October 02, 2012

We knew we were going to see a new champion crowned when we sat down to watch UFC 152 a couple of weekends ago.

And when the co-main event ended and Demetrious Johnson had his hand raised as the first belt holder in the UFC's new flyweight division, most people at Air Canada Centre in Toronto and watching the pay-per-view telecast around the world likely thought we were done with that.

After all, the only fight left on the card featured Jon Jones, and the light heavyweight champ had smashed every 205-pounder who'd dared step into the cage with him. And on this night he was taking on a pumped up 185-pounder, a 35-year-old at that.

Well, we all know what happened. "Bones" took down Vitor Belfort within the fight's opening seconds, which was as to be expected. But then the unexpected happened. The Brazilian, best known for his fast hands but also the owner of a jiu-jitsu black belt, secured a tight armbar, the crowd roared, Jones grimaced and the mixed martial arts world nearly was turned on its head.

A humongous upset can wreak havoc in the rankings, especially when the one rising to the occasion didn't rise from as close as No. 2. Even a near-upset can shake a person's resolve, making you question whether that indomitable guy you had at No. 1 is really the one.

But none of that applies to Jones. Seeing him caught in that Belfort armbar in the moment, the thinking was that no, this wasn't the end. Never mind that Vitor had it locked in. When "Bones" stood and yanked the challenger off the mat with him, then drove Belfort's head back down onto the mat, the most plausible imagining of the next few seconds was that Vitor would end up laid out, unconscious. Because Jones is unbeatable, right? And an armbar wasn't going to change that, right?

Well, it was only afterward, when Jones stood awaiting the announcement of his fourth-round victory -- submission victory, at that -- and was holding his right arm gingerly, that we learned how precarious the situation had been. How close we had been to having a new light heavyweight champion.

And through it all, Jon Jones has grown in stature. He's no longer the uber-athlete with whom no one can compete. He's now a guy who has faced adversity and come through. That makes him far easier to relate to. And it solidifies his standing among light heavyweights and everyone else who competes in this sport.

1. Junior dos Santos (15-1)

2. Cain Velasquez (10-1)

3. Daniel Cormier (10-0)

The clock is ticking, and Strikeforce still does not have an opponent for Cormier, whose Nov. 3 bout with Frank Mir fell apart when the two-time UFC heavyweight champion was injured in training. We're now less than five weeks out, although that's about the same amount of time Cormier had to prepare for "Bigfoot" Silva, and he did pretty well that night. With every day that passes, though, it seems ever less likely that Daniel will get the kind of opponent who can elevate his game. It's not like next month's Strikeforce swansong is going to move him up in these rankings -- he's stuck at No. 3 until Dos Santos and Velasquez rematch on Dec. 29 -- but every test Cormier passes means something for his UFC career-to-be. So let's hope he gets more than a warm body to tussle with when the cage door locks in a month.

1. Jon Jones (17-1)

2. Dan Henderson (29-8)

3. Rashad Evans (17-2-1)

It's tempting to stick Vitor Belfort at No. 2 here, even though he's not been ranked in this weight class or even at middleweight, the division where he's fought most of his fights in recent years. His near-miss against Jones in the first round of their UFC 152 main event was just the beginning of Belfort's show of worthiness. Even after "Bones" escaped his early armbar, Vitor continued to show a good measure of fight, which is something that's been lacking in all of Jones' previous opponents, the last four of whom are former champions. But Henderson stays put, and if his knee heals he might get the title shot he missed out on at the ill-fated UFC 151. And Evans holds his spot, too, even though he's talked about moving down to 185 pounds. If he learned anything while watching Jones-Belfort from Vitor's corner, he could be the guy to give the champ a fight. Or not. Maybe no one will do that again until Jones is a heavyweight.

1. Anderson Silva (32-4)

2. Chris Weidman (9-0)

3. Michael Bisping (23-4)

Weidman wins impressively and everyone starts talking up Weidman-Silva. Bisping wins impressively and everyone starts talking up Bisping-Silva. OK, not everyone. Silva has not seemed to notice either of them closing in on him, busy as he is taking on any light heavyweight not named Jones before setting his sights on a superfight with a smaller man, Georges St-Pierre. And the man who makes the matches, UFC president Dana White, has not said much of anything about a Weidman challenge, seemingly preferring to see Silva have a go with Bisping, whose fighting skills, prodigious as they may be, are dwarfed by his fight-hyping skills. But don't be surprised if Bisping's next trip into the octagon is to take on the winner of the Dec. 29 fight between Weidman and Tim Boetsch. The survivor of that would be hard for Silva to ignore.

1. Georges St-Pierre (22-2)

2. Carlos Condit (28-5)

3. Johny Hendricks (13-1)

Once upon a time there was a welterweight fighter named St-Pierre, who legend has it was quite a star. But that was long, long ago. Next month we'll learn whether the current version of GSP, returning from a layoff of more than a year and a half to tend to an injured knee, can measure up to the great fighter we all remember. To show that, the welterweight champ will have to measure up to Condit, owner of an interim belt in St-Pierre's absence. That night at UFC 154 in Montreal, is a welterweight-a-thon, with Hendricks taking on the guy who'd be No. 4 in our ranking if we had a No. 4: Marty Kampmann. Finally, we'll get some clarity in a weight class that's long been a showcase for the UFC.

1. Ben Henderson (16-2)

2. Gray Maynard (11-1-1, 1 NC)

3. Nate Diaz (16-7)

It's a whole new world for Henderson, who no longer is staring at Frankie Edgar and trying to hold onto the belt against the man from whom he took it. It'll feel different Dec. 8 when he steps in with Diaz, who is not a past champion and will be trying to climb that top rung on the ladder. Prior to the rematch with Frankie, Ben was open -- more so than most -- about the added responsibilities that come with being a champ. And while he did go out get the judges' decision, he didn't fight with the same dynamism he previously had. He'll need everything he has at his disposal against Diaz, perhaps the most improved fighter at the top end of the UFC roster. All of those gym days with his bother, Nick, ad well as Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez have paid off.

1. José Aldo (21-1)

2. Frankie Edgar (14-3-1)

3. Chad Mendez (11-1)

Here's hoping that the hastily scheduled Aldo-Edgar fight, scuttled by an injury to the champ (as opposed to the ex-champ of a different division), gets rescheduled. But you never know. Timing and injuries change everything. I mean, those were the two factors that thrust José and Frankie together in the first place, after Erik Koch was injured while training for his scheduled challenge. Koch needs a fight, too, and maybe putting him in with Mendes or even Chan Sung Jung would produce the next interesting title challenger in this weight class.

1. Dominick Cruz (19-1)

2. Renan Barão (29-1, 1 NC)

3. Michael McDonald (15-1)

Yeah, eagle eye, last month's top three did have a tie for third, making it a top four. And true, no one on the list has fought since then. But upon reflection -- and after receiving several e-mails ridiculing these ranking's hesitancy to just make a decision -- it seemed like a good idea to just pick either McDonald or Urijah Faber and be done with it. So let's go with the rising 21-year-old rather than with the veteran star. Why? For one thing, Faber has been unable to make it back to the top of the mountain after once residing there, even though he's had three tries in two weight classes. Beyond that, the thinking is that a McDonald-Faber fight would go Michael's way.

1. Demetrious Johnson (16-2-1)

2. Joseph Benavidez (16-3)

3. Ian McCall (11-3-1)

"The winner, and new flyweight champion of the world ..." were the words bellowed for the first time by Bruce Buffer following the UFC 152 co-main event, and both Johnson and Benavidez stood there, hoping. But Demetrious appeared more full of hope than Joe, and also appeared far less bruised and battered after their lightning-quick five rounds. And sure enough it was "Mighty Mouse" who got the nod, by split decision, to become the first champion in the UFC's new 125-pound weight class. So Johnson and Benavidez have flip-flopped in these rankings, and now Demetrious is weighed down by the bull's-eye that's been affixed to his back. Now let's see if anyone can catch him.

1. Anderson Silva

2. Jon Jones

3. Georges St-Pierre

Silva spent the entire first round of his last fight on his back before smashing Chael Sonnen in the second. Jones nearly had his arm broken by an early submission hold but escaped and spent the next 15 minutes beating up Vitor Belfort. Georges St-Pierre was barely able to see out of one eye in his last fight, but still managed a unanimous decision win over Jake Shields ... and hasn't fought in the 18 months since then while healing a knee injury. Ladies and gentlemen, your pound-for-pound crème de la crème. Anyone have a problem with that?

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