I knew Nick Diaz was going to win Saturday night.
Never mind that when SI.com solicited UFC 137 predictions from those of us who write about mixed martial arts for the site, I made a brief but carefully concocted argument in favor of B.J. Penn. Forget that in my preview story about the event I opined that Penn would dictate where the fight would be fought and that Diaz's one big advantage, his cardio, would be negated by the bout being just three rounds. If you had phoned me last week from outside a sports book in Vegas, asking my gambling advice while holding your life savings in your hand (both of which would be foolish things to do, by the way, but just play along), I'd have made a well-reasoned case for you to lay your money down on the UFC's former lightweight and welterweight champ from the big island of Hawaii.
Yet, all along I knew Nick would win. Deep down. I just did.
How else to explain the SI.com fighter rankings of the past several months? Diaz has been sitting at No. 3 among welterweights ever since I've been compiling our Top 3, getting the nod over guys like Josh Koscheck, Jake Ellenberger and Nick's teammate, Jake Shields. And Penn, too, for that matter. All of those guys and others have been ranked ahead of Diaz in many other media outlets' rankings.
And while it doesn't show up in our pound-for-pound threesome, I've consistently been in the minority among MMA writers polled by our friends over at Yahoo! Sports by listing Diaz among my top 10. He hasn't made the media consensus rankings' pound-for-pound list, however, because he simply did not muster enough votes of confidence among the other 20-plus writers in the poll. But I've advocated for him.
Lest you become concerned for the health of my back from me patting myself on it to excess, I will acknowledge that I've been wrong about fighters, too. (I won't start listing them here, since we don't have all day.) And even with Diaz, I do have to live with the pick I made for Saturday night. My explanation/excuse is that I listened to the chorus of experts devaluing Diaz for the competition he's faced in the five years since he left the UFC. It's hard to assess where a guy belongs in the pecking order when he competes in a whole different league from the others vying for recognition.
In the past, in compiling rankings, I've always acknowledged that Nick's recent domination was in large part a byproduct of him being in Strikeforce rather than the Dana White Athletic Club. Before Saturday, however, I've nonetheless recognized Diaz for the fighter he is.
You're going to see Diaz show up in a lot more rankings now. The complaint that he's beaten up on mediocre competition simply doesn't wash anymore, now that he's returned to the UFC and smashed B.J. Penn. As for the SI.com welterweight rankings, though, Nick is going to stay right where he's been all along. To move up, he'll need to beat Georges St-Pierre for the UFC belt on the night before the Super Bowl. I don't think Nick will be able to do that. Of course, you already knew what I think if you've taken a look at our rankings.
Finally. When No. 1 and No. 2 meet on Nov. 12 on Fox in the UFC's network TV debut, it will have been 385 days since Velasquez last set foot in the octagon. That most recent fight was his belt-winning battering of Brock Lesnar, a bout in which, while dominant, Cain tore a rotator cuff. He'd better be ready to operate at full power in his return, because his first challenger is a load of bricks, or at least hits like one. Of course, there's little doubt, based on what we've seen of him to this point in his career, that Velasquez will indeed be ready. I know someone else who's ready: me. There's nothing like a heavyweight championship fight to get the blood pumping.
For a guy with just one loss on his record, Evans sure can't win. He continues to earn title shots, and they continue to somehow elude him. His latest near-miss came in the aftermath of Jones' thumping of "Rampage" Jackson last month, when "Suga Rashad" stepped into the cage for a quick staredown with the champ -- with a cast on his hand. As it turned out, the broken hand was not medically cleared for fighting by the time Dana White wanted to announce his next "Bones" challenge. So the be-careful-what-you-wish-for shot went to Lyoto Machida, who does own a KO win over Rashad but seems ill-equipped, stylistically, to give Jones trouble. But we'll see. And Evans will wait to see.
Fourteen months is a long time to be inactive. But Sonnen showed no rust in dominating Brian Stann at UFC 136 last month, and his hand had hardly been raised when he set his sights on Silva. So far the champion has been making like Floyd Mayweather, pretending that there's another fight out there that the fans might rather see. Anderson knows and Chael knows and Dana knows that there's only one middleweight title bout that holds any interest. And it ain't against Michael Bisping, whom I'm not expecting to even get past "Mayhem" Miller next month.
Why isn't Diaz isn't leapfrogging Fitch? After all, he's the next challenger for the belt. And he just beat B.J. Penn, who managed a draw against Jon. In fact, Nick gave B.J. a more thorough and multifaceted thrashing than Fitch did once Jon overcame some early difficulties. But since these rankings reflect not simply resumes but a subjective view of who'd win a fight, and Fitch has the kind of grinding style that could neutralize Diaz, the Top 3 remains intact. But Diaz makes a stronger case for himself every time he fights.
Maynard might not be the UFC champion, but he should find consolation in the fact that he's safe and secure in the SI.com rankings. (He should, but he won't.) What, we're going to drop a guy who, for the second time, put Edgar in la-la land and basically built the platform on which Frankie can stand tall and proclaim to the world that he's the toughest man on the planet? Maynard is no longer undefeated and he's no longer one punch away from the belt, but he's still No. 2. And Melendez is still right behind him, looking over his own shoulder at Ben Henderson, who is one beatdown of Clay Guida on Nov. 12 away from stepping in front.
Tough business, this MMA. You build an impressive fight resume that earns you a spot in the SI.com rankings, then you make your UFC debut and win . . . and you're rewarded by nearly slipping out of the Top 3. Such is the fate of Hatsu Hioki, whose razor-thin decision victory over George Roop at last Saturday night's UFC 137 wasn't enough to keep a good man down.
The good man being Chad Mendes, who, according to a Fox Sports report, will fight Aldo for the title in January. Mendes was expected to fight Aldo last summer, but after the bout was put off because of an injury to the champ, Chad was passed over for Kenny Florian, last month's No. 2. Aldo got past Kenny at UFC 136, and next in line is Mendez, who's been lingering just outside our rankings while we waited to see if Hioki had the goods. It turns out the Japanese fighter has just enough of the goods to hold onto the No. 3 spot -- but only because now Florian has revealed that he's moving back to lightweight.
Can anyone make Cruz break a sweat? The UFC champ handled Faber and Benevidez, the latter twice. He smothered Demetrious Johnson. Brian Bowles, whom "The Dominator" beat for the belt 18 months ago, could earn a rematch if he beats Faber at UFC 138. Will he? Well, if I thought he was going to, I'd have Bowles ranked ahead of "The California Kid," wouldn't I?
Where's Frankie Edgar, you ask? Well, you ask that if you're Dana White -- or, actually, you don't ask, you make a boldly unequivocal statement with a profanity or two sprinkled in. The UFC president made some waves early last month by proclaiming his lightweight champion the second-best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. In so doing, he put me in the unfair position of appearing to disrespect a fellow Jersey native. I refuse to do that. Instead, I will say this: Even though Frankie isn't cracking this Top 3, he's not far off. And if there's a heart-for-heart ranking, he's No. 1.