While the UFC is still basking in the glow of what many are calling the best event in years, did the UFC have one of its worst fears realized?

UFC 166 is being praised by many fans as one of the best events of all time. The event saw eight fights stopped early, five of them in the first round, and a candidate for “Fight of the Year.” However, as great as the event was, the UFC had to be hoping for a different outcome in its main event.

Cain Velasquez met Junior dos Santos for the heavyweight title in that headlining fight. This was the third meeting of the two, with the fighters splitting the first two bouts. The first time out, dos Santos knocked Velasquez out in just over a minute, giving Velasquez the only loss of his career. Many were able to write this loss off to being a fluke or a lucky punch, adding excitement to the rematch. In the rematch, Velasquez caught dos Santos with a big punch that changed the direction of the fight, and he was able to dominate the rest of the match to regain the belt. However, he never put away dos Santos.

The way both fights ended provided great promotional material for the UFC and media going into the third fight. The narrative repeated over and over going into the third fight went along the lines of “both fighters won a fight, both landed fight-changing blows.” Whereas the dos Santos win felt a little like a lucky punch ended it early, Velasquez’s victory felt like the big punch slowed dos Santos down and yet Velasquez couldn’t put him away. It left the third fight with questions to be answered.

Now, the third fight is in the books. The contest looked eerily similar to the second fight, with Velasquez dominating the entire bout, but this time he finished dos Santos as well. You may wonder why this is a nightmare for the UFC. Simply put, there are no more questions. Velasquez has dominated the last nine and half rounds, adding up to over 45 minutes of destruction, and now he has stopped dos Santos. No one will be interested in a fourth fight, and that is a problem.

The heavyweight division has always been the thinnest division out of the original five weight classes. American fans have a love affair with bigger fighters and know their names, but heavyweights tend not to be as skilled and fewer prospects emerge in the weight class. And in this thin division, Velasquez and dos Santos have proven to be the best two fighters by far. So if no one is interested in seeing them fight, the UFC has a problem. What do you do with them?

When looking at the rest of the top UFC heavyweights, this question becomes even more pronounced. Daniel Cormier is clearly the third best heavyweight in the world. He is currently 13-0. Cormier won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix by beating Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Josh Barnett before coming to the UFC, where he has defeated Frank Mir and Roy Nelson. However, Cormier is a teammate with Velasquez and has announced his intention to drop to light heavyweight to avoid fighting the champ.

Behind Cormier sit Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett and Travis Browne. All of them could use a signature win to make them interesting title contenders. Werdum has been announced as the next title contender. However, he is on a three-fight winning streak against Nelson, Mike Russow and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, none of which were highly ranked at the time of their fights with Werdum. Mix in the stylistic mismatch and, without a strong co-main event and undercard, it is unlikely that many fans will find the fight compelling.

Barnett is a name longtime fans know and love. He is the fighter who could compel the “hardcore” fan base to tune in and watch a title fight. However, the casual fan base is what makes a pay-per-view successful. Barnett has only had one fight in the UFC, and that was against Mir, who was on a two-fight losing streak at the time. Barnett needs someone that the casual fans support that he could get a big win against. The only fighter currently that matches that description would be dos Santos. The problem is a fight with dos Santos is a huge risk with little reward. If dos Santos wins—and he would be favored—a contender has been eliminated and, on the other hand, the winner is no closer to a title fight either.

Browne looks like a great prospect. He is learning each time out, but he is still a little green. More importantly to the UFC, casual fans have no idea who he is. He needs to be built up through beating fighters with some name recognition, but that takes time and the UFC needs contenders now.

Once you get past these few fighters, you find guys like Silva (who Velasquez has already defeated twice, and no one wants to see them fight again), Mir (who is on a three-fight losing streak and is at risk of being cut) and Alistair Overeem (who is on a two-fight skid, recently returned from a drug suspension and is also at risk of being cut). There also does not appear to be any fast-rising prospects that would make a compelling challenger who could find themselves in the title picture with a win or two.

If dos Santos had won the belt, things would be different. Velasquez vs. Barnett for the top contender fight could happen. Cormier may be convinced to stay at heavyweight for a title shot against the new champion. The UFC would also have time to get Browne and Werdum a couple of wins to make them more compelling contenders. Not to mention, Silva could be in the mix to challenge for the belt against dos Santos with a couple of wins. Even if the third fight between Velasquez and dos Santos resulted in a razor-close decision, the UFC could place the loser against some of the contenders and in two or three fights, he could be back in a title fight.

Unfortunately for the UFC, neither of those scenarios happened. Dos Santos can either be placed in fights against the few contenders the UFC has and the promotion can pray he doesn’t derail its plans, or the UFC can put him in meaningless matches against Silva or other fighters that lead to nowhere. At the same time, finding legitimate contenders that fans believe will be a challenge for Velasquez is also going to be a huge challenge and a headache for the UFC. The UFC is likely going to need to either place heavyweight title fights on the same pay-per-view as another title fight, put them back on free television or simply accept that the pay-per-view buys will decline for the foreseeable future for events headlined by a heavyweight title fight.

Photo: Cain Velasquez (L) battles Junior dos Santos (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Richard Wilcoxon
Staff Writer

An East Coast native, Richard Wilcoxon grew up a die hard fan of traditional team sports. In the early 1990's, he stumbled onto the sport of MMA and has been hooked ever since. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2005 where he worked to spread his passion for the sport. He eventually became an official staff writer for Sporting News' "The Rumble" MMA/boxing blog before joining The MMA Corner.