It wasn't all too long ago that putting "Bones" at the top of the hypothetical collective would have come with heavy debate as middleweight phenom Anderson Silva and long-reigning welterweight king Georges St-Pierre were still dominating their opposition inside the cage. But 2013 saw two of the most storied careers in MMA history detour into uncertainty, which created a clear path for the 26-year-old light heavyweight champion to claim his place atop the proverbial mountain.
With a record-breaking streak of title defenses already under his belt and a collection of potential contenders starting to form in the upper tier of his weight class, the Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter headed into Baltimore to face the next challenge on his docket in Glover Teixeira.
Since joining the UFC in May of 2012, the Brazilian powerhouse had racked up five consecutive victories and extended his impressive streak to 20 straight wins inside the cage. Over that stretch Teixeira put his blistering knockout abilities and a slick submission game on display, and the amount of buzz opened the doors for an opportunity to face the most dominant champion in the history of the UFC's 205-pound division.
Jones held top position in the pound-for-pound debate heading into Baltimore, and that status isn't going to change in the aftermath of his victory over Teixeira. Despite Teixeira's prowess as a knockout artist, Jones kept the fight standing and battered the heavy-handed Brazilian on the feet. The only shots Teixeira landed were few and far between, as Jones used his range and unpredictable striking to baffle the challenger.
When the final bell sounded, Jones picked up his seventh successful title defense and further solidified his place as the best mixed martial artist in the world.
While the champion defended his strap in the main event, the co-main event between Phil Davis and Anthony Johnson featured two fighters who were looking to catapult themselves into title contention.
"Mr. Wonderful" had been on a steady rise up the divisional ranks as he traded his prospect card for contender status along the way. Meanwhile, "Rumble" was looking to make good on his long-awaited return to the Octagon after being released from the organization due to weight-cutting issues back in January of 2012.
With the light heavyweight title race heating up, there is no room for error, and Johnson made the most of his comeback, battering Davis en route to a unanimous-decision victory. Dictating every step of the three-round affair, Johnson's power and distance nullified every bit of offense that Davis attempted to muster.
In addition to the action provided by fighters in the 205-pound weight class, Saturday night's card at the Baltimore Arena was certainly lively. Several fighters battled to keep their footing in divisional pictures, while a collection of veterans looked to put the brakes on recent backslides.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from UFC 172.
If there is a ceiling for Jones' talent, he's apparently nowhere near hitting it just yet.
The pound-for-pound great has enjoyed a meteoric rise since joining the UFC in 2008, steamrolling some of the best names to ever compete inside the Octagon in the process. Along the way, the 26-year-old became the youngest champion in the history of the light heavyweight division as well as the most dominant titleholder in the storied weight class.
There were some questions surrounding how the young phenom would look following his close call against Alexander Gustafsson last September at UFC 165, but Bones provided some definitive answers as he battered Teixeira in the main event of UFC 172 on Saturday night. The heavy-handed Brazilian was touted to be the toughest test to date for the long-reigning champion, but that hardly proved to be the case as Jones cruised to the unanimous-decision victory.
Normally after a champion defends, there are questions as to who will get the next shot, but with "The Mauler" already waiting in the wings, the most anticipated rematch in the history of the light heavyweight division should be a go.
After getting cut from the UFC back in 2012, Johnson could have floated off into obscurity. Yet, that is apparently not how Rumble is wired, and the former-welterweight-turned-light heavyweight set about battling his way back to the UFC.
The heavy-handed slugger put together a solid run under the World Series of Fighting that prompted the UFC to call him back to the Octagon. He made his official return on Saturday night against surging contender Davis on a stage that was the perfect setting for redemption. And that is what Johnson accomplished at UFC 172.
The Team Blackzilians fighter worked Davis in a fashion never before seen inside the cage. When the Penn State University alum attempted to implement his wrestling, Johnson punished him with power shots and forced him to abandon his attacks. Since Davis was unable to take the fight to the canvas, Johnson was able to set the range and cruised to the unanimous-decision victory.
In the process of picking up the biggest win of his career, he also inserts himself as a major player in the title picture at 205 pounds.
Since his days as the Strikeforce middleweight champion, Luke Rockhold has been on a mission to prove he's one of the best 185-pound fighters in the game. While he suffered a tough setback to Vitor Belfort in his UFC debut last year, the Santa Cruz, California, native has regained his footing in the middleweight ranks and has started to build some momentum to move up the divisional ladder.
The AKA staple kept things rolling on Saturday night when he took apart gritty veteran Tim Boetsch in the first round of their tilt. "The Barbarian" immediately shot in for a takedown, but Rockhold swung his hips to the side as he dropped down and locked his legs in an inverted triangle choke. As the Maine native attempted to work free, Rockhold latched onto a kimura, and Boetsch was forced to tap shortly after.
Rockhold has made no secret about has championship ambitions, but he's also realistic in his approach.
He understands the title picture is tied up at this time and used his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan to lobby for a rematch with "The Phenom." The Californian also suggested he would take a fight with Michael Bisping if the Brazilian knockout artist wasn't available because he has some personal beef to settle with "The Count."
The sport of MMA is an unpredictable environment, and Jim Miller is no stranger to how quickly things can change in the fight game. The New Jersey native was originally slated to face Bobby Green at UFC 172, but the Strikeforce veteran suffered an injury one week out from the fight and was forced to withdraw. Rather than pull the Whippany-based fighter from the card, the UFC grabbed Yancy Medeiros from his scheduled bout with Joe Ellenberger to face Miller on the pay-per-view portion of the card.
While facing Medeiros wasn't going to carry as much significance in the divisional picture as his previous matchup, the AMA-trained fighter still stepped into the Octagon and handled business accordingly. After a brief feeling-out period, Miller worked the Hawaiian to the mat and locked in a fight-ending guillotine midway through the first round to pick up the victory.
With the win, he moves to 3-0 with one no-contest in his last four showings and will draw one of the bigger names in the lightweight division in his next outing.
Joseph Benavidez was in a strange position coming into UFC 172. The Team Alpha Male fighter was coming off the worst loss of his career against Demetrious Johnson in what was his second attempt to claim flyweight gold. While "Mighty Mouse" had gotten the best of him in both outings, Benavidez had blitzed through every other opponent he had faced in fights where a title belt wasn't on the line.
On Saturday night, the former two-divisional title challenger squared off with upstart Tim Elliott in a bout that carried implications for Benavidez. He's widely recognized as the second-best 125-pound fighter on the planet, and back-to-back losses would have threatened to push him the furthest he's been from title contention since the flyweight division was formed in early 2012.
While those circumstances were hovering, Benavidez handled business at UFC 172. He handled the early rush that Elliott put on him to secure an impressive first-round submission finish with a guillotine choke from top position. While defeating Elliott won't and shouldn't launch him directly back into a title shot, it will keep Benavidez within striking distance of his ultimate goal.
Max Holloway has been labeled as one of the most promising prospects in the featherweight division, and he's lived up to the hype at times. His fight on Saturday night against Andre Fili was one of those moments, as the 22-year-old Hawaiian battled back from a rough start to secure an impressive finish via guillotine choke in the final round. Holloway has now found success in back-to-back showings and four of his last six going back to the beginning of 2012.
There was nothing pretty about the lightweight scrap between Isaac Vallie-Flagg and Takanori Gomi, but what a throwdown it was. The Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter had some early success pushing the pace, but "The Fireball Kid" answered back with some monster shots on the counter. While the former Pride champion's shots battered the Strikeforce veteran's face, Vallie-Flagg continued his relentless pressure as the two fighters engaged in a wild back-and-forth affair that went the distance.
When the judges' scorecards were read, it was Gomi who took the unanimous-decision victory, but Vallie-Flagg has nothing to hang his head about following his battle with the Japanese MMA legend.
Danny Castillo is an established veteran under the Zuffa banner, but "Last Call" has been looking better than ever as of late. Despite ultimately taking the loss in his last showing against Edson Barboza, the Team Alpha Male fighter's stock went up with his ability to take the Brazilian striker to the wire.
Castillo was looking to get back into the win column at UFC 172, and he did so by melting journeyman Charlie Brenneman with a brutal right hand in the second round. Castillo connected with the big shot and picked up his third victory over his last four showings.
Making a big first impression has been contagious as of late, and Chris Beal added his name to the list of fighters who have made impressive UFC debuts in 2014. He notched some poetic violence via flying knee to score a second-round knockout over Patrick Williams to jump-start the card on Saturday night.
Davis spent the entire week in the promotional buildup to UFC 172 calling out and taunting light heavyweight champion Jones. Whether it was during the phone, in person or during his pre-fight interviews, the only thing Mr. Wonderful wanted to talk about was fighting Jones.
That said, the Team Alliance member had a formidable opponent in Johnson in his way. Davis seemed to be somewhat overlooking Rumble heading into their co-main event tilt—and whether that was the case, or he was just stylistically outmatched—the former Division I national champion wrestler came out on the business end of things on Saturday night.
While Davis was supposed to have the decisive edge in the grappling department, Johnson negated those attacks by punishing the surging light heavyweight every time he attempted to close the distance. The Blackzilians-trained fighter controlled every minute of every round and took the unanimous-decision victory.
While a loss at the elite level of any division does damage to a fighter's profile, this situation could serve to be a double play of sorts for Davis. His performance against Johnson did not earn solid marks, and when coupled with the mounds of pre-fight trash talk he shot in Jones' direction, Davis' stock in the light heavyweight fold took a big hit at UFC 172.
The middleweight division is more competitive than it has been in years, and Boetsch could not afford a loss against Rockhold if he wanted to remain in or near the elite tier of the weight class. While The Barbarian had found victory in his previous outing against C.B. Dollaway last October at UFC 166, the split-decision nod in his favor was heavily debated by the MMA community.
That said, the Matt Hume-trained fighter needed an impressive showing against Rockhold at UFC 172, and that just didn't happen. The AKA-trained fighter used an early takedown attempt by Boetsch to set up an inverted triangle choke that put the veteran in serious trouble in the early going. The situation only got worse as Boetsch fought to break free, as Rockhold caught one of his arms and locked on a fight-ending kimura.
Boetsch's performance wasn't what he was hoping to display in Baltimore, and his third loss in four outings is going to put him in rocky waters. There is no doubt he is as gritty as they come in the middleweight ranks, but it will be interesting to see what direction the UFC decides to travel as far as his status in the division is concerned.
It could have been the two blistering stoppages beforehand that made the sludge-fest between Jessamyn Duke and Bethe Correia so difficult to watch. Then again, it could have been the fact that it was just a bad fight.
The gritty Brazilian ultimately kept her undefeated record intact by being the busier fighter, as The Ultimate Fighter alum was unable to use her reach advantage throughout the 15-minute affair. Aside from a handful of flurries thrown by Correia, there weren't many positives to take from the fight.
Anytime fighters are released from the UFC, they are forced to make a decision. Either they are going to find a way to be content competing on smaller stages around the sport, or they muster the motivation to battle their way back to the Octagon. Brenneman decided the UFC was where he belonged and set about on a personal path of redemption.
After a tough 2012 campaign where "The Spaniard" came out on the business end of three out of four showings, the UFC axed him. Brenneman wasted zero time fighting his way back as he dropped down to lightweight and went on a tear through the regional circuit, picking up five consecutive victories in 2013.
That level of success earned the Pennsylvania native a call back to the Octagon, where he hoped to make good on his second tour with the promotion.
Unfortunately for Brenneman, that hasn't been the case. He succumbed to a rear-naked choke from Beneil Dariush in the first round of their tilt back in January and then was starched by a right hand from Castillo in their bout on Saturday night. Despite Brenneman getting off to a strong start in the opening frame, he ate a monster shot from Castillo in the early going of the second round that promptly turned his lights out.
While back-to-back losses don't necessarily warrant a pink slip in the UFC, being finished in both of his return fights will not bode well for him. Another factor that will not do him any favors is that he is now competing in the lightweight ranks, which is one of the most competitive divisions in the UFC.
The bout between Benavidez and Elliott was wild from the jump, with the rising prospect coming after the former title challenger as soon as the opening bell sounded. While there was nothing strange about the action that went on during the fight, the sequence that unfolded when Benavidez locked on a fight-ending choke from top position is worth noting in this category.
After working from side control to set up the finish, Benavidez jumped to full mount and began to ratchet Elliott's neck. With the Grindhouse MMA fighter's hands pinned beneath the Benavidez's legs and the Team Alpha Male's arms constricting on his throat, Elliott had no choice but to start kicking his feet in order to signal the tap.
In my years working in MMA, I've seen a lot of fights end in a lot of ways, but I had never seen a "full body tap" before UFC 172.
When Rogan was captured on film wearing a sport coat during the UFC on Fox 11 broadcast, it was definitely a journey into the strangest of realms. That said, the legendary commentator once again donned a more sophisticated look for UFC 172, and I fear this has simply become the way of things from here on out.
Rogan is a lot of things, but a suit jacket guy is not one of them. He shouts when he talks. He gets overexcited when calling the fights and rocks a T-shirt or button-down with the best of them.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.