It's safe to say that few people would dispute that Cain Velasquez is the best heavyweight in the world. Not after his UFC 166 performance against Junior dos Santos, anyway. In fact, Velasquez is quickly approaching all-time great status, and there's a chance he's already a notch or two above Fedor Emelianenko in some eyes.
But his dominant performance against Dos Santos created a major question mark: Can any fighters on the UFC's heavyweight roster give Velasquez a run for his money?
My answer to that question? No.
No heavyweights on the roster can beat Velasquez when he's at his best and able to execute his game plan effectively. Sure, there's always the chance of a one-punch knockout, as Dos Santos showed in his first fight with Velasquez. But it's far more likely that Velasquez will smother and batter any fighter standing across the cage from him, as he showed in the 10 rounds that followed the first fight against Dos Santos.
But despite their lack of any real chances to beat him, challengers will line up to face him. Here I'll take a look at five contenders for Velasquez in 2014 and try to figure out what kind of chance they have to dethrone the champion, so let's get started.
We already know Werdum is next in line. Barring any unforeseen injuries, he'll step into the Octagon at some point in early 2014 to try and wrest the heavyweight title from the most dominant heavyweight champion in UFC history.
Werdum's striking has improved over the past few years, but he's still no match for Velasquez's cardio and smothering style. Werdum's sole chance of beating Velasquez lies in taking the fight to the ground. That means that Velasquez will do everything in his power to keep the fight standing, as he did for the majority of 10 rounds against Dos Santos.
Werdum is dangerous off his back. That is where he's most effective, and that's where he has the greatest chance of winning the fight. Unfortunately for him, Velasquez will push him against the cage, keep him there and batter him thoroughly.
Chance to win: 20 percent
Barnett makes for an intriguing opponent for Velasquez. His chances of winning aren't much greater than Werdum's, but it's the style that matters.
Barnett excels in the same kind of grinding style as Velasquez, relying on his wrestling to tire out his opponents so he can look for submissions, including his favorite arm-triangle choke.
But the problem for Barnett, as with so many other heavyweights, is that he cannot compete with Velasquez's cardio. If he gets into a grinding grappling battle, he'll eventually tire, and that's where he'll be susceptible to a finish.
He must first beat the surging Travis Browne, of course. But if he's able to stop Browne's freight train, he might be the next logical contender once Velasquez and Werdum settle their business.
Chance to win: 25 percent
At 6-1-1 in the UFC, Travis Browne is one of the brightest heavyweight prospects. Consecutive knockout wins over Gabriel Gonzaga and Alistair Overeem—after he lost to Antonio Silva—have him back on the horse and knocking on the door of title contention.
He has to get past Josh Barnett before he can cement himself as a title contender. But should he finish Barnett or look good in a drawn-out decision win, he would leap into the driver's seat as the next guy in line.
But once he does, he still has to step in the cage with Velasquez. And while Browne has good speed for a heavyweight, Velasquez would negate it with his constant pace and in-your-face style. After two rounds of being handled by Velasquez, Browne's speed would be a non-factor, and from that point it's academic.
Chance to win: 15 percent
Overeem's UFC tenure has been a spectacular disaster. After looking like the world-beater so many made him out to be against Brock Lesnar, Overeem faltered.
First, a drug test failure removed him from a world title fight and kept him on the shelf. When he returned, Antonio Silva dramatically knocked him out. Travis Browne followed that up with his own KO of Overeem—who was long known as one of the best pure strikers in mixed martial arts—courtesy of a beautiful front kick that the Dutchman never saw coming.
He's a big-name star, however, and he will get one more opportunity against Frank Mir. If he's able to beat Mir—and he's heavily favored to do so—Overeem would likely be just one win away from a title shot because of his giant contract and popularity.
He hasn't had the best year, but he's still a danger to anyone he faces. Much like Dos Santos, Overeem can beat Velasquez with a one-punch knockout or kick. But Overeem also has the worst cardio of anyone on this list. If Velasquez can survive the first round without being duped into throwing leather with the striker, he'd have easy pickings in the rest of the fight.
Still, Overeem is a danger, and his striking gives him a better chance of upsetting Velasquez than anyone else we're highlighting here. He's far from being the favorite, but it's something.
Chance to win: 30 percent
Miocic's outstanding performance against Roy Nelson at UFC 161 erased the memories of his knockout loss to Stefan Struve a year ago. In many ways, he looked like an entirely new fighter against Nelson, though it's difficult to determine whether that was due to the improvements to his own game or Nelson's lackluster showing.
Miocic is further away from title contention than anyone on this list. But if he's able to excel through two more fights and put on the kind of performances he did against Nelson against other top names and contenders, he might just find himself within shouting distance of Velasquez by the end of 2014.
I've yet to see anything that makes me believe he'd have a chance against Velasquez, though. Once again, the champion's unrelenting pace and ability to grab his opponents, press them against the cage and tire them out with a combination of grappling and striking are things that Miocic—or anyone else in the heavyweight division, for that matter—can't handle.
At the end of the day, the best prospect for dethroning Velasquez is his teammate Daniel Cormier, and he's on his way to 205. With no credible challengers on the horizon, we may be witnessing what will be a long and decisive title reign by one of the most special fighters in history.
Chance to win: 10 percent