What do you get the fighter who has everything?
It's a vexing seasonal question, as we consider what we could possibly gift the UFC's nine reigning champions that they don't have already. Surely, the men and women who've advanced to the pinnacle of their respective weight classes come to us as nearly complete packages.
But none is perfect.
Every UFC champion needs something. Each lacks a certain quality—a weapon or a skill that, if added to his or her arsenal, would make the champ even better.
For that reason, in this holiday season, we're suggesting some white elephant gifts for the Octagon's top competitors. Here are some attributes (lightly used) that could benefit each UFC champ...
Cain Velasquez may be the perfect heavyweight.
His best qualities—speed and endurance—are the very things that most 265-pound fighters lack, and that alone sets him apart from the field. Add in the fact he’s big enough to be a knockout threat but mobile enough to keep the division’s true giants on their bicycles, and you start to get the picture.
But if you’ve watched a formal interview with Velasquez, you’ve also seen the biggest flaw in his armor. It’s not that he can’t talk (he can, and he’s pretty good at it), but he’s a former college athlete...and boy, does that previous media training shine through in his MMA appearances.
V-A-N-I-L-L-A, that’s how the heavyweight champ keeps it, just like they probably taught him back at Arizona State. Sure, that stuff plays in the local paper. It doesn’t give your opponents at the upcoming Midlands Tournament any bulletin-board material, but it also isn’t the key to making you a big star in MMA.
So what are we gifting him this Christmas?
How about a little touch o’ the blarney?
Imagine if Velasquez fought like Velasquez but promoted like Chael P. Sonnen. We’re talking the whole ball of wax: the jokes, storytelling, quips, fake pro-wrestling persona that boosts a lot of material from old 1970s YouTube clips. It would be, in a word, amazing.
Suddenly he would go from merely being the best heavyweight fighter on the planet (ho-hum, am I right?) to being a bona fide crossover megastar. And not in a flash-in-the-pan, Brock Lesnar way, either, but in an honest-to-gosh transcendent mainstream sports star kind of way.
Merry Christmas, Cain P. Velasquez.
Like Cain Velasquez, not even Santa Claus could give Jon Jones anything he doesn’t already have inside the cage. For some time, we’ve been casually bandying the light heavyweight champion about as the probable heir to Anderson Silva’s GOAT-shaped crown.
Jones’ meteoric rise is probably the leading example of what can happen when crazy, preternatural athletic ability meets the best of modern MMA coaching. Also, it helps to be a 6'4" giant in your own weight class.
When he has stumbled during his career, it’s been outside the cage. Occasionally, it’s tough to believe that a guy so physically gifted could suffer from such chronic foot-in-mouth disease.
You could argue that some of it is not his fault—a portion of MMA fans never gave Jones a chance—but sometimes it legitimately seems like "Bones" can’t help but make himself seem a little bit out of touch, even when he’s trying hard to relate.
That’s why he needs a little Brian Stann in him. The former WEC 205-pound champion couldn't hang with the UFC’s elite, but his easy charisma and poise on the mic make him a favorite among fans to this day.
If Jones had Stann’s innate likability and articulate, down-to-earth appeal, he’d be the total package.
Merry Christmas, Jon Jones, media darling.
Many of us are still getting used to the idea of “Chris Weidman, middleweight champion.” He may represent the new breed of UFC champions, but he still hasn’t grabbed the sport by the throat and demanded its attention. The 29-year-old former Hofstra wrestler is a wickedly talented fighter and a solid dude, but so far fans don’t seem overly invested.
You know what gets MMA fans to buy in, though, right?
Weidman has two KOs in his first six UFC fights, but as a guy more renowned for his wrestling and submission game, they’re far from his calling card. What he needs this holiday season is a weapon of mass destruction on the feet. He needs the kind of crushingly heavy hands that will make opponents quake with fear and fans stand up and take notice.
He needs Chuck Liddell’s overhand right.
And maybe his haircut, too.
Seriously, Liddell never had what you might call a particularly engaging personality, but with his double-wide mohawk and Fu Manchu, it never mattered. He looked cool and put fools to sleep—that’s all it took to make him the biggest star of his era.
Picture Weidman with the hairdo and fists of Liddell and the New Jersey cool of Tony Soprano. Next stop: Hall of Fame.
Merry Christmas, Chris Weidman, mustachioed headhunter.
We don’t yet know which contender will assume the mantle of world No. 1 welterweight as Georges St-Pierre’s extended vacation enters its second week. For that reason, GSP gets the hand-me-down gift reserved for the 170-pound champion, albeit a little belatedly.
For the man who dominated welterweight for the last seven years—but clearly did it with a heavy heart—we offer the carefree cool of a guy like Jonathan Brookins. No, The Ultimate Fighter Season 12 winner (who was actually a member of GSP’s team on the show) couldn’t hold a candle to his former coach in the cage.
But in terms of inner peace and harmony? That battle goes to Brookins hands down. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who reportedly retired from the sport in Dec. 2012 to move to India to teach yoga full time.
Imagine if St-Pierre could supplement his freakish athleticism and wrestling ability with that kind of centered, stillness of mind. He’d pretty much be unstoppable. He probably wouldn’t have lost to Matt Serra in 2007, and he likely wouldn’t need to walk away now.
Who needs to drink Coronas at the clubs in South Beach when you could just pop in a Rodney Yee tape and flow with the go?
Merry Christmas, Georges St-Pierre, stoned-out yogi.
Whenever people start wringing their hands and wondering aloud who will fill the star power void left behind by people like Georges St-Pierre and (eventually) Anderson Silva, one of the first fighters to come to mind is Anthony Pettis.
The 26-year-old lightweight champion may be the perfect MMA fighter for the 21st century. He’s flashy and well-rounded and always looks the part. The only thing that limits his potential as a crossover star could be, well, size.
Nothing against the 155-pounders (theirs is consistently the best, most competitive division in the sport), but it’s no secret that Americans love them some heavyweights. Just think of the reception Brock Lesnar got when he came to MMA from professional wrestling.
Now, visualize a world where a man with the imposing frame of Lesnar (minus the terrible chest tattoo) could leap off the cage and boot his opponent in the face. Imagine a 265-pound cartwheel kick. Imagine a heavyweight not only with Pettis’ fighting style but also his easy charisma.
To invoke one of UFC president Dana White’s most frequently misused words, he’d literally be huge. Literally.
Merry Christmas, Anthony Pettis, mountain of a man.
See what I did there? Chad Mendes may pose the most serious threat to Jose Aldo’s continued run of dominance over the featherweight division. Provided the champ can get through his upcoming February fight against Ricardo Lamas, he’ll likely meet up with the Team Alpha Male product early in the summer.
When Aldo gets there, Mendes will try to test his takedown defense early and often. The last time around, the champion needed a fairly blatant fence-grab in order to stay on his feet long enough to land the knee that ultimately spelled doom for the challenger.
In fact, if we were forced to nitpick the one tiny hole in Aldo’s game, it’s probably his wrestling. Perhaps the only thing standing between him and an eventual run as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world might be a set of wrestling shoes.
Merry Christmas, Jose Aldo, cauliflower-eared demon of the mats.
Well, we all know the main impediment in the path of the UFC bantamweight champion. When Dominick Cruz has made it to the cage in recent years, he’s been unstoppable, winning 10 straight fights dating back to his lone career loss to Urijah Faber in 2007.
The problem has been that he just hasn’t fought as much as anyone—especially the champ himself—would like. He’s been limited by a laundry list of injuries; most recently, dueling knee surgeries have kept him out of action since Oct. 2011.
Enter Matt Hughes, the original UFC iron man. Between 2001 and 2008, Hughes fought 17 times in the Octagon, winning and defending the welterweight title and taking time off only sparingly to tend the farm and put new siding on the house.
If Cruz could harness that same durability, it would remedy the biggest negative issue in his career. He’d rocket up the pound-for-pound list and—MMA gods willing—be regarded as the sort of stable, enduring champion whom Hughes was in his heyday, without any of the off-putting peccadillos.
Merry Christmas, Dominick Cruz, MMA’s answer to Cal Ripken Jr.
Demetrious Johnson has only been UFC flyweight champion since Sept. 2012, but he has already successfully defended his belt three times. In each of those bouts, he’s been a stalwart of the UFC’s Fox Network broadcasts—arguably its most high-profile events—and he has impressive stoppages in two of them.
Still, though, he’s not regarded as the most marketable or popular guy in the UFC. There is no end to theories as to why he hasn’t lit the world on fire in terms of popularity, given that he’s a talented and smart fighter. Many people blame his size, but something else may be going on here as well.
Johnson might be too nice. That’s why we’re giving him the gift that keeps on giving: the in-your-face attitude of Nick Diaz.
What we’d like to see from "Mighty Mouse" is for him to keep right on finishing the top 125-pounders in the world, but, in the aftermath, for him to flip the double bird to the cageside cameras as he hollers, “Seattle! What! 206! What!”
We’re not saying it would make Johnson a better person if he threatened to slap reporters, skipped press conferences willy-nilly and brawled with Mayhem Miller inside the cage. But it would make him more interesting and would probably help a certain percentage of MMA fans identify with him.
Merry Christmas, Demetrious Johnson, the most marketable man in the world.
Yeah, so, Ronda Rousey’s problem is sort of the opposite of Demetrious Johnson’s problem. Like Johnson, she could be a transcendent talent inside the cage. To date, she’s rolled through her first seven MMA fights, armbarring anybody with the temerity to show up to fight her while possessing working limbs.
But also like Johnson, a lot of MMA fans just aren’t sure they like what they see from the first and only UFC women’s bantamweight champion. However, while "Mighty Mouse" might be too friendly, Rousey’s recent turn as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter made fans think the last thing they’d ever want to do would be spend a day with her.
What Rousey needs is the attitude of a champion. The kind of bearing that says when you’re the best in the world, you don’t have to be up in everybody’s face about it all the time. Those people will come to you.
Essentially, she needs the personality of Georges St-Pierre. She needs to exude a sophisticated, championship cool. That way, five years from now when she finally freaks out and yells, “Listen, uneducated fool!” at some particularly grating challenger, it will mean something.
Merry Christmas, Ronda Rousey, life of the party, in a good way.