The UFC welterweight title might have just taken one step back toward Montreal.
Rory MacDonald, teammate to longtime title-holder Georges St-Pierre, cemented his case for a UFC title shot Saturday night, knocking out Tarec Saffiedine in the third round at UFC Fight Night in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Referee Herb Dean waved off the 170-pound contest at 1:28 of the third round.
The final sequence began with an overhand right followed by a left hook on the button for MacDonald (18-2), who hadn't finished an opponent since April 2012. Saffiedine (15-4) went down from the left hook, but not out, as he threw himself at MacDonald's right leg. MacDonald followed with punches to the side of the head to finish the fight.
The UFC title currently rests in Dallas with Johny Hendricks, who won the vacant belt over Robbie Lawler in March. Those two are scheduled to fight again in December, and MacDonald, who moved to 9-2 in the UFC with the victory, called dibs on the winner.
Fighting out of Tristar Gym under Firas Zahabi, MacDonald's approach against Saffiedine was calculated -- something he's become known for in recent years.
"I really trained hard for this guy -- I have a ton of respect for him," MacDonald said. "I knew it was going to be a tough fight. I was very focused. I think it goes without saying I'm next for that title. I want that title shot."
He established his jab early in the bout, flicking it through Saffiedine's defense while attempting to avoid his opponent's counter leg kicks. It was MacDonald, actually, who got the better of the kicks in the opening round, as he had success targeting the outside of Saffiedine's leg.
At the start of the second round, MacDonald might have surprised Saffiedine by standing his ground and letting loose a strong three-punch combination, instead of retreating backward as he did to open the fight. MacDonald followed with a kick to the body and more stiff jabs to the head.
Saffiedine appeared slightly frustrated, but eventually started to answer with leg kicks of his own. Momentum began to turn a bit in his favor. MacDonald noticeably started to anticipate and react to the kicks, which affected his ability to throw strikes.
Besides the leg kicks, however, Saffiedine failed to really land anything significant. He continued to attack MacDonald's leg right up to the end of the bout, when MacDonald dropped him with the left. It was the first time in Saffiedine's eight-year career he's been knocked out.
Immediate Fightmetric stats pointed to a relatively close bout. MacDonald outlanded Saffiedine 43-41 and scored one takedown to none for the Belgian welterweight.
MacDonald, 25, is scheduled to compete in a Metamoris jiu-jitsu match against J.T. Torres on Nov. 22. Prior to Saturday's fight, MacDonald told ESPN.com the match would go on as planned, even though the UFC recently booked the Hendricks-Lawler title fight to Dec. 6.
ESPN.com ranked MacDonald the No. 3 welterweight in the world heading into the bout. The knockout win marks the seventh of MacDonald's career and 13th finish overall. Saffiedine, who had not fought since January due to injury, sees a five-fight win streak snapped.
Assuncao wins his seventh fight in a row
Raphael Assuncao won't cut in line for a UFC title shot, but he did extend his bantamweight division-best win streak to seven.
Assuncao (23-4) turned in a smart, well-rounded performance against a hungry opponent in Bryan Caraway. The effort earned the Brazilian a clean sweep on the scorecards, as all three judges awarded him the fight, 30-27.
Despite having the longest winning streak at 135 pounds, Assuncao will have to wait his turn for a championship fight, as the UFC has already announced former title-holder Dominick Cruz will get the next crack at defending champion T.J. Dillashaw. Leading up the bout and again afterwards, Assuncao expressed an interest in waiting for his shot as opposed to fighting again.
The 32-year-old veteran looked good against Caraway (19-7), who failed to match Assuncao's skill but refused to give an inch in the 15-minute affair.
"I could see in his demeanor this was a guy with nothing to lose," Assuncao said. "Those are very dangerous opponents. He was hurt, I cut him below both eyes but he kept coming forward. He gave a very admirable performance. I would be lying I didn't mention I saw Dominick Cruz's performance at UFC 178 and was impressed by his dominating performance. Of course I was thinking I need to do something as spectacular as him and I think that weighed down my performance. I'm ready for my chance at the belt, I think I've proven that I'm ready for the chance."
Hard outside leg kicks were Assuncao's weapon of choice early, as he caused large purple welts to form on Caraway's lead left leg. Caraway struggled to cover distance and land with frequency against the slicker Assuncao, so he eventually resorted into tucking his chin and letting his hands go with aggressive, somewhat forced advances.
At times, the pressure worked in his favor and it did set up several takedowns, including a couple in the second round. The former collegiate wrestler struggled to score offense from top position, however, and allowed Assuncao to work sweeps from the bottom on multiple occasions.
Assuncao showcased his versatility on the feet, mixing things up with counter left hooks, leg kicks, knees in the clinch and even a spinning heel kick that hit its mark in the second round. He opened cuts above and below Caraway's left eye with punches late in the fight.
With his corner urging him on, Caraway kept up a high pace to close out the fight. His attempts to land a fight-changing strike caught mostly air though, as Assuncao utilized footwork and head movement to avoid danger. He briefly caught Caraway in a guillotine choke with 90 seconds left and then stunned him with a left hand in the final 15 seconds.
"I thought I won at least Rd. 2 out there," Caraway said. "I couldn't execute my plan, which was extremely frustrating. He's a tough dude however."
Fighting out of Atlanta, Assuncao is the last bantamweight to hand Dillashaw a defeat. That victory came under some controversy, however, as Assuncao took a split decision in Brazil in a fight Dillashaw has repeatedly stated he felt he won. Caraway, who entered the fight having on four of his last five bouts, suffers the fourth decision loss of his career.
Laprise has easy night, big win
Laprise (9-0) cruised to a unanimous decision against a significantly overmatched Cedeno in a 155-pound contest. The judges' scores were unanimous for Laprise, 30-27.
Cedeno (10-4) spent the entire fight with his back either on the fence or the canvas. Other than an occasional counter jab in the few times he did have space, Cedeno landed nothing offensively and never really posed a challenge to the heavily favored Laprise.
Early in the first round, Cedeno lost his balance as he circled around the perimeter of the cage and surrendered a quick takedown. Laprise passed his guard into full-mount and eventually took his back when Cedeno offered it. Laprise locked in a body-triangle, which relegated Cedeno to hand fighting. He avoided a submission, but clearly lost the round.
Things didn't change in the middle frame, as Laprise punched his way into the clinch and scored a bodylock takedown. Again, he took Cedeno's back but couldn't find a finish. The third round was just as one-sided, with Cedeno unwilling to take risks and unable to stop takedowns. Laprise opened up a bit with body kicks, before scoring a takedown and controlling top position.
"I moved full time to Montreal on July 1 because I wanted to work with the best coaches in the world all the time. I sacrificed a lot, moved my wife all for this, to be a successful fighter in the UFC," Laprise said. "I was hoping for a more exciting fight ... but I'm happy with this win. Cedeno is a very tough opponent and presents a number of unique dimensions. I am happy I got to display my ground game because that wasn't something I've featured too much, but now it gives my opponents another thing to worry about."
The 28-year-old Laprise, who made his pro debut in June 2010, moves to 2-0 in the UFC. He took a split decision against Olivier Aubin-Mercier in April. Cedeno falls to 1-2 since debuting with the UFC earlier this year. Prior to the loss, the Cuban lightweight earned a TKO win over Jerrod Sanders.
Theodorou extends his unbeaten record
Theodorou (10-0) executed a grueling game plan that consisted of long battles in the clinch, en route to his 10th consecutive win. All three judges scored the middleweight bout for Theodorou, 29-28.
Winner of "The Ultimate Fighter: Canada vs. Australia" reality series earlier this year, Theodorou set a high pace that appeared to break Santos (14-2) by the third round. He relentlessly pressured Santos into clinches near the fence, landing short strikes and knees to the body while looking for takedowns.
Takedowns proved hard to come by on Santos though, as the Brazilian showcased strong wrestling defense but not much in the way of offense. He did manage to take Theodorou's back late in the second round after catching a leg kick, but never came close to a submission.
The third round began with a small burst from Santos, as he executed a trip and took Theodorou's back once again. That final sprint was all Santos had left in the tank, however, as he was more or less defensive the rest of the fight and fell victim to being held up against the fence.
"I did what I wanted although I'm disappointed I didn't get the finish," Theodorou said. "I'm looking to have exciting fights. I had to switch game plans midway through as my striking really never got off the start line in the first. I weathered what he had and made sure I kept pressing. I've fought in Halifax before and won so its not a stretch to say Halifax has been really good to me."
Fighting out of Toronto, Theodorou is now 2-0 in the UFC, including an upset second-round knockout over Sheldon Westcott in the TUF finals in April. The 26-year-old outlanded Santos in total strikes 104-to-33, according to Fightmetric. He was similarly dominant in his win over Westcott. Santos drops to 1-2 in the UFC.
Taleb outpoints Li for the win
Taleb (10-2), more than 4-to-1 favorite in the bout, kept Li off-balance with the jab and controlled the grappling exchanges to earn his second UFC win.
Two judges scored the bout for Taleb by scores of 30-27 and 29-28, respectively. The other judge scored it for Li, 29-28. ESPN.com saw it for Taleb, 29-28.
After showing a willingness to brawl in his UFC debut in May, Li (9-3) was more technical in his second Octagon appearance. He bothered Taleb with leg kicks in the opening round and cut him near the left eye with a right hand. He fell victim to several hard counter rights from Taleb, but his chin held up well in the exchanges.
Fighting out of Tristar Gym in Montreal, Taleb began to take control of the bout in the second round. He slipped Li punches much better than in the early going and slammed his Chinese opponent to the mat at one point with a strong takedown. He failed to keep Li down, but did not have trouble taking him down a second time before the end of the round.
By the third, Li's left eye had nearly swollen shut from Taleb right hands. The 33-year-old coasted a bit late, popping Li consistently with the jab, before taking him down in the final two minutes and riding out the victory.
A former two-time contestant on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series, Taleb moves to 2-0 in the UFC. Both fights have gone the distance. Li, 26, drops to 1-1 in the Octagon.
Gagnon dominates Salazar
Gagnon (12-2), who lost two opponents on this card due to injury, took Salazar's back in an early scramble and snuck his right arm under the chin for a 2:06 finish. Salazar (9-3) accepted the fight on extremely short notice. He had actually fought outside the promotion on Sept. 20.
Fighting out of Sudbury, Ontario, Gagnon went after Salazar early, doubling up with left hooks and shooting on a takedown. Salazar defended the initial shot, but could not prevent Gagnon from scrambling to his back. Salazar then stood with Gagnon latched onto him, but couldn't shake the bantamweight off and eventually tapped to the choke.
'Hats off to Salazar taking this fight on five days notice," Gagnon said. "One of those things in the fight game -- injuries happen, you have to adapt."
The win extends Gagnon's current streak to four. The 29-year-old has been perfect since he suffered a submission loss to Bryan Caraway in his UFC debut in July 2012. Salazar, who fights out of Scottsdale, Ariz., suffers his first loss since June 2012.