UFC Fantasy Matchmaker February 2014 Edition

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UFC Fantasy Matchmaker February 2014 Edition
USA Today

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.

While 2013 was perhaps the most action-packed year on record for the UFC, this year's campaign hasn't necessarily burst out of the gates. There have certainly been some compelling matchups that have lived up to the hype on fight night, but there have also been a good amount that have fluttered into lackluster or lopsided decisions.

Nevertheless, the current state of things under the UFC banner have several divisional title races on the verge of chaos. A stacked division such as the lightweight collective is currently all kinds of wacky with champion Anthony Pettis injured and verbally committed to a bout with featherweight king Jose Aldo later this year. 

That particular situation has put two divisions in flux, which could either prove to be epic or catastrophic as both weight classes have risen to become recognized as talent-rich shark tanks. While things are looking strange in the 155- and 145-pound folds, the bantamweight and heavyweight divisions need contenders to emerge quickly.

For the latest installment of this column, we will take a look at a few matchups that could help a handful of the problem areas on the UFC landscape.

 

Junior dos Santos vs. Alistair Overeem

With champion Cain Velasquez on the mend and Travis Browne and Fabricio Werdum set to do battle in a few months, the action at the top of the heavyweight mountain is secure for the time being.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

That said, a healthy title picture always has multiple contenders sitting in the upper tier, and a quick look at the heavyweight fold reveals that is just not the case. In what has routinely been one of the UFC's thinner divisions where elite-level talent is concerned, having a few high-profile fights on the docket is always a good way to keep attention in a place the organization desperately wants it to be.

While pitting two of the biggest names in the division against one another in a fight where immediate title contention is not involved will ultimately sacrifice the losing fighter to the fates, there is quite possibly no bigger bout to make in the heavyweight division than Junior dos Santos versus Alistair Overeem.

Where "Cigano" is coming off a drubbing at the hands of Velasquez, and "The Reem" just got back into the win column against Frank Mir at UFC 169, a matchup between the two powerhouses absolutely makes sense. Both fighters are looking to get back into the title hunt, and a showdown between the two would certainly elevate the winner toward the top of the food chain.

It also doesn't hurt that there is bad blood and history between the two—neither are bad things where promoting a fight is involved. They were originally slated to square off in the main event at UFC 146 in May of 2012, before a failed drug test forced the former Strikeforce champion off the card. The Dutch kickboxing monster was forced into the realm of suspension while "JDS" continued his reign as the heavyweight champion.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Eventually, both things would come to an end, and neither fighter is currently sitting where they'd like to be. Two losses—and the fashion in which they came—have put a serious dent in dos Santos' stock.

While there is no doubting he's still an elite-level competitor in the division he once championed, the way the AKA fighter battered him has cast a wide shadow of doubt over whether the former title holder could get the best of him in a fourth fight.

Nevertheless, the heavy-handed Brazilian still needs big fights, and the same can be said for Overeem. The former K-1 champion was figured to be a major player in the UFC heavyweight title picture when he came over from Strikeforce, but that simply hasn't been the case. After he starched Brock Lesnar, he went on to eat back-to-back upsets at the hands of Antonio Silva and Travis Browne, respectively.

To Overeem's credit, he was winning both fights before having his gas tank zapped, but having that huge body slumped over on the canvas is as damaging as things get in the fight game.

Granted, there are a handful of other directions the UFC can go with both fighters as names like Mark Hunt and Stipe Miocic could be game matchups. But making the fight with dos Santos and Overeem not only fills the void of keeping the title hunt moving, but it also provides the "big fight" feel necessary to be the main or co-main event on an upcoming pay-per-view.

 

Chad Mendes vs. Cub Swanson

With Jose Aldo in talks of moving up to lightweight and vacating the featherweight strap, the UFC will have some big shoes to fill at the top of the 145-pound mountain. When one of their champions has vacated a title in the past, the organization has tapped the next two top-ranked fighters to scrap it out to become the next champion.

Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler will throw dukes to lay claim to the belt Georges St-Pierre left behind, and Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson should get the honors in the Brazilian wrecking machine's absence.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The former No. 1 contender has been on a tear since suffering a knockout against Aldo at UFC 142 back in January, 2012. "Money" has notched five consecutive victories inside the Octagon. Where four of those victories came as the result of impressive knockouts, his most recent win over Nik Lentz at UFC on Fox 9, came with an element of criticism.

While the Team Alpha Male standout was able to turn back the surging former lightweight, his typical high-paced, high-output offensive attack slowed considerably in the second half of the fight. Following the bout, Mendes revealed he had been suffering from a sinus infection leading into the fight, which he said played a huge factor in the cardio dump he suffered.

Despite not having a show-stopping performance against Lentz, Mendes is easily one of the top fighters in the featherweight division. With Aldo out of the way for the time being, the road to the title should finally reopen for the California native, which is an opportunity he's been working diligently to recapture.

Where the former title challenger is looking for another shot, Cub Swanson is on a mission to get his first crack at UFC gold. The Palm Springs native has also put together an impressive five-fight winning streak, which has allowed him to climb to the top of the divisional rankings.

Where "Killer Cub" used to be a fighter with all the tools who was just unable to put it all together, those days are long gone for the proud SoCal representative.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The 30-year-old is brimming with a newfound confidence, and the results of this discovery have been astounding.

Throughout the course of his five-fight run, Swanson has ended four of the fights via brutal, highlight-reel knockout. He flushed Ross Pearson while backing up. He leveled Charles Oliveira with a body punch in the first round and hit George Roop so hard there are rumors that the The Ultimate Fighter alum's mouthpiece still hasn't landed.

While those performances were dominant, his most recent showing against Dennis Siver at UFC 162 was perhaps the best he's looked yet.

Swanson was able to out-class Siver in every facet of the fight until he finished the spinning back kick artist with a flurry in the final round. His win over Siver had Swanson on the cusp of bigger things in the featherweight fold, but he became the "odd man out" when the rest of his peers in the upper tier got fights.

Where Swanson has been on the sidelines since last July, his place in the divisional hierarchy is undeniable. With Ricardo Lamas finally getting his title shot at UFC 169 and having to go to the back of the line, this creates the perfect setting for Mendes and Swanson to do business.

Another interesting note is that the two men initially met in 2010 under the WEC banner, with Mendes getting the victory. Both have shown drastic improvements in the three years since, and a showdown between the two top featherweights would be the perfect next step for the division.

 

Eddie Wineland vs. T.J. Dillashaw

The bantamweight division had its fair share of issues in 2013, but the majority of them were solved at UFC 169. Dominick Cruz's two-year stint as absentee champion came to an end as an injury forced him out of his unification bout with Renan Barao, and "The Baron" stopped Urijah Faber in the first round of the patchwork title fight.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

With the seemingly unstoppable phenom ruling the division with an iron fist, the UFC needs to flesh out the rest of the upper tier of the division in order for future contender's to be produced. Raphael Assuncao recently made a play for a title shot when his scheduled bout at UFC 170 fell through. While the WEC veteran may not be the biggest name available, he may be the best option where progress is concerned.

The 135-pound division's brightest prospect, T.J. Dillashaw, is showing spectacular progress. That said, he is still realistically at least a fight or two out from being ready to face an opponent of Barao's caliber.

The Team Alpha Male fighter has won five of his seven showings since his stint on the 14th installment of The Ultimate Fighter with his most recent outing being his most impressive yet. The 27-year-old took the fight to a game Mike Easton at Fight Night 35 and cruised to a lopsided unanimous decision victory. 

The only two blemishes on his record under the UFC banner came in via knockout at the hands of John Dodson in the finals of TUF and a razor-thin—and heavily debated—split-decision loss to Raphael Assuncao at Fight Night 29 back in October. Had the fight with Assuncao gone the other way, Dillashaw would be standing at six consecutive victories.

Nevertheless, he took an "L" in Brazil, but winning five out of his last six is still impressive.

That said, Dillashaw is yet to defeat one of the marquee fighters in the division, and that is where a bout with Eddie Wineland would provide him the perfect opportunity. And the potential bout would carry equal importance for the former WEC bantamweight champion as well.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana native has been one of the hottest fighters in the division over the past two years, as he's won three of his four Octagon showings. His only loss on this current run was the result of the spinning back kick wizardry of Barao when the two men squared off for the interim title at UFC 165 in September.

While Wineland was visibly stunned from the kick and the barrage of punches that followed, he vehemently disagreed with the referee stoppage.

The 29-year-old felt he had been robbed of his chance to fight for the title, and he carried that heat into his next bout with Yves Jabouin last month at UFC on Fox 10 in Chicago. It took Wineland less than two full rounds to dispose of Jabouin as he finished the Haitian-born fighter via strikes in the second frame.

The victory in Chicago kept Wineland relevant in the upper tier of the division and guaranteed his next outing will come against a high-profile opponent.

Should the UFC decided to go with the Dillashaw vs. Wineland matchup, it would not only serve to give both men the fight they need, but prove to be a pivotal bout in the bantamweight title picture.

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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