- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Luke Rockhold staked his claim in New Jersey as the top middleweight contender in UFC.

Up next, Rockhold wants a title shot and a shot at MMA history in New York.

Rockhold capped a brief and brilliant appearance in the cage with a rear naked choke at 2:32 of the second round and made Lyoto Machida tap to win a main event showdown between two of the top middleweights in UFC on Saturday night.

“I am the No. 1 contender,” Rockhold said. “I’m the best guy around.”

Rockhold (14-2) should be next in line for a pay-per-view title shot in the 185-pound division. With a dominant win over the 36-year-old Machida, Rockhold positioned himself to take on the winner of the UFC 187 fight next month between Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort.

Machida (22-6) never put up much of a fight in his brief stint in the cage.

Rockhold lost his UFC debut in 2013, then rebounded with wins over Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch, Michael Bisping. He won his third straight fight via submission and looked at his best at the Prudential Center.

“I did my part,” Rockhold said. “Weidman, you’re going to do your part. Let’s take this across the way. Madison Square Garden, let’s make history.”

MMA would have to become legalized in New York for that bout to happen

The Senate again approved a bill to legalize and regulate the combat sport that includes boxing, judo, wrestling and kickboxing. UFC remained hopeful that the assembly will finally approve the bill that would allow the promotion to stage a dream card in December at MSG.

“If it doesn’t happen, it’ll be crazy,” UFC President Dana White said.

Jacare Souza, the No. 1 ranked middleweight, made short work of Chris Camozzi in the co-main event.

Souza won with an armbar submission at 2:33 of the first round.

Souza, who lost to Rockhold in the old Strikeforce days, hoped he could earn a shot at Weidman’s title with a fight against Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero. But when Romero was injured, Camozzi (21-10) stepped in on short notice - and a shorter fight.

Unlike the rest of the beaten, sweaty fighters who trudged past press row after the fight, Souza (22-3) didn’t have a bead of sweat on him and looked like he could step right up for another fight later in the night.

The Brazilian won his eighth straight UFC fight and hoped a month ago a win would mean his name would get called next for a middleweight title fight.

Machida-Rockhold and Souza-Romero would have been a Final Four showcase of the best of the UFC middleweight contenders. But Romero’s last-minute scratch meant Souza likely has a longer wait for the biggest fight of his UFC career.

“I want to get the shot at the title next,” Souza said. “It’s my time. I’m coming off five victories.”

All eyes were on former ring card girl Paige VanZant for the highest profile fight of her young career on the first fight of the main card. White even popped by VanZant’s dressing room before the fight and wished her luck.

The 21-year-old strawweight proved why she is on the brink of MMA stardom.

The 5-foot-4 VanZant was all smiles and bounced on her heels as she watched the prefight video package on the big screen. Felice Herrig, her 115-pound opponent, said in the video that VanZant had yet to truly earn her spot and only had a personal endorsement deal with Reebok because of her looks.

VanZant beamed and waved on her way to the cage, hardly rattled by the pressure of the big night. Once inside, she absolutely crushed Herrig for three rounds and cruised to a unanimous decision victory.

“It’s like my birthday every time I walk out to the cage,” she said.

VanZant (5-1) landed several knees after the opening bell of the first round and never let up. She stayed on top of Herrig (10-6) and landed fist after fist to the face as a part of her ground game and she never showed signs of fatigue. VanZant pinned Herrig against the cage in the third round and finished her for good with a serious of brutal elbows to the head.

“I started crying before the fight was over,” VanZant said in the cage.

She was 18 when she won her first professional bout in Texas and stepped up to the all-women Invicta promotion in January 2013. With the Jersey crowd going wild for the perky and powerful VanZant, UFC might have found its next breakthrough female star.

“I’m here for the fun of it and I’m so thankful,” she said. “I can’t believe I made it through that fight. It only goes up from here.”

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