There is an art to matchmaking in combat sports.
While some fights come together with natural ease, most bouts are formed through a hectic process of evaluation. Several aspects need to be graded on each side of the table before committing to the matchup.
Whether or not a fight makes sense in the divisional scheme, timing and making sure both fighters stand to gain similar rewards are the most pressing issues that come to mind. Then, of course, there is the most important aspect of a potential fight: Will both competitors be willing to mix it up and put on a show?
The unfortunate part of the process comes when all of these criteria are met and the fight fails to deliver. That said, the UFC showcases far more exciting tilts than flat fights these days, which goes to show just how good Joe Silva and Sean Shelby are at their jobs.
After an injury-riddled 2012 campaign, the UFC has enjoyed one of their most action-packed years to date in 2013. That said, the promotion has touted a hefty schedule of anywhere from 40-50 events in the coming year that will certainly keep their roster active. Granted, UFC President Dana White has revealed a handful of those shows will be international events built around the host country's audience.
Whatever those fights turn out to be, any way the situation is chopped up, there is going to be a swarm of fights for fans to jump in the new year. This column is a monthly offering meant to make the matchmaker job a little easier, as it highlights a handful of scraps that would fit all the necessary criteria.
With the welterweight division crazier than ever, it should come as no surprise two of the group will come from the 170-pound weight class. Let's get to the fantasy matchmaking.
Rory MacDonald vs. Demian Maia
The welterweight title picture is on pause for the moment until champion Georges St-Pierre figures out if he's going to retire or rematch Johny Hendricks. That said, with the depth of elite talent at 170-pounds, the race for title contention isn't going to stop and both Rory MacDonald and Demian Maia are looking to get back into the hunt.
The Brazilian grappling ace had been red-hot since dropping down from middleweight, as the 36-year-old picked up three consecutive victories over solid talent. That momentum came to a halt in his most recent showing as he was edged out via split-decision by former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields at Fight Night 29 back in October.
While the loss certainly cooled off his run toward a championship opportunity, Maia has been vocal about wanting to get back into the mix as soon as possible and has asked to face recently stunted contender Rory MacDonald.
The 24-year-old Canadian was also handed a setback in his most recent showing, as Robbie Lawler picked up the split-decision victory in their tilt at UFC 167. The loss was his first since 2010 and broke up a five-fight winning streak. During an appearance on the MMA Hour, the Tri-Star product told Ariel Helwani he needed the loss to re-ignite his fire and wanted a quick turnaround.
With both fighters hovering at a similar place in the division, a matchup between the two would make great sense in addition to being an interesting stylistic affair. Both need to get back into the chase as quickly as possible or risk being left behind by the pack.
Jake Shields vs. Hector Lombard
With the incredible depth of the welterweight division, losing scope of the bigger picture can be easy to do. While there are currently a handful of fighters who seem to be in the thick of things at 170, there are several others who probably should be there, but just haven't gotten over the hump in some form or fashion.
By most accounts, Jake Shields and Hector Lombard are two of the most talented fighters in the division, but neither is knocking on the door of a title opportunity. Shields has won back-to-back fights since dropping down from the middleweight division and has put his career back on track after a small rough patch. The California native has collected victories over Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia respectively, with both wins coming by way of split decision.
Despite him edging out top level competition, there is a lack of heat surrounding the former Strikeforce champion, and a bout against Hector Lombard could go a long way to bring his title hopes to life.
Much like the Cesar Gracie fighter, Lombard moved down to welterweight after he failed to make substantial gains as a middleweight. UFC President Dana White urged the former Bellator champion to move down a weight class, and the immediate results were impressive. The former Olympic judoka snuffed out former contender Nate Marquardt in the first round of their tilt at UFC 166 in October and sent a strong message to his new weight class in the process.
While Shields has two wins to Lombard's one, a matchup between these two former champions would serve a similar purpose for both and could solidify the winner a spot on the title radar.
Nate Diaz vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Nate Diaz is back in a big way my friends. The younger half of Stockton's finest MMA combo is coming fresh off a performance where he salted former title challenger Gray Maynard. The two met for the third time this past weekend, with Diaz putting a definitive stamp on their trilogy.
While the victory over Maynard will certainly put him back into the hunt for the lightweight crown, it won't get the Cesar Gracie-trained fighter anywhere near the targets he's been verbally jabbing at in Josh Thomson and Anthony Pettis. "The Punk" scored a stoppage victory over Diaz when the squared off at UFC on Fox 7 back in April, and the Duke Roufus-trained champion is out for a good stretch with a knee injury.
The situation will keep Diaz moving if he's hoping to get within striking distance of a title shot and Khabib Nurmagomedov is the perfect matchup for the former contender.
The 25-year-old Dagestani has been on fire since joining the UFC in 2012. "The Eagle" has found victory in all five of his showings, with his most recent win coming in impressive fashion over gritty veteran Pat "Bam Bam" Healy at UFC 165 in September.
Following his win over Thiago Tavares at UFC on FX 7 back in January, the talented young Russian called out Diaz in a series of interviews and over social media. He also called out legend B.J. Penn because he understands it is going to take a win over a big name to catapult him to the front of the line in a stacked up lightweight division. While a win over Diaz wouldn't automatically produce a title opportunity, it would put him in a different tier than he is currently sitting.
Plus...with the language barrier and the posturing, for some odd reason I have the feeling a Diaz versus Nurmagomedov bout would be fireworks from the weigh-ins staredown to when the cage door closes on the Octagon.