Travis Browne (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)Contender or Pretender: Can Travis Browne Stay Near the Top of the Division? Justin Fuller January 3, 2014 Spotlight Last Saturday night at UFC 168, we saw rising heavyweight contender Travis Browne defeat the longtime superstar and former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett. The bout was seen as one of great significance in the division and, if not for current champion Cain Velasquez’s injury, would have been a title-eliminator with the winner deemed the next challenger for UFC gold. Of course, this is one of those situations where we not only have a No. 1 contender, but the next title fight may not take place for several months to a year. So, who is standing in Browne’s way of getting a title shot? None other than Fabricio Werdum himself, who, like Browne, is riding a three-fight winning streak. In fact, one could argue Browne’s run is in some ways more impressive, and with his willingness to be more active, Werdum should be worried that his own title shot could slip away. This reality is also apparent in the eyes of UFC President Dana White, who as recently as last week not only restated his belief that Werdum should remain active while awaiting Velasquez’s recovery, but that Werdum would face the winner of the heavyweight clash which took place at UFC 168. His thinking was the same, in that the longer you wait, the more likely you are to vanish into obscurity while someone else continues their climb up the ladder. Suffice it to say, a match-up between Werdum and Browne would be more than adequate. Werdum remains ranked at No. 2, and with the win, Browne rises to No. 3. Former champ Junior Dos Santos is still at No. 1, but it is a status which would surely change if the two aforementioned titans squared off. Daniel Cormier could have easily been No. 2 or even No. 1 if he chose to remain active in the division and continued his undefeated streak, but fortune (and a champion from the same camp) favored a different path for him, as he will make the move down to the 205-pound division. Werdum made no secret about his wish to wait for his title shot, and understandably so. Although onlookers wish to see the best fight the best, one can hardly hold him responsible for not risking what could be his only chance to win a UFC title. This is a fighter who has seen more than his fair share of ups and downs. He had mixed success in Pride, going 3-2, and accumulated a record of 2-2 during his first tenure with the UFC. Once in Strikeforce, he began to hit his stride, winning his first three fights, crowned by a devastating upset victory over Fedor Emelianenko. Unfortunately, Werdum lost to Alistair Overeem during an uneventful fight that ended in a decision. By contrast, Browne has had a steady rise since his professional debut in 2009 and has amassed a UFC record of 7-1-1. Like any fighter in the division, his record is not perfect. However, he has convincingly overcome all setbacks and has poised himself to become a legitimate contender. With each fight, Browne seems to improve drastically. Of course, he does have a loss on his record that is recent enough to still linger in some people’s memories. It was just over a year ago when Browne tasted defeat for the first and, to date, only time. The loss came at the hands of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, who followed up the performance with a come-from-behind knockout win against Overeem, thus earning him a subsequent title shot and rematch with Velasquez. Although Silva came up short once again, his status as a recent contender brings to light doubts about Browne’s ability to capture the title himself. In fact, the only two opponents Browne shares with the champ are Bigfoot and Cheick Kongo, against whom he fought to a draw. Although no two fights are the same, Browne’s lack of wins over contenders on the rise could force him to post another big win to prove to the rest of the world what he already believes of himself—that he not only deserves to fight the champ, but can win. This makes the real question not if Browne deserves a title shot, but if he can and should fight Werdum to prove he can win the title. Velasquez is the overwhelming favorite against Werdum, and would also be if matched up against Browne at this juncture in time. However, if Browne were to defeat Werdum, who has proven he can literally upset the best of them, then a match-up versus Velasquez would feature more favorable betting odds for him. This is not to say his victories over Overeem and Barnett were not significant enough, but in an age where divisions are becoming more stacked than ever, it has not only become expected but almost necessary for top contenders on the rise to face off before they fight for gold. That is unless they themselves are former champions or pay-per-view headliners capable of drawing an audience worthy of a title fight. This match-up also clears the path for another interesting one which would involve dos Santos, who also wished to fight the winner of Barnett-Browne. Of course, with Browne already being eyed for Werdum, perhaps we will instead be treated to JDS against Barnett, which is a fight capable of both drawing an audience and positioning the winner back on track to fight only the best the UFC has to offer. It is possible Browne has what it takes to become the next face of the UFC’s heavyweight division. It is also possible his recent string of successes will be seen as the peak of his fortune and once he fights the true top of the division he will meet the same fate as so many others who’ve come before them. One thing is certain though, and that is a fight with Werdum provides us the opportunity to answer many of these questions. It also gives Werdum the chance to continue his claim as the next contender, and serves to give Velasquez something more to worry about. And that’s the bottom line.