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The UFC Is the Litmus Test for Top Fighter

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COMMENTARY | Hatsu Hioki was ranked the No. 2 featherweight in the world before coming to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2011.

His combination of reach, athleticism, and ground wizardry was supposed to catapult him to the top of the featherweight division; he's gone 2-2 since joining the promotion. Hector Lombard ran off 24 consecutive victories outside the "Octagon," and is just 1-2 within it.

That's not to say either guy isn't a UFC-caliber fighter, or that he cannot have future success in the organization. There are fighters who come over to the UFC and dominate, like current lightweight champion Benson Henderson. There's just a big difference between consistently beating the best fighters not in the UFC and consistently beating the best fighters in it.

The UFC is the litmus test for mixed martial artists, because there's nowhere else they can take on high-level competition each and every time out.

Alistair Overeem is the latest to falter against the upgrade in talent. "The Reem" came into the UFC on a 10-fight win steak, besting top talent Fabricio Werdum and other game opponents like Mark Hunt and Todd Duffee. His first Octagon assignment came against former UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar. The former K-1 kickboxing champion looked every bit the killer he'd been in prior fights against the pro-wrestling star. A failed drug test derailed a potential title fight, and a matchup against Antonio Silva was seen as a showcase bout before a championship shot.

Overeem outclassed "Big Foot" for much of their contest before eventually dropping his hands in a sign of disrespect (and/or fatigue) and getting dropped himself.

He started out strong again Saturday night, punishing Travis Browne to the point the fight was nearly stopped, before tiring again and then taking a foot to the face.

Was Overeem overrated? Has he been unlucky? Failed to show his opponents proper respect? Is the competition in the UFC really just that much better?

It's a combination of many or all of those factors, and more.

He'd showed weakness in his wins before joining UFC, namely a limited gas tank and a tendency to drop his hands and charge into opponents. Those weaknesses didn't necessarily mean he wouldn't succeed in the UFC, and it would have been nothing more than an educated guess that those faults would plague his UFC run.

Lombard's streak, impressive as it was, said a lot more about his ability to consistently perform against middling competition than it did about how he'd perform against the best in the world.

When the UFC acquired Pride Fighting Championship in 2007, the organization had less than half of the top 10 fighters in the world. The UFC's parent company, Zuffa, purchased Strikforce in 2011, and gradually phased Strikeforce's roster into the organization. Now the UFC has nearly 90 percent of top 10 guys.

The emergence of the UFC as the dominant promotion means almost all of the best fighters in the world are in the same organization. Gone are the days of debating the best light heavyweight in the world: Silva or Liddell? We know the answer, and there's no debate.

That's not to say that the top 10 rankings are perfect; that's for another article. Rankings often reward fighters for going on long winning streaks against mediocre competition, or they keep former greats in the top 10 for too long by only moving them down a few positions after each loss.

Bellator MMA has some very good fighters, and a few that are ranked in the top 10, including Michael Chandler and Ben Askren. My gut tells me Chandler would be a title contender in the UFC because of his power punching and high-level wrestling, and Askren lacks the the well-rounded game needed to thrive in the UFC. Though scouting MMA fighters against lesser competition is a lot like scouting a pitcher in baseball, it's difficult to assess the bad when the opposition can't make them pay for a mistake.

Projecting how fighters outside the UFC would do inside it is always a fun game. It's also extremely difficult due to the number of variables involved. The UFC has a distinct vetting process: Having fighters take a step up in competition after every win until they either reach a title shot, or lose and move down the ladder.

No other MMA organization can simulate this experience due to limited roster depth and scarcity of top talent. This makes the UFC the only battleground for elite fighters.

Joe Napoli has been a follower of MMA since the Dark Ages. Twitter: @JoeJNapoli. LinkedIn: Joe Napoli.

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