posted on January 07, 2013 00:00
With Cain Velasquez’ dominant victory over Junior dos Santos on December 29th, the UFC heavyweight division became a bit muddled, with many challengers staking a claim to the next title shot at 265 pounds. This is my personal list of those contenders, along with their likelihood of receiving the next shot at the crown.
OUT: Frank Mir, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Hunt, Travis Browne
This cast of characters has no business sharing the cage with Velasquez. Mir has not fought since May, a devastating TKO loss to Dos Santos. Mir missed a potential November fight against Daniel Cormier after suffering an injury, so he still needs several wins over top opponents before being considered for a fourth career shot at the belt.
Mark Hunt is in the same boat. His three consecutive wins were preceded by six straight MMA losses. And though he has defeated Cheick Kongo and Ben Rothwell in his last two fights, neither was a top ten victory, and Hunt’s record still only stands at 8-7.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is one bad loss away from retirement. The MMA legend is only 3-3 in his last six fights, and suffered a horrific broken arm in his defeat at the hands of Frank Mir in 2011. His final bout could come in June, against the heavily-favored Fabricio Werdum.
Travis Browne was a rising star in the heavyweight division, and was undefeated in his first 14 professional fights. However, back in October, he was destroyed by Antonio Silva to suffer his first MMA setback. Other than a 2011 win over Stefan Struve, Browne doesn’t have an impressive win on his resume, and has a long way to go before playing with the big boys.
TRENDING UPWARD: Roy Nelson, Antonio “Big Foot” Silva, Josh Barnett, Stefan Struve
Though Nelson is only 5-3 inside the Octagon, he is still in the mix at 265 pounds. All three of his defeats were at the hands of top ten (at the time) heavyweights (Mir, Dos Santos, Werdum), and all were by decision. He has also received bonuses (3 KO of the Night, 1 Fight of the Night) in four of his eight fights, and continues to be a fan favorite (something you cannot discount in the UFC). His surprising cardio, iron chin, and world-class jiu-jitsu make him a headache for any heavyweight.
Stefan Struve is still a work in progress. The seven-footer is only 24 years old, and still has the potential for adding muscle to his lanky frame. Like Nelson, Struve rarely has a boring fight, and has earned fight bonuses on five different occasions. Struve is riding four straight wins, and will next take on Mark Hunt in March. Another win after that, and Struve will have to be seriously considered.
Though he has not fought since May (a loss to Daniel Cormier), Josh Barnett is still a top ten heavyweight. He has won eight of his last nine fights, and seems primed to enter the UFC with a head of steam. A former UFC champion, Barnett has not fought in the Octagon in over ten years (mostly due to testing positive for banned substances). However, his catch-wrestling skills, size, and experience will automatically put him in line with the other elite fighters, when he makes the jump from Strikeforce.
“Big Foot” Silva is probably the fighter closest in this category to challenging for the title. Wins over Andrei Arlovski and Fedor Emelianenko raised his profile with MMA pundits, and his only losses in the last six years have been to top ten heavyweights (Velasquez, Cormier, Werdum). Silva will next face a top-three fighter in Alistair Overeem on February 2nd. An impressive win could earn him a rematch with Velasquez; a loss could officially label Silva as a heavyweight gatekeeper, rather than a contender.
WILD CARDS: Junior dos Santos, Daniel Cormier, Fabricio Werdum
Cormier, the undefeated Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion, is probably the most qualified contender on this list. The former Olympic wrestler has not even been challenged in his ten professional fights and, once he fulfills his Strikeforce obligation, seems to be the widely regarded as the number one contender to challenge Velasquez. Unfortunately, this will probably never happen. Cormier has served as Velasquez’ head wrestling coach at the American Kickboxing Academy for the last several years, and the two have no desire to step into the cage together. If Velasquez drops the title to another contender in 2013, we could see Cormier challenge for the heavyweight crown. However, it is becoming increasingly more likely that Cormier will attempt to make the drop to 205 pounds and challenge Jon Jones at light-heavyweight.
Dos Santos, coming off his first loss in over five years, is deserving of an opportunity to regain his lost title. After disposing of Velasquez in their first bout (in only 64 seconds), Dos Santos granted Velasquez a rematch, after each fighter had taken only one other bout. A trilogy seems imminent, but should it be immediate?
Fabricio Werdum is a ‘wild card’ for a different reason: his next fight is scheduled for June. Werdum has committed to coaching against Nogueira on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, and their culminating bout will not take place until the summer of 2013. This leaves the positively-trending jiu-jitsu master in limbo, as far as advancing his status as a challenger for Velasquez. A title-eliminator bout with Dos Santos (a rematch of their 2008 matchup) would be perfect…if Werdum were available.
MOST LIKELY: Alistair Overeem
A UFC title shot has been a long-time-in-the-making for “The Demolition Man.” Following a December 2011 victory over Brock Lesnar, Overeem was scheduled to challenge Junior dos Santos for the belt in May of 2012. However, in April of that year, Overeem failed his pre-fight drug screen, his results showing a 14:1 testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. Overeem was slapped with a nine-month suspension, but is set to make his return to the Octagon on February 2nd against Antonio Silva. If Overeem can get past Silva, the title shot is his. A loss (or another failed drug test) would cloud the heavyweight title picture even further.