Current titleholders have plenty of tests lined up
It wasn’t all too long ago UFC president Dana White declared the current era of mixed martial arts the “golden age” of MMA. With the foundation of the organization built on the thunderous knockouts of former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and the ageless efforts of Randy Couture, the time had arrived for the next generation of fighters to take the sport to the next level.
As fighters like Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre took their posts atop their weight classes, the respective divisions filled out with hungry young stars on the rise. While the staying power of Silva and GSP were projected, few could conceive 2011 would be a year of absolute dominance from the rest of the UFC’s cast of beltholders.
Of the UFC’s seven (soon to be eight) divisions, only two belts changed hands in 2011. Cain Velasquez’s knockout loss to Junior dos Santos cost him the heavyweight strap this past November, and the meteoric rise of Jon Jones continued as he blazed through Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history. In light of Jones’ flawless performance against Rua and the two title defenses that followed, it easily could be argued Jones was the most dominant of the current titleholders in the UFC. It seems especially so when one considers the fact the light heavyweight title had failed to be defended more than once since the previously mentioned days of “The Iceman.”
Now, as 2012 rolls around, the question on the table seems to be if the previously immovable objects sitting at the top of the mountain will be able to keep their spots. No division lacks depth, with several becoming more competitive than they’ve ever been in the past. Unlike any year before it, 2012 will present the most challenges to the current collection of UFC champions.
The first to be tested this year was featherweight champion Jose Aldo as he faced power wrestler Chad Mendes at UFC 142. It was a challenge Aldo answered with violent results as he scored a first-round knockout over the previously undefeated Team Alpha Male fighter. The victory earned Aldo his fifth title defense and 14th consecutive win since suffering the sole loss of his career in 2005. While there is no clear-cut No. 1 contender at 145 pounds, several high-profile fights currently scheduled will ultimately decide who Aldo faces next.
This weekend, the UFC returns to Japan for the first time since 2000, and the lightweight title is on the line as unflappable champion Frankie Edgar faces the equally unbreakable Benson Henderson. Over the past two years, Edgar has shown an indomitable spirit as he’s held onto his lightweight crown against all odds. It started with his “David vs. Goliath” moment in Abu Dhabi, where he took the belt from BJ Penn, the man at the time considered by most to be the best lightweight fighter on the planet. He repeated the task in stunning fashion six months later, then followed with his two epic battles with nemesis Gray Maynard, where after a draw at UFC 125, Edgar went on to score a knockout victory at UFC 136.
This weekend’s bout against Henderson marks the first time in two years the Toms River, N.J., native will face someone other than Penn or Maynard. Henderson presents an entirely different set of problems for Edgar. Benson’s size and agility could be key factors should he be able to cut the cage down against Edgar, but with the champion’s past displays of speed, footwork and his absolute refusal to accept defeat, taking the belt away from Edgar will be no easy task. Regardless of who emerges as the champion at UFC 144, they won’t have to wait long before the next contender is placed across from them. With a bout between Anthony Pettis and Joe Lauzon taking place on the same card and a May matchup between Jim Miller and Nate Diaz already scheduled, the stage is set for one of the hottest divisions in the UFC to remain that way for some time.
Following the fireworks that are sure to happen in Japan, the next championship bout on the docket will be the long-awaited showdown between Jones and No. 1 contender Rashad Evans at UFC 145 in Atlanta. The chance to regain the light heavyweight title is a long time coming for Evans, who was originally slated to face Rua at UFC 128 last March. Due to a late injury, Evans stepped aside and the UFC tapped his training partner, Jones, to fill the open spot. Jones went on to win the title in impressive fashion and a bitter rivalry ignited in the days following. The tension would rise and fall on multiple occasions as scheduled bouts between the two men were scrapped due to injury and circumstance.
This didn’t stop Jones from amassing what was possibly the greatest year ever accomplished in MMA history, as he not only won all four of his fights, but claimed a title and finished each of his four opponents in the process. 2011 was a year that saw Jones go from prospect to contender, from champion to the future of MMA, all in what he made appear to be an easy fashion.
Despite being the odds-on favorite when he faces Evans in April, Rashad is fixed to be the toughest test on Jones’s road to greatness. Stylistically, Evans presents interesting issues for the 24-year-old champion, and with their familiarity from their days as friends and training partners at Greg Jackson’s MMA, the matchup is nothing short of intriguing. Should Jones be able to best Evans in Atlanta, the only ready-made contender in waiting is future UFC Hall of Famer Dan Henderson. Outside of Henderson, there doesn’t appear to be any legitimate threats for Jones at light heavyweight and with him making public statements about intentions to move into the heavyweight division, such a move could be possible if Jones cleans out his weight class over his next few fights.
The next title to be tossed in the fire will come at UFC 146 when newly minted heavyweight king dos Santos looks to make his first defense against former multi-organizational champion Alistair Overeem. While this will be dos Santos' first appearance holding the belt, the Brazilian powerhouse has been a wrecking machine since coming to the UFC in 2008. After crushing top heavyweight Fabricio Werdum in his UFC debut, “Cigano” has accumulated a beautifully violent highlight reel of finishes on his run to the title. Only two of his eight outings have reached the judges' scorecards, with those fights coming against Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson.
dos Santos has used the power in his hands and confidence in his chin to put himself within striking distance to finish fights, and both will be put to task when facing Overeem. “The Demolition Man” is a K-1 champion striker with punishing knees and knockout power in his hands and feet. Without the threat of defending the takedown front and center, this fight should present some of the best heavyweight standup the sport has to offer. If dos Santos can find success against Overeem and begin his run as heavyweight champion successfully, he will likely face the winner of Frank Mir vs. Velasquez, which will be scheduled sometime later this year.
While the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter” is set to begin March 9, the showdown between coaches Urijah Faber and bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is not scheduled until July at UFC 148. This meeting will mark the trilogy between Cruz and Faber with each fighter claiming a victory over the other at some point in their career. The last outing saw Cruz edge Faber in an epic back and forth at UFC 132, avenging the only loss of his career in the process.
Cruz has successfully defended the 135-pound strap on four occasions and has continued to evolve throughout the process. The champion uses a combination of frenetic movement and speed to keep his opposition on the defensive, mixing in wrestling to further confuse and disrupt any potential game plan his opponent may have. Of his four defenses, only Faber and Alpha Male teammate Joseph Benavidez were able to find any success in attempting to solve the puzzle, but both came up unsuccessful on the judges' cards at the final tally.
If Cruz is able to defeat Faber again, it will come at a time when the division he has reigned over goes from filling out to becoming downright competitive. Contenders on the rise Michael McDonald, Renan Barao and former champion Miguel Torres all have made their championship ambitions known, which will keep the UFC bantamweight title in jeopardy as the year goes on.
Outside of the previously mentioned weight classes, several other divisions are currently at a standstill. With welterweight champion St-Pierre coming back from injury, but without a set return date to unify his title with the interim belt held by Carlos Condit, and pound-for-pound king Silva’s rematch with Chael Sonnen yet to be scheduled, the title pictures in both divisions are locked up for the time being. Even with this being the case, St-Pierre is currently riding a streak of six consecutive defenses, while Silva has shattered all UFC records amassing nine title defenses and 15 consecutive victories.
Not to be forgotten is the latest addition to the UFC family, as the 125-pound flyweight division is added to the roster. In order to determine the hierarchy in this weight class, the UFC has comprised a four-man tournament, which is set to begin March 3 in Australia. Of the four selected fighters, only Benavidez and Demetrius Johnson come from the UFC roster while Ian McCall and Yasuhiro Urushitani have been brought in from outside organizations.