2013: Year of the contender/belt swapping?

July, 18, 2013
7/18/13
12:12
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Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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One question I get just about every week on the Friday chat was some variation of this: Which UFC champion will fall first?

For the past year, it’s been easy to imagine that none of the current champions would ever lose again, given the state of the matchmaking. Not with Ronda Rousey fighting Liz Carmouche, and Georges St-Pierre fighting Nick Diaz, and Jon Jones fighting Chael Sonnen, and Anderson Silva fighting Stephan Bonnar with no belt in the balance, and Dominick Cruz not fighting at all.

With landslide favorites in these matchups, the answer was always Junior dos Santos. Heavyweights have never been good at holding on to the belt. Then it became Cain Velasquez, when he beat Dos Santos. That is, until Velasquez was resaddled with Antonio Silva, whose odds the second time were longer than his gangly reach. When that happened, the question of who would fall first came back around to its usual futility.

The real question was: Who would get Matt Serra’d first?

For the past year, it wasn’t that the UFC champions were being catered to and protected, so much as the matchmaking lacked imagination. Or the matchmaking had too much imagination, because it required the open-mindedness of our disposable income. There was not enough genuine threat, due to circumstances (injuries), limitations (shallow heavyweight division) and cash-out gimmickry (Sonnen). Aside from a few exceptions -- Gilbert Melendez versus Benson Henderson, say, or any Demetrious Johnson fight -- for a long time we had main events that looked and felt more like potboilers.

Just activity for the sake of activity, with low-flame drama.

Yet here we are in mid-2013, and a champion has fallen. Anderson Silva, the longest-tenured, most unthinkable of the titleholders with his 16-0 record in the UFC, lost to Chris Weidman spectacularly at UFC 162. There’d be no such thing as “eras” if they went on forever. Now the Silva era hinges on the rematch in December. How are those for stakes?
[+] EnlargeJohny Hendricks
Jonathan Ferrey/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAfter witnessing Anderson Silva fall, Johny Hendricks dethroning Georges St-Pierre isn't exactly a stretch of the imagination.

If that wasn't novel enough, after a long dry spell of pretenders getting shots on whims and shaking limbs, suddenly it looks as if Silva could be just the first domino to fall. Most of the title fights slated to take place in the second half of 2013 pits a challenger who looks and feels like an actual threat to the throne. Suddenly we can imagine a world where Johny Hendricks is posing for magazine articles with the belt slung over his shoulder, know what I mean?

Think about this: By the end of 2013, we might have recast our pantheon of UFC champions. Hendricks is a legitimate threat to St-Pierre. So is the barely talked about John Moraga over flyweight champion Johnson. Dos Santos could reclaim his title against Velasquez, just the same as Silva could reclaim his belt against Weidman. These fights are booked and happening (pending health).

Rousey will be the odds-on favorite to beat Miesha Tate, just as Jose Aldo will loom large over Chan Sung Jung -- but Anthony Pettis beat Benson Henderson once, what’s to say he can’t to it again at the end of August? Especially in his hometown of Milwaukee?

Romanticists might point to Alexander Gustafsson as a viable challenge to Jon Jones, but that one is more wait and see. Yet Gustafsson feels like Ares in there against Jones after fostering our collective beliefs for so long over Sonnen’s chances.

By the end of 2013, our pound-for-pound lists may become a weekly Etch-a-Sketch. This is how it was drawn up in the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- to stake the best fighters in the world against the people who the matchmakers think could beat them. That’s how this thing works best. Champions, after all, are made to be vulnerable.

And it’s refreshing to look over a slate of upcoming fights and genuinely have no idea how things are going to go. It’s better, when asked a question like "which UFC champion will fall first," to counter with: "A better question is -- which one will still be champion this time next year?"

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