Luke Rockhold could win his next three or four fights, claim the UFC middleweight championship and become one of the biggest stars in mixed martial arts, and there would still be a void.
In his mind, at least, no matter what he accomplishes in the interim, Rockhold will have unfinished business in the sport until the time he's standing in a locked cage staring across at Vitor Belfort.
Rockhold faces veteran Tim Boetsch on Saturday on the main card of UFC 172 at the Baltimore Arena in a bout where a win could set him up for the truly significant fights he seeks.
A former Strikeforce champion, Rockhold dreams of one day grabbing the UFC belt currently held by Chris Weidman.
His dreams, though, expand far beyond the UFC title. When he was in Strikeforce, he defeated both Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Tim Kennedy, both of whom are now in the UFC.
At the time, Strikeforce was struggling to earn respect in comparison to the UFC, whose middleweight division was led by the legendary champion Anderson Silva.
But since Strikeforce was disbanded early last year and its fighters folded into the UFC, a strange thing has occurred: Those middleweights proved they are among the best there are in the world.
Rockhold is ranked fifth, one slot below Souza and one ahead of Kennedy. It's not out of the question that with a win over Boetsch on Saturday, Rockhold's name is going to surface in title talk.
The division is wide open. Silva, ranked No. 1, is out until at least late this year and more likely until early next year with a broken leg. Belfort is ranked No. 2, but he's locked in sort of a drug testing purgatory.
In February, the Nevada Athletic Commission banned testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) and commissions in several other states and countries soon followed suit. Belfort had become somewhat of the poster boy for TRT usage.
Complicating things for Belfort was a demand by UFC management that he apply for a license in Nevada before he's given a fight. At an awards show on Feb. 7, before the state enacted the TRT ban, the Nevada commission ordered a random test on Belfort since he was slated to fight Weidman for the title on May 24 in Las Vegas.
Belfort consented to the test, but the problem for the commission, and in a lot of ways for Belfort, is that Belfort isn't licensed in Nevada. Belfort withdrew his application for a license on Feb. 28 and was yanked from the May 24 card.
Rumors swirled that Belfort had failed the random test, but because he is not licensed, the Nevada commission couldn't legally release the results of the test without Belfort's consent. Belfort has chosen not to do so in the seven weeks since the TRT ban.
His attorney, Neal Tabachnick, did not respond to Yahoo Sports queries about whether Belfort planned to apply soon for a Nevada license. If he applies, the results of the test immediately become public by state law and if there is a failure, he could be suspended.
So, for the time being, Belfort appears boxed in and isn't going to be fighting any time soon.
No. 3 Lyoto Machida will challenge Weidman for the belt at UFC 175 on July 5. That leaves Souza and Rockhold as the next highest-ranked available contenders.
It wouldn't be out of the question were Rockhold to beat Boetsch that he could find himself in the Octagon with Souza with a title shot against the Weidman-Machida winner on the line.
As exciting as it might be, that loss to Belfort will haunt him nonetheless.
Belfort was in the midst of a spectacular run at the time he knocked out Rockhold with a kick to the head in Rockhold's UFC debut on May 18, 2013, in Brazil.
After a light heavyweight title fight loss in 2012 in Toronto to Jon Jones, Belfort knocked out Rockhold with a kick to the head in the first. He blew out Michael Bisping the same way in the second round and then in his last fight, he KO'd Dan Henderson in the first round.
All of those wins came when he was noticeably more muscular and while he was on a regimen for TRT, which he insists was medically necessary and prescribed by a doctor.
Many understandably view those victories as suspect at best, but while Rockhold is angry about the TRT usage, he's not among those who say it shouldn't count as a loss.
"We went in there and we fought under the rules that were set and he won the fight," Rockhold said. "A loss is a loss and I can't try to convince anyone, not even myself, that it wasn't a loss. The whole TRT thing, I'm glad it's out of the sport for sure. It wasn't right.
"But I want that fight back. My goal is not to be the champion, not to win a belt or anything else. I want to be the best in the world. You only live once and so the way I see it, it's worth it to try to go out and be the best at something. Even if I become champion, I can't say I'm the best in the world while I still have that loss on my record."
He can't concern himself with Belfort, though, with a hungry and intense Boetsch in front of him. Boetsch lost back-to-back bouts to Costa Philippou and Mark Munoz before pulling out a split decision over C.B. Dollaway at UFC 166 on Oct. 19.
Boetsch is ranked No. 13 and desperately needs a win. He's not the top-of-the-heap kind of guy that Rockhold wants to be facing, but he's strong and durable and figures to fight with a sense of urgency.
That makes him a tough challenge for Rockhold, but it also gives Rockhold hope he can make a big impression on both fans and management.
"I fought a striker the last time [defeating Philippou] and people saw that side of me and now with this fight, Tim could help me to show a different aspect of my game," Rockhold said. "I'm not sleeping on Tim Boetsch.
"I have to go out and perform is the bottom line, no matter who I fight. When you want to be the best in the world, you have to be ready and able to beat whoever they put in front of you, and I feel like I'm ready to do that."
But even if he puts on his best performance against Boetsch, it will be hard for Rockhold to feel totally complete. Until he gets that opportunity to face Belfort again, there will be a void he won't be able to fill.
"I'm a competitor and that's something I'm always going to have in me," Rockhold said. "But as an athlete, I understand that in the moment, the only guy who matters is Tim Boetsch. I have to take care of business on Saturday and then we'll see where that leads."
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- Vitor Belfort
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- Tim Boetsch