Within a stretch of seven days, the heavyweight picture in mixed martial arts sorted itself out nicely.
Last Saturday night at UFC 146, Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez made it abundantly clear who the two baddest men on the planet are. I mean, send Junior and Cain into a dark alley with the Klitschko brothers, and which two do you think are walking out? Actually, I'm thinking Wladimir and Vitali should steer clear of any alleyways in Sunrise, Fla., next week, lest they run into UFC flyweights Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall.
But let's stick to heavyweights here. That's what the UFC did with its main card last weekend in Las Vegas. Prior to Dos Santos stepping into the octagon to defend his championship for the first time, there were four other heavyweight fights that night at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The most notable of them featured the man Dos Santos dethroned last November, and Velasquez proved to be a tough act to follow. While Junior was in control from the start against Frank Mir, on his way to a second-round TKO, Velasquez put a brutal, bloody beating on Antonio Silva in the evening's penultimate bout, electrifying the crowd with his 3-minute, 36-second stoppage. At the post-fight press conference, UFC president Dana White was pretty much stating the obvious when he acknowledged that Dos Santos' next title defense will be a rematch with Velasquez.
That second chance was no fait accompli, however, until Cain earned it. For a couple of days during the week leading up to UFC 146, in fact, there had been talk that the next shot at the belt should go to a different fighter from the American Kickboxing Academy camp. Daniel Cormier, who has trained alongside Velasquez in the San Jose, Calif., gym ever since the Olympic wrestler began his transition to MMA fighter three years ago, made quite an impression with his dominant victory over Josh Barnett in the May 19 final of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix.
True, Strikeforce isn't as steep a mountain to climb as the UFC. But in having his way with Barnett, a onetime UFC champ who was riding an eight-fight win streak that dated to 2006, Cormier showed he's something special, especially when that performance is stacked alongside his first-round KO of "Bigfoot" Silva in the semifinals.
But Velasquez sewed up the title shot Saturday night, and Cormier will remain in Strikeforce for one more fight. Against whom? Good question. The fight promotion has seen all of its heavies, except Cormier and Barnett, shifted over to the UFC, its alpha cousin in the Zuffa corporate family. So now it's going to need to borrow one back. Maybe it'll be a UFC 146 winner: Roy Nelson and Stipe Miocic had terrific TKO victories, with "Big Country" getting the job done with one punch in 51 seconds, and Stefan Struve outclassed former Strikeforce heavyweight Lavar Johnson with a quick (1:05) submission.
Anyone ranked higher than them already has a dance partner. Except Shane Carwin, who has been out for a year because of back surgery. He'd be a formidable test, a former UFC interim belt holder who finished his first 12 opponents in the first round, five of them in less than a minute. The appeal of a Cormier-Carwin matchup might be tempered by the fact that Shane is coming off two straight defeats, but the losses were to Dos Santos and Brock Lesnar. No small obstacles.
Speaking of Lesnar, he was cageside for UFC 146 and requested a meeting with Dana White. My guess is that the ex-champ was there only in case Mir won the title, so he could amble up into the octagon and issue a challenge. Lesnar's not coming out of retirement for anyone else, is he? I mean, considering the two bouts of diverticulitis that gutted his MMA career and threatened his very life, he's risking his health simply by performing WWE acrobatics. Can he stomach a return to real fighting? (Can his stomach stomach it?)
And even if he were to ride back into view from the sunset, the UFC surely wouldn't want its pay-per-view cash cow to fight on Showtime against a guy who could negate his bread-and-butter takedowns and dish out a heaping helping of turtle soup. Nah. That's about as likely as Dana reopening negotiations with Fedor Emelianenko.
Dos Santos and Velasquez have been No. 1 and No. 2 (or No. 2 and No. 1) for a long time. Even though it was Mir who challenged Junior for the title last weekend, Cain never slid lower than second in these rankings. And his ferocious destruction of "Bigfoot" might have made him worthy of No. 1 ... if only it weren't for that 64-second KO Dos Santos handed him in November. As for Mir, he did nothing to warrant being dropped from No. 3. But Cormier simply put on a masterful performance against a skilled, dangerous veteran. Until Alistair Overeem and Shane Carwin come back, the spot appears to belong to the former Olympian.
As if having the popular "Hendo" as his opponent wasn't enough to amplify the black hat vs. white hat melodrama of Jones's next defense, now we have "Bones" totaling his Bentley -- not a car for the common man -- while driving drunk. And no matter how innocent it was for him to be out late at night with two women, neither of them his fiancée, you know that's going to factor into his demonization among the MMA public.
I don't quite understand why the young phenom has become so unpopular, but let's set that aside and say this: To make this division's rankings more accurate, it should be a Top 10 with Jones at No. 1 and then a huge gap of nothingness before we come to Henderson and Evans at Nos. 9 and 10. Will real-life distractions narrow that gap, or will Jones take it out on Henderson on Sept. 1?
It's been difficult denying Mark Muñoz the No. 3 spot, and that uneasy feeling likely will stick around until it's time to revisit these rankings in a month. But if he then can handle the rising Chris Weidman on July 11, Muñoz will make a strong case even stronger. Ten days later, though, Bisping will get to make a statement of his own against Tim Boetsch. Of course, by then Nos. 1 and 2 will have sorted out the top of the heap. All of which means we're in a holding pattern for the time being, with the fireworks set to commence with Silva-Sonnen II on Fourth of July weekend.
It's probably unfair to bounce Jake Ellenberger from No. 3 on the very day when he gets to show his stuff, but how do you deny Hendricks? After thumping longtime No. 2 Jon Fitch in all of 12 seconds back in December, the two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion beat onetime title challenger Josh Koscheck on May 5. That's an impressive 1-2. Ellenberger has Martin Kampmann in his sights Friday night, and he'll have to be awfully dominant to move back up. Heck, even to remain gatekeeper for the welter elite, he has to hold off Rory MacDonald, who, like Hendricks, is 13-1 and on a meteoric rise.
Where's Nate Diaz? You'd think that his resounding finish of Jim Miller -- something no one in this Top 3 has been able to accomplish -- would have boosted the younger Diaz brother at least above "The Bully." Maybe he deserves it, but I look at him and I look at Maynard and I believe they're ranked in the order they should be.
Gray has a chance to further prove his worth June 22 when takes on Clay Guida. And speaking of proving your worth, just about everyone -- including Nate Diaz -- ranks Gilbert Melendez at or near the top of this weight class. I like him as a fighter, too, just not as much as everyone else. And justifying the Strikeforce champ's exclusion from the Top 3 got a bit easier last month with his lukewarm performance against Josh Thomson.
All of last month I stared at the rankings and kept grinding my teeth when I came to featherweight. What was Hioki doing at No. 2? The guy arrived in the UFC with a prime pedigree (ex-Shooto and Sengoku champion) but looked mediocre in his debut, then put on better performance in a unanimous-decision win over Bart Palaszewski. With that, he was offered a shot at Aldo. He declined.
Now, I'm not of the machismo-sum-laude school that if you don't take a fight you're scared. But if Hioki sidestepped José because he feels he's not ready for prime time, who are we to argue? So Mendes -- who wasn't ready for Aldo, either, but took the challenge -- moves up a spot, and No. 3 is a toss-up among Eric Koch (Aldo's July 21 opponent), Bellator champ Pat Curran and Chan Sung Jung, coming off an instant KO of Mark Hominick and a dominant upset of promising prospect Dustin Poirier. Based on my extensive Jungian analysis, I'll go with "The Korean Zombie."
It's a sad time for Cruz, who goes into knee surgery next week knowing his biggest career payday is kaput and his nemesis, who already has sewed up a coaching victory on
If Benavidez has a preference for which flyweight he'd like to see win June 8 when Johnson and McCall finally fight the rematch of their March majority draw, he probably won't say. But no doubt Joseph is rooting for someone, anyone to finish the bout quickly while sustaining little damage. That way, the UFC flyweight tournament can swiftly move on to the final and the crowning of the fight promotion's first 125-pound champion.
A few e-mails of protest came in last month when "Bones" first appeared atop "The Spider" on this list, but the outcry was not too bad. Maybe the MMA world is coming around to what the future is going to look like -- and that it's arrived.