UFC Ladder: March 2014

Months have passed since I last updated the UFC Ladder and title situations have changed drastically.

Most notably in the middleweight and welterweight divisions where the two longest tenured champions in UFC history — Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre — enter 2014 title-less and on the shelf. The formed suffered two defeats to current middleweight champion Chris Weidman and a gruesome injury to top it off the second time around. Meanwhile, St. Pierre vacated his title due to personal reasons. We may not see either of them fight in UFC, so they won’t be on the ladder.

The new lightweight king is Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, who finally got the UFC title shot promised to him against the man he beat to get it way back in 2010. In the bantamweight division, the oft-injured Dominick Cruz saw yet another setback in his return to the Octagon that’s been over two years in the making. Facing another long layoff, the UFC had no choice but to strip him of the title earlier this week. Like Silva and St. Pierre, the odds of seeing Cruz fight again are up in the air as well.

But as the old champions fall, new ones have risen to the top of the organization. Cain Velasquez, Jose Aldo, and Demetrious Johnson have separated themselves from the rest of their divisions and defended their titles with relative ease since we last checked in. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones found a worthy adversary in 2013, but was also able to retain his belt.

To go along with these current and former champions, there is a whole host of contenders and rising prospects also vying UFC gold this year. After a wild 2013, there’s no telling what 2014 will bring.

HEAVYWEIGHT

Velasquez (right) landed hard shots like this all night

Velasquez (right) landed hard shots like this all night (Photo: The Sports Fan Journal)

Cain Velasquez put an emphatic end to his trilogy with Junior Dos Santos. The rubber match between the two was much like the second fight as Velasquez dominated Dos Santos from start to finish, eventually scoring the knockout in the final round.

With the entertaining saga finally behind him, there are more challengers waiting in the wings for the champion in 2014. His next opponent will likely be another Brazilian in Fabricio Werdum, though a date has not yet been announced.

A few names to look out for this year include Mark Hunt, who brawled to a majority draw with Antonio Silva in December, and Alistair Overeem, who is still a legitimate threat despite his UFC record.

Champion: Cain Velasquez

If there was any doubt as to who the better fight was between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, the reigning champion gave us an emphatic answer last October. After four rounds of punishment, the AKA fighter was able to put away Dos Santos midway through the final round.

After undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of last year, it may be awhile before he makes his next title defense. But considering that his last five fights have been against either Junior Dos Santos or Antonio Silva, there will be no shortage of opponents waiting for their shot.

Contenders: Fabricio Werdum, Travis Browne

Cain’s first opponent will likely be one of these two men. Both Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne are riding three-fight win streaks and are just one win away from their first UFC title shot.

Werdum has looked great in his last three UFC bouts, dominating Roy Nelson en route to a unanimous decision, knocking out Mike Russow and submitting Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Since suffering the first loss of his pro career to Antonio Silva back in October 2012, Travis Browne has rattled off three straight first round knockouts of Gabriel Gonzaga,  Alistair Overeem, and Josh Barnett.

The two of them will meet in April.

In The Discussion: Antonio Silva, Junior Dos Santos

Don’t let his UFC record (2-2-1) fool you — Antonio Silva is still an upper tier fighter. His thrilling fight against Mark Hunt was originally a majority draw, but was eventually changed to a no contest due to a failed drug test. The failed test resulted in a nine month suspension from the date of the fight (December 7), so look for him to return late summer/early fall.

Considering how his last two title fights ended, the path back to UFC gold will be a long one for Junior Dos Santos. Unlike his last title loss, a knockout here likely won’t net him an immediate rematch. But he’s the second-best heavyweight in the world right now, and at 29, this probably isn’t the last we’ve seen of him as far as championship fights go.

On The Rise: Stipe Miocic

Miocic makes his debut on the UFC ladder and gets the step up in competition that he deserves. After notching unanimous decision wins over Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga, the 31 year old will face  Junior Dos Santos at UFC 173. Highly touted coming into the UFC, Miocic has lived up to the hype amassing a 5-1 record with the organization.

Upcoming Matches

  • April 11 (UFC Fight Night 39): Roy Nelson vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
  • April 19 (UFC on Fox 11): Fabricio Werdum vs. Travis Browne
  • May 24 (UFC 173): Junior Dos Santos vs. Stipe Miocic

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT

Jones (left) was pushed to the brink during his title defense at UFC 165 (Photo: Fan Sided)

For the first time in his MMA career, Jon “Bones” Jones was pushed to the brink. The 26 year old found himself in a five-round war with Alexander Gustafsson in late September, narrowly escaping with a split decision victory. A rematch with the Swede could be on the cards later in the year, but each fighter must first get past their next opponents over the next two months.

Behind the two, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty at 205, with two of the fighters on the ladder recently flirting with moves to middleweight, as well as heavyweight Daniel Cormier, who just earned his first win at 205 against Patrick Cummins. The light heavyweight division still has the potential to surprise us in 2014.

Champion: Jon Jones

After numerous date changes, Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira are now scheduled to fight at UFC 172 in Baltimore. While Jones will surely be the favorite, his aura of invincibility took a hit after the Gustafsson fight. Should he get past the Teixeira, a rematch with the Swede could be on the cards.

Contenders: Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira

It’s rare that a fighter shocks the world without actually winning the fight, but Alexander Gustafsson may have done just that. After losing a close unanimous decision, he’ll look to earn himself a possible rematch by beating Jimi Manuwa at UFC Fight Night 37 next month.

22-2 Glover Teixeira will make his sixth straight UFC victory his best one yet should he dethrone Jon Jones. His ability to generate offense both standing and on the ground at least gives him a chance in this one.

In The Discussion: Lyoto Machida, Phil Davis, Rashad Evans, Daniel Cormier

What are we to make of Lyoto Machida‘s title hopes at 205? His split decision win over Dan Henderson and knockout of Ryan Bader show that he’s still one of the division’s best, but a unanimous decision loss to Phil Davis in August keeps him on the outskirts of the title picture at the moment.

Both Phil Davis and Rashad Evans are in a similar boat. Davis has only been defeated by Evans in his career and he’ll look to earn a fourth straight win against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in April. Meanwhile, Rashad was forced to bow out of a February fight with Daniel Cormier because of an injury.

And then there’s the case of Daniel Cormier. With him friend and teammates firmly entrenched as the heavyweight champion, the former heavyweight has dropped to 205. He was scheduled to face Evans, but ended up facing late replacement Patrick Cummins who lasted 1:19.

On The Rise: Jimi Manuwa

Regardless of what happens this weekend against Alexander Gustafsson, Jimi Manuwa currently owns  the most unique 3-0 record in all of the UFC. His three TKO victories have come by way of retirement, doctor stoppage, and injury. Odds are he won’t be so lucky this time around.

Upcoming Matches

  • March 8 (UFC Fight Night 37): Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jimi Manuwa
  • March 15 (UFC 171): Ovince St. Preux vs. Nikita Krylov
  • April 26 (UFC 172): Phil Davis vs. Anthony Johnson
  • April 26 (UFC 172): Jon Jones vs. Glover Teixeira

MIDDLEWEIGHT

A gruesome leg break ended Anderson Silva's rematch against Chris Weidman (Photo: Canada.com)

A gruesome leg break ended Anderson Silva’s rematch against Chris Weidman (Photo: Canada.com)

At 39, it was only a matter of time before the king was dethroned. But twice in one year? And in devastating fashion each time? No one could have seen that coming.

A broken leg now brings Anderson Silva‘s career to a crossroads. He has already stated his intentions to return in 2014, but how much would he really have left after such an injury? It will certainly be one of the stories of the year, but for now, he finds himself off the ladder.

Meanwhile, new champion Chris Weidman was originally slated to face Vitor Belfort at UFC 173 in May, but a recent TRT ban forced(?) his withdrawal from the fight. In steps Lyoto Machida, who’s fresh off of a win at 205 over Gegard Mousassi.

Champion: Chris Weidman

Say what you want about Weidman’s wins over Silva, but the unbeaten champion is now 11-0 and ready to move on to he rest of the 185 pound division. His next opponent, Lyoto Machida, will present another standing threat. It doesn’t have to be pretty; you just need to get your hand raised and Weidman’s done just that.

Contenders: Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza

What a difference a rule change makes.

The TRT ban by the Nevada State Athletic Commission — with other commissions quickly following suit — means that we won’t see Belfort fight Weidman in May. It remains to be seen when or where we’ll see “The Phenom” fight next, with Brazil also saying goodbye to TUE exemptions. In his place steps Lyoto Machida, who knocked out Mark Munoz in his only middleweight fight so far.

Should he end up taking another fight to stay active (which he hopefully will), Ronaldo Souza would make the perfect opponent. “Jacare” recently knocked off Francis Carmont, moving his win streak to six straight fights.

In The Discussion: Luke Rockhold

After a knockout loss to Belfort last May, Luke Rockhold was able to rebound with a KO of Costas Phillipou in January. It will be interesting to see who Rockhold faces next, considering how close he is to a title shot of his own.

On The Rise: Tim Kennedy, Brad Tavares, Yoel Romero

If anyone deserved to tussle with the UFC’s top-tier  middleweights, it’s Tim Kennedy. He’s passed both tests that the UFC has throw at his thus far, but the competition will only get tougher. A rematch with Luke Rockhold in the UFC would be pretty fun.

What do you do when two fighters are on the rise, but the pickings are slim? Put them against one another. Brad Tavares is a UFC vet, but finally seems to be hitting his stride. He’ll carry a five-fight win streak into the fight with his last win coming against the tough Lorenz Larkin. Yoel Romero made his UFC debut in April and hasn’t looked back since, earning three knockouts against Clifford Starks, Ronny Markes, and Derek Brunson. Considering the state of the weight class right now, this could be a very pivotal tilt next month.

Upcoming Matches

  • April 16 (TUF: Nations Finale): Tim Kennedy vs. Michael Bisping
  • April 19 (UFC on Fox 11): Brad Tavares vs. Yoel Romero
  • May 24 (UFC 173): Chris Weidman vs. Lyoto Machida

WELTERWEIGHT

Johny Hendricks (left) and Robbie Lawler fight for the vacant welterweight title next weekend. (Photo: UFC.com)

Johny Hendricks (left) and Robbie Lawler fight for the vacant welterweight title next weekend. (Photo: UFC.com)

Long thought to be one of the most talent-rich divisions in the UFC, the welterweights will undoubtedly be the focus of 2014. The real fun begins at UFC 171 at March, where the welterweight title recently vacated by Georges St. Pierre will be up for grabs between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler. Also on the card, we’ll see Carlos Condit and Tyron Woodley do battle in what could be the fight to determine the next in line for the title.

In the meantime, there are even more fighters to watch that aren’t currently on the ladder. Hector Lombard started his welterweight career with a knockout win and will certainly fin himself in contention with another win. TUF 18 winner Kelvin Gastelum could become one of the few recent alums to make a run at the title as well. The depth at 170 is endless.

Champion: Vacant

Contenders: Johny Hendricks, Robbie Lawler

Some — myself included — scored the GSP-Hendricks fight in favor of the challenger. He’ll get another chance to claim the belt versus Robbie Lawler, who underwent a career renaissance in 2013. Since returning to 170 in February, Lawler has gone 3-0 with wins over Rory MacDonald, Josh Koscheck, and Bobby Voelker.

In The Discussion: Carlos Condit, Matt Brown, Rory MacDonald

One of the biggest disappointments of late 2013 was the injury to Matt Brown just a week prior to his scheduled battle with Condit. It was sure to be one of the most exciting fights of the year. Now Condit has a new opponent in Tyron Woodley in what could be a title eliminator.

It’s a real shame, because Brown is riding a six fight win streak dating back to February 2012. But with a recently announced date with Erick Silva coming up, he’ll certainly have his hands full. Rory MacDonald‘s fights against Jake Ellenberger and Robbie Lawler originally made me wonder if the UFC had held him in welterweight purgatory for too long (when teammate GSP was still the champ). But a recent win over Demian Maia puts him right back into the hunt.

On The Rise: Tyron Woodley, Tarec Saffiedine, Brandon Thatch, Gunnar Nelson, Dong Hyun Kim

I’m usually against putting fighters on the ladder after one win, but Tyron Woodley‘s knockout of Josh Koscheck and scheduled bout with Carlos Condit really showcases just how good he can be. Should he earn a victory over Condit, he’ll be right in the thick of the title picture. Tarec Saffiedine made his long-awaited UFC debut in January. Outside of a late flurry, the Belgian was able to neutralize Hyun Gyu Lim with leg kicks en route to a unanimous decision victory.

It took me a second to get on the Brandon Thatch bandwagon, but I’m riding up front after yet another first round finish of Paulo Thiago. The only time he’s been out of the first round, he suffered his only loss back in 2008. After a knee injury limited him to just a single fight in 2013, I can’t wait to see Gunnar Nelson back in action. He’ll enter the Octagon this weekend looking for a third UFC win.

What are we to make of Dong Hyun Kim? He’s never been afraid to pressure opponents and grind out wins, but now he finds himself with brutal knockout victories over Erick Silva and John Hathaway. His style still leaves him very susceptible to being knocked out (see: Carlos Condit and round one of the Silva fight), but he’s still a step above permanent gatekeeper status.

Upcoming Matches

  • March 8 (UFC Fight Night 37): Gunnar Nelson vs. Omari Akhmedov
  • March 15 (UFC 171): Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler
  • March 15 (UFC 171): Carlos Condit vs. Tyron Woodley
  • March 15 (UFC 171): Hector Lombard vs. Jake Shields
  • April 26 (UFC 172): Tarec Saffiedine vs. Jake Ellenberger
  • May 10 (UFC Fight Night 41): Matt Brown vs. Erick Silva
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