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Biggest Issues Facing the UFC in the 2nd Half of 2013

Nate LawsonCorrespondent IJune 21, 2013

Biggest Issues Facing the UFC in the 2nd Half of 2013

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    The first half of 2013 has come and gone, and the first sixth months of this year went fairly smoothly for the UFC.

    Now, with the final event of the the second quarter, UFC 161, in the books, the promotion looks ahead to its first event of July, UFC 162, featuring middleweight champion Anderson Silva and top contender Chris Weidman.

    But with the Fourth of July event and the latter half of 2013 comes a list of issues and concerns the UFC must face. 

    From putting together a bantamweight title fight to figuring out whom Daniel Cormier should fight in his final tilt at heavyweight, here are the biggest issues the sport's leading promotion must face in the next six months.  

Injuries

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    No one was thrilled about the UFC 161 main event. 

    Don't get me wrong, Rashad Evans vs. Dan Henderson is an interesting fight, but as a three-round main event? Not so much. 

    Of course, the UFC didn't sign up for a trip to Winnipeg with Evans vs. Henderson in mind as a headliner. In fact, it wasn't even a co-main event originally. 

    After Renan Barao vs. Eddie Wineland and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Antonio Rogerio were canceled, however, "Suga" and "Hendo" were the only two fighters who could carry a card, or at least attempt to. 

    This was just another case of the injury bug killing a card—a pay-per-view card, no less—and the promotion, as always, is going to have to deal with injuries for the remainder of 2013.

    So far, three main events have been affected by injuries in 2013, including the aforementioned Barao vs. Wineland fight. 

    The other two main events to be affected occurred in April when Alexander Gustafsson was forced out of his UFC on Fuel 9 fight against Strikeforce import Gegard Mousasi—he was replaced by severely outmatched Ilir Latifi—and when flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson withdrew from his TUF: Team Jones vs. Team Sonnen Finale against John Moraga. 

    Fortunately, Johnson and Gustafsson's injuries took place ahead of free cards. Unfortunately, Barao's injury forced him out of a pay-per-view headliner. 

    And the UFC didn't have much of a chance to resurrect UFC 161, considering they lost both a main and co-main event, and Gustafsson's injury ahead of UFC on Fuel 9 came just days before the card was set to go live in Sweden. 

    Injuries will always be included on lists like this—lists detailing the issues ahead for the UFC or any MMA organization. The UFC can only hope to adjust as well as possible when faced with the adversity caused by fighter withdrawals. 

Testosterone Replacement Therapy

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    Testosterone replacement therapy has been perhaps the hottest topic in mixed martial arts since Chael Sonnen stood before the California State Athletic Commission due to a failed drug test following his loss to Anderson Silva back at UFC 117.

    And just this month, Sonnen told Jim Rome that he used TRT "to get an edge." Not exactly the type of comment that will take the heat off TRT users. 

    Recently, Vitor Belfort has become the face of the topic, and fighters, especially those he's met in the cage, have commented on it. And none of those comments were friendly.

    Opponents such as Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping—two men Belfort knocked out—have voiced their displeasure with his exemption, while even UFC President Dana White has gone on record saying he wants TRT banned in MMA.  

    The allowance of TRT, however, is not the UFC's call. The athletic commissions are responsible for dealing out TRT exemption, and that may not change anytime soon. However, it remains an issue for the promotion, considering several noteworthy fighters have acquired the exemption for TRT use. 

    White revealing his opinion on testosterone replacement therapy is a step in the right direction, and it could discourage some fighters from seeking out said exemption, since the boss seems so adamantly against it. But I doubt it. The UFC can't do much about TRT, but it will remain a hot topic for the promotion.

Officiating

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    UFC President Dana White made a point to watch the World Series of Fighting 3 main event between Jon Fitch and Josh Burkman, both UFC veterans. And as impressive as Burkman's submission win over the former UFC welterweight top contender was, the largest takeaway for the UFC boss was the poor officiating.

    Referee Steve Mazzagatti got the call to oversee the fight between the two 170-pounders, but he failed to do his job. Burkman scored an early choke on Fitch, a guillotine attempt, and Fitch was unable to escape, going to sleep.

    But instead of Mazzagatti triggering the conclusion of the fight, Burkman rolled the unconscious Fitch over and stood up with his arms raised. At that point, the official finally stepped in.

    White was not happy with what he saw and made his opinion well known in the UFC 161 post-fight scrum

    Unfortunately, the athletic commissions, including the NSAC (Nevada State Athletic Commission), assign referees to certain fights, and Mazzagatti, for years, has been one of their main guys. 

    Now, Mazzagatti isn't the only referee to make mistakes; they all do from time to time. But Mazzagatti is oftentimes the referee White chooses to discuss when he takes issue with officiating. 

    And officiating is an issue that will stick around for the remainder of 2013 and beyond. The UFC and its fighters can only hope the mistakes are few and far between, though White will most likely continue on his anti-Mazzagatti campaign until changes are made. 

Keeping Anthony Pettis at Lightweight

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    For all the talk of superfights in the UFC, we sure haven't witnessed many.

    And with a major hit to the UFC 163 main event between Jose Aldo and Anthony Pettis—the latter withdrew due to injury—the superfight won't make an appearance in 2013.  

    Maybe that isn't a bad thing. 

    I can respect a fighter who steps up against a guy like Aldo without hesitation. The fact that Pettis is a top lightweight makes the decision to drop down even more admirable. 

    But it's causing issues. 

    The featherweight division has a list of contenders, including Chan Sung Jung (The Korean Zombie), Ricardo Lamas, and Chad Mendes. I'd have no issue with any of them fighting Aldo next, and Jung actually got the call following the Pettis injury. 

    Lightweight is a different story. 

    TJ Grant faces 155-pound champion Benson Henderson at UFC 164 this August, and he deserves the title shot after he stormed through Gray Maynard in May. But after Grant, the list is short.

    Here are the current top five lightweights, according to the official UFC rankings:

    1. Gilbert Melendez
    2. Anthony Pettis
    3. TJ Grant
    4. Josh Thomson
    5. Gray Maynard

    Melendez is coming off a loss to Henderson, Grant will either be the new champion, or Henderson's next victim. Thomson is 2-2 over his last four, and Gray Maynard, the contender, has fallen off the face of the earth. 

    After Grant, Pettis is the only sensible fight. Melendez and Henderson fought to a close decision, so the former Strikeforce champion is still an option, but the last thing the lightweight division needs is another series of rematches.

    And I'm aware Henderson vs. Pettis would be a rematch from their WEC 53 fight, but at least it's more intriguing, considering Pettis topped Henderson at that event. 

    A fight between Aldo and Pettis is certainly a marketable fight; it's more marketable than Aldo vs. Jung/Lamas/Mendes. But if "Showtime" drops to 145 pounds, the 155-pound landscape will be greatly weakened. 

    The lightweight division could use a dynamic fighter, and Aldo isn't going anywhere. It's time for Pettis to commit to 155.

Getting a Bantamweight Champion in the Cage

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    UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and interim champion Renan Barao have yet to meet in the Octagon to unify their titles, mostly because neither of them can find a way to be healthy at the same time. 

    The fault, if there is fault to be given, lies with Cruz's nagging ACL issue, from which recovery seems ever elusive. The last time he set foot in a cage, the flyweight division didn't exist, women didn't fight in the UFC and Barao was still fighting on the Facebook prelims.

    Now, the Brazilian is the interim champ, having defeated Urijah Faber at UFC 149 to earn the strap. He's since defended it once—he beat Michael McDonald earlier this year via submission—and the division was able to carry on, at least to some extent, in the shadow of Cruz's absence.

    Unfortunately, Barao withdrew from his next scheduled fight, a main event against Eddie Wineland at UFC 161, due to injury. Fortunately, he went to Twitter to state that the injury was not as bad as originally expected, meaning he should return soon.

    Though Barao was not specific as to when he would be back, his timetable is promising. And, as Dana White revealed in April, Cruz could be back reasonably soon as well, explaining the champ was training again.

    Still, as Bleacher Report's Duane Finley wrote earlier this month, the bantamweight division is in trouble. The UFC needs one of their champions to return to the cage before the end of 2013 if this division is going to progress. If not, a title may have to be stripped. 

Finding Daniel Cormier a Final Heavyweight Opponent

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    The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion Daniel Cormier recently told the media that he had finally committed to making the drop down to the light heavyweight division.

    It's a move that has long been expected, since he and heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez are training partners, even though Cormier is currently the No. 2 ranked heavyweight contender, just behind former champ Junior dos Santos. 

    He says the move is coming, and he says he'll be down to 205 pounds by the end of the year. And these coming six months will allow him to get the weight off fairly slowly.

    Trouble is, he wants one more fight at heavyweight, and that puts the promotion in an awkward spot.

    Cormier is an elite heavyweight, who should fight fellow elite heavyweights, but the UFC can't afford to have Cormier top a fellow contender, only to abandon the division by 2014. They would lose two contenders that way.

    But you can't put him up against an average or even good heavyweight, can you? For example, what purpose would a Roy Nelson/Mark Hunt vs. Daniel Cormier fight serve? Cormier would effortlessly get through both of them, unless Nelson or Hunt somehow landed a brutal strike early. If you're the UFC, you get nothing out of that fight.

    Actually, there's not a matchup I can think of at heavyweight for Cormier that would benefit the UFC. Here's a list of fighters they simply can't (or at least shouldn't) send in against Cormier:

    • Cain Velasquez
    • Junior dos Santos 
    • Alistair Overeem
    • Fabricio Werdum
    • Antonio Silva*
    • Frank Mir*
    • Travis Browne
    • Josh Barnett*
    • Stipe Miocic

    So that leaves (in order of likelihood):

    1. Roy Nelson (assuming he re-signs)
    2. Mark Hunt
    3. Stefan Struve

    Anybody else in the division is either not well known, not good enough or too old. (Read: I don't want to see Cormier murder Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.)

    Right now, the clear-cut answer to the question of whom Cormier should fight next is Roy Nelson—except he is currently not under contract, and he could bolt if the UFC doesn't give him a lucrative contract. 

    That leaves Hunt and Struve. The former is scary due to his power, but he's probably made his last run toward contention. Still, if he knocks out Cormier, you've got at least a minor disaster on your hands.

    Meanwhile, Struve is still young (he's just 25) and could be a contender someday, considering his youth and experience. The UFC probably aren't too eager to send Cormier in there to put "The Skyscraper" down like Nelson and Hunt have.

    Let's hope the UFC can bring Nelson back, if only because there are so few options for Cormier. If they aren't able to come to an agreement, Cormier needs to sit on the shelf until his light heavyweight debut. 

    *has already fought and lost to Cormier

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