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Let it Reign: Handicapping UFC Champions

Let It Reign: Handicapping UFC Champions

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
by Jason Probst (

With its present lineup of five champions, the UFC has a group that ranks far superior than any of its predecessors in the history of the organization and the sport. In addition, they rank higher in their respective weight classes -- only Brock Lesnar lacks top dog status, ranking second behind Fedor Emelianenko -- than any previous UFC roster.

That represents a major change from the past, when typically a champion existed alongside a roster of numerous challengers who were much more competitive than today’s contenders, at least from a betting perspective. For an in-depth look at the champions and odds on future challengers, read insider Joey Oddessa’s breakdown here.

Yet for the seeming convergence of dominant champions, a UFC title itself has not proven a long-running job description in the past. With the average UFC championship reign at just 1.38 defenses, being “top dog” in a given division rarely lends itself to a lengthy streak of defenses. A breakdown of the math follows:

Lightweight: 3 reigns, 4 defenses, 1.33 defenses per reign
Welterweight: 8 reigns, 14 defenses, 1.75 defenses per reign
Middleweight: 5 reigns, 8 defenses, 1.6 defenses per reign
Light Heavyweight: 10 reigns, 15 defenses, 1.5 defenses per reign
Heavyweight: 14 reigns, 10 defenses, 0.71 defenses per reign.

For tabulation purposes, a scheduled bout does not count as a successful defense if a challenger misses weight or the match takes place between an interim titleholder and champion.

That’s why the current crop of champions is different. If you lined up all five, it would be a tough call to guess how many defenses each would make during their current reigns. Outside of light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida, none of them have a challenger who registers less than 3-to-1 to dethrone them, and each has a good shot at making a lengthy run. UFC middleweight king Anderson Silva currently holds the promotional record for consecutive title defense with five, along with Tito Ortiz.

That very dynamic of dominance is another theme with which the sport’s top organization must deal -- building champions over an extended run as opposed to the topsy-turvy turnover that defined past reigns. It is a whole new angle from which to market top fighters and will probably inspire more belt-heavy cards, given the increasing likelihood of challengers that are longshots with bookies.

A look at each champion and how his potential challengers stack up follows:

Biggest in-house threat: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

Given the radically different matchup Lesnar faces in eventual challenger Shane Carwin, it might seem tempting to put Carwin here, given his one-punch power and impressive strength. But whereas Carwin has the physical strength to potentially match grappling with Lesnar, Nogueira is probably the only fighter in the division that may actually get more dangerous for Lesnar once the champion takes him down.

With a twice-flipped odometer and a score of memorable wars under his belt, Nogueira is as battle-tested as they come, and his sweeps and submissions, plus trademark toughness, could be the right mix to dethrone Lesnar, should he recover from his current health crisis. It could also turn into one of the more brutal beatings ever handed out in the sport, if Lesnar shows the stifling control and top game he displayed against Frank Mir at UFC 100.

Acquisition you’d love to see: Fedor Emelianenko.

Given their parallel title reigns in rival organizations, Emelianenko, who knocked out Brett Rogers earlier this month, might have missed his best chance at beating Lesnar by signing with Strikeforce. The Minnesota powerhouse continues to improve, and the window closes with each fight the two have. With Emelianenko’s two distance-going wins over Nogueira, the Brazilian would be a perfect comparative opponent for Lesnar, assuming he gets by Carwin in his next defense.

Also, Lesnar enjoys the rare privilege of being able to dictate where the fight will go, given his wrestling ability. If his stand-up continues to improve, he will put that much more of an advantage between himself and potential opponents.

Who will turn the trick? A big hitter, plain and simple. Outside of Nogueira, nobody in the UFC possesses the kind of submission credentials and guard to stop him once they are taken down. An imposing takedown artist might put Lesnar on his back and take him out of his element, but keeping him there could prove equally tough. Carwin has a shot at it.

Cain Velasquez looked tremendous in steamrolling Ben Rothwell, but considering how many times Rothwell and Cheick Kongo regained their feet against Velasquez, it becomes hard to see him controlling Lesnar in a pure wrestling sense. However, Velasquez has shown a busy ground-and-pound and has a good intuitive sense of how to strike downed opponents from almost any position. If he can suck Lesnar into a fast-paced, cardio-taxing battle, he could create problems for the champion.

Biggest in-house threat: Mauricio Rua

The decision versus Machida went against him at UFC 104, but Rua’s performance was a case study in game plan execution and admirable patience. He developed a sound strategy and stuck to it, consistently finishing exchanges and landing the harder shots.

If Machida wins their eventual rematch, it will likely be close. Do not let that fool you regarding the champion’s staying power against other contenders; few, if any, have the tools to match up with him the way Rua does. Outside of a Matt Serra-style stunner, it is hard to see anyone outworking the clever Machida.

Acquisition you’d love to see: Gegard Mousasi

The streaking light heavyweight has a gaudy record of 27-2-1, and since his last defeat in 2006, he has reeled off 14 consecutive wins. Mousasi reminds one of a younger Georges St. Pierre -- the updated software version that does everything so well, one wonders if he’s real.

Who’ll turn the trick? Rua -- or a guy we have not heard of yet, with a blue-chip wrestling background and Mark Schultz-caliber takedowns.

Biggest in-house threat: Vitor Belfort.

Belfort is the only middleweight with the stand-up skills to worry Silva. With his blazing speed and explosiveness, Belfort returned to the UFC with a vintage stoppage of Rich Franklin at UFC 103, showcasing the Mike Tyson-esque quality that has made him a fan favorite for more than a decade. Belfort’s physical strength and ground game also give him a great chance, as he does not necessarily have to bank on a stand-up fight to win. How he will adjust if he cannot dictate to Silva remains the wild card. That and Belfort’s extremely dangerous striking make this a compelling matchup.

Acquisition you’d love to see: Outside of Dan Henderson, not a single middleweight ranked in the top 10 outside the UFC presents a credible threat.

Henderson -- rumored to be flirting with Strikeforce -- still has the tools to give Silva problems. With that said, Silva has proven so cool under fire that he consistently works his way out of trouble. Henderson’s opening round against Silva was a masterpiece at UFC 82, but the two-time Olympian still came up short.

Who’ll turn the trick? While the prospect of an unlikely upset remains a possibility with which every champion has to deal, Silva has one of the best chins in the game, so it remains a remote chance at best someone -- outside of Belfort, at least -- will catch him with a fight-changing shot from which he cannot recover. More likely, the fighter to eventually dethrone him will be someone fighting him as Randy Couture did against Chuck Liddell in their first encounter. It will require a perfect game plan, implemented against the smallest margins of error.

Biggest in-house threat: Thiago Alves

The bruising, big-framed welterweight gave a credible effort in his decision loss to GSP in July. Alves figures to keep improving along with the champion, and their paths will surely cross again down the road. The current crop of contenders does not pose the same threat as Alves, whose striking, takedown defense and overall strength are a potent mix.

Acquisition you’d love to see: Nick Diaz

The weight-jumping Diaz has continued to improve his game and has proven to be one of the most durable fighters in the business. Diaz notched significant wins in Strikeforce over Frank Shamrock and Scott Smith, but he has not fought since he stopped Smith last June. A no-show over a scheduled drug test with the California State Athletic Commission nixed a Strikeforce bout with former International Fight League titleholder Jay Hieron.

With his high-volume stand-up style and dangerous ground game, Diaz would still figure to be a longshot against St. Pierre. Plus, he would have to beat some tough contenders to get the chance, a feat he could not pull off in his first run in the organization. However, with his conditioning and grind-them-down style, he seems built for five-round fights. Who would not want to see him match up with GSP?

Who’ll turn the trick? St. Pierre has rendered top-level wrestlers virtually impotent with his seamless blend of striking and athleticism. However, with the next wave of athletes coming into the sport, it has become apparent that the division will experience a huge boost in talent in the next 2-3 years, particularly as college wrestlers develop the requisite skills for MMA. If Alves cannot do it in a rematch, the guy to beat St. Pierre will be an elite wrestler with heavy hands.

Biggest in-house threat: Diego Sanchez.

The former welterweight has cut down to 155 -- he had not been that light since high school -- and has shown increasing flashes of his old self with wins over Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida. Sanchez’s high-energy pace and cardio are his best assets. However, given the time he spent on his back against Guida, the jury remains out on the effectiveness of his grappling at this weight.

Like many fighters battling for a competitive edge, the decision to drop a weight class often leaves him sapped come fight time, given the rigors of a dangerously excessive cut. If Sanchez can combine his trademark cardio and pressure with his scramble-and-smash style against Penn, he appears to be a live dog.

This one should be compelling as the UFC 107 headliner, particularly if Sanchez can be effective on the feet early. If so, watch out. If not, Penn should win handily in a replay of his Sean Sherk stoppage at UFC 84.

Acquisition you’d love to see: Eddie Alvarez.

The current Bellator champion notched another win in Dream when he submitted Katsunori Kikono on Oct. 25. A rough customer with an aggressive style and all-out attack, Alvarez has the best chance of any non-UFC lightweight to beat Penn. Shinya Aoki’s submissions may be the best in the game, but stateside commissions would not allow him to sport the trademark leggings he does in Japan; those are especially effective in helping set up finishing moves. Plus, Penn’s submission defense can only be described as stellar. In fact, he has proven so good on the ground that, at 155, he rarely if ever fails to dictate what goes on there.

Who’ll turn the trick? If one cross-compared the skill sets of all five UFC champions, Penn rates the best from a pound-for-pound perspective. He has proven a solid striker with subtle stand-up defense and a granite chin, and he gives opponents fits in a tie-up, whether he defends a takedown or attempts one. He has also proven incredibly dominant from top position, and once he obtains it, the fight essentially ends. There are better wrestlers (Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre) and strikers (Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and St. Pierre), but Penn has proven more dangerous from more ranges and positions than any of them.

The big challenge for Penn remains himself and staying motivated to defend his crown. Forever in search of greater tests, his lightweight reign could become an amazing one, given the depth of the division and high-energy foes. Aggressive scrappers like Sanchez, Gray Maynard, Frankie Edgar and Tyson Griffin comprise the top tier of deserving challengers. It provides a full cupboard for the Hilo, Hawaii, native and could serve up a memorable reign if he brings his “A” game for the next few years.

If Penn loses his 155-pound crown, it will be to an opponent pitching a perfect game -- likely a great wrestler with good stand-up and the tenaciousness to wear down Penn, a la St. Pierre.
Thought this was a pretty good read, and hope some of you enjoy it!


1. BJ "The Prodigy" Penn
2. Dan "Hollywood" Henderson
3. George "Rush" St Pierre
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