Predicting the Next Champion in Each UFC Weight Division
The UFC has been blessed by the contemporary presence of several great champions, but nothing lasts forever, and even the best of all time must eventual relinquish their role as champion.
And as inevitable as it is that the torch will be passed, it is equally inevitable that it will be received. For every fallen legend there is a slayer, for every former king, a usurper. This is the reality of the sport of MMA, and it always will be.
The unwavering certainty of this maxim is, however, starkly contrasted by the vast ambiguity of the details surrounding it. Who will supplant a champion, when will it happen, how will it happen—all questions with no template answer.
Here, we'll take a glimpse into the future and examine these questions (mainly the first one), and identify who it is that will work to dispose of the UFC's current roster of champions.
Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez
Do not mistake this prediction for one anticipating a Cain Velasquez victory at UFC 155. Instead, understand it as the commentary on the state of the UFC's heavyweight division that it is.
Right now, there are Junior Dos Santos and Velasquez, then there's everyone else. So even if Velasquez fails to cash in on his year-end title bid, he'll reemerge for another after both he and Dos Santos run through their respective opponents.
Granted, anything can happen in MMA, especially in a division that packs as much one-punch knockout power as the heavyweight division, but Dos Santos or Velasquez losing to someone other than each other looks very improbable at this point.
Sure, there are some good fighters hanging around—Fabricio Werdum and Stefan Struve have both looked outstanding of late. And beyond them, you've got Alistair Overeem poised to make a comeback after serving a year-long suspension.
But while any of these competitors could theoretically beat either Dos Santos or Velasquez, it is very unlikely they will do so in actuality.
The contender most deserving of an extended explanation here is Overeem, since the other two mentions have already been knocked out in the first round by Dos Santos.
So here goes: While a tough striker and decent grappler, Overeem is not on the level of either Dos Santos or Velasquez. He tends to fade after the first round (he's 6-5 in fights that have gone past Round 1), and since he's not so superior to Dos Santos on the feet that he is likely to score a first-round knockout, nor a strong enough wrestler to prevent Velasquez from taking him down, his chances of beating either are slim.
The one wild card with a legitimate chance of breaking up the Dos Santos-Velasquez dominance is Daniel Cormier, and as it stands right now, he's not even on the UFC roster.
Until Cormier shows up, the belt will stay between Dos Santos and Velasquez. When Cormier does show up, nothing will be guaranteed, but he'll have the chance to make it a three-horse race.
Light Heavyweight: Daniel Cormier
Going out of the box seems like the only real option here. And since Cormier recently mused about joining the UFC's light-heavyweight division to take on Jon Jones, the pick is not entirely crazy, even if it isn't all that likely to come to fruition.
Basically, there is no one fighting at 205 right now that poses a legitimate threat to "Bones." Upsets happen and the champion is not infallible, but anytime Jones enters a match with a current UFC light heavyweight, he will be expected to dominate, and for good reason.
Though a Cormier vs. Jones match may never materialize, the way Jones has already disposed of most of his top competition, it ranks more likely than anyone from the current field pulling off an upset.
The majority of top 205ers have already fought Jones and have been crushed. There are a few contenders, such as Dan Henderson, Alexander Gustafsson, Phil Davis and Glover Teixeira that Jones has not yet defeated, but realistically, none of these guys have a significant chance of dethroning Jones.
That's why we arrive at Cormier—if he ever ends up in the Octagon with Jones, his chance of victory will far exceed those of any of these alternatives.
So that's what the pick came down to, choosing from a pool of fighters like Lyoto Machida, Gustafsson, Henderson—guys likely to meet Jones soon—or a guy who might never fight him, but could possibly do some damage if he does.
I went with the latter.
Only time will tell how this all pans out.
Middleweight: Chris Weidman
The middleweight title picture is about as jumbled as can be right now, but when the dust clears and everything resettles, I expect Weidman to emerge as the division's top contender.
Cases could be made for Michael Bisping, Vitor Belfort, Alan Belcher or Tim Boetsch, but none of those guys have Weidman's athleticism, unlimited ceiling and outstanding ground-fighting abilities.
Of course, once Weidman navigates through the contender's gauntlet, all he'll have won is a match with Anderson Silva, and that's where the real hard work will begin.
Weidman will position himself to fight Silva for the title in 2013, and while it's become a cliche to say so of Silva's opponents, he'll pose the biggest threat the champion has ever had to deal with.
It may be difficult for fans to buy into the Weidman hype at this point, given how many times we've been burned before with Silva-challengers, but he will prove to be the real deal before long.
Can Weidman defeat Silva if (when) the two fight next year? Of course he can. But Silva can also beat Weidman.
Before going further down that road it is worth contemplating just how Silva's age fits into the equation. Anytime this topic is brought up, otherwise logical and sane people begin foaming at the mouth, shouting (or writing in caps) about how he isn't slowing down yet, and how Silva is the sole human being to have sidestepped to degenerative affects of growing old.
To those people I must display my ignorance and go ahead and say it: One of these times Silva will enter the Octagon and he will have lost a step. It happens that quick.
So, if Silva decides to call it quits before Father Time gets to work, the belt will be up for grabs. At that point, Weidman becomes the favorite to win it.
Then there's the alternative—Weidman dethroning Silva in the Octagon. Again, just the mention of Silva possibly losing is enough to send a vast number of people into fits. Still, the possibility exists, and it will never have been higher than when he takes on Weidman.
So, whether he takes it directly or inherits the middleweight crown at a later date, Chris Weidman will be the man to succeed Silva as the 185 kingpin.
Welterweight: Erick Silva
I'm going to start by saying that I expect Jon Fitch to upset Erick Silva at UFC 153. The justification for choosing Silva as the next welterweight champion in spite of this expectation is that the division is much more a marathon than a sprint.
If Georges St-Pierre comes back from injury at the same level he left, he'll retain the welterweight strap for some time to come. None of the current challengers—Carlos Condit, Martin Kampmann, Johny Hendricks—will be able to handle him. And no one in the next tier down will fare any better.
That's why the outcome of Silva's October match with Fitch will do little to mitigate his championship aspirations. The belt is not going anywhere for awhile, so there will be time for Silva to recover and reascend the ranks.
And though Silva isn't all that young (28), he doesn't have that many miles on his body, which means he will be an important piece of the division's future, one that will still be in tip-top shape when GSP finally relinquishes the title.
There was a temptation to go with Rory MacDonald over Silva for this spot, but because MacDonald is a friend and training partner to St-Pierre, the belt is unlikely to move directly between the two men. The chances are significant that MacDonald will eventually hold the strap, but it's more probable he'll take it off Silva or someone else rather than St-Pierre.
Lightweight: Nate Diaz
Diaz has had an up-and-down UFC career since taking home Season 5 Ultimate Fighter honors, but the current up he's riding is not just part of another swing.
No, Diaz's last three fights signify a reinvention of his game, not a hot streak of any kind. The way he has dominated fights—fights against very tough opponents—looks nothing like the wins he used to pull out during the five-fight win streak with which he began his UFC career.
The most notable improvement of Diaz 2.0 is that his striking is vastly better. Now fighting in the model of older brother Nick, the younger Diaz has effectively taken to throwing a steady course of punches at fractional strength, rather than putting everything behind a more methodical attack.
While the implementation of a new standup strategy has made a big difference for Diaz, it is not the only change he's made to his game over the past year-and-a-half.
Rather than letting his reputation for landing deadly submissions function as his sole means of takedown defense as he did in the days of old, Diaz is now a tough fighter to put on his back. At least he looked that way against Jim Miller, who he tossed around without terrible strain.
Beyond that, we know he still has the ground game, the toughness and the cardio. So what isn't there to like about his game?
If you want to be picky, his wrestling offense might leave something to be desired, but my guess is that he'll be happy to keep it standing when he takes on Ben Henderson for the UFC lightweight title this December, at UFC on FOX 5. And if Henderson is unwilling to indulge that preference, he'll have to contend with Diaz's ungodly submissions on the floor.
That's a Catch-22 for Henderson, and not one he's likely to overcome.
Featherweight: Erik Koch
It is tough to choose anyone as the top pick to become the next champion in a division presided over by Jose Aldo.
It's the whole Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre dilemma all over again.
But I do like Koch as the pick here, not only because of his recent successes, but because he seems to grow by leaps and bounds every time he competes. Throw in that he's already on the cusp of a title shot at this very moment, and he stands as the top option to dethrone Aldo.
Of course, Koch isn't the only option—cases could be fashioned for Chan-Sung Jung, Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes and even dark horse Max Holloway—but he is the best option, for now and for the future.
The only fighter currently residing in the UFC featherweight division that is as explosive as Koch is Aldo himself, and though the champ is undoubtedly more refined, Koch might be the only fighter there is who can ever get to Aldo's level.
And because Koch is only 24, he has to strongly factor into the title picture as we look down the road a ways.
Ultimately, what the decision to go with Koch came down to is that Aldo is likely to beat any fighter on the planet today—he's beat Mendes, he'd be favored over Edgar and Sung Jung and he'd probably even beat Koch.
But a few years from now, while Aldo is still able to handle the guys on that list, Koch will have propelled himself upwards and joined the current champion on his well-guarded pedestal.
Bantamweight: Michael McDonald
As the bantamweight division stands right now, Dominick Cruz is the official champion while Renan Barao wears the interim belt.
After those two comes McDonald.
Just 21 years old, McDonald is already one of the best 135ers on the planet. He possesses explosive hands, solid takedown defense, an underrated ground game and maturity and experience beyond his years.
Since joining the UFC roster, McDonald has done nothing but win, going 4-0 since March, 2011, scoring a pair of first-round knockouts along the way.
As good as he has looked in the past, McDonald's potential is virtually unlimited, and he is already beginning to put in performances exponentially better than those of as recent as a year ago.
So while Barao and Cruz are both young and in their prime, their two-horse race will have an additional entry before very long.
Look for "Mayday" to fight for a bantamweight title in 2013, and expect him to make it a competitive bout. Even if he is unsuccessful, Barao and Cruz are so far ahead of the remainder of the field that the title will probably stay between the two of them until McDonald reasserts himself as the 135 pound No. 1 contender.
An argument could be made that the surging Brad Pickett or Eddie Wineland could factor in, but they simply aren't on the level of Cruz and Barao, or for that matter, McDonald.
The UFC's 135-pound weight class will be dominated by three men for the foreseeable future—Cruz, Barao and McDonald.
Two of those men current wear UFC gold. It's only a matter of time before the third joins them.
Flyweight: John Dodson
Though Demetrious Johnson recently obtained the flyweight title in convincing fashion, the UFC's 125-pound weight class remains wide open. At least at the top.
Johnson, as well as Joseph Benavidez, Ian McCall and John Dodson are all fighting at a championship level right now, and it seems like any one of those guys could defeat any of the other three on any given night.
Because this parody so strongly defines the flyweight-title landscape, I'm going to go with the next challenger—Dodson—not only because he'll have the first opportunity to be the division's next champ, but because he's looked outstanding climbing the ladder.
While there isn't anyone that can match "Mighty Mouse" for speed, Dodson comes closer than the rest of the field, and packs more power than the champ does.
Additionally, Dodson has exhibited terrific takedown defense during his UFC tenure and has not been submitted during his 19-fight MMA career.
When you take all the parts and form them into the whole that is Dodson, you're looking at a pretty threatening package, and one that is certainly capable of obtaining a UFC title.
Johnson vs. Dodson should be booked for the early part of 2013. It's hard to say whether the challenger will make good on his opportunity, but it's plain to see that the possibility is absolutely and entirely realistic.
Expect the flyweight title to pass between Johnson, Dodson, Benavidez and McCall these next few years. And until the moment comes when he fails to make good on his title shot, expect Dodson to be the division's second-ever UFC champion.
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