Who’s next after Velasquez-Dos Santos?

LOS ANGELES – When the UFC aired its first live basic cable television card in 2005, it delivered one of the most memorable battles in mixed martial arts history. Forrest Griffin’s win over Stephan Bonnar to win “The Ultimate Fighter 1” title in a back-and-forth struggle helped break the company through to the masses and lifted it to a higher-profile than anyone dared dream.

That’s one way to make a first impression.

On the other hand, there was the MMA’s prime-time network debut in 2008. Kimbo Slice fought a wretched bout against professional tomato can James Thompson, dragging into the third round before Thompson’s ear exploded in a grotesque manner, live on CBS. While the event generated a big rating and quite a buzz, it also hastened promotional company Elite XC’s demise a few short months and tens of millions of dollars later.

There is no lack of challengers for Cain Velasquez's UFC heavyweight title.
(Getty Images)

Which leads us to the next big step in MMA’s television evolution. The UFC held a press conference Tuesday at Hollywood’s W Hotel to push ticket sales for the Cain Velasquez-Junior Dos Santos heavyweight title fight at Anaheim’s Honda Center on Nov. 12, which is the first live UFC network broadcast on Fox, kicking off a seven-year deal which calls for four live events per year.

Will champion Velasquez, who has the potential to become the Latino superstar the UFC has always wanted but never quite found, and Dos Santos, the hardest puncher in the heavyweight division, put on a show that makes new fans want to tune in for more? Or will they put in, if not a Kimbo-Thompson clunker, something that doesn’t push the company to the next level?

“You can’t guarantee another Griffin-Bonnar,” said UFC president Dana White. “All you can do is put together the most exciting fight possible. With Cain and Junior, whether the fight goes 30 minutes or 30 seconds, you’ve got two guys who are known for delivering exciting fights.”

The plain-spoken combatants, thus far, claim there’s nothing out of the ordinary about their upcoming tussle.

“It’s a big fight, but I’m not going to treat it any differently than any other fight,” said Velasquez (9-0). “Junior is an impressive fighter, but I’m just going to go out and do it like I always do.”

“It’s an honor to be on the first Fox card, I’m glad to get the opportunity,” said Dos Santos (13-1). “But I don’t think that adds any more pressure to the fight.”

Early signs indicate Fox is going to position the UFC for success on the network: With two months left before Velasquez-Dos Santos, Fox has already begun airing promo spots for the fight during NFL and MLB broadcasts, and Fox Sports president Eric Shanks reported Tuesday that the ad inventory for the Nov. 12 event has already sold out.

“I’ll tell you what, we can do all the promotion in the world, we can put them in the right position, and all that,” said White. “You can put all the bells and whistles on it. But every time out, when the cage door is shut, it’s up to the fighters to deliver. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now and we have a track record because these guys deliver.”

Velasquez and Dos Santos are clearly Nos. 1 and 2 at 265 pounds right now, but the heavyweight division constantly evolves, and there is no lack of potential challengers lying in wait. Who is waiting in line for a crack at the UFC gold and a potential future spot on network television? Here’s a look at the top contenders:

Brock Lesnar
Credentials: Former UFC champion
Record: 5-2
Streak: Lost past 1
Next fight: vs. Alistair Overeem, Dec. 30

The Edge Element Questions remain as to whether Lesnar will ever be able to fully recover from his issues with diverticulitis. Since first falling ill two years ago, he’s had to postpone fights twice and he lost the title to Velasquez in one-side fashion last October. Still, Lesnar remains one of MMA’s elite drawing cards, and White confirmed Tuesday that the winner of the Lesnar-Overeem bout will get the next heavyweight title shot, barring any sort of injury or similar holdups.

Alistair Overeem
Weight class: Former Dream and Strikeforce champion
Record: 35-11 (1 no contest)
Streak: Won past 7
Next fight: vs. Lesnar, Dec. 30

The Edge Element Many a fighter has run up a big win streak overseas only to find the going just a bit tougher when they got to North America. The jury is still out on Overeem, who didn’t exactly set the world ablaze in his June win over Fabricio Werdum. The Lesnar fight will be his sink-or-swim UFC moment: Overeem is a world-class kickboxer, and Lesnar’s standup defense is his most glaring weakness. If Overeem can’t get past Lesnar, how can he compete against Velasquez or Dos Santos?

Josh Barnett
Credentials: Former UFC champion
Record: 31-5
Streak: Won past 8
Next fight: vs. Daniel Cormier, date TBD

The Edge Element Barnett will meet Cormier in the finals of the interminable Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament, the winner of which will end up on the short list of fighters in line for a UFC title shot. Barnett comes with baggage: He’s flunked enough steroid tests (three) to be banned from most international sporting competitions, and his corny pro-wrestling schtick during interviews comes off more like cable-access material than network prime time. But there’s no denying Barnett’s world-class wrestling and submission game, which has kept him in the picture nearly a decade after stunning the MMA world with his UFC title victory over Randy Couture.

Daniel Cormier
Credentials: Former Olympic wrestler
Record: 9-0
Streak: Won past 9
Next fight: vs. Barnett, date TBD

The Edge Element On paper, it might seem a bit too soon to include Cormier on the list. But he’s passed every test thrown his way, none bigger than his upset win over Antonio Silva in the Strikeforce semis. Unfortunately, he also broke his hand knocking Silva out, so the bout, like said hand, is currently on ice.

Shane Carwin
Credentials: Former interim UFC champion
Record: 12-2
Streak: Lost past 2
Next fight: None scheduled

The Edge ElementAt the moment, this might seem a longshot. But let’s not write off “The Monster” just yet. Carwin was within moments of finishing Lesnar and taking the UFC belt in the summer of 2010. And while he decisively lost his bout against Dos Santos in June, Carwin took the bout against a red-hot opponent on short notice after Dos Santos’ bout with Lesnar was dropped. Carwin may be on the outside looking in at the moment, but a couple solid victories will put him right back in the mix.

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Dave Doyle is the boxing/MMA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Tuesday, Sep 20, 2011