There has been a lot of talk of who should fight who in the new year and who deserves a title shot. So who are the title contenders in the UFC currently and where do they stand going into 2011? The opinions are purely my own but I thought this would be something interesting to look at at the start of the year and to go back and look at again at the end of the year to see how things changed.
Cain Velazquez being on the shelf for the next 8 months seems to make heavyweight an afterthought in 2011 but maybe that will give the division some time to work itself out as right now it’s a huge mess.
Junior Dos Santos - The number one contender is on a 7 win streak and is fighting mad over Cain’s injury situation. Will he get an interim title fight? Doubt it but I feel sorry for whoever he fights next.
Brock Lesnar - Who knows what is up with Brock or if he is even taking getting back in the title hunt seriously. The biggest star in the sport is also its biggest question mark.
Shane Carwin - The former interim champion is out for the foreseeable future recovering from back surgery. Once he gets better look for him to jump right back into the hunt but it may be a while.
Roy Nelson - Big Country is stuck in contract limbo until further notice; he also needs a big win to get himself into this discussion. Hopefully Nelson and Carwin can both get back and have the match they were supposed to have at 125.
Frank Mir - Mir may be out of favor currently but you can’t deny that he is a force in the division and is one big win away from getting another crack at that belt. Still left without anyone to fight in early 2011 it’s going to be hard for him to push his name back into the conversation. Maybe if those TUF rumors are true………
Shogun’s knee remains the story at the top of the Light Heavyweight division but it looks like this March him and number one contender Rashad Evans may finally get it on. After that there are numerous directions things could go.
Rashad Evans - Rashad has been not so patiently waiting in the wings for his title shot for quite a while now. Wonder if the long layoff will be an issue with either fighter when they finally meet.
Rampage Jackson - While he lost his number one contenders bout with Evans his win against Machida keeps him at the top of the list for guys in the hunt. Recently it seems Rampage’s biggest problem hasn’t been his opponents but his own focus on the sport. Maybe in 2011 he will get his smile back?
Lyoto Machida- His questionable loss to Rampage has taken some of the wind out of Machida’s sails but a big win over Randy Couture could push him back up there. His chances of a title shot also get better if Rashad Evans wins as Evans vs Machida 2 makes more sense than Shogun vs Machida 3.
Randy Couture - Well Randy claims he isn’t in the mix for another title run but if he beats Machida then it would be a great way to finally end his career. Shogun has also expressed interest in fighting Couture. One thing is for sure in MMA, counting out Randy Couture in anything is a bad bet to make.
Forrest Griffin vs Rich Franklin - One of these guys’ jumps up the title shot list and one of them heads back to the drawing board after UFC 126. This clash has seemed inevitable for quite a while and should shake up the division. Griffin vs Shogun 2 or Griffin vs Rashad 2 are both marketable fights.
Jon Jones vs Ryan Bader - UFC 126 will also see one of the sport’s young guns jump into title discussion. Griffin vs Franklin is the now at light heavyweight but Jones vs Bader is the division’s future.
Anderson Silva and odd ball title contender Vitor Belfort are going at it at UFC 126, after that Yushin Okami is waiting in the wings. The big story though is Chael Sonnen coming off suspension. It’s been a while since Middleweight had this much serious movement.
Vitor Belfort - Still not sure why Belfort is getting a middleweight title shot being as he hasn’t actually fought in the UFC at middleweight but this fight may finally provide Silva the challenge we have all been waiting for. Should be a good one but it’s hard to bet against Anderson Silva.
Yushin Okami - The division’s number one contender is on a three fight win streak and just scored a huge victory over Nate Marquardt. I look for Okami to be ringside at 126 for a possible face off between Anderson Silva and the last man to score a victory over him. Okami isn’t an exciting fighter but this title shot is well overdue.
Chael Sonnen - It seems Sonnen’s ballitis defense worked with CSAC and got his suspension cut down to 6 months. He wasted no time in calling out Wanderlei Silva (and insulting most of Brazil) on twitter. An eventual rematch with Anderson Silva in the future seems a lock. Like him or not he sure keeps things interesting in the division. Edit: well the recent story about Sonnen's legal problems may preclude him from not only title contention but the sport in general in 2011.
Nate Marquardt - Once assumed to be the guy to challenge Anderson Silva Nate dropped 2 number one contender’s bouts in 2010 and seems to be on a bit of a slide. He has also called out Wanderlei Silva in order to try and re-establish himself as a contender in the division.
Michael Bisping - Bisping always seems to be on the outside looking in when it comes to title contention. Will 2011 be the year when he finally wins a big fight and steps up to title contention status? I’m sure the UFC hopes so but I’m not that positive.
Wanderlei Silva - It’s still too early to tell if moving to 185lbs marks the twilight of his career or a rebirth of it but one thing is for sure Wandy has no shortage of big time potential dance partners calling him out. He’s another one of those guys it’s hard to bet against.
Chris Leben - Going from a three fight win streak and calling out Wanderlei Silva in 2010 to being dropped hard by Brian Stann to start 2011 probably ended Chris Leben’s title contention buzz, at least for now.
After five one sided title defenses in a row it seems that George St-Pierre sits atop welterweight as the undeniable king of the mountain. Number one contender Jake Shields looks to be the next victim in line at UFC 129. This is an incredibly talent rich division but besides his one stumble against Matt Serra in 2007 GSP has made it look easy, if any division is close to being cleaned out by a champion it’s welterweight.
Jake Shields - The former Strikeforce champion now sits as number one contender in the welterweight division and is all but set to take on GSP at UFC 129. Jake hasn’t lost a fight since 2004 and has a very real shot at winning the belt but he didn’t look all that good in his last fight with Martin Kampmann.
Jon Fitch- I can’t remember the last time Jon Fitch wasn’t ranked at number two in the welterweight division and his only loss since 2003 came at GSP’s hands. The "other guy" at welterweight is the real deal but he’s been hampered by a boring style and a long string of decisions. Now that teammate Josh Koscheck as had his opportunity I imagine he will be pushing hard to get a second fight with GSP and beating BJ Penn at UFC 127 seems like a huge step in that direction.
BJ Penn- We all know Penn wants a third shot at GSP but does anyone else want to see it? If Penn beats Jon Fitch can he be denied a title shot?
Josh Koscheck- Koscheck worked hard for his title shot and got it but after GSP beat him down at 124 I can’t imagine him getting another shot for quite a while, at least as long as GSP is on top.
Thiago Alves- While still highly ranked Alves doesn’t seem to be generating much of a title shot buzz currently. Aside from losing to GSP at UFC 100 Alves also seems to have a real problem making weight and Dana White has threatened to force a move to middleweight once already.
Carlos Condit- The former WEC champion’s move to the UFC has been a tough one but Condit has rattled off three victories in a row and has an upcoming fight with the always tough Chris Lytle at UFC 127. Due to the fact that much of the rest of the division has already been put down by GSP Condit could generate plenty of title shot buzz with a big win or two.
Chris Lytle- Quietly in the background Lytle has rattled off four wins in a row. I’m not sure anyone expected the 36 year old journeyman to be anywhere near a title shot but a win against Condit could get people talking about him being more than just a "fight of the night" machine.
Frankie Edgar vs Gray Maynard turned out so tight they are going to have to do it again. After that the division should start to come into better focus (provided they actually get a winner this time).
Gray Maynard- The number one contender remains undefeated but he’s going to have to step up all over again if he wants to take that belt.
Anthony Pettis- Pettis isn’t sitting in the bird’s eye seat due to rankings or wins over other contenders but because White said the WEC champion would get a UFC title shot. Who thought that Edgar vs Maynard would end in a tie and Pettis would be on the outside looking in though? He’s only 23 years old and seems to be getting better every bout so I’m sure this is just a small hiccup on his road to a shot at UFC gold.
BJ Penn- Penn seems to of abandoned the division for welterweight and it was doubtful he was going to get another title shot as long as Edgar holds the belt anyway.
Kenny Florian- His loss to Gray Maynard cost him a 3rd title fight but it would only take one good win to get him back on track. White has stated that he thinks Florian chokes in big fights and perhaps Florian’s biggest hurdle to cross is living up to people’s very lofty expectations of him.
Sean Sherk- Sherk’s questionable win over Evan Dunham after a long layoff hasn’t done anything for building him towards a shot and his loss to Edgar in 2009 stands out as a big red flag too. Right now he seems more of a title gate keeper than a title contender.
George Sotiropoulos- Sotiropoulos is on a 7 fight win streak and is the favorite against Dennis Siver at UFC 127. At this rate it will be hard for the UFC to not give him a title shot in the future. Look for him to step up in competition if he beats Siver. Florian has expressed interest in fighting the winner and a win over Florian would cause Sotiropoulos’s title buzz to become deafening.
Jim Miller- Miller is another guy on a big win streak (6) who is building a title buzz. He’s still lacking that one big name win to push him over the top but he is a guy to watch in 2011. He has Kamal Shalorus at UFC 128.
Clay Guida- The carpenter has won three in a row and has people talking but it’s probably too soon to start thinking title shot just yet. He did manage to take Takanori Gomi out of this discussion with his last win though.
After Josh Grispi’s recent loss is there anyone in the UFC to challenge Jose Aldo? For that matter after Marlon Sandro and Bibiano Fernandes’s losses are their any outside of the UFC? The future at featherweight may not be from contenders coming up in the division but from lightweights worrying about the title log jam and moving down to 145lbs.
Michihiro Omigawa vs Chad Mendes- Recently signed Omigawa versus Team Alpha Male prospect Chad Mendes at UFC 126 seems to be about the only thing going on at featherweight that may give them a legitimate number one contender currently.
By comparison to featherweight the UFC’s bantamweight division is stacked with names and talent. Dominick Cruz recently defended impressively against Scott Jorgensen but there are a couple of real challenges still looking him in the eye.
Brian Bowles- It will be interesting to see how Bowles comes back from an injury layoff against Damacio Page at the UFC on Versus 3 event (provided this fight happens). Bowles lost the belt due to injury stoppage for a broken hand and you know he would love to get back in there and try and get his belt back.
Joseph Benavidez- Benavidez has more than earned his spot towards the top of the division but the only two losses on his record are to Dominick Cruz which probably discounts him from getting a title shot in the near future, provided Cruz holds the belt that is.
Miguel Torres- Torres has hit some hard times recently but he was also undefeated from 2003 to 2009. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back now that he is on the big stage in the UFC. He’s facing Antonio Banuelos at UFC 126.
Urijah Faber- Faber couldn’t seem to get past Mike Brown or Jose Aldo at Featherweight but he does hold a submission victory over bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and has to be looked at as a huge deal moving into the division. Faber is set to fight former bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland at UFC 128.
Scott Jorgensen- Jorgensen didn’t have anything for Dominick Cruz but he is still a force in the division and could easily work his way back into the title picture, particularly if Cruz loses the belt.