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 but 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.
There's little doubt the UFC was happy to see the book close on what was a rocky year in 2014 and get things rolling in 2015.
The biggest promotion in MMA kicked things off in proper fashion with one of the most anticipated fights in recent memory when light heavyweight champion Jon Jones stepped in to settle his grudge match with Daniel Cormier last weekend at UFC 182. The 205-pound title tilt absolutely lived up to the hype. The pound-for-pound great and the former Olympian battled toe-to-toe for 25 minutes inside the Octagon, with Jones earning the victory on the judges' scorecards.
Yet any momentum gained from the main event showdown would be tainted when the news broke that Jones tested positive for cocaine in the lead-up to his bout with Cormier. That said, the UFC's upcoming schedule features a host of titleholders, contenders and the return of MMA legend Anderson Silva, which has the potential to reignite the heat the organization was hoping to produce in 2015.
While there are plenty of high-profile scraps coming up on the docket, this column showcases a few potential collisions that would either help to move divisional pictures onward or have the makings to be fan-friendly squabbles.
Let's play booker in this January 2015 edition of "UFC Fantasy Matchmaker."
Rory MacDonald vs. Hector Lombard
Landing a title shot in the UFC is tricky business, and Rory MacDonald is becoming familiar with just how uncertain the process can be.
The surging welterweight contender has lingered within striking distance of a championship opportunity on multiple occasions but has yet to secure a chance to compete for the 170-pound strap.
Furthermore, the talented 25-year-old Canadian was promised the next shot at the welterweight crown after he knocked out Tarec Saffiedine back in October in what turned out to be one of the most impressive performances of his career.
Yet when Robbie Lawler edged out Johny Hendricks to earn the welterweight title and evened out their series at 1-1 at UFC 181 back in December, the promotion decided to order up a trilogy bout that will go down some time later in 2015.
This bumped the Red King out of the on-deck position, and unless the Tristar standout—who has won eight of his last nine showings—wants to sit on the sidelines and wait for the title situation to play out, he's going to have to win at least one more fight before his long-awaited championship opportunity materializes.
If that turns out to be the case, the only opponent who would make sense at the current time would be Hector Lombard.
The former Bellator middleweight champion turned UFC welterweight powerhouse has won all three of his showings since dropping down to 170 pounds, with his most recent victory coming over Josh Burkman via unanimous decision at UFC 182 last weekend in Las Vegas. Showeather has looked impressive since dropping down into welterweight waters in 2013 and has been steadily climbing through the ranks of what is arguably the most stacked division with each successful showing.
While there was talk of the former Olympic judoka stepping in against Matt Brown next month in Colorado, that particular idea seemed to lose steam in the aftermath of his win at UFC 182.
In the post-fight press conference, Lombard told the media he would like to face MacDonald next, and the current landscape of the welterweight title picture could prove to be a big factor in bringing that fight to reality. There is still no announced date for the third bout between Lawler and Hendricks, and that would make MacDonald vs. Lombard a fitting title eliminator bout.
Furthermore, the potential matchup between MacDonald and the Cuban knockout artist would present an interesting stylistic clash. The Firas Zahabi-trained fighter has been on an incredible run as of late, thoroughly dominating top-notch competition with his continuously evolving skill set, and the American Top Team product has lived up to the notion that he's the most feared fighter in the welterweight mix.
While MacDonald losing his title shot in light of the upcoming championship trilogy between Hendricks and Lawler is unfortunate—and facing Lombard would certainly be a fight that carried heavy risk—getting one more high-profile victory under his belt would make his case for the next title shot undeniable. The same would hold true for Lombard as well. Defeating MacDonald would leave him as the last man standing in the upper tier of the 170-pound fold, and that's precisely the position he wants to be in as 2015 rolls on.
Matt Mitrione vs. Ben Rothwell
There are few divisions under the UFC banner that are more wide open at the current time than the heavyweight, and both Matt Mitrione and Ben Rothwell made strong moves in 2014.
The former NFL player turned heavy-handed knockout artist broke out of a rough patch in 2013 and battled back with force to put himself just outside of the coveted Top 10 rankings. While Meathead's back was up against the proverbial wall thanks to winning just one out of four showings over a two-year stretch, The Ultimate Fighter alum rebounded in impressive fashion by winning all three of his outings in 2014.
Furthermore, Mitrione not only notched three consecutive victories last year but stopped all three of his opponents in brutal fashion within the opening round. While knocking out Shawn Jordan and Derrick Lewis were impressive feats for the Indiana-based fighter, his drubbing of former title challenger Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC on Fox 13 back in December was undoubtedly the most noteworthy of the bunch.
Napao has served as the unofficial gatekeeper to the elite level of the heavyweight division for years, and Mitrione earned his passage to the next tier in memorable fashion. With three straight victories, Mitrione will face another heavy-hitter in his next outing, and squaring off with Big Ben would make for a great showdown.
The Wisconsin native has won back-to-back showings and is riding strong momentum after knocking out Alistair Overeem in his most recent outing at Fight Night 50 back in September. Few gave the durable veteran a chance against the former Strikeforce and K-1 champion, but Rothwell pulled off the upset by putting the heavyweight juggernaut out with big shots in the opening round of their tilt. The win over The Reem was undoubtedly his biggest victory under the UFC banner and prepared the 33-year-old native of Kenosha for bigger things in the heavyweight picture.
The title picture is jammed up at the current time, though. Champion Cain Velasquez and interim title holder Fabricio Werdum wait to settle their business later in the year. Furthermore, a handful of the division's biggest names have competed in recent weeks, which will make it tough for Rothwell to draw one of the perennial contenders in the weight class.
That said, Mitrione is coming off a nearly flawless performance where he barely broke a sweat against the Brazilian grappling machine. That makes him a likely option for Rothwell, and if the stories of their time together back at Roufusport are true, it would be a matchup that comes with a bit of pre-packaged heat included.
In late 2014, stories of abuse and bullying at the Milwaukee-based fight camp began to surface, with a particular story regarding Duke Roufus asking a young Mitrione to beat Rothwell out of the gym. While neither fighter responded publicly to the alleged account, Rothwell did part ways with the fight team and started his own camp, and Mitrione eventually made his way to train with the Blackzilians in South Florida.
Their rumored history could add an interesting wrinkle to a potential bout between the two surging heavyweights and could set up a solid tilt between two fighters who go into the Octagon to get after it.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Eddie Alvarez
There are just some fights that seem destined to happen, and a scrap between Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez has been brewing for quite some time.
The two former champions have had one another on their respective radars on multiple times throughout their careers, but for one reason or another, the showdown between El Nino and the former Bellator champion never came to fruition. They were either competing for separate promotions or trouble with contracts prevented the bout from happening, but those particular issues are no longer standing in the way.
The former longtime Strikeforce champion finally made his way to the Octagon in 2013 and has earned two championship opportunities during his time in the UFC. While he ultimately came up short in both attempts, the Skrap Pack leader has steadily held his place as one of the top fighters in a notoriously stacked 155-pound division. His most recent showing resulted in a submission loss to champion Anthony Pettis at UFC 181 back in December, and Melendez will be eager to get things back on track in his next outing.
Things are currently looking similar on Alvarez's side of the table. While he put on a memorable bout with Donald Cerrone in his promotional debut at UFC 178, the Philadelphia native came out on the losing end of an action-packed affair. The Underground King was next slated to face former champion Benson Henderson at Fight Night 59 on Jan. 18 in Boston but was ultimately forced out of the bout due to illness.
Since his withdraw was not due to injury, he will more than likely be looking to get another fight booked in quick fashion, and a potential tilt with Melendez would be a perfect fit. Both fighters are coming off losses and will be eager to get back into the win column.
Furthermore, Melendez and Alvarez have made careers out of being gritty, hard-nosed fighters who bring the ruckus each and every time out, and a potential showdown between the two would be the perfect formula for violence.
When the competition level of the lightweight division is factored in, that creates the perfect scenario for an action-packed affair. Melendez and Alvarez are both in the UFC to become champions, and neither man is willing to settle for anything else. The fact that each man has launched a verbal jab or two in the other's direction over the years certainly doesn't hurt and would create an interesting scenario if the two top-ranked lightweights were matched up in the coming months.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.