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Fightweets: Are a slew of new champions on the way?

Esther Lin

It's a rare weekend with no fights of note on tap. No UFC, no Bellator, no Invicta, no World Series of Fighting, no One FC.

Of course, that doesn't mean there's nothing to talk about. There's always something to discuss in our wacky little world of mixed martial arts. So let's jump right into the next edition of Fightweets where we discuss, among other things, a stretch of late-2013 fight cards in which a slew of champions look vulnerable; just how big UFC 168 can be; and whether flyweights will ever be able to headline a pay-per-view event.

Changes at the top

@8rick6: If you had to guess, which current challenger do you feel has the best chance at the belt? My pick is Pettis!

Anthony Pettis isn't a bad bet at all. But the thing that strikes me most is that, after what has seemed to be a couple years of dominant champions with death grips on their belts, all of a sudden there's a whole string of men's title fights in which every champ looks beatable.

Take it straight on down the line starting with the Benson Henderson-Anthony Pettis fight. How many times can Henderson eke out split decisions? Especially against a guy who has already defeated him, and has never been finished? Frankie Edgar can tell you about the odds catching up to you when you go the distance once too often. Junior dos Santos has already proven he can finish Cain Velasquez. Georges St-Pierre looks more vulnerable than he has in quite some time going against Johny Hendricks, who is younger, can wrestle and has thunder in his fists. And who the hell knows who walks out of the Chris Weidman-Anderson Silva rematch with the belt?

We could very well enter 2014 with a dramatic upheaval at the top of the sport. If you want me to pick just one, I'll go with Pettis, but I also wouldn't be too surprised if fully half of the UFC's current men's titleholders are different at the start of next year than they are now.

How big will UFC 168 be?

@auggie85: with Weidman/Silva 2, is 168 going to be bigger than 167 - 'the 20th anniversary show'? 20th should be a huge celebration!

There's little question that if all three monster fights -- Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks at UFC 167; Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate at UFC 168 -- go off as planned, then the company is setting itself for back-to-back events to rival UFC 91-92 (UFC 91, featuring Brock Lesnar's heavyweight title win over Randy Couture, did 1,010,000 PPV buys and UFC 92, a tripleheader led by Rashad Evans' light heavyweight title win over Forrest Griffin, did 1 million), and 100-101 (UFC 100, with Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, did 1.6 million; 101, with B.J. vs. Kenny Florian and Silva vs. Griffin, did 850,000) in terms of total business.

UFC 167 features Georges St-Pierre, already one of the company's biggest draws, against an opponent, Johny Hendricks, who comes off as his most credible threat and quite some time. That combined with the hype from the UFC's 20th anniversary will make this a big one.

UFC 168, though, is shaping up as one of those events that only come together a couple times in a decade. The first Silva-Weidman fight was trending toward 800,000 buys heading into the event. That made it a hit before people even tuned in and saw Silva lose. The buzz afterwards was bigger than anything the UFC has experienced since UFC 100. Weidman-Silva 2 alone would be a million-seller. Now add in Ronda Rousey, the added exposure of her season on TUF with Miesha Tate, and the audience she brings in which doesn't necessarily tune in for other fights.

All the ingredients are there. The UFC 100 company buy rate record of 1.6 million is likely safe, but at this point only the most myopic Dana White bashers don't recognize that UFC 168 could very well finish No. 2 if everything goes right.

English lessons

@wikseen: should all non-English speaking UFC fighters be encouraged to take up English lessons in order to increase their... (1/2)

@wiksenn: fanbase rather than using a translator? Translators have a habit of misinterpreting what fighters actually say (2/2)

Man ... a lot of these guys are already being squeezed enough on pay as is without adding English classes to their list of expenses. A lot of non-North American fighters are living in their corner of the world, often fighting when the UFC comes to their homeland, and otherwise only coming over to America for the occasional fight, so I can see why it wouldn't be their top priority.

That said, I get what you're saying. Ultimately, learning English is only going to help many of these guys' earning potential in the long run. Dos Santos is a great example of a fighter whose popularity got a big boost when he took the time to master English and had his happy-go-lucky personality started to shine through. Can you imagine how much bigger of a star someone like Chan Sung Jung would be if, in addition to putting on ridiculously awesome fights on a consistent basis, we were able to learn more about what makes him tick as a person?

But it's the fighters' choice to make. Jose Aldo Jr., for example, is content to be a superstar in Brazil and simply a respected fighter here in North America. There's nothing wrong with that. Should fighters be forced to learn English? Nope. Does it help if they do? All signs point to yes.

Super flys

@DanaBecker: Do you feel a flyweight-headlined PPV can bring in strong numbers? If so, would it do better based internationally?

They're not yet pay-per-view headliners, but the idea they can get there is not as farfetched as it sounds.

It's not that hard to figure out the model the UFC is using in building the flyweight division. It's similar to what Zuffa did with the bantamweight and featherweight divisions in the WEC. Urijah Faber's early Zuffa WEC title defenses against the likes of Chance Farrar and Jeff Curran in 2007 were in front of very small crowds. It took three years of steady exposure on basic cable television to build up lighter weight fighters to the point they could showcase them in a big spotlight.

Slowly but steadily, the buzz built. Faber's fights became must-watch. Miguel Torres won the bantamweight title and put on a series of exciting fights. Guys like Jose Aldo Jr., Mike Brown, Scott Jorgensen, Cub Swanson, and so on started making names for themselves.

But by the time 2010 rolled around, Faber was an arena headliner and the WEC went to pay-per-view with Faber vs. Aldo. Faber was a charismatic star with a propensity for exciting fights. Aldo Jr., even then, was a finisher and a killer. The whole evening in Sacramento, one of the great nights in MMA history, as it also featured the 2010 Fight of the Year in Leonard Garcia vs. Jung, and a testament to how far the lighter-weight fighters came along in a period of three years.

Right now, UFC is in the exposure-building phase with the flyweights, like the WEC was with bantamweights and featherweights in the early days. That's why you're seeing Demetrious Johnson on network television for the second straight fight against John Moraga next week, and why you're likely to see flyweight fights on the FX/Fuel basic cable prelims as anywhere else.

Ultimately the division still needs the spark of a Faber-like personality, or a rivalry along the lines of Faber vs. Dominick Cruz to give it that final push over the top. It might take a couple years to get there. But when they do, the people dogging the flyweight now will look just as silly as those who said 135 and 145ers couldn't make a go of it.

Brown vs. Pyle

@ynneKrematS: Where do you think the winner of Matt Brown vs Mike Pyle will be in the title hunt?

Probably not all that close to a title shot, considering that after the GSP-Hendricks fight, which isn't until November, you've still got the likes of the Rory MacDonald-Jake Ellenberger winner, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, Martin Kampmann, and Demian Maia ahead of them in the pecking order.

But the winner of this UFC Fight Night bout in Boston will have earned to test himself against one of the division's big boys. Pyle has won seven of his last eight fights. Granted, his two most recent losses have been to MacDonald and Ellenberger, so it's not like he hasn't had his chances. But if he runs it four four straight and eight of nine, he's bulled his way into one more proving-ground sort of fight. Brown, for his part, has won five in a row with four finishes. He's pretty much cleaned house in the guys ranked 11-20 in the division. The winner of this fight doesn't vault ahead of the line, but he's worked his way into the mix.

Who will finish?

@Giglio Trey: Which champ do you see getting a finish first, from here out, Johnson, Henderson, or St Pierre? They could all use one.

You asked me this question Wednesday afternoon. I'm answering it on Thursday afternoon. I've had 24 hours to think about it and I still don't have a definitive answer.

If I was to pick the least likely to get a finish, at least in each of Johnson, Henderson and St-Pierre's upcoming bouts, I'd go with Henderson, who is on a string of seven straight decisions. I'm struggling to remember the last time Henderson even came close to finishing someone in a UFC fight. Maybe his upkick against Edgar in the first fight hadn't come so close to the end of the round? That's the only one that jumps to mind. Add in the fact he's facing someone who has never been finished in Pettis and it seems like an uphill climb.

Of course, St-Pierre has a six-fight decision streak of his own. But stylistically, I can theoretically see Johny Hendricks neutralizing GSP's wrestling and forcing GSP into a standup firefight like we haven't seen from the champ in awhile. It's been so long St-Pierre has finished a fight that we've forgotten what a killer he can be.

If I have to pick just one, I'll actually go with Johnson, who meets John Moraga next weekend in the main event of UFC on FOX 8. This might seem counterintuitive, since "Mighty Mouse" has gone the distance in nine of his past 10 fights. But my rationale is this: Moraga's a striker. He's gone on the record as calling Johnson boring and he's likely coming in feeling like he has something to prove. He's also taking a huge step up in both competition and in the spotlight. Combine all those factors and I can conceive of Moraga coming out firing and making a mistake and DJ, who is such a superb counterstriker, making Moraga pay.

When push comes to shove, I'd have all three going to a decision, with DJ and GSP winning and Henderson either getting yet another one of his head-scratching split decisions or losing the title. But if you're going to twist my arm on this, I'll go with DJ.

@omaresco02: Do you see the UFC going to Cowboys Stadium, if so, what fight or fights could fill the stadium?

Cowboys Stadium Teleconference Question Guy, is that you?

Want to be included in a future edition of Fightweets? Go to my Twitter page and leave me a question.

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