Alan (The Talent) Belcher spoiled Canadian Denis Kang's UFC coming-out party at UFC 93 in January. Now the Mississippi middleweight looks to do the same to Asian debutant Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100.
Belcher (13-4) proudly declared he had achieved "top dog" status by submitting Kang, a former Pride star. The UFC rewarded the 25-year-old with another big-name challenge in Akiyama, a former decorated Japanese judoka who made his MMA name in K-1 Hero's competition, on the showcase UFC 100 card next Saturday in Las Vegas.
Belcher doesn't seem to mind being the man in the cage when elite 185-pounders enter the Octagon.
"I think they're looking at me as a kind of the gatekeeper to see if these guys are really (worth) all the hype and really in contention for the title," said Belcher, who is 5-3 in the UFC but has won four of his last five. "It leaves me in a spot where I can kind of steal these guys' thunder, all the hype that they're getting and put it on myself.
"Kang was good but this one will be that much sweeter. When I beat him, it's going to get me a little bit closer to a title shot."
Fortunately Belcher has a chin to support such talk. He also has quick hands and surprisingly good jiu-jitsu as Kang, a black belt to Belcher's purple at the time, can attest.
"I'm training year-round," Belcher explained. "I'm not just getting ready for the fights. I'm coming into training camp in shape and then just getting in super-good condition and getting my game plans down, developing new skills in between each fight. So I'm fast-tracking it to the title shot."
Not short on confidence, Belcher actually requested the bout with Kang when he heard the Canadian had signed with the UFC. Then again, he has been doing this for a while. He had his first MMA fight at the age of 14, when he beat a man in his 20s when the two tangled in an unsanctioned bout at a sports bar in Paragould, Ark.
Belcher, who counts the Mississippi National Guard as one of his major sponsors, had promised before the Kang fight that he had a few tricks up his sleeve.
"You never know, I'm might slap a triangle or something on him," he told The Canadian Press.
Instead, it was a guillotine choke.
In Kang's defence, he fractured his ankle in the first day of camp for Belcher. As a result, his training was limited and his cardio substandard. Kang still managed to take Belcher down three times but was unable to damage him on the ground. And he paid for a failed fourth takedown attempt when Belcher pulled guard, sucking Kang into the choke.
While Belcher owns two gyms - both named Remix MMA - in Biloxi, he prepares for his bouts in Milwaukee with noted trainer Duke Roufus. Winnipeg middleweight Joe Doerksen was among those helping him in advance of Akiyama.
Reasoning he was already in top shape, he reduced his camp to six weeks - something he thinks will allow him to fight more often in the future.
Confidence aside, he's expecting Akiyama (12-1 with two no contests), to test him in the cage.
"He's a real tough guy," Belcher said. "He's kind of a brawler. He's got a lot of courage and I've got to respect his power. I think he's going to stand with me. He's not just one-dimensional, although he is a really good judo player and he was in the Olympics and everything. I think that he's pretty well-rounded with standup and jiu-jitsu too, so I mean he deserves all the hype that he gets. He's really a top guy in the division. It would be huge for me to get a win over him."
At six foot two, Belcher will have four inches on the 33-year-old Akiyama. Roufus will no doubt have figured out a way to use that advantage.
Still, Akiyama - who won judo gold at the 2002 Asian Games - is a 3-1 favourite in some circles.
"I'm the underdog in this fight too and that's the way I like it for right now," said Belcher. "I think I perform well whenever people are kind of counting me out, so I've got something to prove."
Belcher, a music buff, will be easy to spot Saturday. He's the one with the tattoo of Johnny Cash on his left bicep.