The waters have been rough sailing for the UFC in 2012. What is commonly referred to as the "injury bug" in the MMA community developed into a swarm and left a path of wreckage in its wake. One of the biggest things UFC President Dana White has to look forward to in the upcoming weeks is that the books will finally be closed what has undoubtedly been the most challenging years for the organization in recent history.
Before White and company can begin what is set to be a stellar run in the early goings of 2013, there is still one more event left on the table with UFC 155. While the card wasn't immune to injury or circumstance (remember, Chael Sonnen vs. Forrest Griffin was the original co-main event), the UFC's final pay-per-view of the year will take place next weekend in Las Vegas, NV.
Headlining the event will be one of the year's most anticipated fights. Champion and heavyweight wrecking machine Junior dos Santos will step in to rematch the man he claimed the title from in Cain Velasquez. It only took "Cigano" 64 seconds in their first meeting to score the knockout victory and finally get his hands on UFC gold.
Outside of the main-event heavyweight clash, there are several interesting matchups throughout the card that have the ability to impact their respective divisional pictures heading into the new year. Depending on how everything shakes out on December 29th, several weight classes could see their contention pictures finally taking shape, while others will see the room at the top become a bit smaller.
The Baddest Man on the Planet
There is certainly a solid amount of talent laced throughout the card at UFC 155, but the fight MMA fans are looking forward to most is dos Santos versus Velasquez 2. It has been over a year since the powerful Brazilian dropped a huge right hand on the AKA-trained fighter on the UFC's debut on the Fox network. It was an emotional win for the 28-year-old, as he collected an impressive eighth consecutive victory and remained undefeated under the UFC banner.
After besting Velasquez at UFC on Fox 1, dos Santos' next outing would come against former two-time heavyweight champion Frank Mir at UFC 146. It was yet another brilliant showing from the Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira protege, as he hammered out the stoppage victory over Mir in the second round.
On the same card in Las Vegas, Velasquez also made his triumphant return to the increasingly competitive heavyweight picture. The 30-year-old California native was a man on a mission as he brutalized former Strikeforce contender Antonio Silva. Velasquez put on a vicious display of ground-and-pound as he earned the first-round victory by way of stoppage. It was a high-caliber performance at the right time, as Velasquez earned his shot at redemption by defeating "Bigfoot."
His case for a rematch was also assisted by heavyweight juggernaut Alistair Overeem's suspension following the debacle which pulled him from a scheduled showdown with JDS. With "Reem" on the sidelines, the rematch was the fight to make without question.
But with Overeem's return set, and Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier set to make his UFC transition this spring, the divisional waters are beginning to heat up at the perfect time.
These factors make next weekend's heavyweight tilt between dos Santos and Velasquez all the more important. The past few years have been hit-or-miss for the weight class. After seeing the belt change hands at nearly every turn, interim or otherwise, the division is finally experiencing stability on the championship level.
While dos Santos has only defended the title once since beginning his reign, he has yet to show any holes in his armor. Every one of his nine victories inside the Octagon have been lopsided, and the potential is there for a dominant title run. On the other hand, should he come up short against Velasquez, the loss wouldn't drop dos Santos far enough down the ladder where another crack at the title wouldn't come in quick fashion.
The perspective looks a bit different on the Velasquez side of the fence. While dos Santos handed him the only defeat thus far in his professional career, when they step into the Octagon to do battle on Dec. 29th, there will only have been 13 months between the two meetings. Another defeat at the hands of JDS, in addition to Overeem and Cormier coming into the picture, would serve to push the former champion to the end of line.
Contention and Relevance at Stake in Lightweight Division
It can certainly be argued the welterweight and light heavyweight divisions carry a higher profile on the UFC totem pole, but in my humble opinion, the 155-pound weight class is the most competitive in the organization. The lightweight Top 10 is a shark tank filled with versatile fighters who could all lay claim to the title on any given night. From champion Benson Henderson to veterans who have recently struggled to gain their footing such as Jim Miller, it is a dog-eat-dog world at 155 pounds.
While the original matchup was set to feature a lightweight clash between former No. 1 contender Gray Maynard and his Season 5 TUF housemate Joe Lauzon, an injury to "The Bully" forced him out of the fight. In his place, the UFC tapped AMA-trained fighter Jim Miller, who is coming off a loss to Nate Diaz back in May. The loss was Miller's second in three fights and a departure from the seven-fight win streak that placed him in the upper tier to begin with.
The opportunity to face Lauzon comes at a crucial time for the New Jersey native, as his relevance in the division will be put on the line. A victory over "J-Lau" would serve to keep Miller's name in the conversation of the divisional elite, but a loss not only knocks him out of the Top 10, but would end his ultimate goal of a title shot, out of the picture for the foreseeable future.
The downside is a bit less grim where Lauzon is concerned. The Bridgewater, Mass.-based fighter has won three of his last four, with his only loss on that run coming to former WEC champion Anthony Pettis. Lauzon came out on the business end of their meeting at UFC 144 but bounced back strong with a submission victory over another former king of the "little blue cage" Jamie Varner at UFC on Fox 4.
There is no doubt the previously scheduled bout with Maynard carried more upside for Lauzon, but Miller's name isn't without clout. A victory over Miller will not earn him a title shot, but it will keep Lauzon's momentum building as his fellow contenders (Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis) prepare for their throwdown next month in Chicago. That being said, a loss to Miller next weekend at UFC 155 would take Lauzon down a few notches in the rankings but not force him out of the Top 10 entirely.
Often Overlooked, Boetsch and Belcher Look to Solidify Contention at UFC 155
Anderson Silva could very well be the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time. Since claiming the middleweight title in the summer of 2006, "The Spider" has amassed a legendary career that has shattered both records and souls in the process. Silva has demolished the opposition at every turn, and on multiple occasions has stepped up into the light heavyweight division to further extend his dominance when the division he champions has run thin of competition.
While it was once said that Silva had cleaned out all possible contenders in his weight class, this is no longer the case. Despite his record-breaking run showing no signs of slowing down, a handful of future contenders have made a run toward the top of the division.
A short time ago, Chael Sonnen appeared to be the only legitimate threat to Silva's crown. After the Brazilian phenom put the last nail in the coffin to their rivalry at UFC 148, it seemed as if Silva was once again dangerously close to wiping the divisional slate clean of contenders. There was always Vitor Belfort, but with the front-kick knockout still fresh in everyone's mind (Belfort included), the only possible choice at 185 pounds was surging upstart Chris Weidman.
The undefeated New York native was coming off an impressive first-round knockout victory over Mark Munoz, but the buzz surrounding a potential title bout with Silva carried little to no buzz. Several factors played into the scenario, the loudest of which came from Silva's camp, as they stated a title fight was not something Weidman had earned just yet.
After his campaign for a bout with Silva failed to gain traction, Weidman accepted a fight with fellow contender Tim Boetsch. Despite having a four-fight win streak of his own, "The Barbarian" is rarely mentioned in the talk of the divisional upper tier. With neither fighter carrying an extremely high profile, Dana White was slow to officially call their meeting at UFC 155 a true No. 1 contender's bout, but it certainly had the potential to produce Silva's next opponent.
Unfortunately, the bout would fall apart several weeks out, after Weidman suffered an injury that required surgery. This put Weidman on the sidelines for the time being but left Boetsch on the card with a chance to show and prove. The UFC tapped Costa Philippou to step into the spot left vacant by Weidman. While a victory over Philippou won't carve out an undeniable title shot for Boetsch, it will keep his streak alive and give the former wrestling standout from Maine a chance to display his skills on one of the year's best cards.
Where his peers in the divisional elite can afford a bit of give and take, taking a step back is not a luxury Boetsch has. Fighters like Michael Bisping, Belfort and even Hector Lombard, whom Boetsch defeated at UFC 144, all have bigger names and more fan recognition. This creates a scenario where a loss wouldn't kill their title hopes, but for a fighter overlooked as much as Boetsch, every time he steps into the Octagon becomes a "must-win" if he hopes to keep his dream of a title shot alive.
Another fighter in a similar position to Boetsch is Duke Roufus-trained fighter Alan Belcher. Just like Boetsch, "The Talent" has built an impressive win streak but has done so on a quieter frequency. The biggest difference in UFC stock would come in their respective fighting styles. Where Boetsch has an efficient wrestling attack, supported by knockout power in his hands, Belcher operates behind an unpredictable, fan-friendly striking and grappling attack.
The Arkansas-born fighter will face former No. 1 contender Yushin Okami at UFC 155. Belcher has been slowly making his case for title consideration, and a victory over "Thunder" will be another step in that direction. The fight is a rematch from their first meeting at UFC 62, where Okami spoiled Belcher's promotional debut with a unanimous-decision victory. If Belcher is successful in his second bid against the Japanese star, it will position him for one of the weight class' big names in his next outing.
If both Boetsch and Belcher are victorious next weekend, their names will be added to a short list that includes the previously mentioned Bisping, Belfort and Lombard, making the middleweight division deeper than it has been in years.
Situations to Keep Your Eyes On
The pay-per-view portion of the card carries a ton of action, but there are several bouts earlier in the night that will hold a bit of weight as well. Where Lauzon and Miller will compete to see who stays in the ultra-competitive race in the lightweight division, Melvin Guillard and Jamie Varner could very well be fighting to see who keeps their job. They were originally scheduled to fight at the TUF 16 Finale, but after Varner experienced illness pre-fight, the bout was scrapped and ultimately bumped back to UFC 155.
There is no love lost between these two men. With so much at stake, the fight should be a "knock-down, drag-out" affair between two fighters who have seen their career trajectory drastically altered over the past two years. Where Guillard was once on the verge of getting a long-awaited title shot after winning five straight, the "Young Assassin" has dropped three of his last four contests.
A loss to Varner would be devastating and would turn a corner in Guillard's career extremely difficult to bounce back from, and a win for the former WEC champion would take him off the seemingly "borrowed time" he appears to be operating on since coming back into the UFC fold.
Another bout that could hold future title implications will come on the FX preliminaries, as Brad Pickett squares off with Eddie Wineland. The current situation in the bantamweight division is tricky, and certainly one or both fighters could serve to benefit from it. With one of the "thinnest" divisions on the roster and champion Dominick Cruz's time away from the sport being extended due to another injury to his previously damaged knee, the winner of Pickett vs. Wineland will take a big jump up the ladder.
With interim champion Renan Barao defending his title against Michael McDonald in February, the position of "next" is wide open."One Punch" has found victory in three of his last four fights, where the Indiana native has been successful in five of his last seven. Both were previously defeated by Barao, but with the weight class lacking depth, whoever emerges victorious from their clash at UFC 155 will find themselves on the doorstep of a title shot. With no date set for Cruz's return, the fight between Pickett and Wineland could easily determine who faces the winner of Barao vs. McDonald.