Brad Tavares has been one of the best kept secrets in the middleweight division for the past two years.
The 26-year-old Ray Sefo protege has run under the proverbial radar as he's racked up victories and established himself as one the brightest young prospects on the UFC roster. With continued success, each time out has put him on a bigger stage against a higher level of competition, and the Hawaiian-born fighter has answered every challenge placed before him.
On the strength of a four-fight winning streak, the Las Vegas transplant drew his highest spot on the billing as he stepped in against Lorenz Larkin in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 35 in Atlanta. Where Tavares' name had been relatively silent in the fight week lead-up to his previous bouts, for his scrap with Larkin, the surging middleweight received his fair share of the spotlight in the interim.
The attention and energy surrounding the fight is what The Ultimate Fighter alum had been building toward in his young career, and once again he stepped up to the plate with force. In a matchup between two of the middleweight division's most talented up-and-coming strikers, Tavares got the best of Larkin at every turn. Where "The Monsoon" has built a reputation off of his unpredictable style, Tavares was able to use his opponent's willingness to trade to his favor.
Larkin would come in to engage and Tavares would lace him with three-shot combinations that began to take their toll midway through the fight. Heading into the final frame, Larkin was visibly frustrated and was unable to turn the tide in the final five minutes. When the final bell sounded, Tavares had his hand raised for the fifth consecutive time as he picked up a clear unanimous decision victory.
"I have watched the fight, and I think everything we worked on in camp played out perfectly," Tavares told Bleacher Report. "There were certain things we specifically worked on to counter what he was going to do in order to nullify him. He was never really able to establish his offense at all, and our plan worked out well.
"I actually spoke to one of Lorenz's coaches after because we caught the same flight from Atlanta to Miami after the fight. When talking with his coach, he said one of the things that threw Lorenz off was my refusal to give ground. In his other fights, once Lorenz starts making contact, his opponents have a tendency to back up or look to get out of there.
"I wasn't going to do that and I wasn't afraid to stand and bang with him. I stood in front of him the entire time and was more than willing to trade with him. He either wasn't used to that or ready for it because it threw him off his game."
In the aftermath of his biggest showcase to date, Tavares is refusing to rest on his laurels. He has his sights set on the competition that is sitting in the upper tier of the middleweight division, and he's determined to do whatever it takes to get there.
If he has to continue to work his way up the ladder one rung at time, that isn't an issue which concerns him. The headstrong Hawaiian is confident in his ability to solidify himself as a major player at 185 pounds in the coming year. And with his first win of the new year behind him, Tavares is already looking at what could potentially come next.
"Fighting the best guys in the division is absolutely what I want, but at the same time I'm a realist," Tavares said. "I have this streak, but it's not like I'm going to get a title shot or one of the top-three guys in my next fight. I realize that and it's fine with me. I'd be more than happy to get one of the guys at the bottom end of the top 10. A lot of the guys in those positions are already booked up.
"While I would love to fight one of the bigger names—and that's what I've been lobbying for—I just want to be ranked in the Top 10 for now. I just beat the guy who the UFC had ranked No. 13 so I would figure I would at least take that position. Costas Philippou was ranked No. 10, and he has lost two in a row so there is definitely going to be movement that could get me where I want to be.
"While I want to fight one of the Top 10 guys, I'm also not looking to wait around for their fights to play out," he added. "If that ends up being the case and my coaches and I have to make a decision, I will definitely fight someone with an established name that will keep me moving up those rankings."
Where his current run of success has been nothing short of impressive, it hasn't come free of criticism. Each of the five victories he's strung together have all gone to the judges' scorecards and that has put a stigma on Tavares' so-called inability to finish fights. When competing at the highest level of the sport, the the slimmest of margins can separate fighters.
While Tavares is aware of the talk that is hovering, it isn't anything he's allowing to get under his skin. He knows he's making his way through tough waters at a solid clip, and every time his hand is raised at the end of the fight is validation for the hard work he has invested.
"I heard it a little bit of that talk the lead up to the fight and people are always asking about finishing fights," Tavares said. "It's not like I'm in there and not trying to finish fights. I'm hitting these guys as hard as I can in there. I'm trying to do what I have to do in there to get it done without being one of these guys who lays and prays or walls and stalls.
"I try to make it exciting and fun for the fans. But at this level it's very hard to finish everybody you fight. It just so happens I haven't been able to get the finish in my last five, but I'm more than happy to be on the streak that I'm on and getting these wins. It's huge, man. To win in the UFC is hard enough, let alone do it five consecutive times. I'm happy with what I've accomplished so far, and I'm going to work as hard as I can to keep climbing up that ladder."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.