Who will be the next UFC champion to fall?
Now that Anderson Silva is no longer an unconquerable champion, no one is an unconquerable champion. So mind-blowing was it to see the Brazilian's seven-year, 17-fight win streak go poof earlier this month, it's got me thinking about the relative vulnerability of the UFC's nine champions. All but one will put a belt on the line before the year is out. Who's most likely -- and least likely -- to remain on top of the mountain?
Safe and Sound
Dominick Cruz (bantamweight, 19-1): It's impossible to lose a fight if you don't fight a fight. And it's creeping up on 22 months since Cruz, recovering from a pair of knee surgeries, has stepped into the octagon. In the time since his last title defense, a unanimous decision over Demetrious Johnson way back in October 2011, a whole lot has happened in the UFC. For example, six new champions have been crowned: two at heavyweight, one at middleweight, one at lightweight, one at flyweight and one at women's bantamweight. The last pair of titlists, Ronda Rousey and a 125-pound version of Johnson, are in divisions that did not exist the last time "The Dominator" dominated.
We actually could include another champion on our list, if we were to count interim bantamweight belt holder Renan Barão. Now Barão is injured as well. So maybe we should add a fourth 135-pound champion, whom we'd refer to as the interim interim champ. But that's a discussion for another day. Today we're here to declare Cruz the most unbeatable champion in the UFC. At least until his knee is healed.
Ronda Rousey (bantamweight, 7-0): She already owns a convincing victory over Miesha Tate, whom she'll face again on Dec. 28 in the UFC 168 co-main event in Las Vegas. The first time they met, Rousey took away Miesha's Strikeforce belt with a methodical demolition that ended with her signature armbar submission. Is it reasonable for us to expect a different result next time? No, it is not. It would be insanity to do so. Ronda has gotten even better, crisper with her standup and resilient with her defense, while Tate has added a loss to her resume.
The only reason Miesha is back in the title picture is that the woman who beat her, Cat Zingano, was injured and had to pull out of her challenge of Rousey. Which, honestly, wouldn't have been much of a challenge, either. Ronda is as dominant a fighter as the UFC has. Seven pro bouts, all victories, all finishes by inevitable armbar, all in the first round, five in the first minute. Simply brilliant.
Jon Jones (light heavyweight, 18-1): He's never been beaten. (That "1" on the record? The result of a poorly called disqualification.) He's never even been given a good fight. Yet there are those who try to sell us on "Bones" being nothing special, the (flawed) argument being that he's beaten up everyone he's faced only because nobody he's faced can look him in the face.
Well, on Sept. 21 at UFC 165 in Toronto, Jon finally will pick on someone his own size when he takes on 6-foot-5 Alexander Gustafsson. Size probably won't matter. The Swede will be just a bigger target. The only thing that can stop Jones's light heavyweight reign, as I see it, is Jon's heavyweight ambitions. Jones is going to have the 205-pound belt in his hands until he drops it to go chasing after Cain Velasquez.
Georges St-Pierre (welterweight, 24-2): With Silva's loss, GSP now stands as the UFC's longest-reigning champion. Among his 11 wins in a row, eight have been defenses of the belt he regained from Matt Serra in April 2008. In the five years and three months since then, he's not only not lost a fight, but also barely lost a round.
So why is Georges not "Safe and Sound"? Because in Johny Hendricks, who'll challenge for the belt on Nov. 16 at UFC 167 in Las Vegas, St-Pierre will be facing a man better equipped than any who've come before to both expose the champ's sliver of vulnerability (GSP occasionally gets caught with a big shot) and also fend off his domineering positional control. Hendricks, a two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler who's added to his arsenal a lights-out left hand, has the type of game to give Georges trouble. However, Georges has the type of game to persevere.
José Aldo (featherweight, 22-1): He's won 15 in a row, a streak dating even farther back than the start of the glorious Silva run that Weidman snapped. He's defended the UFC belt four times and before that the WEC strap twice. So where's the vulnerability?
We've seen it in the championship rounds, when the Brazilian buzzsaw has faded after fast starts that at times have been explosive, at times simply efficient. However, Aldo should survive his next challenge, which comes a week from Saturday at UFC 163 in Rio de Janeiro. He'll be performing before his uplifting home fans, and fighting a replacement challenger. Chan Sung Jung was awarded the title shot only after Anthony Pettis was injured. Like three of the four challengers who came before him, Jung is resilient enough to take the fight the distance -- he's not nicknamed "The Korean Zombie" for nothing. But José has beaten better men.
Demetrious Johnson (flyweight, 17-2-1): Why is he in this middle-of-the-road category? "Mighty Mouse" is unbeaten in his four fights following the bantamweight loss to Cruz, but he's had to withstand some hairy moments. The question is: Can John Moraga, his opponent in Saturday night's UFC on Fox 8 main event, put Johnson in a bad position and keep him there? The answer to the first part is probably yes, because others have succeeded at making Demetrious appear vulnerable. But Johnson wears the brass-and-leather belt because no one has succeeded at the second part. Can Moraga finish the job against the champ? He's done so with both of his UFC opponents. But they weren't "Mighty Mouse."
Benson Henderson (lightweight, 19-2): He squeaked by Frankie Edgar to grab away the belt. It was close enough to warrant a rematch ... and Henderson again got the nod, this time by split decision. He mauled Nate Diaz in his next title defense, but then it was back to the tightrope, as Benson split the judges but had his hand raised against Gilbert Melendez. As his next title defense approaches -- it's Aug. 31 in Milwaukee at UFC 164 -- Henderson has professionals once again doing the splits. This time it's oddsmakers: Some list him as a slight underdog, some as a slight favorite, and some view his rematch with Anthony Pettis as a pick 'em fight.
But we don't need sportsbooks to tell us Henderson has a daunting challenge on his hands. All we need is a memory capable of going back to Dec. 16, 2010, when Pettis and his cage-walking "Showtime Kick" ninja move defeated Henderson in the final WEC title fight. Henderson has won seven in a row since then, and defended the UFC belt three times. But he has unfinished business with Pettis.
Cain Velasquez (heavyweight, 12-1): Like Henderson, he's lost to his next opponent, too. But while Junior dos Santos landed one big shot to knock out Velasquez when they met amid the pomp and circumstance of the UFC's first appearance on the Fox television network back in November 2011, Velasquez came back just over a year later and crushed "Cigano."
On Oct. 19, in the main event of UFC 166 in Houston, we'll see Velasquez-dos Santos III. Cain's brutal beatdown of Junior in last December's rematch makes him the clear-cut alpha male among the big boys. But we cannot count out Dos Santos. All it takes is one ruinous right hand. And we've already seen him land one of those on Cain.
Chris Weidman (middleweight, 10-0): The guy who knocked out Anderson Silva should be as secure a champion as they come, no? After all, he was man enough to accomplish what the 17 fighters who came before him could not. But the New Yorker has another troublesome challenge immediately ahead: a rematch with Silva. The main event of UFC 168 on Dec. 28 in Las Vegas is going to be fascinating.
The ex-champion (I'm still getting used to calling Silva that) might have had the intimidating aura of untouchable invincibility vaporize around him, but he's still a devastatingly inventive striker. He's still Anderson Silva, and Weidman has to deal with him. Again. If he does slay the dragon forever, Chris will catapult himself to the stratosphere of this game.