?
He’s got his crosshairs trained on Belfort, of course, but if he allowed himself just a quick glance over the Brazilian’s shoulder, he would have seen Luke Rockhold closing in on him, looming larger and larger.
Rockhold, who stands at No. 3 in the SI.com middleweight rankings, staked his claim on a shot at the UFC belt with a shockingly dominant finish of former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida. And the 30-year-old ex-Strikeforce champ was no less masterful in playing into the evening’s underlying narrative.
“I did my part,” Rockhold (14-2) blustered into the microphone at the start of an interview in the cage immediately after choking out Machida at 2:31 of the second round. “Weidman, you go do your part. And we’ll take this across the way, to Madison Square Garden. Let’s make history.”
That drew a roar from the crowd of 13,306 and drew a reaction from Weidman, who was watching from the Fox telecast perch at the top of the lower bowl of seating. “He did amazing against Lyoto Machida, but Machida isn’t me,” the champ said during the post-fight show. “That’s a whole new ballgame.”
It should be noted that the UFC isn’t quite ready to say “Play ball!” Dana White & Co. never like to announce fights on fight night. And on this night that made sense, since White was flanked at the press conference podium by Rockhold on one side and Ronaldo Souza on the other. The man known as “Jacare” is SI.com’s No. 4 middleweight but is ahead of Rockhold in the UFC’s media-voted tally. He owns an eight-fight win streak after a quick victory in the co-main event.
So on this night the Dana White narrative was about how Souza took on a late-replacement opponent without complaint and did what he had to do. (That is, he armbarred Chris Camozzi in 2:33, even faster than his finish when the two fought two years ago.) This was not a night to burst the bubble of a good soldier.
But “Jacare” knew. He was dealt a bad break when his original opponent, Yoel Romero—No. 7 in our rankings—was injured in training and replaced by Camozzi. It’s tough to impress when you’re facing a 10-1 underdog who not long ago was a UFC discard. And when the other contender for that title shot owns a victory over you, that calls for some dancing.
“He did not beat me,” Souza said in explaining away the 2011 loss in which Rockhold took away the Strikeforce belt. “The judges found for him.”
That was all “Jacare” had. Mostly, he sat there on the dais in stoic silence while questions poured in for Rockhold, who seized the opportunity to frame his challenge of Weidman as inevitable -- speculating on his walkout music for the presumed Garden party, suggesting a season of The Ultimate Fighter with him and the champ coaching, treating his title fight matchup as a fait accompli.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is my show,” he said. “I’m the No. 1 contender. I’m the best guy around. It’s my title shot.”
Anyone who watched his dismantling of Machida would be hard-pressed to argue. Weidman didn’t finish Lyoto. Jon Jones did, back in 2011, but even he didn’t lead the way from wire to wire, like Rockhold did. Luke came forward from the start, but did so patiently rather than rushing in foolishly against the Brazilian counterpuncher. And when Rockhold got the fight to the canvas midway through the first, he pounced with ferocity, threatening with submissions and bullying Machida back to the mat whenever he seemed on the verge of getting back to his feet.
With seconds remaining in the round Rockhold landed a sharp elbow to the side of Machida’s head, and when the horn sounded and the fighters stood to go to their corners, Lyoto was wobbly. It was only a matter of time.
The same can be said of Weidman vs. Rockhold. The announcement will come on some slow news day when the UFC needs to make some waves. Perhaps it’ll be paired with an update on the New York MMA sanctioning bill. And then we’ll wait till December. Eagerly.