July 24, 2012

When opportunity knocks, you either answer the door or you don't. Renan Barão did. Hector Lombard did not.

But that's not the end of the story for either fighter.

Barão walked out of the octagon on Saturday night wearing an interim championship belt after taking a unanimous decision over Urijah Faber. The strap is a shiny brass-and-leather memento for the 25-year-old to display in his home in Brazil, but its worth is merely as an admission pass to a challenge of Dominick Cruz once the UFC bantamweight champ is healed from knee surgery. There's more work to be done for Barão, now on a 30-fight unbeaten run, to be a true champion.

And then there's Lombard, who saw his 25-fight unbeaten streak snapped at UFC 149 in a split-decision loss to Tim Boetsch. It was not the auspicious UFC debut expected of the 2000 Olympic judoka from Cuba. But Lombard should take solace in the short history of mixed martial arts and understand that in this young sport, opportunity tends to come a-knocking again.

MMA is not like boxing, where promising fighters are coddled with powder-puff opposition until they're 20-0. In this sport, you're shoved into the cage with the best the promotion has to offer, you win or lose and you move on. And sometimes move up. Look at the records of some of the UFC's greatest. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz are all Hall of Famers, and their records were 19-11, 21-8 and 16-11-1. Not exactly Marciano numbers.

Lombard (31-3-1, one no contest) is far from the first fighter to carry a heavy load of hype into the octagon. He's far from the first to stumble. If the former Bellator middleweight champion is feeling down on himself after failing to seize the moment against Boetsch -- after all, an impressive win likely would have earned him an immediate matchup with UFC belt holder/legend Anderson Silva -- Hector should grab a cold drink and settle into a comfortable chair to watch the octagon debut of Mauricio Rua.

"Shogun" was a Pride Fighting Championships belt holder widely considered the best 205-pound fighter in the world when he signed with the UFC in 2007. For his debut, he was matched with Forrest Griffin, who to that point was best known as the Season 1 winner of the UFC reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter. Rua was a huge favorite, but Griffin dominated the fight on the way to a third-round submission victory. Never mind that Forrest was good enough to become UFC champion in his next fight. At the time, it was a mortifying loss for Rua, derailing the Brazilian's expected express ride to the top of the promotion.

But here's where the story becomes relevant for Lombard. Rua rebounded with two straight victories, the second one a knockout of Liddell that earned him a shot at then-champion Lyoto Machida. Rua lost the title bout by unanimous decision, but the verdict was so vigorously vilified that he was given a rematch, which he won by KO to become UFC champion. Rua kept the belt only long enough to hand it over to Jon Jones (no shame in that), but since then he's avenged his Griffin loss and fought an exciting, back-and-forth battle with Dan Henderson. When he steps into the cage in less than two weeks to face Brandon Vera at the UFC on Fox event in Los Angeles, he will do so as a fighter who's proven his mettle in the planet's biggest fight promotion.

That should serve as inspiration for Lombard, who had 13 first-round finishes during his long run of success in Bellator and smaller promotions such as Australia's Cage Fighting Championship. Against Boetsch, though, he showed none of the aggressiveness that had led to so many explosive early KO's. Why? He did not attend the post-fight press conference to explain himself, but on Twitter he expressed regret, saying the Boetsch strategy of keeping distance with jabs and front kicks surprised him. "I was expecting Tim to come up at me," Lombard wrote, "but he didn't." He said he believed he deserved the judges' decision, though, and responded to an Australian fan's tweet by saying, "Tell my Aussie warriors that I will KO everyone from now on or I will retire."

That's setting the bar high. It's fine for him to think aggressively, but Hector should understand that it's not easy stepping up your game to the UFC's level. When he's done with those "Shogun" tapes, he should watch a little of Mirko Filipovic.

The man known as "Cro Cop" first stepped into the octagon in 2007 fresh off a fearsome run in Pride, capped by an Open-Weight Grand Prix championship performance in which he defeated both Wanderlei Silva and Josh Barnett in a single night. Filipovic won his UFC debut, taking out a fighter named Eddie Sanchez who'd had just six previous pro bouts. A couple of months later, however, Mirko was knocked out by Gabriel Gonzaga in the most humiliating manner: The Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace floored him with a head kick, which long had been Filipovic's signature finishing technique. From there, the UFC career never got on track. Mirko lost to Cheick Kongo, left the promotion and scored a few wins, then returned and lost four of his final six fights before retiring last October.

Another former Pride champion, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, joined the UFC the same year as Filipovic and Rua -- 2007 was, after all, when the Japanese promotion was bought out by the UFC's parent company and disbanded -- and won his first two bouts, the second victory (a submission of Tim Sylvia) earning him the interim heavyweight championship. But since then he's lost three of five.

There are others who've had shining careers elsewhere but seen their legacy tarnished in the UFC.

So things could go either way from here for Hector Lombard. He's 34 and has three dozen fights under his belt in a pro career that dates to 2004. But he's just beginning.

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