What a difference a year makes.
Back in June 2011, one-time UFC middleweight title challenger Nate Marquardt was one day away from making his welterweight debut in the main event of a UFC on Versus card in Pittsburgh when he was pulled from the fight just prior to weigh-ins. He'd been denied medical clearance by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission because of an unacceptable level of testosterone, the result of Marquardt having undergone testosterone replacement therapy. UFC president Dana White, irate over having his top-billed throwdown fall apart at the last minute, unceremoniously released Marquardt from the fight promotion.
Thirteen months later, TRT is as prevalent in mixed martial arts as energy drinks, and Marquardt is back in the cage -- only it's the six-sided one of Strikeforce this time, not the octagon of its Zuffa-owned promotional cousin. And Marquardt rules that cage after knocking out Tyron Woodley on Saturday night in Portland, Ore., to capture the vacant welterweight championship.
That fight was actually just the co-main event. The evening's top-billed bout was Luke Rockhold's slow-and-steady defense of his middleweight belt, a fight in which the champion controlled Tim Kennedy for five rounds but never appeared close to a finish in taking a unanimous decision.
In some respects, the evening's two losers were Kennedy and Rockhold, who battled vigorously but weren't much to watch, while the winners were Marquardt and Woodley, who put on a vivacious show in a bout that went back and forth until "T-Wood" got worn down and taken out with a vicious barrage of elbows and punches at 1:39 of the fourth round.
The first round saw both fighters get wobbled. Woodley (10-1) did his damage a minute and a half into the fight with a right forearm that sent Marquardt (32-10-2) stumbling backward across the cage, with Woodley chasing him down and then taking him down. But that would be the only takedown of the night for the two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler. And he was unable to do any damage on the ground or keep Marquardt there, which cost him a minute later when Marquardt floored him with a short right hand. Woodley got right back up, but found himself defending a guillotine choke. He escaped.
Marquardt controlled the rest of the bout, other than when he got caught by a series of right hands in the third round, went to the canvas and had to withstand a Woodley flurry of punches. Before the round was half over, though, Marquardt was back on his feet and Woodley looked spent. Marquardt stalked him the rest of the round and into the next one. The fight ended after Marquardt pulled away from a clinch against the cage and landed a lethal one-two -- not with fists but with nasty elbows. As a hurt Woodley sagged against the fence, Marquardt connected with one more right elbow. Then a left uppercut sent Woodley sliding down the fence, but not fast enough for him to avoid having his head snapped back from a final, finishing right uppercut.
"Man, it's a dream come true," Marquardt, fighting for the first time since a March 2011 win over Dan Miller, said after having the Strikeforce belt secured around his waist.
Woodley, even in suffering his first defeat, showed flashes of dangerous striking but could not consistently find his target. He threw far more punches than Marquardt, but while he landed fewer than half of his, Marquardt connected at an astounding 75.5 percent clip. But Woodley was resilient, standing up to his opponent's sharpshooting right to the end. "I tell you what: 'T-Wood' is one tough dude," Marquardt said. "He was a lot more game once I started catching him than I thought. He's a tough dude."
So are Rockhold and Kennedy, whose two-man show was not the most entertaining of performances but who toughed it out for 25 rugged minutes. "Five-round wars, those suck," said the champion Rockhold, his face bruised and cut up. "But hard work pays off."
That it did for Rockhold (10-1), who stalked Kennedy (14-4) for much of the fight, landed the occasional big shot but mostly made defense his best offense -- fending off the challenger's repeated attempts to take the fight to the mat and turning the tables on Kennedy to seize ground control for himself. The grappling wasn't always pretty, but it ensured that the man who walked to the cage in possession of the middleweight belt would walk out with it.