UFC 166: What's next for the top stars?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

While others who fought in UFC 166 have to wait for their next assignment, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez knows his next opponent already. What hasn't been decided is the when and the where.

Coming out of Saturday's UFC 166 show, there's one future direction that, barring an injury or an unforeseen twist of events, that looks to be locked.

Cain Velasquez will be defending his heavyweight title against Fabricio Werdum (17-5-1), sometime early next year. The time and place will be determined. It is obviously the perfect main event for a debut in Mexico City. But that will come down to timing, matching up when Velasquez will be ready to when everything is worked out for Mexico. Mexico City has a two-year-old state-of-the-art indoor building, Arena Ciudad, that holds 22,000 fans.

But for a heavyweight title fight with a Mexican champion who was just featured on Televisa, the most-watched channel in the country, the idea of a stadium show could be considered. It's a risk to be sure, between weather and whether. The weather is always a risk going outdoors. And the other risk is whether or not the product and the attraction can fill a stadium. What makes Mexico City notable when it comes to stadiums is they come up in all shapes and sizes.

There are four major stadiums in the city, three soccer stadiums, ranging from the 35,000-seat Estadio Azul, home of the soccer team Cruz Azul, to the largest of them all, Estadio Azteca.

Estadio Azteca is most famous in the U.S. because it once drew 132,274 fans to see the Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Greg Haugen boxing match in 1993.

In addition, Plaza Mexico, a bullring which holds nearly 50,000, had hosted some major pro wrestling events in the past.

But as much as the heavyweight division has more depth than almost any period in UFC history, the championship picture is two fights deep. There is Werdum, and there is the winner of the Dec. 28 fight with Travis Browne vs. Josh Barnett. With training partner Daniel Cormier dropping down, and another Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos out of the question for a long time, there are really slim pickings for both the champion and perhaps the new Jon Fitch or Rich Franklin of the division, dos Santos.

Junior dos Santos

Matchmaking dos Santos is even more of a daunting task than Velasquez. He can beat almost anyone in the division handily. Nobody won a round against him except Velasquez in 11 UFC fights. Putting him against a rising star serves no purpose.

He could fight Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva provided Silva beats Mark Hunt on Dec. 7. But that's a fight he would be expected to win and would just be a time filler on a long trip that may have no destination. He can face the loser of Barnett vs. Browne, but that will require a long sitting out period.

He can also fight Alistair Overeem, provided Overeem beats Frank Mir. That would be the dos Santos fight that would have the most interest, but with Overeem vs. Mir not until Feb. 1, it would require the longest wait. dos Santos has already handily beaten most of the other top heavyweights, including Werdum, Hunt, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson and Stefan Struve.

Daniel Cormier

For Cormier, coming off his win over Nelson, he's dropping to light heavyweight. There are a number of different options for a first fight. The one talked about the most is the fast-track fight, going to Europe early next year to face Alexander Gustafsson. What makes that fight good for Cormier is that with a win, he'd be almost guaranteed a light heavyweight title shot his next time out.

What makes that fight bad for the UFC, is that if champion Jon Jones continues to be a world beater, he's on his way to running low on opponents. Putting Gustafsson vs. Cormier should give the winner a title shot, but putting them against separate opponents creates more title options.

Putting Gustafsson (15-2) vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (21-5) and Cormier (13-0) against Phil Davis (12-1) creates two potential challengers. It also keeps Gustafsson and Davis, who are willing to fight each other but have been training partners and have fought each other once (Davis winning) away from each other while allowing each to be elevated.

The fly in that ointment is that Cormier's trainer, Javier Mendez, on the MMA Hour on Monday, said Cormier wouldn't face Davis, as the two are friends. Both share high-level wrestling backgrounds, and Davis trained for a time at AKA in San Jose, before moving to San Diego.

If Davis is out of the picture, the best opponent from a Cormier standpoint would seem to be Gegard Mousasi (34-3-2), who is coming off knee surgery. Mousasi lost his Strikeforce light heavyweight title to King Mo Lawal, a longtime training partner of Cormier in both MMA, and before that, on the U.S. National wrestling team. The story of that fight in 2010 was Mousasi's inability to stop takedowns. Cormier is the perfect test to see if he's really a contender, because if he hasn't shored up that weakness, he'll have very little chance with Jones. Mousasi was scheduled to headline in April against Gustafsson in Sweden, but Gustafsson wasn't allowed to fight due to a cut in training.

Because of his injury, Mousasi has been something of a forgotten man in the top mix. He's only 28, but has ten years experience and has been a star since 2006 when he started in Pride. He's had 29 wins in his last 32 fights, and his lone draw was a bad decision in a fight where he pretty well destroyed Keith Jardine.

There are two other key guys in the division, longtime stars Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson. But even if Evans beats Chael Sonnen (who, win or lose, is out of the picture early next year due to coaching TUF Brazil), on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas, he hasn't looked impressive of late to where anyone would be thinking title shot for him. And Evans' previous title fight with Jones wouldn't leave anyone with much interest in seeing a rematch. Henderson, who faces Vitor Belfort on Nov. 9, needs a win to keep his career alive at any level. But he's 43, has lost two in a row, and while popular and a legend in the sport, he isn't much of a draw these days and with his recent losses, would be very difficult to sell as a title contender. There's no upside in a Henderson win that would derail Cormier.

Gilbert Melendez

Gilbert Melendez (22-3) may have earned himself a title shot with his thrilling win over Diego Sanchez (26-6). Melendez handled the situation correctly, referring to himself as the uncrowned lightweight champion, based on his April 20 split decision loss to Benson Henderson that could have gone either way.

Current champion Anthony Pettis (17-2) faces Josh Thomson (20-5) on Dec. 14 on FOX. The choice for the next contender would likely come down to Melendez or TJ Grant (21-5). Grant was promised a shot based on his win over Gray Maynard, but hasn't been right for months due to lingering effects of a concussion.

Grant was originally supposed to face Henderson on Aug. 31, with Pettis stepping in. Then he was supposed to face Pettis on FOX, until letting UFC know that he won't be ready. Dana White this past week said Grant was no longer a lock to get the shot when he's ready.

Diego Sanchez

Sanchez has a number of options. After the beating he took with Melendez, he's probably not going to need a fight that quickly. While sitting and waiting, the lay of the land will change after three upcoming fights - Donald Cerrone vs. Evan Dunham on Nov. 16, Gray Maynard vs. Nate Diaz on Nov. 30, and Pat Healy vs. Jamie Varner on Dec. 14. After those fights, there will likely be several potential Sanchez opponents.

Gabriel Gonzaga

Gabriel Gonzaga (16-7), corning off a 93-second knockout at heavyweight over Shawn Jordan looks like a good candidate for Stipe Miocic (10-1). Coming off a win over Nelson, Miocic needs a good trial-horse name to see if he can hang at the top level. Gonzaga presents enough danger everywhere to test him.

John Dodson

The other main card winner, John Dodson (16-6) should be actively rooting for a Joseph Benavidez flyweight title win over champion Demetrious Johnson on Nov. 30 in Las Vegas, If so, in a division with limited depth, Dodson could be close to a title shot right now, but was coming off a loss to Johnson.

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