UFC top contender tag up for grabs

Mauricio Rua will fight Brandon Vera in Saturday's main event of UFC on Fox 4. (AFP)

Mauricio Rua will fight Brandon Vera in Saturday's main event of UFC on Fox 4. (AFP)

NEIL SPRINGER, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:14 PM ET

It didn’t take long for UFC president Dana White to change his mind.

On a conference call Monday, White declared that the winner of UFC on FOX 4 main event between Mauricio (Shogun) Rua and Brandon Vera would be next in line to challenge for the light-heavyweight championship.

But roughly 24 hours later, White announced he has extended the opportunity to co-main event fighters Lyoto Machida and Ryan Bader, as well.

“When the fans speak, we listen,” White said. “So whoever scores the best win, whoever gets the fans excited by going out there on Saturday and looking the most impressive, he will get the winner of (Jon) Jones vs. (Dan) Henderson.

“Winning isn’t enough, they’ve got to win impressively. Any one of these four fighters can take things into their own hands and make a title shot happen.”

The switch comes as no surprise, really. Fans and critics were left scratching their heads over Vera being placed in a No. 1 contender’s fight.

Though he found early success in the UFC heavyweight division six years ago, Vera became a fighter many looked at as failing to live up to his potential. Since dropping to 205 pounds, he’s put together a 4-3 record with one no contest.

The UFC even cut him from his contract following a unanimous-decision loss to Thiago Silva at UFC 125 in early 2011. However, after Silva failed his pre-fight drug test and the bout decision was overruled, Vera was quietly rehired.

He then went on to win an uninspiring unanimous decision over non-contender Eliot Marshall in October.

But White is adamant that if Vera shocks the world, he will be next in line for a shot at the gold.

“You know what, brother? It’s all about opportunities,” White said. “Brandon is a guy who burst onto the scene, was going to be a 205-pound champion, was going to be a heavyweight champion and was running through guys left and right. Then, I don’t know what happened.

“But it’s about opportunities. He accepted this opportunity to fight one of the greatest fighters of this decade and we’ll see what he does with it.”

Vera said he had little time to think about the critics.

“Shogun is the one who has everything to lose,” Vera said. “This is Shogun’s showcase, his spotlight, his time and I’m going to take all that off him. I’m taking his name, his title runs, everything he is, and I’m taking it all for myself.

“Beating Shogun — and beating him the way I want — corrects all the mistakes I’ve made and wipes away all the bad performances.”

Though the UFC now has a pool of four potential contenders, each fighter has already lost to Jones. Rua also dropped a unanimous decision to Henderson in November.

The former UFC light-heavyweight champion said he hopes to avenge both losses in the near future, but prefers another crack at Jones.

“I want the winner of Jones vs. Henderson,” Rua said. “The fight I had with Henderson was a great fight, the fight of the year, and it was a very close fight. I am OK with that, it was a great fight. But the loss to Jones I can’t live with. I could have done so much better and I want to fight him again.

“First, though, I have to beat Brandon Vera and winning isn’t good enough. I have to be very impressive, but that is what I have trained to do.”

Should Jones get past Henderson at UFC 151 on Sept. 1, White doesn’t anticipate any issues convincing him to take on a familiar face.

“The reality is, when guys keep winning — and you’re the top guy and you keep beating people — you might see a guy coming your way that you already beat. It is what it is. It’s a part of the business.

“Anderson Silva hasn’t lost a fight since 2006 in what many would call a division that isn’t as deep as ... some of the others. But every time you think there are no other people to beat, somebody pops up.”

GUSTAFSSON ODD MAN OUT

While Mauricio (Shogun) Rua, Brandon Vera, Lyoto Machida and Ryan Bader all vie for light-heavyweight No. 1 contender status Saturday at UFC on FOX 4, one fighter seemingly lost in the shuffle is Alexander Gustafsson.

Though the Swedish striker is currently riding a five-fight win streak, there is no top-tier opponent for him in sight.

“He’s ready for a big fight now, too,” UFC president Dana White said on a recent conference call. “We’ll get him lined up with one of the top guys here soon and we’ll figure out where he fits.”

With a professional record of 14-1, Gustafsson holds victories over Vladimir Matyushenko, Matt Hamill and James Te Huna. His last outing saw him win an entertaining unanimous decision over Thiago Silva in the main event of UFC on FUEL TV 2 in April.

His sole loss came via submission to Phil Davis at UFC 112 over two years ago.


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