UFC Fantasy Matchmaking: May 2014 Edition

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UFC Fantasy Matchmaking: May 2014 Edition
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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 2014 campaign is well underway, and fight fans have been treated to a storm of action-packed tilts from all corners of the UFC roster. Crucial bouts with future title implications on the line have taken place in several divisions, with the winners taking a step closer to a championship opportunity and the losers being reshuffled back into a stacked deck.

The competition level in nearly every division under the UFC banner is at an all-time high, and that creates a situation where every bout that takes place at the elite level holds the utmost importance. There is very little room for error for those looking to hold their places in the divisional hierarchy as a batch of hungry competitors are eager to move up the ladder and replace them.

Every month we use this column to draw up three possible matchups that would serve to bolster the current state of affairs in the divisions where they would take place, and with the UFC schedule busier in 2014 than ever before, there are plenty of options to chose from.

Let's take a look at the latest installment of UFC Fantasy Matchmaker.

 

Daniel Cormier vs. Anthony Johnson

After two dominant performances in the heavyweight division, Daniel Cormier decided to drop down a weight class and set his sights on the light heavyweight crown. The Louisiana native has taken strong strides toward reaching his goal as he's dispatched Patrick Cummings and MMA legend Dan Henderson, respectively, and has done so in relentless fashion.

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Yet, while he's looked impressive in both of his showings at 205 pounds, there are still a few obstacles hindering his bid for a title opportunity. The biggest of which is recent title challenger Alexander Gustafsson, who is the man the UFC has deemed to be next in line to face champion Jon Jones.

The rangy Swede gave the pound-for-pound great all he could handle during their first meeting at UFC 165 last September, and there is a strong amount of buzz surrounding their projected rematch later this year at UFC 177 in Las Vegas.

While "Bones" has yet to agree to the bout, all signs point to "The Mauler" getting the next shot at the title regardless of which card it will headline. Currently, the projected date for the second go-around between Jones and Gustafsson is Aug. 30, and that time frame would put Cormier on the sidelines for an extended clip if he were to sit out and wait to face the winner at the end of the year or possibly early 2015.

Another factor currently hovering over Cormier's bid for a title opportunity comes in the quality of the wins he's collected during his run at light heavyweight.

Despite being originally slated to face former champion Rashad Evans at UFC 170 back in February, "Suga" suffered an injury and was replaced by unknown newcomer Patrick Cummins. While "D.C." properly thwarted the Orange County native in the first round of their co-main event tilt, defeating Cummins didn't put his stock through the roof.

That said, the 35-year-old was looking to add an elite name to his list of victories in his next outing, and that's precisely what he did against Henderson this past weekend at UFC 173. Cormier put a drubbing on the former two-divisional Pride champion and manhandled the former Olympian in a fashion few have managed over the course of "Hendo's" 16-year career. Yet, despite his lopsided victory over Henderson, it won't be enough to uproot Gustafsson from the No. 1 contender position.

UFC President Dana White told the media following UFC 173 that he doesn't want Cormier to wait for his title shot to come around, and that is why Anthony Johnson is the perfect opponent for his next showing.

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"Rumble" made his long-awaited return to the Octagon last month against Phil Davis at UFC 172 and did so in impressive fashion. The Team Blackzilians fighter battered "Mr. Wonderful" throughout the 15-minute affair to pick up his first win under the UFC banner since 2011. Johnson's victory over Davis in Baltimore marked his seventh consecutive successful outing and amplified the buzz that has been building around the South Florida transplant over the past two years.

Where the 30-year-old was once plagued by weight-cutting issues, Johnson seems to have found a comfortable home as a light heavyweight. He has always possessed one-shot put away power, but other elements of his game appear to be in prime form as well. Johnson held a strong pace over the course of his three-round tilt with Davis at UFC 172 and never lost a step from start to finish.

With his power, size and wrestling abilities, Johnson would be an ideal opponent for the undefeated AKA staple.

While the spotlight is currently hovering over Cormier's potential title shot, a bout between the two top-ranked light heavyweights would equal rewards for Johnson as well.

If he were able to put the first loss on Cormier's professional record, it would make a strong case for him being next in line to compete for the title at 205. On the other hand, should Cormier keep things rolling and defeat the resurgent Johnson, there would be nothing standing between him and his goal of a title shot.

 

Michael McDonald vs. Takeya Mizugaki

The road to a title shot in the bantamweight division is wide open at the current time, and there are a handful of fighters who could make a strong case to earn a championship opportunity in the near future. Michael McDonald and Takeya Mizugaki are both on that particular list, but it is going to take a big win for either man to make that happen.

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The scrappy Japanese fighter is currently riding a five-fight winning streak and has risen into the next tier of the 135-pound collective on the strength of that run. The 30-year-old picked up his most recent win at the expense of Francisco Rivera this past weekend at UFC 173, in a fight where his toughness and tenacity were certainly on display throughout the three-round affair. With the win, Mizugaki solidified one of the longest winning streaks currently standing in the division and put himself in a position where bigger opportunities are right around the corner.

With that in mind, McDonald would make the perfect opponent for his next showing inside the Octagon.

The 23-year-old Modesto, California, native has been on the verge of becoming the "next big thing" in the bantamweight division for the past two years. Over that time, "Mayday" has experienced a varying amount of success as he's steamrolled tough opposition like Miguel Torres and Brad Pickett, but come up painfully short in high-profile tilts against Renan Barao and Urijah Faber.

The transition from talented prospect to elite-level competitor can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, and thus far, McDonald has fallen short on his two previous attempts to solidify that status.

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That said, there is no doubting the talent the young Californian possesses. McDonald has shown exceptional power in his hands for a bantamweight and has tremendous "killer instinct" once he senses his opponent is wounded. Mizugaki has built a well-deserved reputation throughout his career for being difficult to break and pushes a pace that keeps him directly in his opponent's face from start to finish.

In order to move up the ranks into the bantamweight upper tier, Mizugaki will need to add a big name to his resume. In a similar light, McDonald needs a solid victory to remain with the elite at 135, and that makes a potential matchup between the two a fitting option for both fighters.

 

Jake Ellenberger vs. Josh Koscheck

While the first two potential matchups in this month's installment have focused on fighters moving up in their respective title hunts, the final addition shifts to two fighters who desperately need to turn things around in order to remain relevant in the welterweight mix.

The 170-pound weight class is arguably the most competitive collection under the UFC banner, and Jake Ellenberger and Josh Koscheck have both had periods of success in the welterweight fold. Yet, both fighters have experienced difficulty landing in the win column as of late, and that has put their current status in the divisional picture in limbo.

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From 2010 to 2012, "The Juggernaut" racked up six consecutive victories that put him within striking distance of earning a shot at the welterweight crown.

That said, a setback against Martin Kampmann in June of 2012 and back-to-back losses in his two most recent showings have the Omaha native on the verge of being pushed out of the elite level at 170. There seemed to be a line to redemption leading into his bout with Robbie Lawler at UFC 173 as talk of a potential title shot lingered, but "Ruthless" proved too much to handle as he stopped Ellenberger in the final round of their tilt.

While two consecutive losses won't put the heavy-handed Nebraskan on the chopping block, it does put him in a position where he can ill-afford another back step. He will need an impressive showing in his next outing, and Koscheck needs exactly the same thing.

The Ultimate Fighter season one alum has been a fixture in the upper tier of the welterweight division for the past four years. While he came up short in his bid to unseat Georges St-Pierre from the welterweight throne in 2010, he has remained a perennial contender in the highly competitive mix at 170. That said, Koscheck's position on the divisional hierarchy has been under heavy fire as of late as the former NCAA Division I national champion wrestler has been turned back in three consecutive outings. 

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The 36-year-old was edged out in a close split decision against Johny Hendricks at UFC on Fox 3 back in May of 2012, but he suffered back-to-back first-round knockouts to Robbie Lawler and Tyron Woodley, respectively. A rough patch of that caliber would be enough to cost most fighters their places on the UFC roster, but Koscheck appears to have a bit more life left in him.

The Fresno-based fighter recently said he intends to honor the two fights remaining on his UFC contract and a bout against Ellenberger would not only be an interesting stylistic matchup, but it would be a battle to determine which of the two would remain relevant in the welterweight fold. 

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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