The first half of 2013 may have been mired in questionable title shots, but it appears—at least for now—the latter part of the year will see some justification in the realm of championship opportunities.
While Nick Diaz and Chael Sonnen stepping into title contention roles had varying angles of debatable validity, the decisions to bump those fighters to the front of their respective lines left many in the MMA world scratching their heads in confusion.
The mercurial Stockton native had been absent due to a suspension handed down after a failed post-fight drug test following his loss to Carlos Condit at UFC 143. Granting Diaz a title shot not only meant he was leapfrogging a red-hot Johny Hendricks, who at the time was riding a four-fight winning streak and has tacked on two more since, but he was also doing so coming off a loss.
UFC President Dana White chalked the decision to put Diaz in the fight up to champion Georges St-Pierre's adamant demands that the proud Stocktonian was the fighter he wanted to face next.
When the most dominant champion in the history of the welterweight division asks to settle a grudge match, it is easy to see why the promotion heeded to his request. Then again, it's the fight business and the blurred lines of what is truth and what is promotional hype-machine are never really clear.
Things looked a bit different in the light heavyweight division. Champion Jon Jones was set to defend his title against No. 1 contender Dan Henderson at UFC 151 last summer and the divisional race appeared to be in full swing. That is, until a knee injury forced the former Olympian out of the bout just eight days shy of the fight, leaving a chaotic vacuum in the main event.
With "Hendo" out, Chael Sonnen offered his services, but the young champion refused to accept the change of opponent on such short notice. A venomous Twitter campaign from the former middleweight contender ignited a rivalry which only grew hotter after the entire event was cancelled in light of the mayhem.
The "Gangster from West Linn" would eventually get his title shot at UFC 159, and the results weren't in his favor as Bones dismantled the sport's best mouthpiece in the first round.
Following the victory over Sonnen, rumors once again sparked up about a potential superfight between Jones and middleweight king Anderson Silva, which would have pushed the divisional process further out of whack. Without a natural flow up and down the ladder throughout weight classes, prospects cannot rise and would-be contenders cannot become title challengers.
To put it in simple terms: Disrupting a divisional race to make high-dollar matchups stalls things out. Granted, had those weight classes been void of having contenders at the ready, then hand-picking opponents to make championship fights makes sense. But that wasn't the case in either division, and fortunately it appears things are getting back to normal, for the most part.
A Long-Awaited Welterweight Showdown
Few divisions have faced more turbulence over the past two years than what the welterweight division has endured. The circus that started with UFC 137 in October of 2011 finally came to an end this past March at UFC 158 as St-Pierre and Diaz squared off inside the Octagon and determined who was the superior fighter.
Over the 16-month stretch between the originally scheduled bout and when the two welterweights finally collided in Montreal, a series of substitutions and scrambles took place, with Diaz and Condit eventually squaring off for the interim title at UFC 143 in February of 2012. And while the divisional upper tier was sorting itself out, Hendricks was making his climb up the ladder.
Two months before Diaz and Condit danced in Las Vegas, the former two-time NCAA Div. I wrestling champion scored the biggest win of his career by knocking out perennial contender Jon Fitch at UFC 141. "Bigg Rigg" starched the former No. 1 contender 12 seconds into the fight and unveiled his thunderous left hook on the sport's biggest stage.
The victory over Fitch marked the third consecutive for Hendricks and put his name on the radar as a fighter to watch in the 170-pound division.
The 29-year-old Texas native would take huge steps forward in his next two outings with wins over Josh Koscheck and Martin Kampmann. In almost a mirror-image of the fight with Fitch, Hendricks salted "The Hitman" with a big left hand that put the Danish striker out on the canvas.
In the aftermath of his victory over Kampmann, Hendricks appeared to be next in line for a title shot. He had strung together five consecutive victories and was the consensus No. 1 contender in the eyes of the MMA community. But then the news of St-Pierre versus Diaz at UFC 158 broke, and Hendricks once again found himself on the outside looking in.
Rather than sit on the sidelines and wallow in frustration, Hendricks decided to keep the dice rolling. Where he was originally slated to face Jake Ellenberger at UFC 158, the surging contender jumped on the opportunity to face former interim champion Carlos Condit when his opponent fell out due to injury. Hendricks edged out the Jackson's MMA fighter in a gritty three-round war, and in the process, eliminated any chance he would be skipped over once again.
While talk lingered about a St-Pierre vs. Silva "superfight" later this year, it appears those rumors have been put to rest. Earlier this week, the L.A. Times reported GSP would face Hendricks later this year on November 16 (the card is yet to be announced), making the long-awaited showdown a reality.
It is the fight Hendricks has been working for, and now he'll finally have the opportunity.
A New Challenge Emerges at Light Heavyweight
At 25 years old, Jones is undoubtedly one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. Furthermore, the pound-for-pound phenom is just one win away from surpassing "Hall of Famer" Tito Ortiz as the most prolific light heavyweight champion to ever wear the strap. Jones will have the opportunity to make another entry into the record books when he faces Alex Gustafsson in September at UFC 165.
Dana White confirmed the bout at the post-fight media scrum for UFC 161, and the announcement of the championship tilt between Jones and Gustafsson is a breath of fresh air for the 205-pound fold.
Former title-holder Lyoto Machida appeared to be the next in line following his win over Henderson at UFC 156, but with a lack of dominance in the bout, and having already lost to Jones, the UFC decided to give the surging Swede the nod.
While there is no shortage of potential title contenders in the light heavyweight ranks, the reality of this collection posing a legitimate threat to Jones narrows the field considerably. The Jackson's MMA fighter has defended his belt successfully on five occasions, with each coming in dominant fashion.
The only opponent the champion has failed to finish during his reign was Rashad Evans, but despite "Suga" making it to the judge's scorecards, the decision was certainly lopsided in Jones' favor.
On paper, Gustafsson presents several interesting challenges for Jones. "The Mauler" is a tall, rangy striker who has proven the ability to use his length to his advantage. That being said, in the matchup with Jones, Gustafsson will still give up nearly eight inches in the reach department—a tool the young champion has absolutely exploited against the opposition in past showings.
Jones has quickly become one of the all-time greats in mixed martial arts, and whether or not Gustafsson can derail his meteoric rise remains to be seen. Nevertheless, granting the 26-year-old Team Alliance fighter a title shot is a step in the right direction because there is no doubt it is an opportunity Gustafsson has earned.
He has won six consecutive showings, with the most recent coming against former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC on Fox 5 last December, and the chance to fight Jones is a deserved step for the young contender.
The Featherweight Madness Continues
While title pictures are beginning to make sense once again for most of the divisions under the UFC banner, there are still a few mysteries lingering. Despite having all the necessary tools in place to have a breakout year, the featherweight division is still battling chaos every step of the way.
Champion Jose Aldo is still holding court as the most dominant champion to ever compete at 145 pounds, and a host of hungry contenders are scrapping their way up the ladder to contention. With those pieces to the puzzle in place, the environment is perfect for a heated divisional race, but parts of the machine continue to come loose.
Ricardo Lamas, Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson have all been on tears over the past 18 months, but none have come close to getting a chance to fight Aldo. Granted, both Mendes and Swanson have faced the Brazilian phenom previously, but have done enough impressive work to earn another opportunity.
Lamas, on the other hand, has been fighting upstream the entire time. "The Bully" has notched four consecutive victories since dropping to featherweight, with his most recent coming at the expense of former No. 1 contender Erik Koch at UFC on Fox 6 in January. The Chicagoland native left the Duke Roufus-trained fighter a battered and bloody mess during their tilt and made a solid case for a title shot in the process.
But it was a case that would fall by the wayside as newly minted lightweight contender Anthony Pettis decided he wanted to fight for the featherweight crown, and a matchup with Aldo was set for UFC 163.
Much like Hendricks at welterweight, Lamas decided to keep moving rather than wait for things to play out in the championship picture. He accepted a bout with Chan Sung Jung and the fight was set as the co-main event for UFC 162 in July. While it wasn't officially announced, Lamas hoped a victory over the "Korean Zombie" would solidify his status as the No. 1 contender, but in another strange turn, those hopes were dashed as well.
After a knee injury forced Pettis out of the bout with Aldo, the UFC announced Jung would fill the void in the main event of UFC 163. This move left Lamas without an opponent and he was eventually removed from the July 6 card entirely.
While Jung is certainly the more recognized fighter where fans are concerned, it's hard to argue Lamas to be the more deserving option. Jung is coming off a year-long layoff, and while his three consecutive victories notched prior to injury were solid, they fall short of equaling the caliber of the opponents Lamas has defeated during his run.
To make matters more confusing, there is no clear-cut road in the aftermath of Aldo vs. Jung at UFC 163. The pound-for-pound great has talked about jumping up to compete for the lightweight title should he defeat Jung, and there is always the chance of Pettis getting a rescheduled shot at the crown if he chooses to keep a drop to featherweight as an option.