In MMA, the gold around your waist is perpetually tethered to a target on your back. Your face adorns the vision boards of all hopeful champions and your name is mentioned in every post-fight interview, normally followed by a redeeming “but I trust Joe Silva.” In each division’s last championship bout, the belt returned home with its respective incumbent. Now, with many exciting champion/contender showdowns on the horizon, let’s delve into which belts are most likely to change hands.
#9 – Light Heavyweight
Champion – Jon Jones
Current Title Defense Streak – 5
Contender – Alexander Gustaffson
Probability to Defend – 5/1
The UFC light heavyweight division has never seen an athlete like Jon Jones. Aside from an armbar attempt by Vitor Belfort and a staggering punch from Lyoto Machida, no contender has found a serious chink in the champ’s armor. Alexander Gustaffson steps up to the plate next riding a 6-fight win streak and a 7-1 UFC record. While Gustaffson boasts youth and size similar to Jones’, his past 2 decision victories leave something to be desired. The UFC has made a marketable matchup, pitting 2 young and accomplished fighters against one another, but the champ’s resume all but guarantees he will break Tito Ortiz’s record of title defenses.
#8 – Featherweight
Jose Aldo has proven enigmatic for all challengers thus far. His 4 title defenses in the UFC (plus 2 in WEC) have all been fairly standard. His last fight with Frankie Edgar was his closest contest as champ but he still walked away with a unanimous decision and fight of the night honors. Replacement contender Chan Sung Jung has proven dangerous both standing and on the ground but he is unlikely to match the explosiveness and athleticism of the champ in a 5-round fight.
#7 – Women’s Bantamweight
In their last fight, while Rousey had just a 4-0 record, she was listed as a 4/1 favorite to dethrone then champ Miesha Tate. Most would agree that the outcome of their next scrap won’t be much different. Rousey’s skills on the ground remain a problem for all other fighters in the bantamweight division. Liz Carmouche is living proof that months of armbar defense training just isn’t enough to prevent the Olympic medalist from snagging your limb and wrenching it in the wrong direction. Aside from a lucky standing exchange, it is tough to see this fight ending any differently than Rousey’s last 7.
#6 – Flyweight
Demetrious Johnson is undefeated in the UFC’s young flyweight division though he is yet to finish one of those fights. The pace of flyweight fights is always exciting, though the speed of exchanges and transitions often makes them difficult to score correctly. Both fighters boast a finishing percentage over 50% but it’s tough to see this fight not going the distance, leaving Mighty Mouse susceptible to a potential changing of the guard via number crunching.
#5 – Welterweight
There have been few fighters able to stick to a gameplan in the same manner as current welterweight champ, Georges St. Pierre. His discipline has left every recent contender with their head pointed down, showing their hat sponsor’s logo, as Bruce Buffer bellows out “AND STILLLLL…” GSP has the uncanny ability of taking the fight exactly where his opponent doesn’t want it to go. In this matchup, however, he is facing a top-tier wrestler with dynamite in his hands. It appears that this time, there is no safe zone for the champ to revert to and grind out another decision. Though it has been said many times before, and the outcome has always been the same, GSP may finally be facing the man who can take his belt.
#4 – Middleweight
This weekend marks Anderson Silva’s 17th fight in the UFC. In that time, he has steamrolled every opponent with the exception of Chael Sonnen. Whether it was an injury, elevated testosterone, or just a fluke – UFC 117 proved that Anderson Silva was capable of being taken down and held there. Enter Chris Weidman, a young, hungry, NCAA All-American wrestler. The blueprint for beating Silva has been laid out – hold him down and punch him, or leap into the air and perform a flying scissor heel hook. Chris Weidman’s chances lie in the former and many believe they’re better than 2/1.
#3 – Lightweight
Champion – Benson Henderson
Current Title Defense Streak – 3
Contender – TJ Grant
Probability to Defend – 2/1
The lightweight division has yet to have a stable champion a la light heavyweight, middleweight, and welterweight. The grasp of the belt has been murky on account of a draw and several rematches. The division is still yearning for a king to rule it with decisive victories – not decisions. While Benson Henderson is an outstanding fighter, he has yet to finish a fight in the UFC, leaving him at the mercy of the judges’ opinions. As Frankie Edgar and BJ Penn both learned, this tactic has an expiration date.
#2 – Heavyweight
Champion – Cain Velazquez
Current Title Defense Streak – 1
Contender – Junior Dos Santos
Probability to Defend – 2/1
No one knows what the upcoming rubber match for the heavyweight title has in store for us. In the first ever UFC on Fox, Junior Dos Santos clubbed Cain Velazquez in the first round, taking the belt in devastating fashion. In the rematch at UFC 155, Velazquez returned the favor, mercilessly beating JDS for 5 rounds and breaking UFC records for significant strikes and takedowns landed in the process. Anyone careless enough to buy a handicapper’s stone cold lock for the main event of UFC 166 should also set up a meeting with some of my buddies in Brooklyn. I heard they have a bridge for sale.
#1 – Bantamweight
With Barao’s foot injury sidelining his matchup with Eddie Wineland, the bantamweight belt remains idle. And until Dominick Cruz is able to step out from behind the UFC Tonight desk and strap on a pair of gloves, we are left to speculate “what if.” So, putting our speculative duties to work, what if Cruz stepped into the cage after a 20 month layoff in a title unification bout with Barao? In my humble opinion, it simply can’t be done. Cruz has peppered his opponents with a stick and move style that has worked wondrously in his past fights. Ring rust will likely claim at least a fraction of that speed, and with Barao’s power and athleticism, it is hard to see Cruz jabbing and weaving to another decision victory.