1 Thing Every UFC Champ Can Improve Upon
UFC champions ascend to the throne of their respective weight classes for one primary reason: They're incredible mixed martial artists.
It sounds obvious, right?
Simple as that idea may be, MMA weeds out the pretenders from the contenders like few other sports. Sometimes, a fighter will catch a hot streak and work his way into a title fight, but order is quickly restored, and the champion sends him or her tumbling back to earth.
Right now, the UFC boasts a group of champions in flux. Just one year ago today, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva still ruled the welterweight and middleweight divisions, respectively, acting as tenured champs, immovable and unstoppable.
Now, we have Johny Hendricks and Chris Weidman taking their places, and suddenly the challengers at 170 and 185 pounds seem more worthy and dangerous than ever.
Even the UFC's long-running champs such as Jose Aldo and Jon Jones are showing flaws in recent fights, looking more and more prone to an upset in each title defense.
Being the champion is a difficult task, even for these elite combatants, and there's always room to improve inside the UFC Octagon. As a sport that combines several disciplines, no fighter will ever truly master MMA as a whole, and this is part of what makes watching the action unfold inside the cage so appealing.
Even the legends of the sport are flawed, and their reign can end with one punch or submission.
Click on to see the primary area that each current champion can improve upon to make sure that shiny golden belt remains firmly strapped around their waist.
Ronda Rousey: Striking Defense
As a former Olympic judoka who has finished all but one of her professional fights (and all three of her amateur fights) via armbar, it's clear where UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey does not need to improve.
Her trips, throws and submissions have so far presented an impossible challenge to her foes, but her stand-up game is less stellar.
She lands 3.13 significant strikes while absorbing 2.27 per minute, and these offensive numbers are partially inflated due to her ground striking playing a significant role in softening up her opponent so she can slap on that patented armbar.
Right now, Rousey continues to develop her striking skills at a rapid pace, a point showcased in her most recent title defense against Sara McMann, where she ended the fight with a brutal knee to the body and some follow-up ground-and-pound.
Still, she looked wild and reckless on the feet up to that point, getting tagged with a few big shots from McMann while closing the distance to initiate the clinch.
Despite the fact that most female combatants don't possess one-shot knockout power, there is a high probability that if Rousey ever loses her strap, it will be a result of her getting clipped on the feet. Right now, she's very hittable, and that could cause her to fall from the top in the future.
Demetrious Johnson: Marketability
Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson is arguably the most well-rounded UFC champion today.
He has knockout power, slick submissions, elite wrestling, technical striking, baffling footwork and cardio for days. He's level-headed and he doesn't veer from his game plan, making him a calculated killer capable of dismantling opponents for 25 minutes just as easily as he can put them away in a flash.
His lone UFC loss came in a bantamweight title fight against Dominick Cruz, but since dropping to flyweight, his more natural weight class, Mighty Mouse has been nothing short of sensational.
Johnson possesses world-class talent everywhere a fight goes, and yet people don't seem to know who he is (or they just don't care).
He'll headline his first pay-per-view card at UFC 174, so we'll see what his true drawing power is, but so far, the UFC has been reluctant to place its chips upon his shoulders. The flyweight class in general is regarded as one of the least appreciated divisions in the sport, and Johnson's popularity suffers from the fact that he's a tiny dude.
To combat this, Johnson needs to open himself up and put himself in the public's eye. After three remarkable title defenses in the UFC, it's clear that this will not happen organically, so Johnson needs to hype his own fights and become a more polarizing personality if he wants the attention of champs like Jon Jones and Rousey.
That said, there's a certain degree of honor that comes with Johnson's current position as a reserved, respectful king, and it would be hard to blame him if he kept on doing what he's doing, quietly taking care of business and racking up wins with style and grace.
TJ Dillashaw: Finishing Submissions
TJ Dillashaw looked downright amazing against Renan Barao at UFC 173.
The Team Alpha Male bantamweight had shown immense potential throughout his UFC career, but he finally put all the pieces together and showed off his full capabilities on the way to winning the UFC bantamweight strap against Barao.
While he showcased virtually no flaws in the biggest fight of his life, Dillashaw has shown an inability to finish submissions inside the cage despite securing dominant positions and possessing elite strength and speed.
Consider this: Dillashaw has attempted 11 submissions in seven fights post-The Ultimate Fighter. He looks for the submission finish twice per 15 minutes of action, and he sets himself up for success with his sensational wrestling and heavy top game.
And yet, Dillashaw has forced his foe to tap out just once in his UFC career, and it came via neck crank against a totally overwhelmed Vaughan Lee early in their UFC on Fuel TV 4 scrap.
As long as the newly minted bantamweight champion keeps improving as he has thus far in his professional career, I have no doubt that he will round out his Brazilian jiu-jitsu game and start hitting submissions inside the Octagon.
For now, though, he's struggled to submit his opponents, and that remains his most glaring deficiency at this time.
Jose Aldo: Cardio
Jose Aldo has defended his featherweight title eight times throughout his professional MMA career.
This type of longevity doesn't happen by chance; Aldo is a well-rounded, fearsome competitor inside the cage, and he overwhelms his opposition with equal parts unbridled aggression and technical brilliance.
He's most noted as a knockout artist and a devastating kicker, and he defends 91 percent of takedowns that come his way, forcing his foes to stand up and trade with him, a fight which no featherweight in the world has won against the UFC featherweight champ.
However, if we must poke holes at Aldo's excellence, we have to focus on his cardio.
He fades late in fights, and whether he is actually tired or simply content to grind out a decision remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that Aldo has been taken down and beaten up late in fights, and 11 of his 16 career finishes came in the first round of action.
In the UFC, Ricardo Lamas and Mark Hominick found success against Aldo in Round 5 by taking the champ to the mat and firing away with ground-and-pound. Against Lamas in particular, Aldo landed zero significant strikes in the fight's final frame, a product of his less-than-stellar cardio.
As of now, this has been Aldo's most obvious flaw, and it's the most pressing area of concern for him as he continues his championship reign.
Anthony Pettis: Takedown Defense
Honorable Mention: Health
Anthony Pettis won UFC lightweight gold in August 2013, but he's not scheduled to defend this title until December 2014, when he will take on Gilbert Melendez at the UFC's year-end event.
This long break between fights is a product of Pettis' inability to stay healthy, and while that's a big problem for the 155-pound champ, let's focus this slide on something he can control: his takedown defense.
Pettis has lost twice in his 19-fight professional career, and each defeat was a direct result of his inability to stay off his back.
Bart Palaszewski first won the takedown battle against Pettis at WEC 45, and Clay Guida completely dominated the champ in this department at The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale (Pettis' UFC debut).
While the fight against Guida took place exactly three years ago today (June 4) and Pettis has learned from his mistakes, his takedown defense remains the most obvious, exploitable hole in his game. Because of his devastating stand-up skills, opponents will look to take Pettis to the mat, and he will need to correct all of his flaws in this area if he wishes to rule the lightweight roost for an extended period of time.
Johny Hendricks: Striking Defense
Johny Hendricks recently won the UFC welterweight title at UFC 171 against Robbie Lawler in a rock-'em, sock-'em, five-round affair that saw each man land well over 100 significant strikes.
While that lends itself to an incredibly entertaining bout for the fans, Hendricks is just begging to lose his claim to the title if he continues to allow himself to get hit 150 times per fight. His chin has held up thus far, but in eating such a high volume of punches, it's only a matter of time before it gives and Hendricks ends up staring at the ceiling with a flashlight in his eyes.
Finishing artists like Matt Brown, Tyron Woodley and Lawler are waiting for their chance at the champ, and any of those three fighters can end a fight with one clean punch, a fact that should have Hendricks working day and night on his striking defense.
Before becoming the champ, Hendricks was outlanded in the stand-up department by Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167, Carlos Condit at UFC 158, Rick Story at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, TJ Grant at UFC 113 and Alex Serdyukov (who?) at WEC 39.
This shows that Hendricks has always been willing to eat leather throughout his career, and while it highlights his impressive beard, it also leads one to think that the next punch might finally be the one to put him out.
For Hendricks to maintain his hold on the title, he would be wise to focus heavily on his striking defense and work on getting hit less inside the cage.
Chris Weidman: Cardio/Speed
For an undefeated professional mixed martial artist who twice defeated Anderson Silva, the greatest UFC fighter of all time, Chris Weidman's game contains a ton of flaws.
His stand-up is not polished or diverse; he's basically a boxer with big-time knockout power and incredible fight IQ, which to this point has been enough for him to get the job done.
Still, his striking is solid overall, and while this area of his game lacks diversity, he's not lost on his feet by any means.
Instead, Weidman's biggest area of concern rests in his cardio and speed (I lump them together because one, cardio, affects the other).
The UFC middleweight champ has gone the distance in three of his pro fights, and he noticeably slows as a fight drags on.
Even against Silva at UFC 162, Weidman looked slow and tired by Round 2, but he managed to catch the showboating Brazilian on the chin and wrap up his evening before this lack of cardio became a major concern.
Weidman has finished both of his title fights in the second round, but he will undoubtedly get pushed to his limit as he continues his run as champion. Fighters such as Lyoto Machida, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Vitor Belfort are waiting for their chance, and each of them possesses the skills to take Weidman into deep waters and drown him.
If he hopes to stay afloat, he should start by hitting the treadmill and working to maintain his early power and ferocity for a full 25-minute fight.
Jon Jones: Knockout Power
Jon "Bones" Jones has executed the "Triumphant Trinity" of finishes inside the UFC Octagon: He's won by submission, TKO and decision during his run as champion.
Impressive as that is, he's never stone-cold KO'ed someone in professional action, something that could become problematic for the young champion moving forward.
In allowing dangerous challengers to remain conscious, Jones exposes himself to unnecessary risk for as long as he shares the cage with them. If he could develop knockout power in his strikes, he would become that much scarier and an almost impossible fighter to handle, but right now he hasn't shown that he owns this skill against elite competition.
Cain Velasquez: Consistency
Cain Velasquez owns the most knockout finishes in UFC heavyweight history, ending nine of his 11 UFC victories via KO/TKO.
Needless to say, the dude has knockout power, and, unlike Jon Jones' finishes via strikes, some of these knockouts were nasty, rigor mortis-inducing shots from Hades.
On top of this, Velasquez's overall striking game is polished: He's twice thumped Junior Dos Santos, a man who many consider to be the heavyweight division's finest boxer, on the feet, and he's beaten and battered countless other foes who decide to stand and trade with him.
Looking beyond this area of his game, Velasquez owns the best cardio of any heavyweight, and his Division I wrestling background makes him almost impossible to take down (he's defended 88 percent of shots that came his way). On the flip side, if he wants to take you down, he can do that with ease, too.
So where can Velasquez improve?
At first, I wanted to say he could become a better jiu-jitsu practitioner. He owns zero victories via submission despite spending a sizable chunk of time on the ground with his foes. When examining this further, though, Velasquez is never in danger of being submitted, and he simply doesn't look for the submission finish. He's more comfortable raining down ground-and-pound and wearing down his opponents, so his submission skills might be there; he just chooses not to use them.
As such, the only thing Velasquez needs to do is continue his winning ways. The heavyweight division is the UFC's most volatile class; with just two title defenses behind him, Velasquez has already tied the promotion's record for the longest run atop the heavyweight mountain.
So, he just needs to be consistent. Keep beating up challengers, keep showcasing dominance inside the cage and keep racking up title defenses.
This declaration makes for a cop-out of a slide, but Velasquez is elite everywhere a fight goes, and he's not shown one gaping flaw in his game.
He's at the top for a reason, and as long as he stays motivated and driven, he'll hold the distinction of UFC heavyweight champion for the foreseeable future.