2013 MMA To-Do List for Each Top 10 Heavyweight
The 2013 calendar year is under way, and the MMA action has already begun.
Here we'll take a look at the sport's top 10 heavyweight competitors and examine what they should be looking to accomplish before the year is over.
For each fighter I've assigned three "to-do" goals that are reasonably achievable within a 12-month time frame.
The rankings used for the purpose of this list are of my own design.
Note that Alistair Overeem is absent from the list because he has been out of action for more than a year.
10. Roy Nelson
Keep the momentum moving in the right direction
In Feb. 2012, Nelson was mired in a 1-3 stretch and looked to be on the brink of receiving his walking papers from the UFC.
Fast forward to Jan. 2013, and he's on an impressive two-fight win streak and looking to climb back up the heavyweight ladder.
That's a pretty quick turnaround in less than a year. If Nelson can sustain that type of production over the coming 12-month period, he'll be nicely set up for a title run in 2014.
Find a way to get fights to the mat
Nelson's oft-praised grappling game is rapidly becoming one of the most useless tools in all of MMA.
Mainly because he never tries to put it to use.
Certainly, Nelson does not have a body that is ideal for shooting in on opponents, but that isn't the only way he can take the action to the mat. Working for a leg along the fence or seeking a trip here and there might allow Nelson to exercise a ground game we haven't seen since he TKO'd Kimbo Slice on The Ultimate Fighter.
"Big Country's" standup is adequate, and his chin is legendary but if he's to make a run this year, he'll need to go to his grappling from time to time.
Get in better shape
It's probably pointless to still bring it up, but...you know. It would probably help.
9. Josh Barnett
Return to the UFC
There is some uncertainty whether Josh Barnett will make the jump from Strikeforce to the UFC. But checkered past with Dana White aside, no other place makes sense for Barnett.
At 35, the former UFC champ should return to the big stage. He doesn't have much more time as a top fighter, and there's little point joining any non-UFC heavyweight division if he wants to make an impact on the sport moving forward.
The UFC is where the best heavyweights are and where Barnett should be before long.
Reacquaint yourself with top competition
Since exiting Pride FC in 2006, Barnett hasn't exactly faced a who's who of top heavyweight fighters. Jeff Monson was still somewhat relevant when Barnett fought him in 2008, but otherwise it's really just been Sergei Kharitonov and Daniel Cormier.
Whether in the UFC or outside of it, it would be nice to see Barnett consistently test his mettle against other high-ranking heavyweights in 2013.
Quit it with the PEDs
Seriously. Year-long suspensions are detrimental to fighters in their mid-30s.
8. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Put in a better TUF coaches' fight than last time
Nogueira coached The Ultimate Fighter back in 2008 opposite Frank Mir. In the season-ending fight between coaches, he suffered the first knockout loss of his career.
This year, "Minotauro" is coaching the Brazilian version of the show alongside Fabricio Werdum. A victory in that bout would go a long way toward making 2013 a good year for the Brazilian legend.
String wins together
Nogueira hasn't won back-to-back fights since 2008, and such inconsistent results are not the way to earn a title fight. And at 36—an old 36—Nogueira's time is running out.
Few believe he still has it in him, and if "Minotauro" intends to prove them wrong, he'll have to kick off his title push sooner rather than later. Winning his next few bouts would be a fine start.
Adopt a (slightly) more cautious style
"Minotauro's" chin is not what it used to be. He'd benefit from fighting more cautiously on the feet than he used to—and still does—even if he has posted a 2-1 record over his past three outings.
There isn't time for him to reinvent the wheel, but slight adjustments could pay both short- and long-term dividends.
7. Antonio Silva
Take out Alistair Overeem at UFC 156
Silva evened his UFC record at 1-1 by defeating up-and-comer Travis Browne last October, but the result saved his career rather than rocketed him up the rankings.
Overeem commands a lot of respect in MMA circles, so grabbing a victory at UFC 156 would be huge.
Insert his name in the title talk
Winning UFC gold in 2013 might be a tough ambition for Silva, but he can at least enter his name in title discussions with a strong year.
Taking out Overeem this February would be a big step in the right direction. But there's more to it than that. He'll need another win, perhaps sometime this summer, before he garners notice as a viable championship contender.
Look to use more ground-and-pound
Almost every bit of the offense Silva has mustered over his last three fights has come on the feet. The result has been a 1-2 record, but none of those three bouts has lasted even four minutes.
Still, Silva should look to put opponents on their back early and often. Remember how nasty he looked beating up a helpless Fedor Emelianenko in 2011?
Most heavyweights are considerably bigger than Fedor, so he might not manhandle anyone in similar fashion but that doesn't mean opponents can simply shrug off Silva's ground-and-pound.
6. Stefan Struve
Just keep getting results
Struve hasn't garnered a lot of notice for going 6-1 over his last seven contests, but there's nothing more he can really do except continue to win.
Sure, he could call out fighters, trash talk opponents and make some gimmicky self-promotional efforts centered around his height, but that's just not his style.
That brings us back to the alternative—just keep winning.
Continue working on keeping power punchers on the outside
Struve's three UFC losses have all come against heavy hitters who got inside his defensive perimeter and blasted away. While that's still the blueprint on bringing down "The Skyscraper," he seems to be figuring out how to defend himself.
Though it wasn't a cakewalk—Struve took considerable damage before scoring the win—Struve's victory over Stipe Miocic last September is a sign of his progress. Miocic fits the mold that has thwarted Struve in the past, but the big man was able to shut him down before earning a second-round TKO victory.
Next up, Mark Hunt. It's probably best not to let him get inside and blast away.
Pick up a signature win
Struve has lots of wins over decent fighters but no wins over stars who have separated themselves from the pack. And without a win over a guy who has separated himself, it's pretty hard for Struve to separate himself.
Should he defeat Mark Hunt this March, Struve ought to be given the opportunity to take on an upper-echelon heavyweight.
It's time for him to cash in on that chance.
5. Frank Mir
Welcome Daniel Cormier to the UFC the same way you did Brock Lesnar
Top Strikeforce heavyweight Daniel Cormier is coming to the UFC and has Frank Mir in his sights for UFC on Fox 7. That likely gives Mir a bit of a hunted feeling, but the former UFC heavyweight champion will hardly be defenseless when the two hook 'em up this April.
Mir could do his career a massive favor by welcoming Cormier to the Octagon with a loss.
Improve close-range striking defense
Mir has improved his standup game exponentially over the past few years but still struggles to protect himself when opponents get in close.
If he ever intends to beat divisional power punchers like Junior dos Santos, he'll have to improve his striking defense in close. Specifically, he'll have to learn to avoid uppercuts from short range.
Maybe work a takedown or two into the mix
Mir's striking has improved, but he's still a grappler at heart.
Not one very apt at taking the fight to the mat, however.
He rarely even tries for a takedown these days, and the last time he did—against dos Santos last May—it was plain ugly.
If Mir suddenly showed a knack for putting guys on their back, he'd be twice as dangerous as he already is.
4. Fabricio Werdum
Don't grow reliant on striking
In two fights back with the UFC, Fabricio Werdum has looked like a new man. Formerly seen as a deadly grappler with ineffectual standup, the Brazilian now seems comfortable wherever the fight takes him.
In fact, he's shown a willingness to keep it on the feet throughout his most recent UFC tenure, and the results have been exceptional.
That's great and all, but his biggest advantage against most opponents comes on the mat.
He shouldn't forget that.
He certainly wouldn't be the first jiu-jitsu ace to fall in love with his standup and abandon his bread and butter for a flashy new trick.
Win the battle of Brazil
As the coaches of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2, Werdum and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are expected to face one another in June. The bout is a rematch of a 2006 contest that Nogueira won via unanimous decision.
Seven years later, however, both men are different fighters. Though only a year separates them in age, Nogueira is on the backslide of his career, while Werdum seems to be hitting his stride.
A win here will put Werdum squarely in the UFC's heavyweight title picture.
Earn a title shot
A win over Nogueira might be enough to do it, but there are no guarantees. The key for Werdum is to just keep his momentum going.
If he defeats "Big Nog," the furthest he can be from a title shot is one win—two at the absolute most. So if he just keeps his head down and continues to snatch up victories, there will be no denying him his chance by the end of the year.
3. Daniel Cormier
Debut in the UFC with a win
Cormier vs. Frank Mir is set for UFC on Fox 7, and the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champ will enter the bout with some grand expectations. While he's capable of living up to them, many stars have floundered in their Octagon debut (see: Lombard, Hector), and Cormier is far from infallible.
If Cormier defeats Mir, the hype surrounding him will reach a new pinnacle. And that might be enough to get him a date with either Junior dos Santos or Jon Jones.
A loss, on the other hand, pretty much kills the hype. It also puts a low ceiling on just how much damage Cormier can do in the UFC in 2013.
Don't pass up chances to finish
At Strikeforce's final event, Cormier dominated Dion Staring. But truth be told, he should have—and probably could have—finished the bout earlier than he did.
At times, it looked like Cormier was toying with his outmatched opponent. Though it's doubtful he'd retain such a mentality versus more highly regarded foes, playing games in the cage is never safe.
Cormier needs to show some killer instinct in 2013 because most UFC opponents are much less forgiving than Dion Staring.
Drop to light heavyweight if Cain Velasquez solidifies himself as heavyweight champion
Cormier and Velasquez won't fight each other. That leaves Cormier to rot in the shadows as a gatekeeper for his pal.
If he wants some of that UFC gold and glory, his only option is to drop to 205 and take a crack at Jon Jones. Cormier has stated his intention to make this move, but he still has to defeat Mir and then lose his extra weight.
Alternatively, if Velasquez relinquishes his title before year's end, Cormier could take a shot at becoming the UFC heavyweight champion.
2. Junior dos Santos
Rebound from his first UFC loss
Even the best lose eventually when they consistently fight top competition. While dos Santos’ first UFC loss no doubt stings, he has to move on and be ready for future challenges.
Simultaneously, he can’t look ahead to dos Santos vs. Velasquez III while ignoring more immediate competition. That's a good way to turn a loss into a losing streak.
Remember that wrestlers can punch too
Though badly out-struck by Velasquez in their December tussle, few would question dos Santos’ reputation as a top heavyweight striker.
More than lack of ability, it was dos Santos’ strategy of keeping his hands low to protect against the takedown that spelled the beginning of the end for the former champ.
Of course, being wary of the takedown against a powerhouse wrestler is smart practice. Totally ignoring his opponent’s hands, however, is not.
That’s something for dos Santos to remember in 2013.
Take two of three in the soon-to-be trilogy with Velasquez
Though dos Santos’ recent loss to Velasquez was decisive, he’s still one of the best heavyweights on the planet.
If he wins one or two fights by the fall of 2013, he’ll have a legitimate shot at earning another title fight with Velasquez and reasserting himself as the division’s best.
1. Cain Velasquez
Get that first title defense
Some say that you aren't the champion until you successfully defend your title. This is something Velasquez, now a two-time UFC heavyweight champion, has yet to do.
As impressive as last December's victory over Junior dos Santos was, Velasquez's reign won't begin in earnest until he proves capable of stopping others from taking what he once again owns.
Add some submission offense
Velasquez's win over dos Santos was nearly flawless, but if any criticism can be leveled against him, it's that he probably should have finished the fight.
Ten or 11 times.
Velasquez seemed okay with letting dos Santos back to his feet every time he had him down. Perhaps he was fearful of being swept or turned out of position.
While I wouldn't say Velasquez needs to add a strong submission game to his repertoire to be successful, he likely could have earned a stoppage had he aggressively pursued his opponent's neck or limbs.
But that's more like asking for a cherry on top of an already exquisite sundae than it is pointing out a weak spot in Velasquez's game.
Separate himself from dos Santos
Right now the score is 1-1. Velasquez outranks dos Santos only because he won their most recent bout.
If both guys win a fight or two by the fall, a rubber match could be in order for December. In this scenario, whoever wins the match would solidify himself as the baddest man on the planet.