MMA Draft: Picking the Top 32 Franchise Fighters in the Sport Today
Looks like draft fever is spreading across the Bleacher Report horizon.
I heard the NFL section is doing it now, too. What's that about? I don't know, man. And to be honest I don't want to know. All I know is, it's a good and comforting thing that we fight fans will always hold claim to the very best, very most important draft in all of sports: the MMA draft.
For formality's sake, let's run through the ground rules. Thirty-two picks. Every active fighter, weight class and promotion are eligible.
Most importantly, keep in mind that the goal is not just to rank the 32 best fighters. We're thinking about the future here. We want to identify those fighters around which one could build a promotion or training team (toward the end of the round, it's more like all-stars and major contributors, but still). So we're basing this on track record, ability, age, health, and character and other intangibles.
If you're interested, last year's draft is here. But now is not the time to look back. Everyone's in their finery. The cameras are rolling. And with the first pick in the 2013 MMA draft, I hereby select...
1. Jon Jones
Other notables: UFC light heavyweight champion
One day, we're going to look back at the time when Chuck Liddell or Georges St-Pierre was considered the sport's first true crossover star. And we're just going to laaaaaaugh and laaaaaaugh. Life was so much simpler then. We'd take a slug of Mickey's, wash it down with Xyience and say, "We've made it, dude."
Jon Jones is a propane stove for the sterno era. He's the new breed and the total package, even if his approval numbers among the hardcores may not be, for various reasons, all they could be. As long as he keeps destroying everyone with spinning elbows and rag-doll takedowns and standing guillotines, he's going to be just fine, thanks.
And the news earlier this week that he would fight at light heavyweight one more time before opening all those heavyweight and superfight invitations only makes this a bigger lock. Those early shoe sale numbers don't hurt either.
Yep. This is your franchise, right here. I don't even see a close second.
2. Jose Aldo
Other notables: UFC featherweight champion, considering eventual move to lightweight
Jose Aldo is the next face of MMA in Brazil—at least as long as he continues to not be beatable.
A body can grow numb to the sheer density of Aldo's opponent list. Frankie Edgar, Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Kenny Florian, Cub Swanson and the list goes on.
It's just fun to type them all out like that sometimes, though not as fun as watching the scrum below him produce one contender after another, only to have him mow through them all like a mischievous boy through a pesky neighbor's prize-winning geraniums.
He's also got the perfect Brazilian game: that jiu-jitsu poured over Muay Thai. It's all perfectly balanced on the frame of a highly likable 26-year-old.
3. Benson Henderson
Other notables: UFC lightweight champion
Ah, wasn't this a nice moment last Saturday? I remember when I proposed to my wife as the crowd showered me with boos. It's still so clear in my mind!
But really, there's no booing Bendo. At least not in this guy's book. Not when you've looked as tough as Henderson has in his run to capture and defend (three times now) the lightweight strap.
Plus, he's got that squeaky clean, cross-demographical, possible-shampoo-commercial-down-the-road thing going on. It's not hard to see why the UFC has cast him as the protagonist in their ongoing Fox broadcasting strategy.
4. Georges St-Pierre
Other notables: UFC welterweight champion, greatest welterweight of all time
Now that we know he hasn't lost anything following that ACL tear, GSP remains a rock-solid franchise player.
He just needs to figure out what he's doing vis-a-vis all this weight-class stuff. Just figure it out and announce it, Georges. We're ready to move on with our lives. Tired of answering the question? I bet reporters are tired of asking it. It can't be this hard. Nothing is this hard. Pick a lane, Brosephine.
5. Ronda Rousey
Other notables: First and only UFC women's champion
We're still solidly in the no-brainer portion of the draft. And Ronda Rousey is about the most obvious no-brainer of a thing as things get in this little MMA teapot of ours.
No one can stop Rousey's patented takedown-to-armbar-you. No one can hope to contain it. And with the intangibles and other tangibles on top of that, freaking forget about it.
6. Cain Velasquez
Other notables: UFC heavyweight champion
The baddest man on the planet.
The proud Mexican-American recently avenged his only career loss with some authority. Following a full gooification of Antonio Silva—who is a giant, I might add—he pounded Junior dos Santos into the canvas to get his belt back. Oh, and make no mistake: that's Cain's belt.
7. Anderson Silva
Other notables: UFC middleweight champion, GOAT
The best MMA fighter ever is still humming along quite smoothly. But at age 38, a breakdown could happen any time. I don't wish it. I don't want it. It's just a fact.
8. Junior dos Santos
Other notables: Former UFC heavyweight champion, happiest murderer ever
So many fighters talk about "flipping a switch" when they step in the cage, implying that they're really just mild-mannered citizens until it's time to go to work. Junior dos Santos really does appear to have such a switch.
The dimpled Brazilian heavyweight is, by all appearances, actually a friendly person—endearingly so. He's not just humble or polite with the media. That's different than what dos Santos is. Dos Santos is a nice man, a cheerful man. I always imagine him happily walking down the street with little kids draped all over him, like the Hulk Hogan cartoon character come to life and speaking Portugese.
It's that quality that makes his combat excellence that much more impactful. When the job is done and it looks like the canvas has been sprayed down with a box of Franzia's finest merlot, and you look over and you see that dimpled man helping to clean off his opponent or hugging family members, well, there's just no one else quite like him.
Velasquez recently lowered the temperature on the JDS hype, sure. But dos Santos still has legitimate franchise potential.
9. Renan Barao
Other notables: Interim UFC bantamweight champion
It's easy to call Renan Barao the mini-Jose Aldo. They have similar games and are training partners. But as this analysis (per our own Jack Slack) shows, that's not a complete assessment. Barao is his own fighter, and he has stormed through the bantamweight ranks.
At age 26, Barao is sitting on an eight-year unbeaten streak. His streak, in fact, is six months and 16 fights longer than Aldo's, despite their identical age. He may not have plowed through the same murderer's row as has Aldo, but he's certainly making up for lost time.
10. Demetrious Johnson
Other notables: UFC flyweight champion
The UFC's quickest fighter may also be its most anonymous champion. But with the Fox rocket propulsion system squarely behind him—the newly announced bout with John Moraga (per A.J. Perez of Fox Sports), going down in Johnson's home city of Seattle, will be his second consecutive main event on the big channel—that is changing fast.
Johnson is young, fun to watch (even if he doesn't knock a lot of people out) and a seemingly very thoughtful, cerebral person. There's lots to like in "Mighty Mouse."
11. Frankie Edgar
Other notables: Former UFC lightweight champion, current featherweight contender
Frankie Edgar needs to stop fighting in title fights. His opponent in his last non-title fight was Matt Veach. His last seven bouts have had a belt involved. Several were paper-thin decisions.
The real-life Rocky figure and favorite son of Toms River, N.J., shouldn't have too much trouble getting back on the winning track once he's not fighting, like, the very best fighter in a weight class every single time he steps in there.
12. Urijah Faber
Other notables: Former WEC featherweight champion
For many, Urijah Faber is the face of MMA.
Just ask all those people who watch The Doctors.
With two submission wins in the last three months, and with Duane Ludwig now serving as a real head coach for Faber's Team Alpha Male camp, "The California Kid" is trending upward. Now we just need to see what happens when a belt re-enters the conversation.
13. Chris Weidman
Other notables: Possible Anderson Silva kryptonite
Chris Weidman hasn't really been pushed since he entered the Octagon. How many people can say that five fights in and against some pretty high-grade competition? But there he is: five wins, three stoppages, no significant threats.
His takedown game and heavy ground-and-pound, critics say, just might be the magic formula for stopping Anderson Silva. We'll find out more about that on July 6. Either way, he's very good and looks to be a fixture in the elite circles of the middleweight division for some time to come.
14. Johny Hendricks
Other notables: Perennial welterweight contender, happy and bearded, bowling balls for fists
The All-American, Johny Hendricks, with the thunder in his left hand, wears his heart on his sleeve. And I know I'm not going to want to be anywhere near that sleeve if we find out St-Pierre is leaving the welterweight division and robbing Hendricks of that title shot.
The good news, though, is that such a move would leave the title vacant. Is there anyone in the division who can beat Hendricks? Sure. But he'd have to be the favorite to fill the vacuum.
15. Dominick Cruz
Other notables: Lineal UFC bantamweight champion
Dominick Cruz tumbled down many a big board last fall, following news that he would be out at least another year on top of the year he had already missed with a knee injury. Add in the fact that Renan Barao looks hard to stop and we might be looking at a scenario in which the lineal champ is the underdog in his own return match.
But he's still a brilliant fighter, even if his style won't exactly overload the power grid. If he comes back and beats Barao, he stands to shoot right back into the top 10.
16. Pat Curran
Other notables: Bellator featherweight champion
If I weren't a full-on believer before Shahbulat Shamhalaev, I sure am now. Pat Curran handed the freight-training Russian his first loss since 2009. Throw it on the pile. That's six in a row now for the young champ, who can get it done in any phase and knows how to move a crowd. His future couldn't be brighter.
17. Anthony Pettis
Other notables: Former WEC lightweight champion, two Knockout of the Night bonuses in four UFC fights
Anthony Pettis slots in one notch below Pat Curran for being just a bit older and for not having any gold around his waist. But this could be a major value pick—especially, of course, if he beats Jose Aldo in August.
Even if he doesn't, though, Pettis is one of the two or three most dynamic all-around MMA strikers on this crazy blue marble of ours.
Oh, and there's the little matter of fact that he's the only guy to defeat Benson Henderson. Well, he and Rocky Johnson back in 2007. So there's that.
18. Rory MacDonald
Other notables: new nickname: "The Canadian Psycho"
Some of the steam hissed from the phenom Rory MacDonald's boiler when a cut sustained in training forced a delay in his bout with B.J. Penn. When the fight finally came in December, he toyed with but didn't finish the legendary Penn over three rounds of action. Toying with Penn is a pretty good way to alienate hardcore fans. And more steam escapes.
Then another injury forced an out-and-out braking, as it delayed his rematch with Carlos Condit, who is still the only man to beat him.
MacDonald unquestionably has a world of talent. The sky's the limit, assuming he stays healthy. But his approval rating, fair or not, is on the downslope. He needs to recapture some momentum. His July 27 tilt on Fox with Jake Ellenberger will be critical.
19. Carlos Condit
Other notables: Former interim UFC welterweight champion
Why is Condit lower than the man he beat? Don't forget, son: This is a draft, not a power ranking. And the fact is, Condit is five years older and 20 fights deeper in his career than Rory MacDonald.
Still, Condit might be the most exciting professional in the sport. He doesn't just say he's going to give 100 percent every time. He actually does it. Despite a two-fight losing streak (to Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks, no less), he remains one of the toughest outs in MMA.
20. Michael Chandler
Other notables: Bellator lightweight champion
Though Pat Curran is more widely known and battle-tested, it's entirely possible that Michael Chandler is the best fighter, right now, in the Bellator promotion.
He's got a taste for blood, too, as all three of his most recent victories came by stoppage, including that battle for the ages with Eddie Alvarez in 2011, which won him the belt and a big black "X" on many a fan map. He's got the well-rounded game to hang with pretty much any lightweight, and that includes those on the UFC roster.
21. Alexander Gustafsson
Other notables: Light heavyweight contender, enjoys knockouts, highly popular in Nordic market
Sweden's favorite fighting son sadly had to pull out of his most recent fight because of a cut. But he'll be back. Here's hoping someone comes to their senses and gives him, not Lyoto Machida, the next shot at the light heavyweight title.
22. Daniel Cormier
Other notables: Olympic wrestler, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion
Maybe his win last weekend over Frank Mir wasn't the world's most exciting affair. But it was smart, and it was thoroughly dominant.
I don't know if he can handle a Junior dos Santos or a Cain Velasquez at heavyweight. But at 205 pounds? He could make some serious noise.
23. Luke Rockhold
Other notables: Last Strikeforce middleweight champ; he will make his UFC debut in May
This one comes with a big caveat. If he loses to Vitor Belfort on May 18, just tie a rope to Luke Rockhold's ranking and tie the other end to a rock and let 'er go.
But if he wins, he could be a fast riser. Interesting fight, that one. There's no question the well-rounded Rockhold, with his Hollywood good looks and so on, has real star potential.
24. Gilbert Melendez
Other notables: Longtime Strikeforce lightweight champion
Yes, Gilbert Melendez lost last weekend to Benson Henderson. But he also dispelled the notion that he's not fit to face UFC competition. Melendez is still young, still highly successful and still more than capable of a long UFC tenure. He's clearly enthusiastic for the chance, and that means something, too.
25. Lyoto Machida
Other notables: Former UFC light heavyweight champion, former era namesake
I don't want to talk about Lyoto Machida anymore. Look. Machida's expression in this picture is an exact mirror of my own mental expression when his name comes up.
Here, let me see if I can sound it out for you. It sounds something like "WEEEEEGHHHH."
But whatever. He still needs to be here, with the karate and the elusiveness and the hey hey hey.
26. Alexander Shlemenko
Other notables: Bellator middleweight champion
OK, now it's getting interesting. It's been a long time since I watched a fight in which Alexander Shlemenko was threatened. Actually, I may never have watched such a fight.
His voluminous record belies his youth. Can Bellator start pushing this guy a little more?
27. Conor McGregor
Other notables: Longest-tenured Irishman in UFC history
Now it's getting VERY interesting. If you were to construct the perfect Irish cage fighter, you'd probably come up with something like Conor McGregor. An insanely polished and dangerous striker first, but a well-rounded fighter as a close second. Brash and a little crazy, but just sane and genuine enough to stop short of the line separating confidence from cockiness. He's a quick laugh and a proud Irishman, but not in that silly Bennigan's sort of way.
The former dual-division champion in Britain's prestigious Cage Warriors promotion has said he could fight in three divisions for the UFC. I'm not saying that's advisable, but does it seem like McGregor listens to a lot of advice? Does he seem especially concerned about (or, to this point, confined by) conventions?
Hey, I don't know. All I know is, if I were you, I'd get in on the ground floor.
28. Andrey Koreshkov
Other notables: Bellator Season 7 Welterweight tournament winner, Russian badass
Andrey Koreshkov is a highly frightening man, and he's barely old enough to buy a beer in the U.S. Yes, that collision with Ben Askren should be rather interesting.
29. Chad Mendes
Other notables: Lost title shot to Jose Aldo
As is the case with many Team Alpha Males these days, Chad Mendes is on the way up. He's looked like a world beater in his last three fights, though to be fair, two of those came against fair-to-middlin' competition, and one came, I believe, against some kind of concessioner.
As is also the case with the Alpha Males, the true test will be what happens if and when Mendes returns to bona fide title contention.
30. Anthony Johnson
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
Other notables: Former welterweight, hardcore knockout artist
Anthony "Rumble" Johnson showed against Andrei Arlovski that he's no fluffy dandelion at the highest weight class. No matter if he fights at heavyweight, light heavyweight or somewhere else, if Johnson can master his weight-cutting issues, there's no question he can break—and turn—many heads in the cage.
31. Martin Kampmann
Other notables: Welterweight challenger, European appeal, beaten some pretty good dudes
Martin Kampmann has absolutely free-fallen off the radar following his knockout loss to Johny Hendricks, in which Kampmann barely had a chance to display his shorts sponsors before he was looking up at the lights.
The Danishman (if that's the right term, which it probably isn't, but screw it) also hasn't received a fight since then. But methinks he will, and when he does, the guy who beat Rick Story, Thiago Alves and Jake Ellenberger in succession could be poised to rocket right back up the ranks. And we'll all make a bunch of how-soon-we-forget remarks.
32. Tarec Saffiedine
Other notables: Last Strikeforce welterweight champion
The leg kick demon from Brussels, Tarec Saffiedine, showed he's ready for prime time when he pummeled Nate Marquardt for five solid rounds back in January. He's now expected to make his UFC debut on July 27 against hard-hitting Robbie Lawler.
My money's on the more cerebral, more well-rounded, tougher Saffiedine. And then we'll see. Why not take a flyer on the last Strikeforce champ?
But wait! There's a bonus! Guys who just missed the first round, but should get snapped up early in the second (in no particular order):
Roy Nelson, Rashad Evans, Fabricio Werdum, Josh Thomson, Vitaly Minakov, Tyrone Spong, Magomedrasul "Frodo" Khasbulaev, Alistair Overeem
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