UFC Fighters Who Are 1 Win Away from a Title Shot
At times, the lack of traditional sporting framework in the UFC can be infuriating. Fighters can be left on a matchmaking treadmill for years on end, racking up inconsequential wins one after another, only to be thrown off track as soon as they stumble without ever getting a shot at a title.
That said, while it's often frustrating, it's also often predictable.
With the right blend of recent in-cage success, enduring outside-the-cage popularity and good timing, a fighter can find themselves with a shot at gold. At any given moment, there are only a handful of names that have that combination. While there are rarely guarantees in MMA, sometimes the stars aligning for a particular title fight feel like something of an inevitability.
So who in the UFC is on the cusp of greatness? The Bleacher Report MMA team crunched the numbers and found five fighters who are likely one win away from getting a crack at the strap.
Curtis Blaydes had the unfortunate draw of facing Francis Ngannou, the No. 1 heavyweight contender, in his UFC debut, but besides that one bout, he's been essentially perfect.
Owner of a 10-1 record (with one no-contest) in his career and coming off three consecutive convincing wins over steely veterans (most recently smashing Alistair Overeem at UFC 225), Blaydes has established himself as one of the heavyweight division's premier talents and a potential champ in the making.
For the first time in an eternity, there is a clear, interesting top contender's bout lined up for the heavyweight division, as Blaydes, ranked No. 2 in the division, and fellow up-and-comer Alexander Volkov, ranked No. 3, seem to be on a collision course. The bout isn't scheduled, but with champion Stipe Miocic booked for a bout with light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, Blaydes finds himself with a lot of time on his hands.
The X-factor in the heavyweight division is the potential return of Brock Lesnar. The reigning WWE universal champion has one foot out of the pro wrestling door, with UFC President Dana White recently suggesting he's free to leave come August (which lines up with this year's SummerSlam).
Who could the Beast Incarnate face in his return? Well, depending on the day, White is indicating that Lesnar may challenge for the heavyweight strap right off the bat or may face former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones in an intriguing non-title bout. Depending on how that shakes out, the heavyweight belt could be booked for anywhere from six to 12 months.
You may not immediately recognize the name, but Ketlen Vieira has been cleaning out the women's bantamweight division since joining the UFC in 2016. A perfect 4-0 in the Octagon (and 10-0 as a professional), she has stayed perfect at the expense of solid competition, most recently beating out former title challengers Sara McMann and Cat Zingano.
Vieira is waiting on her next mark, and with a paper-thin division, there are few palatable options open for the No. 2 contender. The only other serious challenger out there is Marion Reneau, who will face Cat Zingano in July. If Reneau clears that hurdle, a top contender's bout between the two is likely.
Unfortunately for Vieira, bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes is looking for a stronger return on investment than Vieira offers at the moment.
Earlier this year, White said Nunes could be lined up for a superfight with featherweight champ Cris Cyborg. Though that hasn't materialized yet, that's still an interesting fight that could be made at any time. More recently, Nunes called out former bantamweight champion Holly Holm (now the No. 1 contender), which pushes Vieira further out of the immediate title picture. With one more win, though, she could be well-positioned for a title shot in early 2019.
Where to start? At the risk of using a depleted cliche, all Raphael Assuncao does is win.
He's won 10 of 11 going back to 2011. His last three wins all came over real notables: Matthew Lopez, Aljamain Sterling and presumed next challenger Marlon Moraes. That lone loss came to current bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw—and by the way, he's defeated Dillashaw before (October 2013). Not a bad little rubber match possibly in the offing.
The 35-year-old Brazilian doesn't cut an amazing promo, but he's a good fighter and a good ambassador for the sport. His chance is long overdue.
It must have stung to see Moraes, whom he defeated by a close split decision last year, leapfrog him in the pecking order (Assuncao remains one spot ahead of him in the rankings at No. 3). For now, he'll have to content himself with a dangerous but lower-profile opponent in Rob Font on the UFC 226 undercard July 7.
If Moraes is indeed the next title challenger, that won't happen until at least a few months after Dillashaw faces No. 1 contender Cody Garbrandt in August. For whatever reason, Assuncao does not appear to be in the UFC's good graces, but all things being equal, he's the clear choice to be the challenger at year's end.
The highlight for Alexander Gustafsson has clearly been his UFC 165 barnburner with Jon Jones in 2013. In what was the fight of his life, Gustafsson pushed the greatest mixed martial artist alive to the brink—and he still lost. Aside from that, it's been a pretty steady progression from a guy tapping to Phil Davis turning into a bona fide elite contender who's seemingly been one fight away from a light heavyweight title shot for five years now.
No word yet on a next bout for The Mauler, although he's been pushing for something by the end of the summer and would apparently like it to be for an interim title, per Callum Carthy of Express. He's also been tied to Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero, and Gustafsson mentioned going to heavyweight for a scrap if he can find it, per Damon Martin of MMA NYTT, so there's almost no telling what might come his way.
Depending on who he fights and in what division it happens, you can probably expect to see Gustafsson swinging fists for a world title in early 2019. The No. 1 contender will fight whoever the UFC gives him at some point this year, and if he wins, he'll get the shot he's so hotly coveted for so long now.
Darren Till went from anonymous midtier welterweight to one of the hottest names in the UFC when he starched Donald Cerrone last October. He made the most of that newfound fame in May by posting a unanimous decision win over longtime contender Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and forcing his way into title contention.
The No. 2 welterweight contender, Till doesn't have a fight scheduled, but a bout with fellow contender Kamaru Usman (No. 6) feels like something of an inevitability. Both men have risen up the rankings side-by-side and though their paths have run parallel, this is the only logical fight available for either man.
Welterweight champ Tyron Woodley appears likely to face off with recently crowned interim welterweight champ Colby Covington later this year, according to Alexander K. Lee of MMA Fighting. An official date has yet to be announced for that fight, with the big hangup being Woodley's ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery last December.
That puts a title shot out of reach for Till and Usman through the end of 2018. Luckily for them, there are aren't really any threats to their spots at the moment, so even if this drags out into 2019, they should remain at the front of the line.