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.
The year that has passed gave the fighting faithful many memorable scraps and a cluster of potential "Fight of the Year" candidates. With the bar raised high and a break-neck schedule on deck for 2014, the action inside the Octagon will be rolling at a furious pace.
Title chases across multiple divisions are in full swing, and a host of hungry potential contenders are looking to find championship opportunities in the new year. In addition to things of golden implications, some fighters on the verge of breaking through will have opportunities to realize their potential in 2014.
In this Fantasy Matchmaker column, we start each month by delivering a small serving of potential bouts that make sense in the bigger picture. I'm also happy to report our 2013 run resulted in solid accuracy, as at least one of the three matchups offered in each month were actually booked.
Here is the first offering of 2014, and please continue to share your thoughts in the comments section and on Twitter.
Junior dos Santos vs. Brendan Schaub
Junior dos Santos' career is in a strange position. The former heavyweight champion is one of the best fighters in the world at his weight class, but two prolonged drubbings at the hands of Cain Velasquez in less than a year have "Cigano" floating in limbo.
The Brazilian knockout machine is still hovering at the top of the divisional hierarchy, but with Velasquez holding the title, another shot at championship gold won't materialize in the near future. Nevertheless, he is still going to need to get his career back on track and will need an opponent who makes sense in the bigger picture.
Enter Brendan Schaub.
While "The Hybrid" still has some legwork to do to be considered one of the division's best, he has put together a solid winning streak and has looked impressive in doing so. His last outing resulted in a first-round submission victory over Matt Mitrione at UFC 165 in September, and that made the former NFL player successful in three of his last four showings.
While Schaub would likely need another notable win to break through into the next level of the division, such is the state of the heavyweight fold that a bout between the former titleholder and TUF alumnus makes good sense. While Schaub has earned back-to-back wins and "JDS" is coming off a loss, the difference in their recognized profiles would make for a reasonable swap.
The Colorado native is eager to reach the top of the heavyweight heap and dos Santos is intent on getting back in the win column following his loss to Velasquez at UFC 166 in October. Both fighters like to throw leather, and Schaub's improved jiu-jitsu could serve to test the ground game we hear about but never see from dos Santos.
This potential bout would serve a solid purpose for both fighters and would be an interesting addition to a heavyweight division on the verge of going stale. The champion is sidelined with an injury for an undetermined amount of time, and Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne will most likely have to settle out this No. 1 contender situation before it's all said and done. That leaves a ton of room and need for other matches to be made, and dos Santos vs. Schaub is a solid option.
Jim Miller vs. Michael Johnson
The lightweight division has remained one of the most consistent battlegrounds under the UFC banner for the past several years. A veritable shark tank of top competition exists at the 155-pound mark, and Jim Miller has been a staple in the upper tier of the weight class for longer than many of the next wave of prospects have been in the UFC.
That said, the New Jersey native has experienced mixed results while attempting to earn a shot at the lightweight title. He had a six-fight winning streak snapped by future champion Benson Henderson in Milwaukee and has gone 3-1 with one no-content in the time since.
Pat Healy defeated the AMA-trained fighter at UFC 159 in April, but the loss was overturned to a no-contest when the Strikeforce veteran failed his post-fight drug test. With the division heating up around him, the pressure was on the gritty vet to get back into the win column, which he did with an impressive armbar submission of Fabricio Camoes at UFC 168 in December.
With his victory last month in Las Vegas, Miller will head into his 2014 campaign on the right foot, but he is still a few steps away from landing on the title radar. In order to get where he intends to go, he will have to knock off another fighter with solid momentum, and that is where one of the division's hottest prospects comes into play.
Michael Johnson may have started 2013 on a rough note, but he finished it in proper fashion. A defeat to Reza Madadi at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in April was the Blackzilians fighter's second consecutive loss, but he bounced back by defeating established veterans Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau.
In addition to picking up the highest-profile victories of his career, "The Menace" showed improvement in his striking. Although he came to the UFC reliant on his wrestling skills, his growth has brought him to a place where he's more than capable of holding his own on the feet.
Following his victory over Tibau at UFC 168, Johnson has been vocal about his quest for the lightweight title. If that is where Johnson is looking to travel in 2014, then a bout with Miller would be a perfect fit.
It is also worth mentioning they both competed at UFC 168, and a similar timeline is a great tool for pairing fighters in future matchups.
Jake Ellenberger vs. Matt Brown
While the lightweight division has kept its title race rolling along, the welterweight division has set the standard that all weight classes should follow.
The 170-pound collective is blessed with the deepest upper tier on the UFC roster. Even when recently retired champion Georges St-Pierre was sidelined with injury for a year, a handful of potential contenders kept the title hunt moving. Now with GSP out of the picture and Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler set to decide the next champion at UFC 171 in March, the race to become the next contender has taken an intense turn.
While both Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown were recently scheduled for high-profile tilts of their own, both fighters suffered injuries that pushed them to the sidelines. "The Immortal" was slated to face former interim champion Carlos Condit in a highly anticipated tilt at UFC on Fox 9 in December, but herniated discs in his back forced him to withdraw.
"The Juggernaut" was also set to return to action against top competition, as he was lined up to face Tarec Saffiedine in the main event of UFC Fight Night 34 this weekend in Singapore. Unfortunately for the Omaha native, a damaged hamstring suffered during training forced him out of the fight and out of the immediate title race.
Nevertheless, both Brown and Ellenberger will be looking to get back to contention in quick fashion once they return to health, and a matchup between them is a suitable fit. Whereas the Ohio native will bring a six-fight winning streak into his next bout, the 32-year-old has yet to score a victory over one of the elite fighters in the division. That being said, his run has been impressive, as Brown has finished five of six opponents over this stretch.
Things are a bit different on Ellenberger's side of the table. While the Team Reign fighter is one of the division's best, he's coming off a loss in his most recent outing. Rory MacDonald defeated him at UFC on Fox 8 in July in a fight that media and fans alike panned.
Ellenberger recognized his performance against the talented young Canadian was not up to snuff and has vowed to turn things around in his next showing. This circumstance, in addition to being forced out of the Saffiedine fight, will have him hungry when he makes his return to the Octagon. And this is what makes a fight with Brown appealing.
Both fighters go after it inside the cage, and with the race for a seat at the contender's table in full swing, the urgency to get down to business should be there. Ellenberger has the potential to end a fight in one shot, while Brown's hard-charging, full-throttle style is overwhelming. A fight between them would not only make for an exciting stylistic matchup but also make sense in the welterweight picture.