This may be a bit early since none of the champions I am going to discuss have actually left their current divisions yet, although most of them have spoken about it. However, Chael Sonnen talking about retirement at the UFC 159 post-fight press conference because there is nothing left for him if he isn't working towards a title shot got me thinking about what would happen in a particular division if its currently dominant champion left. The purpose of this fan post is therefore to give my thoughts on that, and then discuss them with my fellow BElitists in the comments section.
First, let me set the stage. The UFC currently has 4 active dominant champions - Jose Aldo (FW), GSP (WW), Anderson Silva (MW) and Jone Jones (LHW). (Note: I am leaving out Cruz because he is injured and if he doesn't come back Barao will just be promoted to undisputed champion.) Of those 4, two (Aldo and Jones) have actively spoken of leaving their current division to move up a weight class soon. While Silva is 38 and despite his skill likely won't fight for more than another couple of years, with some of his last fights likely to be non-MW superfights. Lastly, GSP seems like a guy who has done everything he wants to in MMA and has a plan for exiting the sport after another 2-3 fights, whether it is exactly the one announced by his former manager or not. This means that potentially these divisions that have been dominated by a particular champion suddenly come wide open. In particular, a dominant champion leaving their division would give perennial #2-5's who have had and lost their title fights a new lease on life. E.g. Chael Sonnen (MW), Yushin Okami (MW), Vitor Belfort (MW), Lyoto Machida (LHW/MW), Rashad Evans (LHW/MW).
So here is how I think these 4 divisions will play out if/when their dominant champions leave:
Machida will become champion. He is the clear #2 in the division at the current time and hasn't shown any sign of slowing down despite being 34, nor has he really taken any damage in his career. In addition, of the only fighters to have "figured him out", Jones will no longer be in the division and Shogun is a shadow of the fighter he was when he beat Machida for the title.
If Machida is Jones' last LHW title defence and he loses (Jones will only leave the division as champion) then I don't know if the UFC would put him in another fight against either Gustafsson or Teixeira for the vacated title. However, even if he didn't fight for the vacant title, it would likely only take one win to get Machida another shot at LHW gold, and I think he would win the title.
Suddenly, ageing fighters like Sonnen, Okami and Belfort would be back in the title hunt and stand very good chances of finally winning the UFC MW title. I would pick Sonnen to win the title and defend it at least once. Even if Sonnen retires after his loss to Jones, I can see him coming out of retirement quickly if Silva leaves the division within a year. Sonnen has already beaten Okami (and would likely beat him again) and I don't think Belfort has the wrestling skills or gas tank to beat either of the other two.
That said, I think Weidman is the future of the MW division. Even if he loses his upcoming title shot against Silva (which I think he will), he is still an incredible skilled fighter and it wouldn't take more than a couple of wins to get him another title shot if Silva is no longer in the division. It would be interesting to see how Weidman does against the other elite wrestlers of the division - Sonnen and Okami.
I know a lot of people are going to say that Rory MacDonald will become the new WW champ as soon as GSP leaves, but I am not that sold on MacDonald. Yes, he may one day become a champ, but at the moment he is mostly just unproven potential, with his best wins being over Mike Pyle and a faded BJ Penn. He needs to face and beat a couple of the WW division's elite (Ellenberger would be a good start) before I consider him a true contender.
No, I think that the next WW champ once GSP leaves will be Johny Hendricks. Even if he faces and loses to GSP in his next fight, he has already established that he is the clear #2 fighter in the division. Fitch is out of the UFC, Koscheck is on the downslope of his career, Nick Diaz is retired and can't deal with strong wrestlers anyway, Ellenberger doesn't have the gas tank to go 5 rounds properly and is really just a lesser version of Hendricks, while Kampmann gets hit too much. Condit might get another crack at the title if he gets a couple of wins, given how close and exciting his fight with Hendricks was, and he could potentially win, especially if he shores up his TDD (mainly by not being so wild on the feet).
My pick for champion of FW if Aldo beats Pettis and moves up to LW is none other than Chad Mendes. Once again, the fighter who I consider to be the consensus #2 at FW (and who I would like to see face Aldo again if the latter doesn't move up to LW). Edgar, Lamas, KZ, Swanson, even Siver and Guida are all great fighters who should eventually get their shot at the title (or another shot in the case of Edgar), but I just don't think any of them can deal with the athleticism, dominant wrestling game and improved striking of Mendes.
What do you think Bloody Elbow readers? Are these dominant champions likely to move on relatively soon and, if so, who will replace them as champion?