It has been four years since the Ultimate Fighting Championship brought the Octagon to the Los Angeles area without Ronda Rousey in tow. Two title fights featuring American champions will provide the one-two punch at UFC 199 on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Middleweight champion Luke Rockhold meets late replacement Michael Bisping in the main event, and the long-awaited trilogy bout pitting bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz against rival Urijah Faber takes co-headliner billing. All four participants live in the Golden State, with Bisping, the Brit, residing closest to the venue. Each will arrive in the West Coast media capital eager to leave his mark on pop culture by capturing gold. All the title hoopla aside, the event features an American legend and a slew of action fighters across weight class and gender lines. The Forum was renovated in an effort to recapture some of the Showtime magic it once housed. Twenty-six fighters will now get their chance.
HOW WE GOT HERE: Rockhold rocked Bisping with a left high kick and tapped “The Count” with a topside guillotine in November 2014. A little more than a year later, he toppled Chris Weidman with unanswered ground strikes to claim the UFC middleweight championship. Weidman said in pre-fight interviews that he would not be able to go home to face his family if he lost to Rockhold. The American Kickboxing Academy rep forced him to do just that. It goes without saying that Weidman’s desire for a rematch was instantaneous. Thus, the UFC’s insistence on immediate rematches was satiated, along with the former champion’s campaign for a mulligan. Rockhold told MMAJunkie Radio he wanted to compete on any card other than UFC 199, so naturally, matchmakers booked Rockhold-Weidman 2 for UFC 199. The promotion had to pave the road to UFC 200 with something meaningful. However, the sequel fell apart when Weidman went down with a neck injury. In its place comes a rematch that makes logistical sense, with Weidman and No. 1 contender in waiting Ronaldo Souza both sidelined ... Cruz was first slated for a trilogy bout with Faber in the summer of 2012, following the completion of “The Ultimate Fighter 15.” Cruz’s seemingly endless injury troubles started there, and he was ultimately stripped of the bantamweight title. Faber was unable to capture the belt in Cruz’s stead on two occasions against Renan Barao. Cruz regained the championship from Faber’s former friend and Team Alpha Male protégé T.J. Dillashaw, who twice brutalized Barao. Faber remained a perennial contender all the while. The result is a trilogy nine years in the making, and it takes place on neutral ground, between Faber’s camp in Sacramento and Cruz’s base in San Diego.
PUTTING THE STAR IN STARS AND STRIPES: Rockhold-Weidman was going to determine divisional supremacy at 185 pounds while also serving as a de facto contest to reveal the future’s brightest American star. It was the middleweight equivalent of Jon Jones-Daniel Cormier -- an all-American rivalry between true foils at the top of their respective weight class. Rockhold finds himself in the driver’s seat at 185 pounds, with Weidman once vanquished and now battling injury. Rockhold’s signature win over Weidman came four years after he snatched the Strikeforce title from Souza in a 25-minute decision. “Jacare” happens to be the current standout contender at middleweight, and Rockhold has yet to go the distance since arriving in the UFC. That includes blowouts of Bisping, Weidman and Lyoto Machida. In short, Rockhold is building something remarkable. In his five victories inside the Octagon, Rockhold has left with a $50,000 performance bonus on four occasions. The only time he was snubbed, he pulled off a double submission on Tim Boetsch. Rockhold has been beaten just twice in his nine years as a pro. He responded to the first, a knockout on the regional circuit, with a nine-fight winning streak. The second, a spinning heel kick KO courtesy of Vitor Belfort, has been put in the rearview mirror by Rockhold’s recent run of excellence. If the 31-year-old continues to dismiss the world’s best at 185 pounds, his place as the premier middleweight on the planet will position him atop MMA with the new generation of athletes and put him on par with other major sports stars.
PERENNIAL UNION JACK: What stands in Rockhold’s path to greatness is Bisping’s voracious desire to exit his decade-long UFC career as a champion. “The Count” risks a three-fight winning streak to vie for the middleweight crown on three weeks’ notice. His current surge was punctuated by the most significant victory of his career -- a contentious unanimous decision over fallen G.O.A.T. Anderson Silva in London. Bisping has stepped into his rematch opposite Rockhold yelling that he has prepared for this moment his whole life; a full training camp, it seems, has become irrelevant in relation to his goal of becoming England’s first UFC titleholder. The 37-year-old’s name value and in-cage persistence have made him a perennial contender since he won “The Ultimate Fighter 3” in 2006. Besting Silva made Bisping an emotional favorite to challenge for a title for the first time in his career. If he flips the script on Rockhold and evens their score, he becomes an immediate frontrunner for “Fighter of the Year.”
WEC NEVER DIES: Cruz and Faber started their rivalry as featherweights in World Extreme Cagefighting and will conclude their trilogy with two UFC bantamweight championship fights five years apart. Trilogies matter: See Chuck Liddell-Randy Couture, Georges St. Pierre-Matt Hughes and Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos. Each of those trilogies helped advance the sport and allowed the UFC to make huge strides. Cruz and Faber will close the book on the first meaningful title trilogy below 155 pounds, thus solidifying their contributions as pioneers. Faber won their first encounter with a first-round submission in March 2007. Cruz took the rematch with a five-round unanimous decision a little more than four years later. The story in their trilogy holds: Faber’s mat-savvy finishing prowess and power punches standing take on Cruz’s technical balance between evasive defense and effective offense in all phases. Their genuine disdain for each other has been a simple sell, in addition to the fact that they are two of the sport’s most compelling performers.
HENDO’S LAST HURRAH: Dan Henderson went 25 minutes in an all-time great fight with Mauricio Rua in November 2011. He is 2-6 in eight appearances since, further clouding the former two-division Pride Fighting Championships titleholder’s career inside the Octagon. Henderson’s last four losses have all resulted in finishes: three knockouts and a submission. His career took a wrong turn after beating “Shogun,” as an injury cost him a title shot against Jones and led to the cancellation of UFC 151. Henderson missed an opportunity to pass the torch or add a UFC championship to his mantle. Now, he finds himself struggling to stay afloat as the oldest fighter on the active UFC roster. Perhaps time has finally left him behind. “Hendo” was robbed of an April rematch with Lyoto Machida when the Brazilian failed to disclose his pre-fight use of a banned substance. Instead, Henderson fights closer to his Temecula, California, home and hopes to stave off the end against Hector Lombard. “Showeather” has not fought as a middleweight in two years, but he did not lose any punching power in his detour to 170 pounds. Their matchup may result in a knockout win with which Henderson, 45, can ride off into the sunset or a knockout loss that forces him to leave his gloves inside the cage.
AWARDS WATCH: “Fight of the Night” is a tossup, as Hawaiian featherweight Max Holloway meets former title challenger Ricardo Lamas and Dustin Poirier faces Bobby Green in a battle between unapologetic, well-rounded lightweights. Lean towards Poirier and Green. “Performance of the Night” honors could emerge from another 155-pound pairing, with James Vick’s range handing the tough and technical Beneil Dariush back-to-back defeats. The second “Performance of the Night” bonus figures to stem from a title fight, in which case Rockhold exploits Bisping’s late entry and cashes in.
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.