While packing for Las Vegas last week, the thought occurred to me that the first of the month was coming up and maybe I should get a jump on the February fighter rankings. Then I mulled over the UFC 156 card I was about to attend, and my conclusion -- and I wasn't just being lazy and putting off work, I swear -- was that so much could change Saturday night that it might be best to wait.
Well, Saturday night came and so much changed. It was wise to wait.
Consider the narrative leading up to the weekend's fight card. Rashad Evans was being talked about as a possible next challenger for middleweight champion Anderson Silva. (The former light heavyweight champ is not the first fighter the UFC has instantly transformed from title bout loser into top contender in a different weight class.) Alistair Overeem was
How'd all that play out? Well, if Evans and Overeem don't want their pants to fall down, they're going to need to provide their own belts, because UFC leather is no longer within their grasp, thanks to upset authors Antônio Rogério Nogueira and Antonio "Bigfist" Silva. Benavidez was the 125-pounder who stepped forward, but McCall didn't fall too far behind. And Fitch was transfigured from contender to verb, as the popular characterization along press row at the Mandalay Bay Events Center was that Jon was "fitched" by Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Demian Maia, who out-grappled the virtuosic wrestler for a dominant decision win. (I'm not sure which keyboard warrior coined that term, but someone deserves a battlefield commendation for poetic precision in language.)
The only fight on the main card that produced no change was the main event. Featherweight champ José Aldo had his stiffest challenge, taking on former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, and walked out of the cage still the king of the 145-pounders. His 15th straight win might have inched him up the pound-for-pound mountain a bit, but with Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre ahead of him, that's a treacherous ascent. As for Edgar, he's not going anywhere. I actually scored the final three rounds (and therefore the fight) his way, but he never had José in trouble, never put a hurt on him. So there's no outrage in my dissent with the judges. Still, he's holding firm to his No. 2 slot in the featherweight rankings.
One change you might notice in these SI.com rankings is in the format. We're now going with a Top 10 in each division. Why? Mostly it's in a response to all of the readers who've e-mailed me over the last couple of years asking why we ranked only three fighters per weight class. There also is a practical reason for the change: FightMetric has asked me to be part of the media voting panel for the new UFC fighter rankings it is compiling in partnership with the promotion, and those rankings are Top 10s. (I should mention that my SI.com and UFC rankings are not identical, though, since I rank some fighters from outside the UFC here. I also rank UFC fighters in the weight classes where they've actually fought, not where the promotion wants to hype them. As a result, while Chael Sonnen is No. 3 among middleweights for SI.com, he's absent from my UFC ballot because he's not listed as an option in the middleweight tally and has no track record at light heavyweight, where he is listed as a candidate (because he's scheduled to face 205-pound champ Jon Jones in April).
So let's take a look at what we've got ...
Hey, Cain, this would be a good time to do that discover-your-roots trip you've always dreamed of. You might as well explore ancient Mayan sites or lie on a beach in Cancun for a bit while the UFC sorts out its heavyweight division. Now that Overeem is eating a much-needed slice of humble pie (blended, through a straw), the first challenge in Velasquez' second reign is up for grabs. It could go to Dos Santos, but something tells me the UFC would prefer to wait on a Cain-Junior III and instead book a grudge match between the ex-champ and "The Reem." Maybe Velasquez will get a different rematch, with Silva (UFC boss Dana White: "I'm not opposed to that"), even though Velasquez stomped "Bigfoot" the first time. Or Cormier could get the call, if the training partners and BFFs would agree to fight. Then again, Velasquez could just go hang in Mexico, sipping piña coladas, and wait.
Judging by Saturday night's performance alone, Rashad would be lucky to make the Top 10. But his body of work ensures that he'll remain in the mix, at least for now. Next time he steps into the cage, though, he'd better emerge with his opponent's severed head if he hopes to ever again compete for a championship. Of course, he might well reemerge in the Top 3 without even fighting, since the two men directly above him will step into the octagon together in less than two weeks. The Henderson-Machida loser will likely drop down a peg or two, while the winner will be at the head of the line after Jones and challenger Chael Sonnen sort things out in April.
Let's see the UFC just try to ignore Weidman now. Bisping was promised dibs on Silva as soon as he could dispose of Belfort, but Vitor and his head-kicking left leg had a different idea. That didn't exactly give Belfort a leg up in the 185-pound division, though, because the image of Anderson front-kicking him into sleepy time is still fresh in too many minds to make that fight sell. So unless Silva would prefer to go fishing in the welterweight division or wait for Jon Jones to have a free weekend (yeah, sure), Weidman is the man. What? A title challenger who worked his way up the ranks in the division to earn his shot? How quaint.
Let's skip past the Top 5 and talk about Maia. He's opened some eyes since dropping from middleweight. Ever since Demian moved down, he's been moving up... in the 170-pound hierarchy. He still has a traffic jam in front of him, but all of the welters ranked above him are in action next month in Montreal, where St-Pierre defends the belt against Diaz, Condit rematches with MacDonald and Hendricks tries to stay on a roll against Ellenberger. That's quite a collision of talent, and when the dust settles we'll have the ammunition to immediately talk about the next welterweight title fight. It likely won't involve Maia, but the mat whiz who on Saturday night absolutely dominated Fitch -- a guy who'd been handled like that only once (by GSP) -- will be ever closer to the top.
Pettis would seem to be next in line for a shot at the belt, once Henderson has his April summit meeting with Melendez, who retired the Strikeforce title once that promotion finally folded its tent. But "Showtime" would prefer not to wait. After watching José Aldo successfully defend his featherweight belt against Frankie Edgar on Saturday night, Anthony apparently texted Dana White to lobby for the next title bout at 145. A man as flashy as Pettis can sit around only so long before wanting to take a leap off a fence or something.
"What am I, a mirage?!?" came the tweet from Lamas late on Saturday. He'd been invited to Vegas for Aldo-Edgar, the presumption being that the result of that fight would pave the way for Ricardo to get a title shot. But then the fight played out, with Aldo holding onto his title, and at the post-fight press conference Dana White spoke not of Lamas but of a text he'd just received from Pettis, challenging the 145-pound king. Lamas was a forgotten man. It's good that Ricardo can laugh about it, even painfully.
The change that came last weekend in Vegas? More could come about this Saturday night in London, where Barao, unbeaten in his last 29 fights, defends his interim title against McDonald, the 22-year-old who's won eight straight. Then Faber and Menjivar tangle in Anaheim, Calif., on the 23rd. With Cruz out for the foreseeable future, these guys are going to have to carry the show.
Since last time we sorted things out, the top fighters in this weight class have supplied more evidence, in the form of a Johnson win over Dodson on Jan. 26 and a Benavidez victory over McCall last Saturday. And guess what: Neither of those results changed a thing in these rankings. One change for the flyweights: They're now hearing cheers. Fans had been inexplicably grumpy during the first several fights in the UFC's newest division, but these two most recent bouts have turned things around. Now it's cool to be a flyweight.
Pound for pound
So there you have it: a full pound-for-pound Top 10. I've been submitting one of these for a long time to the Yahoo! Sports media poll, and now it goes to the FightMetric-compiled UFC media poll as well. I don't have the Yahoo voting breakdown, but in scanning the voting for the UFC poll, I found it interesting that I was the only one among the 28 voters to include Johny Hendricks, whom I picked over more popular choices Dan Henderson (tough to exclude, but recent wins have been over fading fighters) and Frankie Edgar (the three straight losses, regardless of how close, were tough to overlook). I also was one of just two to give a spot to Rousey, despite the fact that she's dominated in her weight class more thoroughly than any other fighter. I do acknowledge that the competition she's faced is not as stiff as what those around her in this Top 10 have endured, but that just kept Ronda from ascending even higher. If she ever fights "Cyborg" Santos and does to her what she's done to everyone else, watch out above.