January 05, 2012

Alistair Overeem had fought 47 times as a mixed martial artist before he stepped into the octagon last Friday night. He had not lost since 2007, and all but two of his 11 bouts over that stretch had stretched no farther than the first round. But the main event of UFC 141 was the Dutchman's debut in the eight-sided cage that's home to the sport's crème de la crème. So there were questions.

You might not have thought so if you've been following the SI.com rankings, which long have held Overeem in high esteem. When he was Strikeforce heavyweight champion, he was ranked No. 2 in the weight class, behind only then-UFC champ Cain Velasquez, until Junior dos Santos leapfrogged him in July on the strength of a dominant win over Shane Carwin. Dos Santos went on to take the UFC belt from Velasquez, which boosted him to the top of heap in last month's rankings. Cain dropped to second, and "The Reem" remained third.

Why didn't Overeem move up a spot? Probably for the same reason that, despite having ranked him in the Top 3 all year, I picked against him in last weekend's UFC 141 bout against Brock Lesnar.

Those of us who concoct fighter rankings -- or hand out grades or power ratings in any sport -- can do little more than weigh hypotheticals. Just as college basketball's March Madness is a far better measuring stick than college football's BCS, because it's tough to argue with the result of an actual playoff, ranking MMA fighters is especially mind-bending when stacking up competitors who don't actually compete against each other. We know where Velasquez and dos Santos stand in comparison to each other, because we've seen them throw down. Even UFC contenders who have yet to tangle tend to have similarly top-of-the-line names on their resumes. Then there's Overeem, who before last weekend was kicking butt over in Strikeforce against UFC castoffs and guys who'd have to fight for a bed in the Ulimate Fighter house.

So Overeem was assessed based on his dominance -- he had 14 knockouts, 19 submissions and only two decisions going into the Lesnar battle. He was assessed based on his elite skill -- he beat the top kickboxers in the world to capture the 2010 K-1 Grand Prix. He was assessed based on his physique -- my god, the man makes those UFC action figures, which are supposed to be idealized, look like 98-ounce weaklings.

That's the thinking when we're in the vacuum of monthly rankings. But when push comes to shove, punch and kick, and the big guy is stepping in the cage with an even bigger guy, and it's Overeem's first time in the octagonal shark tank, well, our thought process can experience a brain freeze. After all, it's tough to show off those slick kickboxing skills while you're on your back, and Lesnar has never failed to put an opponent on the canvas. Well, change that has to had. There's a first time for everything.

With his first-round destruction of Lesnar, Overeem earned a shot at dos Santos and -- far more important, of course -- solidified his place in the SI.com rankings. But, wait. He's going for the title belt against No. 1-ranked champion, but he's still at No. 3? What gives? We'll save that explanation for below.

1. Junior dos Santos (14-1)2. Cain Velasquez (9-1)3. Alistair Overeem (36-11, 1 NC)

Overeem was mighty impressive in beating up Lesnar, even more so than Velasquez was when he wrested the belt from Lesnar back in October '10. But the Lesnar we saw last weekend was a shell of what he once was. He'd already experienced one bout of diverticulitis when he stepped in the cage at UFC 121 against Cain, and might very well have already been in weakened condition, since he had to undergo surgery not long after that bout. But Lesnar still managed to put up a bit of a fight, getting a couple of takedowns before being blasted by Velasquez in the final minute of the first round. Against Overeem, Lesnar showed no such fight or fury. It'd be reasonable to interpret that as evidence of Overeem being better than Velasquez, but I'm looking at the flip side and concluding that Cain beat a better Lesnar, who at UFC 141 was eight months removed from having gone under the knife. And in the hypothetical Velasquez vs. Overeem matchup we run through in our head to try to make sense of what hasn't happened, I'd pick Velasquez. Overeem will change that thinking dramatically if he takes out dos Santos.

1. Jon Jones (14-1)2. Dan Henderson (29-8)3. Rashad Evans (16-1-1)

"Bones" Jones was already at the top of the mountain, so there was no more climbing for him to do -- at least within his weight class (see the pound-for-pound rankings, below). But that doesn't mean we can't stand back and admire his performance against Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 last month. The UFC champion's second-round technical submission only added to his unfolding legacy, as "The Dragon" was the third champ or ex-champ to become a notch on Jones's holster in 2011. Next in line could be a fourth former belt holder, if Rashad Evans can get past unbeaten Phil Davis at the second UFC on Fox event Jan. 28 in Chicago.

1. Anderson Silva (31-4)2. Chael Sonnen (26-11-1)3. Vitor Belfort (20-9)

Like Jones, Silva is idly awaiting his next challenge. Unlike Bones, though, "The Spider" is not flipping through a magazine in the waiting room, but instead is recovering in the infirmary, nursing an injured shoulder. Once he's ready to defend his UFC belt, which is expected to be around midyear, Silva could have a grudge match as ill-tempered as Jones vs. Evans on his hands.

On the same Fox card on which Jones' former training partner is trying for a title shot, a guy who spent a little bit of time in the cage with Silva will be vying to earn another. Sonnen, who dominated Silva for more than 20 minutes before being submitted late in the fifth round back in August '10, will face rising star Mark Muñoz, winner of four straight.

Also on the Fox card is a matchup of two other stout middleweights from just outside the rankings: Demian Maia vs. Michael Bisping. Before all that takes place, Belfort will look to secure his standing when he takes on Anthony Johnson on Jan. 14 in the co-main event of UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro.

1. Georges St-Pierre (22-2)2. Nick Diaz (26-7, 1 NC)3. Carlos Condit (27-5)

Champion on the shelf is not the narrative theme the UFC would choose for the story of early '12, but as company president Dana White would say, it is what it is. St-Pierre has not fought since April, and now is rehabbing a knee ligament tear that'll keep him out of the octagon again until the middle of the year. So Diaz and Condit, each of whom had a fight with GSP canceled after the champ was injured in training, will fight Feb. 4 for the interim belt. "Interim, schminterim," I told anyone who'd listen when I heard of that matchup, since I considered any welterweight title bout that didn't include Jon Fitch to be bogus. How'd that loudmouthed pronouncement work out for me? Well, Johny Hendricks flattened Fitch in 12 seconds last weekend, thrusting himself into an ever-expanding logjam at the top of the weight class. Jake Ellenberger, still aglow from September's 53-second TKO of Shields, gets to state his case Feb. 15 when he takes on Diego Sanchez, and he'll be have a hometown crowd behind him for the UFC on Fuel TV main event in Omaha, Neb. And don't forget about Fitch. He'll be back ... as soon as he wakes up.

1. Frankie Edgar (14-1-1)2. Gray Maynard (10-1-1, 1 NC)3. Gilbert Melendez (20-2)

If Ben Henderson wants to scare Edgar or has a sense of humor, he'll wear a Maynard mask to the weigh-ins for their Feb. 25 fight in the main event of UFC 144 in the suburbs of Tokyo. Edgar scored a fourth-round KO in their October rubber match, finally putting "The Bully" behind him. A few weeks later, Henderson beat Clay Guida in a thrilling (but not televised) co-main event of the first UFC on Fox card, earning the next shot at the champ. Henderson could very well have made it to this Top 3, especially on the strength of his upset of Jim Miller last summer, but I still think Maynard is still the most formidable threat to Edgar. And Melendez, while surrounded by the same doubts as Overeem used to be when he was a non-UFC competitor, has done nothing to lose his place in line. However, after he beat Jorge Masvidal last month, what challenges are left for Gil in Strikeforce?

1. Jose Aldo (20-1)2. Chad Mendes (11-0)3. Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2)

No one has given Aldo much of a fight since the Brazilian buzzsaw joined the WEC/UFC 10 wins and three and a half years ago. Will Chad Mendes have what it takes? We'll find out Jan. 14 when the two-time All-American wrestler challenges for the belt in the main event of UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro. Then next month, on the Edgar vs. Henderson undercard, we'll find out if Hioki can live up to the hype that surrounded the former Shooto and Sengoku champion upon his arrival in the UFC. After being victorious but not so impressive in his debut, the Japanese fighter might be reassured to know that his next chance to impress -- against Bart Palaszewski, buried in the UFC 144 prelims -- will take place in his homeland.

1. Dominick Cruz (19-1)2. Urijah Faber (26-5)3. Joseph Benavidez (15-2)

Cruz and Faber will serve as coaches for The Ultimate Fighter when the reality show, entering its 15th season, moves to FX in March. I suppose it was inevitable that these two would once again hook up. They've fought twice, each winning one, so a rubber match at the end of TUF is reasonably appealing. That's especially so, because, while Cruz's victory over "The California Kid" last July was pretty decisive, there's not a line of worthy challengers waiting to step up and solve "The Dominator." Benavidez will be disappearing from these rankings in a couple of months, when the UFC begins a tournament to crown its first flyweight champ. Demetrious Johnson also will be dropping to 125 pounds. Might we be in for Cruz vs. Faber IV, V and VI?

1. Anderson Silva2. Jon Jones3. Georges St-Pierre

Don't take the flip-flop above as a knock on St-Pierre. It's just that while GSP fought just once in 2011 and was taken to a decision by Jake Shields, the guy who used to be ranked right below him was four times as active and about 40 times as dominant. Jones' hit list: previously unbeaten up-and-comer Ryan Bader (submission, Round 2), UFC champ "Shogun" Rua (TKO, 3) and a pair of former belt holders, "Rampage" Jackson (submission, 3) and Machida (technical sub, 2). You just can't keep a resume like that down. If not for having scored the knockout of the year -- a front kick that flattened Belfort last February -- Silva might be looking up at Bones as well.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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