Barring another injury, we'll see champion Cain Velasquez defend his belt one time in 2014. That is disappointing, but it's pleasing to know that the rest of the division is continuing to evolve in his absence. If Velasquez beats Fabricio Werdum later this year, he'll have a plethora of contenders waiting on him.
Let's take a look at a few of those contenders, from those already in the title picture to the prospects who need a bit more seasoning.
The Title Picture
Cain Velasquez: The reigning heavyweight champion will return in November, where he'll defend his championship against Fabricio Werdum in the UFC's first-ever event in Mexico. The promotion has ultra-high hopes for the Mexican market, and Velasquez—born and raised in the United States—is the man who will anchor the effort.
First, he'll coach against Werdum on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, which wrapped filming in Las Vegas last week. Velasquez has never displayed the kind of vivid personality that translates to good television, so it will be interesting to see how he's portrayed on the show. But he is still the UFC heavyweight champion, and it is still difficult to look at the current heavyweight landscape and imagine anyone who can beat him. The reign of Cain could end up lasting a very long time.
Fabricio Werdum: Werdum has evolved from a one-trick submission pony into a heavyweight fighter with very good striking skills. His one-sided beating of highly regarded prospect Travis Browne earned him a coaching spot on TUF opposite Velasquez, and he'll get his title opportunity in November. He is up against the toughest opponent he has ever faced and will go into the bout a considerable underdog; many offshore sportsbooks currently have him listed as a near 4-to-1 underdog.
Still, Werdum has surprised us before. Beating Velasquez is a monumental task, but Werdum is certainly capable.
On The Verge
Stipe Miocic: His brutal beating of light heavyweight Fabio Maldonado didn't show us anything we didn't already know about Stipe Miocic. But his wins over Roy Nelson, Gabriel Gonzaga and the late Shane del Rosario certainly did. Miocic is a capable heavyweight fighter with excellent striking, and he is evolving every time he steps into the Octagon.
He was supposed to face Junior dos Santos in May before the former champion suffered an injury. If Miocic faces and defeats JDS (or another fighter of the same caliber), he'll be close to the title picture.
Travis Browne: Sure, his path to glory was firmly blocked by Werdum. But Browne is surrounded by great coaching and great training partners, and it is only a matter of time before he rebounds and works his way back to the verge of championship contention. He's still one of the UFC's best prospects, regardless of weight class.
Alistair Overeem: At 2-2, it is fair to say "The Reem" has disappointed during his UFC tenure. But he is still one of the bigger stars in the sport, and his fame—combined with his massive price tag—will ensure he stays in the title picture as long as he's able to win most of his fights.
After beating Frank Mir in February, Overeem switched camps, moving from the Blackzilians to Jackson's MMA. Daily training with Travis Browne and Jon Jones, along with the gentle hand of Greg Jackson, might ensure we soon see the best Overeem we've ever seen. And that's a scary prospect.
Josh Barnett: Like Overeem, the former UFC heavyweight champion commands a big price tag, which means he'll be in the title picture until he stops winning fights. He hasn't competed since a December loss to Browne, but a return to the Octagon in the fall seems likely for The Warmaster.
A Long Way to Go
Junior dos Santos: Dos Santos remains one of the best heavyweights in the world; he's currently No. 2 in the UFC's official rankings. He would likely be a betting favorite against every other fighter in the top 10 not named Cain Velasquez.
But unfortunately for Dos Santos, Velasquez is the champ. And so long as Velasquez holds that belt, Dos Santos might have a difficult time getting another title shot. Yes, he owns a win over Velasquez. But he also has two consecutive losses to the champion, and neither one gave any indication that Dos Santos will have much success in another rematch.
Still, if Dos Santos keeps winning, the UFC won't have a choice in the matter. Until then, he should root for Velasquez to lose the belt.
Antonio Silva: "Bigfoot" is in the same boat as Velasquez; he has two one-sided losses to the current champion. Selling the public on a third bout between the two would be almost impossible. Oh, and Silva is currently on the sidelines after failing a drug test in December. Silva will need to stay clean when he returns, and he'll need to win about five fights in a row before he's given another shot.
Mark Hunt: Hunt returns to the Octagon in September for a battle of the bulge against Roy Nelson. The UFC's two portly heavyweights will likely stand and swing for the fences, but both have durable chins. If Hunt can score a dramatic knockout over Nelson, he'll likely be thanked by Nelson's nemesis Dana White with a significant elevation in the heavyweight standings. He'll need another win or two to complete his Cinderella story and get a title shot.
Stefan Struve: The 25-6 record Struve boasts should disqualify him from being included in the prospect category. But if Struve's body was only operating at 70 percent of its capacity before undergoing recent treatment for an enlarged heart and leaking aortic valve, then there's a chance we have yet to see what he's truly capable of. He returns to the Octagon at UFC 175 against Matt Mitrione; it will be intriguing to see how Struve performs when he isn't dealing with major medical issues.
Derrick Lewis: "The Black Beast" made his UFC debut a memorable one, finishing Jack May by TKO in the first round. He returns to the Octagon at The Ultimate Fighter finale against Carlos Augusto Filho.
A Houston native, Lewis has been lauded by those close to him as an incredible athlete with a world of potential. It remains to be seen if he has the tools and determination to fulfill that potential.
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