At the end of 2012, the UFC's heavyweight division underwent a sea change at the top when Cain Velasquez beat Junior dos Santos to become UFC heavyweight champion for the second time.
Long considered the most shallow of all the UFC's weight classes, the heavyweight division is being fortified with new contenders and potential stars, and there's little question that the division is stronger now than at any point in the history of the company.
2012 wasn't a bad year for the heavyweights. Not by any measure. But 2013 could be a banner year for the UFC's big boys, and in the following slides, I'll give you 10 reasons why.
Let's get this thing started.
I expanded upon this in greater detail on Monday afternoon, but here's the short version: 2013 could be a very big year for Alistair Overeem.
After serving a suspension for failing to have his testosterone levels within an acceptable level during a surprise drug test last year, Overeem returns in three weeks to take on Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva at UFC 156.
The fight is an eminently winnable one for Overeem; plainly put, it's a bad matchup for Silva, and it's essentially a chance for Overeem to remind the pay-per-view-buying public of who he is and why they should love him. And if Overeem does what is expected of him, he'll be the next guy standing across the cage from Cain Velasquez and vying for the heavyweight title.
Winning the title (and testing clean in the process) sure would be a nice way to make the public mostly forget about that failed PED test and suspension, don't you think?
Even after Cain Velasquez lost his heavyweight title to Junior dos Santos in 2011, I told everyone who would listen that I still believed him to be the best heavyweight in the world.
I'm a Velasquez believer, you see, and I knew that if Cain went into a fight without injury and avoided being punched behind the ear—where even a soft touch can throw your equilibrium all out of whack—there was a very good chance he'd win every single fight he ever participated in.
I was proven right, if only temporarily so, when Velasquez wholly dominated dos Santos at UFC 155 to win back the belt. But how long can Velasquez maintain that kind of dominance? Would a third fight with dos Santos look more like the first or second fight?
These are questions we don't have the answer to. Not yet, anyway. But they are questions worth paying attention to over the coming 12 months.
It seems like we have the answer to this question already: As long as teammate Cain Velasquez is holding on to the UFC heavyweight title, Cormier intends to drop down to light heavyweight and fight Jon Jones. Cormier said as much following his dominant win over Dion Staring at the final Strikeforce event last weekend.
But first, Cormier's taking a fight with Frank Mir on April 20 on Fox (via Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports). And if Velasquez happens to lose that heavyweight title to Alistair Overeem (or anyone else) before Cormier starts making the drop to 205?
Well, I guess we'd have to figure out where Cormier stands in relation to the rest of the heavyweight contenders because I don't think he'll make the weight cut if he doesn't have to.
We've never seen Junior dos Santos deal with adversity, so we have no idea how he's going to rebound from his crushing defeat to Velasquez in December.
But we do know one thing: Dos Santos is still one of the three best heavyweights in the world, and how he performs in his next fight will go a long way toward letting us know what kind of fighter he actually is.
Will he put on a masterful and dominant performance like the one-sided beatdown Velasquez issued to Antonio Silva, thereby cementing himself as the top contender and leaving little room that he's deserving of a rematch?
I think he will. I think we'll see a new and even more determined dos Santos. And we'll see him step back in the cage with Velasquez by the end of 2013. Guaranteed.
It's nearly impossible to believe that Dutch skyscraper Stefan Struve is just 24 years old. The guy has 12 bouts in the UFC, which makes him among the most tenured UFC heavyweights of all time, and he's been fighting for the promotion since a 2009 debut loss to Junior dos Santos.
And still, he's only 24.
I say all of this to point out that Struve still has a world of potential to be unveiled, and he has plenty of time to do it. In the last 15 months, Struve has quietly begun to ring up a four-fight winning streak. And while he has yet to face a top contender, Struve has won all four of those fights by finishing his opponent.
If the gigantic heavyweight can win two or three more fights, he'll be in title contention. Which means 2013 could be the year that Stefan Struve rises to the top.
We've been asking this question for two years, and we're no closer now to an answer than we were back when we first started asking.
When will Jon Jones tire of dispatching opponents at 205 and make the move to heavyweight?
Jones initially targeted the end of 2013 as the time when he might make his long-awaited move up in weight classes. Well, we're now at the dawning moments of 2013, which means we might have a potential superfight or two to look forward to at the close of the year.
Jones vs. Cain Velasquez? Yeah, I'll watch that.
Jones vs. Junior dos Santos? Be still, my ever-beating heart.
What's up with Josh Barnett? That's the question on our minds these days after Barnett concluded his fight contract with Zuffa-owned Strikeforce and essentially became the hottest free agent in the sport.
I say "limited" because, let's face it, Barnett's not going to make the jump to Bellator. Who would he fight? I think Bellator has three heavyweights under contract, all of whom are terrible. Barnett is far more likely to take his talents to Japan, where he can do pro wrestling to his heart's content and continue to take fights in whatever Japanese promotion is the flavor of the week.
But we all hope against hope that Barnett is able to come to some kind of deal with Zuffa because he's still a top-five heavyweight and we'd like to see him fight other top-five heavyweights. He's also quite marketable and entertaining, and we can always use more of those two traits in the heavyweight division. Or any division, for that matter.
It'd be a shame if Barnett ultimately does not make the move to the UFC.
I don't really know what to make of Roy Nelson these days. Not that Nelson has ever been easy to figure out in the first place.
On one hand, he's an immensely talented and entertaining fighter with an enormous fan backing. On the other, he makes strange business decisions, like publicly pecking at other fighters about drug testing and going out of his way to antagonize his boss, Dana White.
This could be Nelson's year. We say that about a lot of heavyweights, but it's doubly true for Nelson. He's coming off an (admittedly terrible) season of The Ultimate Fighter and a knockout of Matt Mitrione. He'll probably have a high-profile bout with Shane Carwin whenever Carwin can get over all of his various ailments.
Another win or two, and "Big Country" will be right back in that title contention mix. Will he take the moment seriously enough to put in a real training camp, with real training partners, or will he be content to train at his house whenever he feels like it and eat whatever he feels like eating?
Fabricio Werdum created the most memorable moment in Strikforce history when he handed Fedor Emelianenko his first loss. He lost his next bout to Alistair Overeem but has secured wins over Mike Russow and Roy Nelson since returning to the UFC.
Werdum won't fight in 2013 until June, when he faces fellow TUF: Brazil 2 coach Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. The fight presents a chance for Werdum to rise over the hump and put himself in title contention or to secure a rematch with Junior dos Santos.
In short, it's a very important year for Werdum, an ever-improving fighter who is proving to be better and better in the striking department each time he steps in the cage. That, coupled with his world-class grappling, makes him a formidable opponent for anyone in the heavyweight division, and 2013 is a statement year for the Brazilian.
I've spent several slides talking about the top fighters in the heavyweight division. But another intriguing storyline to keep an eye on is the rise of young, hot prospects like Todd Duffee and Travis Browne.
Duffee recently made his return to the UFC, beating Phil de Fries by TKO in the first round. It felt like a continuation of Duffee's UFC debut back in 2009 when he knocked out Tim Hague in just 7 seconds, sending shock waves through the heavyweight division.
Duffee may never be a world champion, but there's no way to say that he won't be, either. He's got immense physical strength and size, and obviously hits hard enough to plant anyone in his path directly on the canvas.
And then there's Travis Browne, who ran up an undefeated record before running into Antonio Silva. But to be fair, Browne injured himself early in the fight with Silva and lost almost all of his mobility. And when mobility is your biggest asset—especially when you have the size to go along with it—you're going to be in big trouble when facing anyone in the UFC, much less someone like Silva.
Again, Browne and Duffee may never be champions. But they have the opportunity to make significant progress in 2013, and I look forward to seeing how their respective careers unfold.