Demetrious Johnson (R) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)Under Pressure: Which UFC Champion’s Reign Ends First? Greg Byron January 31, 2014 Spotlight Prior to any major UFC pay-per-view card there is always speculation as to which fighters will make a statement of intent, letting everyone else know that they mean business in the division. Naturally, there is always talk of who will be able to dethrone a champion or who will be the next big thing in a division. This weekend, at UFC 169, we are faced with two title fights. As such, there is increased intrigue as to whether there may well be a new champion in at least one division come Sunday morning. With that in mind, let’s examine all of the current UFC champions and assess who might be the first to fall. We’ll close by assigning each champion a rank between one and nine, with one being the least likely to lose and nine being the most likely. Heavyweight – Cain Velasquez Velasquez is currently recovering from a shoulder injury and is not expected back until late 2014, at best. In his absence, a title eliminator between Travis Browne and Fabricio Werdum is scheduled to take place. As we have seen time and time again with the heavyweight division, nothing is certain. Although at the current time we can assume that the winner of that fight gets a shot at Velasquez upon the champ’s return, such logic seldom applies to MMA. Many things can happen between now and then. Velasquez could find his timeline for recovery pushed back a few months, or an injury to a challenger could destroy any plans the UFC had conceived. Even when Velasquez does return, he has been so dominant in his recent fights that it would be a brave man to bet against him, even against the likes of Werdum or Browne. Out of the two prospective challengers, Werdum’s grappling is perhaps the only area where either fighter would be considered better than the champ. However, given Velasquez’s wrestling background, Werdum’s submissions would most likely not come into play. Light Heavyweight – Jon Jones Whilst the future of the heavyweight title is perhaps uncertain given the champion’s injury, this cannot be said of the light heavyweight division. Jon Jones is scheduled to face Glover Teixeira in April, and public perception generally seems to favor Jones in this bout. In fact, questions have been raised as to the merits of Teixeira’s title shot in the first place, given the classic fight between Jones and Alexander Gustafsson which took place less than six months ago. As with any great fight, there was a public outcry for a rematch. However, the champion stood firm and insisted he won the fight. Jones chose to move on to meet Teixeira. The Brazilian is undoubtedly on a very impressive run in his MMA career despite never having faced someone who has been a relevant name in the title picture. As such, he may be overlooked by many, but that is not to say he cannot catch Jones, who, despite being dominant in his early UFC fights, has shown a few chinks in his armor of late. Overall, MMA fans have subconsciously already scheduled Jones to fight Gustafsson again at some point in 2014 regardless of the outcome of his fight with Teixeira. Jones has a lot on his plate and will no doubt be training even harder given the scare he suffered last year. Middleweight – Chris Weidman Chris Weidman’s title reign feels like it has only just begun, despite the fact he has held the championship for over six months. Prior to his rematch with Anderson Silva in December, Weidman’s place as champion was not celebrated to the extent you might think given the fact he had just knocked out the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. Despite this, Weidman cannot rest on his laurels and instead will need to get right back to work to improve himself and be mentally focused to face Vitor Belfort. Belfort has been looking incredible in his recent fights, and although there is the issue of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), Belfort has still earned his place as the next in line with some vicious finishes. Lower down the pecking order, the middleweight division has been flooded with great fighters. The division is now arguably set for a series of close title fights that may result in the title swapping hands on a regular basis, with the likes of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Lyoto Machida, Gegard Mousasi and Luke Rockhold all on the rise. Welterweight – Vacant For the purposes of this feature, we’ll treat Johny Hendricks as the champion, given that the vast majority of MMA fans already do. Georges St-Pierre has stepped away from the division and has handed the reins over to Hendricks, who nearly topped GSP in their title showdown and who will now face off against Robbie Lawler for the right to become the official champion of the 170-pound division. Over the next year or so, we will likely see the division really open up in St-Pierre’s absence. There are guys like Tyron Woodley, Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger, Demian Maia, Matt Brown and Tarec Saffiedine all in the mix for a shot at the title once Hendricks and Lawler have had their time under the lights. Hendricks enters this fight with a lot to think about in terms of how to approach Lawler. Hendricks has particularly strong punching power and wrestling ability, which makes him relatively similar to Lawler, who, having fought out of Pat Miletich’s gym for most of his career, can sprawl-and-brawl with the best. For a long time, Lawler has been competing at middleweight. His drop to welterweight has rejuvenated his career, and this is his biggest opportunity yet. Both men have a puncher’s chance in this one and it could end at any given moment, but in terms of all-around skills, it may be that Hendricks’ superior wrestling will be enough to dictate how the fight plays out. Lightweight – Anthony Pettis Anthony “Showtime” Pettis finds himself in a similar position to heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in that he is facing some time on the sidelines. Upon the champ’s return, the division should have opened up so that we know his opponent(s) for the foreseeable future. Josh Thomson was expected to face Pettis for the title. However, Thomson suffered a controversial decision loss to Benson Henderson this past weekend, and it remains to be seen whether he ever fights again, let alone fights for the title. As a consequence of Henderson’s victory, the UFC is faced with somewhat of a conundrum regarding who is next in line for the shot at Pettis. T.J. Grant was supposed to be the man, but fell victim to a concussion that has resulted in him being placed to the side for an unknown amount of time. Gilbert Melendez is another name that has been highly touted for the shot at the champion given his loss to Henderson back at UFC on Fox 7 back in April in similarly controversial fashion to last weekend’s result. Recently, UFC President Dana White mentioned the possibility of Jose Aldo facing Pettis on his return given Aldo’s issues with getting down to the 145-pound limit. Previously, Pettis had been vocal in his desire to face Aldo at featherweight, so the possibility of having a showdown with Aldo in his own division may be an attractive one for the champ and fans worldwide. Another name being touted for the opportunity (mainly through his own blatant self-promotion) is Nate Diaz. Asis common with either Diaz brother, Nate attracts interest with not just his mannerisms but his action-packed fighting style, which is a far cry from some of the point-fighting tactics employed by others in recent times. The champ’s return date is up in the air as it stands, with Pettis stating he may be ready by July and the UFC doctor contradicting that statement by saying we should “pray” for the champion, which seems a strange choice of words. Featherweight – Jose Aldo One of the two title fights taking place this weekend features the featherweight champion, Jose Aldo. Throughout his UFC career, Aldo has shown a vast array of skills, but his leg kicks remain the constant feature in all of his fights. Those brutal leg kicks have the capability to destroy any opponent, shrinking them into a shadow of their former selves. This weekend Aldo faces off with Ricardo Lamas, who has risen through the ranks in a quiet but impressive fashion, beating the likes of Erik Koch and Cub Swanson in the process. Overall, Lamas is not favored in the build-up to this fight, and with good reason. Aldo has simply been so dominant that it is hard to overlook him no matter the opponent. The aura of invincibility surrounding Aldo can only really be likened to a Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva. At present, there is little expectation that the challenger will mount any real successful offense against such a dominant champion. On the horizon looms a familiar opponent in Chad Mendes. Mendes is perhaps considered the most likely fighter to really test Aldo, given the way Mendes has performed in recent months. If Aldo is to get past Lamas, as many expect, then Mendes will no doubt be waiting in the wings for the Brazilian. The Team Alpha Male fighter will hope to get his opportunity before the year is out, unless Aldo does decide to challenge Pettis in the lightweight division. Bantamweight – Renan Barao The main event of this weekend’s UFC 169 features Renan Barao’s first official defense of his bantamweight title. He has long been considered the champion with Dominick Cruz’s extended stretch of inactivity. Now, he finally gets the opportunity to be marketed as such by the UFC. There can be no doubt that Dana White has recognized the harm that an “interim” tag has upon the reputation of any champion. This is perhaps what influenced him to proclaim that if Barao wins against Urijah Faber on Saturday night, then Barao should be considered the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Faber provides an interesting challenge for Barao in his first undisputed title defense. The last time these two men met, Faber was going through a tough time with his personal life and also was not under the tutelage of Duane “Bang” Ludwig. Ludwig is the man who has captured the MMA public’s imagination with the transformative effect he has had upon not just Faber but the whole of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. Flyweight – Demetrious Johnson Although the UFC does not necessarily award title shots according to official rankings these days, if you were to use the rankings as a benchmark as to who may get the next title shot in the UFC flyweight division, then you would have to go down the list to No. 5 before you found an opponent that Johnson has not already beaten. There is often talk about a champion clearing a division before seeking superfight opportunities in a different weight class, but Johnson’s current run is perhaps the closest we have ever come to one champion truly clearing out a division. This weekend promises to be important for the future of the division, given that No. 5-ranked flyweight John Lineker is set to face Ali Bagautinov, who is ranked No. 7 at the moment. Given the UFC’s reluctance to make fights where the champion has already defeated the challenger, it may well be that the winner of this fight at UFC 169 finds himself getting the call from UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby in the not too distant future. Women’s Bantamweight – Ronda Rousey In the immediate aftermath of the defense of her title against Miesha Tate, it might have been expected for Ronda Rousey to state she wanted time off or announce that she was scheduled to be off somewhere shooting another Hollywood blockbuster. However, that expectation was short-lived. In the post-fight press conference, it was announced that Rousey will face off against fellow Olympian Sara McMann at UFC 170. It seems that Rousey feels she has had sufficient time away from the sport with her varied schedule and now wants to focus solely on getting some important fights in place. The fact that The Ultimate Fighter winner Julianna Pena already finds herself inside the top 10 is evidence enough that the division does not have the depth of the men’s divisions. However, this will no doubt pan out over time. In the immediate future, Rousey is faced with a few different options should she prove successful against McMann. Cat Zingano was the natural opponent for Rousey, but her injury meant she was ineligible for the opportunity. Alexis Davis has looked impressive so far and is on the cusp of title contention. Additionally, Holly Holm has been talked up as the next women’s star and an opponent most want to see up against Rousey before too long. The talent level in the UFC women’s divisions is only going to improve over time, just as we saw with the progression of the men’s side of things. Overall, the prospect of this influx of highly talented female mixed martial artists casts doubt over Rousey’s long-term grasp on the title despite her current dominance.