The past two years have been interesting for Brad Tavares.
In addition to winning all four of his showings inside the Octagon over that stretch, the 25-year-old Hawaiian has steadily made his way up the ladder in the middleweight division. While the Ray Sefo protege is his own worst critic when it comes to his performances on fight night and would like to have earned those victories by way of definitive finishes, he deserves acclaim for the caliber of his opponents.
The Las Vegas-based fighter kicked off his run by defeating Dongi Yang at UFC on Fuel TV 3 in May 2012. He followed up that win by outworking British slugger Tom Watson four months later at UFC on Fuel TV 5 in Birmingham, England. Tavares locked up with "Kong" in a gritty three-round battle and took the win by way of split decision on the judges' scorecards.
While his victory over the Jackson's MMA-trained fighter capped off a solid 2012 campaign, Tavares wanted to take things up a notch in 2013. The Xtreme Couture product began to set his sights on the bigger names in the middleweight ranks—and while those bouts never materialized—he made the most of the opportunities that did come his way.
The talented young striker defeated Riki Fukuda and Robert "Bubba" McDaniel to raise his winning streak to four.
His win over McDaniel at UFC Fight Night 27 in Indianapolis kept Tavares' momentum rolling in the 185 pound ranks, and he will be looking to take a big step toward the top 10 in his first outing of 2014 when he squares off with Lorenz Larkin at UFC Fight Night 35 on Jan. 15 in Atlanta.
While both fighters bring a strong striking game to the table, what will make the bout even more interesting is the common goal of both men. Much like Tavares, "The Monsoon" is eager to break through into the next tier of the middleweight division, and that should make for an action-packed tilt.
"Stylistically we are similar in a lot of ways," Tavares told Bleacher Report. "We both like to strike. He has good takedown defense, and I consider myself to have those skills as well. I've watched his fights and he's very quick, but so am I. He's a good striker that likes to jump in and out and uses his feet well. In my eyes, he's 2-0 in the UFC. I said it on the night of that fight, and I think he beat [Francis] Carmont. I see him as an undefeated fighter, and it is now a goal of mine to put an actual real blemish on his record.
"I definitely think my skills can nullify some of the things he does with his striking. I see this as a very similar fight to my bout with Tom Watson. He's similar to Watson because he likes to come forward aggressively throwing punches and kicks. I see Lorenz as being quicker than Tom was, but I don't think he's any quicker or faster than I am with any of his weapons. That being said, I fully respect everything he brings to the table and I know he's dangerous. I know he has power in his hands, feet and knees. He's a good striker, but he's also a good all-around MMA fighter as well.
"But I think I'm better."
Another element to stoke the fire of the fight is its placement as the co-main event. It will be the first time that either man has been in that elevated position, and Tavares will be looking to make the most of the opportunity.
"I'm fired up for this fight," Tavares said. "It will be great to fight a guy like Larkin who is a fellow striker and that likes to go out there and bang.
"I'm not going to lie, getting the co-main event is kind of cool. But it means a lot more to my friends and family. I think they like it and enjoy it more than I do. I'm going to try to get some extras and send them to everybody. Maybe I can send a few as little gifts for my nephews and little cousins because they really look up to me. It's really cool for them to see that so it makes me happy."
With both fighters having striking as their dominant skill, the matchup could play out as a high-impact chess game. While they both use power and precision, the biggest difference in their styles is the method of attack. Larkin brings a hard-charging approach, using his speed to get in to land his power and then get back out of harm's way.
While Tavares has shown elements of forward pressure in his past fights, he's also demonstrated a knack for counterstriking. The Ultimate Fighter veteran has developed a well-rounded striking game, where he can launch his offense from a multitude of angles and positions. With Larkin's tendency to bring forward pressure, Tavares believes he'll handle whatever comes his way.
"I've always considered myself a counter-striker," Tavares said. "People don't get to see it too much when I fight, but there have certainly been instances where people have pressed forward on me. Riki Fukuda and Tom Watson both used that approach, but I've always been comfortable fighting forward or backward. I believe to have a well-rounded striking game—or well-rounded MMA game in general—you have to be able to do both.
"A lot of guys don't like to get hit, and I'm not going to be one of those guys who say they like to get hit because I don't. I try to get hit as little as possible because I think that is the best way to go about it as far as career longevity is concerned. It only takes one shot to put somebody away, and getting hit isn't the best thing to do. But if I get hit, I believe I can handle it. I'm not afraid of them, but that doesn't mean I don't respect them. I'm just not afraid of it.
"You do have to put yourself in danger to counter-strike, but that being said, you train these situations," he added. "When you are out there trading, you don't feel as in danger as it may look. You have live training where people are throwing punches, kicks and knees at your chin and not just hitting pads. And when you are training, the guys aren't throwing those strikes slowly...you train at combat speed to make sure you are a little more comfortable when it's time to get in the cage. I'm the type of guy that doesn't mind it. We can lock up and trade and then back up to punching distance and trade again. I don't mind that."
With the Larkin bout just around the bend, Tavares doesn't have time to sit and dwell on past accomplishments. He marked a few goals off his list in 2013 but still has solid ground to cover before the biggest prizes materialize on the horizon. Nevertheless, he understands the road traveled thus far was necessary to get him where he's looking to go in the coming year.
His prospect status and potential to break through into the next tier of the middleweight division are starting to be recognized, and he wants to push further in 2014. The first step of that campaign will come against Larkin at UFC Fight Night 35, and he's willing to do what he has to do to secure the victory.
"It was definitely a great year for me," Tavares said. "I didn't get to fight as much as I would have liked to. I've only been getting two fights a year, but fighting at the beginning of 2014, if all goes well and there are no injuries, I should be able to get three fights in. That's what I really want. I want to stay active, but at the same time, I have been fighting every four to five months. With the roster being how it is and how they have to sell shows on the business side of it, I can't really complain.
"I've been able to stay pretty active and I've been slowly coming up those ranks. I've asked for bigger named opponents in the past, but Lorenz is a great fight for me. Even though he's not ranked and fairly new to the UFC, he's a very good fighter. His last showing was great. He and [Chris] Camozzi put on a great fight and he showed he really wanted it in that fight. I know I've asked for bigger things, but I'm confident they will come. If I beat Larkin in this next one and keep winning, there is no way they can deny me those fights I want. When I beat him, I'm sure I'll get a Top 10 opponent.
"My goal for this coming year is to break into the next tier of the division," he added in conclusion. "Hopefully all goes according to plan, I stay healthy and keep winning. If I'm able to do that, I can really move up the ladder in 2014."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.