Former UFC Champions Who Have What It Takes to Get Their Belts Back

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2017

Former UFC Champions Who Have What It Takes to Get Their Belts Back

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    Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

    Over the last few months, the UFC has adopted a new approach to matchmaking: out with the old; in with the new. More than ever, the promotion is trying to push veterans out and replace them with younger, cheaper talent. Day after day, news breaks of a bout between a hardened fighter and a hot prospect, and it's not hard to figure out who the UFC wants to win.

    The promotion doesn't always get what it wants, though. A lot of elites have stuck around at the top of their divisions for years, and that applies doubly for former champions. 

    With that in mind, Bleacher Report MMA's Steven Rondina and Nathan McCarter have come together to discuss 10 former UFC champions who have what it takes to reclaim their titles.

TJ Dillashaw

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    Former champ TJ Dillashaw, right, already has a fight lined up with bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt, left.
    Former champ TJ Dillashaw, right, already has a fight lined up with bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt, left.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    TJ Dillashaw is the only no-brainer on this list. 

    Since dropping the title to Dominick Cruz via narrow split decision last year, the former Alpha Male product has looked as good as ever, taking decision wins over John Lineker and Raphael Assuncao. He's demonstrated no technical regression, and at 31 years old, he is yet to start breaking down physically. There's no reason to look at him any differently than in 2015, when he was a dominant champion.

    Just as importantly, Dillashaw is the only man on this list lined up for a shot at his old title.

    Following a heated season of coaching on The Ultimate Fighter, Dillashaw is set to face bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt at UFC 217 on Nov. 4. The two have had one of the most fiery rivalries of 2017, and their bout is set to be a rare mix of pure grudge match and high-level technical action.

    They're all but guaranteed to deliver an exciting fight, and there's no reason to think Dillashaw can't become a two-time UFC bantamweight champion.

Brock Lesnar

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    Brock Lesnar could cut to the front of the line if he returns.
    Brock Lesnar could cut to the front of the line if he returns.Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    It is unlikely Brock Lesnar returns to the UFC, but his WWE contract is set to expire in early 2018. So, there's a chance.

    If he does return it's not a stretch to say Lesnar is capable of regaining the UFC heavyweight title. Sure, there are numerous bad stylistic matchups for him, but his athleticism and wrestling would still make him a credible contender.

    And let's not forget his brute strength.

    Additionally, Lesnar has a short route to a title fight. Would it be unexpected if the UFC only gave him one tuneup fight? Or would it be shocking if it gave him an immediate title shot, given how much the pay-per-view would sell? Neither should register on anyone's personal seismograph.

    The window is closing on Lesnar, but he's still got what it takes to regain the moniker of "Baddest Dude on the Planet."

Georges St-Pierre

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    Georges St-Pierre's future isn't clear, but a return to the welterweight division still makes sense if he sticks around.
    Georges St-Pierre's future isn't clear, but a return to the welterweight division still makes sense if he sticks around.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    What does the future have in store for Georges St-Pierre? That's something of a mystery, but one thing is certain: He's got plenty of options available for reclaiming gold. 

    The longtime welterweight champ already has a shot at the middleweight title, as he will face champion Michael Bisping at UFC 217, but there are other hypothetical matchups that could put him back on a throne.

    While he may have lost his on-paper claim to the 170-pound belt, St-Pierre is still the lineal UFC welterweight champion, a fact that isn't lost on official champ Tyron Woodley. The current titleholder seems to be willing to play hardball when negotiating with the UFC, and GSP represents a considerably larger paycheck than somebody such as Robbie Lawler or Rafael dos Anjos and is a far more appealing option for all involved.

    It doesn't end there, though.

    St-Pierre and those around him have been sowing the seeds for a superfight with lightweight champion Conor McGregor. While it wouldn't have been noteworthy if this was a one-off discussion, the topic of McGregor vs. St-Pierre just keeps coming up, to the point where it's impossible to ignore.

    While McGregor doesn't need help selling PPVs the way Woodley does, there's no question GSP remains one of the biggest needle-movers in the sport. That's more than enough for him to catch the business-savvy McGregor's eye.

    It's tough to say whether GSP will be able to capture any of those titles, given how different each of those men are in the cage and how long he has been out of action (November 2013). Still, there are opportunities aplenty for GSP to take a belt, whether it's his old strap or a different one.

Luke Rockhold

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    Luke Rockhold beat middleweight champ Michael Bisping in November 2014.
    Luke Rockhold beat middleweight champ Michael Bisping in November 2014.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    It should almost go without saying that Luke Rockhold is good enough. He is arguably still the best all-around middleweight in the world.

    There are still questions about his chances following his second-round submission (to strikes) against David Branch on Sept. 16.

    Rockhold was nearly finished in the first round and showed little defensive progression with his stand-up. That was how he lost the title to Bisping in the first place, and the lack of growth in that area was surprising. But maybe that can be chalked up to ring rust?

    Still, Rockhold has all the tools to reclaim gold. His groundwork is dominant and violent. His offensive striking is utilized well with his size (6'3", 185 lbs), and he has top-notch kicks in his arsenal. If he gets a title fight in 2018, Rockhold may be the favorite no matter who wears the gold to the cage.

Fabricio Werdum

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    A more technical Werdum could beat out Stipe Miocic.
    A more technical Werdum could beat out Stipe Miocic.Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

    Why not Fabricio Werdum?

    His improved striking and world-class jiu-jitsu give him a chance against anyone in the world. And we may have been cheated from a true top-level heavyweight bout by his hubris when he fought Stipe Miocic in May 2016.

    Werdum charged at Miocic with his hands down, inexplicably. It remains one of the most mind-numbing instances in recent MMA history, and he paid the price by ending up flat on his face.

    Of the top five contenders in the division, Werdum only trails Cain Velasquez in terms of overall ability. And he may have passed Velasquez, following all of his injuries.

    Miocic is a good champion, but he is far from invincible. There is nothing to suggest Werdum couldn't reclaim his title in 2018. He has significant advantages in some areas against Miocic, and he'll likely not be as reckless in a rematch.

Eddie Alvarez

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    Despite his 2016 loss to Conor McGregor, Alvarez can't be too far away from a title shot.
    Despite his 2016 loss to Conor McGregor, Alvarez can't be too far away from a title shot.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Eddie Alvarez had a rough go of it at UFC 205.

    The Underground King became king of the world by knocking out Rafael dos Anjos in July, claiming UFC gold. That set him up for a big-money fight with Conor McGregor in November that many were expecting to be a hot, back-and-forth contest. 

    Unfortunately, while it was a big fight, the UFC 205 tilt was far from back-and-forth.

    McGregor dominated Alvarez, putting him on his back foot early and never allowing him the opportunity to gain momentum. The result was a lopsided beating that ended with a second-round knockout.

    That may be the lasting memory of Alvarez for some, but longtime MMA fans know he is much better than what was on display last year. Alvarez has the tools to challenge anyone in his division and, even with the loss to McGregor, that hasn't changed. 

    Given how wide-open the lightweight division is, he's just a win or two away from the front of the line for a title fight. And once he's there? Don't sleep on him.

Dominick Cruz

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    Dominick Cruz's cerebral approach could let him reclaim gold.
    Dominick Cruz's cerebral approach could let him reclaim gold.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Dominick Cruz returned from multiple injuries after two years to reclaim his UFC bantamweight title in 2016, and then he defended it a few months later. It looked like "The Dominator" was back.

    Then Cody Garbrandt shut him down at UFC 207. All the way down.

    After watching Garbrandt cruise to a victory, it may be hard to envision how Cruz could regain the title. But it is possible.

    He is one of the most well-rounded, and, more importantly, intelligent fighters in the game. That is Cruz's biggest advantage in a possible rematch. He has had nearly a year to formulate a new game plan to overcome Garbrandt's game plan. He experienced it, and now he can combat it.

    MMA is still a thinking man's game, and no one can top Cruz in that regard. He is the pre-eminent mind in the sport. As long as his body holds up, the 32-year-old Cruz has every chance to stand atop the 135-pound division once more.

Cain Velasquez

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    Cain Velasquez is good enough to take back the heavyweight title, then disappear for another year or two.
    Cain Velasquez is good enough to take back the heavyweight title, then disappear for another year or two.John Locher/Associated Press

    When Cain Velasquez is healthy, he's extremely good. His wrestling base is exceptional, his athleticism is through the roof and his hands are more than heavy enough to put a man to sleep. 

    Unfortunately, Velasquez is rarely healthy. Since taking the UFC heavyweight title from Brock Lesnar back in 2010, Velasquez has fought just seven times and hasn't competed twice within a calendar year since 2013. 

    That said, his last fight opposite Travis Browne at UFC 200 gave his remaining fans cause for optimism. Facing a still-dangerous Browne, Velasquez kept the pressure high, leveraged his strengths and forced the stoppage in the waning seconds of the first round. It was a performance that showed, despite all the injuries and another long layoff, he was still a terrifying fighter. 

    It's no guarantee Velasquez will return to the cage. If he does, it's no certainty he will turn a corner health-wise.

    But should the opportunity present itself, Velasquez has it in him to beat any man. 

Holly Holm

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    Holly Holm was the perfect counter to Ronda Rousey...and may be the same for Amanda Nunes.
    Holly Holm was the perfect counter to Ronda Rousey...and may be the same for Amanda Nunes.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Holly Holm was on her way to defending the bantamweight title in March 2016 until Miesha Tate's unrelenting nature helped her secure a choke in the fifth and final round. Holm has been inconsistent since, but following a head-kick KO win over Bethe Correia, Holm could be on the precipice of another title shot.

    Holm may have the perfect style to contend with Amanda Nunes.

    Holm is an excellent counterstriker who utilizes distance well, and that's important against a pressure-fighter such as Nunes. The former champion also has a one-inch reach advantage over the Brazilian.

    The former boxing and UFC champion may be the worst possible matchup for Nunes. It's the lone bantamweight title fight fans should be clamoring for instead of a potential Holm vs. Cyborg bout at 145 pounds.

    Nunes vs. Holm is the pinnacle of the division, and a fight that could have Bruce Buffer saying, "And new..."

Anderson Silva

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    We saw Anderson Silva nearly defeat Michael Bisping not too long ago, and the Spider remains an attraction...
    We saw Anderson Silva nearly defeat Michael Bisping not too long ago, and the Spider remains an attraction...Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    It feels like an eternity ago, but less than two years back, at UFC Fight Night 84, Anderson Silva came close to rewriting MMA history. Facing Michael Bisping in London, he staggered the Brit with a series of punches before landing a devastating flying knee in the final seconds of the third round, drawing celebrations of victory despite the fact the contest hadn't ended. Bisping rallied from there, and managed to eke out a razor-thin decision win.

    There are alternate realities where the referee called the fight off after that big shot. There are even more where Silva threw a few follow-up strikes to seal the deal. There are some where he swayed the judges and took the fight on the scorecards.

    In this reality, though, Bisping managed to scrape by Silva and turn that victory into his still-hard-to-comprehend reign as middleweight champion. 

    The opportunity is there for a do-over for the Spider, however. Set to face an undersized Kelvin Gastelum (5'9") and coming off a decision win over Derek Brunson (albeit a controversial one), Silva is well-positioned to get a rematch with Bisping.

    And if they end up stepping into the cage against each other one more time? There's no reason to doubt the 42-year-old Silva has what it takes to become the most unlikely two-time champion in UFC history.