Who will be wearing the gold in '10?
The great Royce Gracie once said, "A belt only covers two inches of your ass. You have to cover the rest."
What Royce meant, of course, is that you need to wear underwear. He was also probably referring to the fact that a belt -- either a cloth awarded by an instructor or a gold-plated eyesore from a promotion -- can't do your fighting for you. Great champions have shown up only to turn in substandard performances; guys who got their brown belt from Sears have delivered some epic, ass-thrashing bouts.
That said, a championship belt is indisputable proof that you've achieved rare air in the combat sports -- especially if you had to dodge the murderer's row in a promotion like the UFC, which is gleefully masochistic in its matchmaking.
Performances from contenders like Demian Maia and Diego Sanchez on Saturday's UFC 95 freebie were indicative that 2009 is going to be a turbulent one for defending champions. Which titles will stay strapped in place and which will expose the rear cleavage of its former owners?
If I knew, I'd bet big and blog from Acapulco. Until then, be happy with irresponsible speculation. The guaranteed-not-to-be-accurate champions on Jan. 1, 2010:
UFC Lightweight Champion: Sean Sherk
The 155-pound belt is B.J. Penn's for as long as he wants to hold on to it. Given his famously erratic motivations, that might be for only another couple of weeks.
Penn has shown little more than fleeting interest in being a lightweight shark. He fled from the UFC in 2004 to take open-weight fights in Hawaii and overseas. When he came back, he was obstinate in competing at 170 pounds. Only after losses to Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes did the promotion convince him to start skipping the bacon.
Literally the second after unifying the lightweight title against Sherk, Penn called out Georges St. Pierre.
Penn's divisional ADD gives me little confidence that he'll be able to focus on defending his lighter-weight belt. His attitude hints he considers the class to be beneath him -- that he's so much better than everyone else, there's no fear to get him out of bed in the morning.
Which is why a lackadaisical Penn will drop a decision to a busier, hungrier Kenny Florian in the summer -- who will, in turn, have no answers for the wet blanket that is Sean Sherk in the fall.
Sherk regains his strap; Florian continues dropping other contenders; Penn begs to fight Lyoto Machida.
UFC Welterweight Champion: Georges St. Pierre
UFC Middleweight Champion: Anderson Silva
Demian Maia might be the Fred Astaire of jiu-jitsu. It's too bad Silva is the Gene Kelly of kicking everyone's ass.
Maia's technique -- which involves sucking opponents into his Phantom Zone of a guard and digesting limbs -- might give Silva some night sweats, but we've yet to see how effective it is against someone with a black belt in jiu-jitsu from the Nogueira brothers. My guess is, not as effective as Silva's stand-up against someone who has spent most of his training life off his feet.
Who's left? Nate Marquardt? He looked dangerously sharp in his stand-up Saturday, but that confidence is bound to leak out of his nose the moment Silva connects with a barrage of knees. (Marquardt's destiny probably lies with Rich Franklin in a battle of who would be champion of an alternate universe in which The Spider was never hatched.)
Unless Silva has a repeat of his abysmal Patrick Cote nonfight -- essentially sabotaging himself -- he has little to fear. The man who can take his title hasn't shown himself yet.
UFC Heavyweight Champion: Randy Couture
Let's all be spared the Metamucil-with-extra-protein jokes. There's better logic at work here.
Frank Mir will continue to be Brock Lesnar's Achilles' heel: Both are quick starters, but Lesnar's tendency to throw opponents to the mat is the worst possible strategy against Mir, who is most dangerous where Lesnar instinctually wants the fight. He'll lose by submission. Again.
That leaves Couture to busy himself with either Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. While the latter bout fills me with utter dread -- I can see even a fading Croatian punting Couture's head like a Fila demo -- it's entirely likely that a battle of aging warriors will be won by the craftiest of the lot.
That leaves Mir and Couture for a Christmas engagement. Considering Couture probably wants no part of Mir on the mat in the first two or three rounds, it'll be a kickboxing match, and that's a game Couture has been playing longer. Having worn Mir down for 10 or 15 minutes, The Natural might start in with the ground throttling.
A record sixth UFC title would be an appropriate capper for both the year in MMA and Couture's tenure as the elder statesman of the sport.
UFC Light Heavyweight Champion: Quinton Jackson
Any concerns that Jackson's emotional breakdown and subsequent highway rampage after a title loss to Forrest Griffin in the summer would influence his fighting were put to rest -- right along with Wanderlei Silva -- in December.
If we accept that Jackson will not need to be straight-jacketed between rounds, and we also accept that he will handle the difficult-but-not-insurmountable Keith Jardine in March, then we're left with a summer or fall pairing between Jackson and current champion Rashad Evans.
Jackson, though, usually shows up with a tuned engine and possesses both power and combinations in his mitts that Evans has yet to deal with. (Versus Chuck Liddell, the former champion loaded his right hand like he was posing for a still.)
Five-round war. Traded takedowns. Jackson lands the bigger shots and the decision. Meets Lyoto Machida on Super Bowl weekend in 2010.
And if his corner men are smart, they'll hide his car keys.
Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.