2014 is nearly here, and the UFC champions will be looking to retain their titles for 12 more months.
Currently, seven champions have secured their belts through the end of the year, and UFC 168 will see two more up for grabs. The 10th championship is not active yet, but the inaugural UFC strawweight champion will be crowned in 2014.
The challengers are hungry, and the weight of being the champion claimed two all-time greats in 2013. Anderson Silva and GSP both talked openly about the pressures of being champion, and one was knocked out, while the other took an indefinite leave of absence.
Remaining the champion is difficult.
With the UFC gearing up for another year with more fight cards than ever, challengers will have even more opportunities to make their case.
Here is what may happen in the next calendar year for all of the weight classes of the biggest MMA organization, with projections of who will be the champion at the end of each slide.
The UFC Women's Strawweight Championship will be up for grabs in the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter. The two finalists will go at it for the inaugural championship, and the winner will likely have to defend the belt before the end of the year.
First, navigating the TUF house will be difficult. The house is a pressure cooker, and the finale is not like any other typical fight. Competitors do not get a full training camp to slowly make weight and tailor their game plans to their opponents.
Anything can happen, and we have seen it season after season.
Depending on how the season plays out, there are a handful of likely candidates for the finale. Carla Esparza, Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres and Joanne Calderwood are the ones to watch.
After the season concludes in September, the next title challenger will not come from the house. So, who can the UFC bring in to challenge? Perhaps the UFC can get Jessica Aguilar from the WSOF or lure Megumi Fujii out of retirement.
I'll go out on a limb and say the UFC will recruit Fujii. And she will beat the champion in late 2014.
Champion: Megumi Fujii
Demetrious Johnson retained his championship with a viciously beautiful knockout over Joseph Benavidez earlier in December.
Only a few challengers are ready for the test of Johnson, and only one has a realistic chance at wearing gold.
I felt a lot better about this prediction prior to Johnson's KO, but I will stick with it: John Dodson is the next flyweight leader.
The first fight with Johnson was a great learning experience for the young TUF champion. He hurt Johnson multiple times in the fight, but in the rematch, he will finish on those opportunities. Look for 2014 to be a big year for Dodson.
There are no TUF 20 coaches yet, and flyweights could get the call to coach. Dodson and Johnson would make excellent candidates.
Champion: John Dodson
Ronda Rousey will retain her title in brutal fashion at UFC 168. What's next in 2014?
The title picture is a little cloudy.
Cat Zingano is next in line, but she is coming off a significant knee injury. Fortunately for her, no one else in the division has stepped up to challenge her spot in the rankings. The two fighters who could have were Sarah Kaufman and Sara McMann. Kaufman lost, and McMann is AWOL.
Zingano will be Rousey's biggest test to date. After that fight, there is not a clear challenger. Perhaps Alexis Davis or Jessica Eye can fill that role.
Zingano has the best chance to dethrone Rousey, but neither Zingano nor anyone else is taking the strap off "Rowdy" in 2014.
Champion: Ronda Rousey
UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and UFC interim bantamweight Champion Renan Barao will finally unify the titles on February 1.
Whoever walks out as the undisputed champion will have Urijah Faber waiting for him. The champion will win that fight.
The loser of Cruz vs. Barao will likely get another crack at the title at the end of 2014. He won't fall far in the rankings and will get one more win in a contender's bout.
That loser will be Cruz. Coming off his long layoff and injuries, he is facing a tall task to go up against Barao immediately.
However, once Cruz gets back in the cage and knocks off the rust, he will rebound to reclaim the belt at the end of the year.
Champion: Dominick Cruz
Jose Aldo is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, and his division is getting deeper by the day. The sharks are circling, but will they bite him? It's hard to imagine how at this point.
Ricardo Lamas earned his title shot, but what can he do differently than anyone in the past? Can Chad Mendes, who is next in line, put in the work necessary to stop Aldo?
I just don't see it.
When Aldo is on, he is near unstoppable. He is a complete mixed martial artist who has the killer instinct. If he goes down, it will be via decision, and I can't see anyone winning three rounds against him right now.
Champion: Jose Aldo
The lightweight division is one of the most interesting as 2014 approaches.
Champion Anthony Pettis is sidelined due to an injury, but he will be back. Perhaps the UFC will tag him to coach the upcoming season of TUF, but who knows at this point. If he does, he may only defend the title once in 2014.
The contenders who are waiting in the wings pose intriguing challenges for the champion, but his dynamic athleticism is tough to beat. He has been on an outstanding roll as of late, and he is hitting his prime as a fighter.
Benson Henderson, Josh Thomson, Gilbert Melendez and others have the abilities to dethrone him. Melendez has the best chance, but Pettis will retain the strap through the end of the year.
Champion: Anthony Pettis
The longtime champion Georges St-Pierre is out of the picture for the foreseeable future, and Johny Hendricks will meet Robbie Lawler to determine the new champion.
That's a favorable matchup for Hendricks. After that, we could see a five-round fight against Carlos Condit.
Regardless of who the challenger is, Hendricks should ride out the year as champion.
He does not have the same air of invincibility that GSP had. However, the matchups all favor Hendricks at this point. The championship bout against GSP will only make him that much more difficult to beat now that he has a title fight under his belt.
Hendricks won't provide the same run of dominance as GSP did, but he'll do enough to keep the strap all year long.
Champion: Johny Hendricks
Chris Weidman will retain at UFC 168.
We all know who is waiting in the wings: Vitor Belfort.
Stylistically, Belfort is a good matchup for Weidman. The American can return to his wrestling roots and grind out a win or finish with a submission; however, Belfort's run of finishes will continue.
After he blitzes Weidman, the Brazilian will end the year as the champion.
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Lyoto Machida and others can match up with Belfort. Maybe I am a prisoner of the moment and the feel-good story of his resurgence, but he will capture the lightning in the bottle to finally have a quality run as a UFC champion.
Champion: Vitor Belfort
Jon Jones will easily defeat Glover Teixeira in the spring. That won't be a competitive fight.
So what comes next? If Alexander Gustafsson defeats Jimi Manuwa in March, he will get the next shot. If not, the winner of Daniel Cormier vs. Rashad Evans will have that honor. I favor Cormier in that one.
Based on the the timing of these bouts, Jones will only defend twice in 2014. If he meets Teixeira and Gustafsson, he will continue his reign atop the division. If Cormier slips in there, the UFC will have a new champion.
But that won't happen until the beginning of 2015. Jones will hang on to his gold for another 12 months.
Champion: Jon Jones
I cannot even think about stepping out on a limb on this one. Cain Velasquez is the best heavyweight fighter in the world, and no one will be taking the title off him in 2014.
Part of the reason why is that he will only be defending the title once. He is out with an injury until the fall at the earliest.
Who will contend for the title in late 2014? Certainly not Junior dos Santos. Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett and Mark Hunt are on the short list of fighters who have a shot. Velasquez would annihilate all three of them.
Dos Santos is the second best heavyweight in the world, and we have seen what Velasquez did to him. That's the gap, and there is no heavyweight right who is close to closing in on it.
Velasquez is not only the best heavyweight on the planet, but he is a legitimate pound-for-pound great.
Champion: Cain Velasquez