More than any time in its history, the Ultimate Fighting Championship – at least on paper – looks to have a crew of champions who look untouchable in their weight class. Six of the seven title holders, with the exception being lightweight king Frankie Edgar, would be heavily favored right now against most every contender.
Of course, you don't need to look far back to demonstrate that there's no such thing as a sure thing.
Edgar's upset lightweight title win over B.J. Penn ended a reign that appeared to have no end in sight. Lyoto Machida was supposed to have ushered in "The Machida Era," and yet the light heavyweight title has changed hands twice in a year. Chael Sonnen dominated four-plus rounds before losing to the believed-to-be-untouchable Anderson Silva. And Matt Serra temporarily derailed Georges St. Pierre with a stunning upset knockout. Right about the time you're sure a champion is so far above the competition that they can't be beaten, you apt to be reminded that anyone can lose on any given night.
With the exception of Edgar, however, every current champion has largely run through the competition. With Jon Jones' ascension to the top of the light heavyweight division last week, there is no monster challenger left on the horizon for any of the current champions. And though it's early in the year, the picture looks relatively clear in many of the weight classes for the rest of 2011 – even well into 2012.
A look at the divisional forecasts from heavyweight down to bantamweight:
Heavyweight: Champion Cain Velasquez (9-0) has not lost a round in his career, only showing vulnerability during a few moments in an otherwise one-sided decision win over Cheick Kongo. Right now, he'd fall into the category of untouched. But with such a variety of contenders who are excellent at various disciplines, you could not call him untouchable – even as great as he looked in winning the title from Brock Lesnar.
Velasquez is on the shelf after surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff; his estimated return is November. While Velasquez is out, former champion Lesnar (5-2) and top contender Junior Dos Santos (12-1) will meet on June 11, most likely in Vancouver, B.C., to see who gets the next shot. Lesnar vs. Dos Santos will come down to whether Lesnar – the best-credentialed wrestler among the top contenders – can take Dos Santos into his world and dominate him with wrestling. If he can't, he has little chance to win against the top pure boxer in the UFC's heavyweight division.
You can look even farther into early 2012: Whoever emerges as champion after Velasquez's first match back would likely be set for a collision course with the winner of the Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament.
The current favorite is dangerous striker Alistair Overeem (34-11), a triple champion in Strikeforce, Dream and as a kickboxer in K-1. Others involved are the two conquerors of former No. 1 heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko – former world jiu-jitsu champion Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1) and massive Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva (16-2). Rounding out those still alive in the tournament are Josh Barnett (29-5), Sergei Kharitonov (18-5) and Brett Rogers (11-2).
Light heavyweight: At 23, Jon Jones (13-1) has thus far been untouchable. He's lost just one round in UFC competition, when he got tired against Stephan Bonnar in a fight he dominated for two rounds. Jones has only been in the sport for three years and his improvement every time out is nothing short of remarkable.
Jones came in with strong wrestling; at 6-foot-4 and with the reach of a 7-footer, he has advantages in the stand-up game which others can't match. His one loss was via disqualification in a match where he destroyed Matt Hamill from bell to bell.
If that wasn't enough, Jones has remarkable quickness and surprising poise given his experience level. But the constant reminder that there is no sure thing is that Machida (16-2) was thought of in almost the same "untouchable" terms when he scored a first-round knockout over Rashad Evans (18-1-1) to win the title two years ago.
Jones' first defense is scheduled against Evans, his former training partner, likely in the late summer. Waiting for the winner would be Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (31-8), provided he can get past Hamill (10-2) on May 28 in Las Vegas, and the winner of the April 30 fight between Machida and the most decorated champion in the sport's history, Randy Couture (19-10). Couture, who'll turn 48 this summer, would be twice Jones' age should they meet.
It's likely Jackson's shot to lose. But of the contenders, the unorthodox Machida could be the most difficult for Jones or Evans.
Middleweight: Anderson Silva (28-4) has long been thought to be the most physically talented fighter in the sport. He's the owner of a number of UFC marks including the best overall record in UFC history (13-0); most consecutive wins; most consecutive title defenses (eight); and longest title reign (four years, five months). If it weren't for his struggles with Chael Sonnen last August, he'd be considered untouchable in the sense he hadn't been truly threatened in a fight before that since 2004.
Where Silva goes next is unclear. If he doesn't face Georges St. Pierre in a superfight, his next title defense likely would come against Yushin Okami (26-5) – the last person to hold a win over him (January 2006). That's misleading, however, in that it was a disqualification for an illegal kick which knocked Okami out, and Silva was dominating the fight.
Chael Sonnen (25-11-1), who gave Silva the biggest title scare of his career, has to be considered his biggest threat – even if many would dismiss his success in that fight in light of Silva having a rib injury and Sonnen testing positive for steroids. Sonnen, whose suspension was recently lifted, is in limbo until he is sentenced April 8 on a mortgage fraud charge from years ago.
Welterweight: St. Pierre (21-2) is the other half, with Silva, of the consensus debate on the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. He defends against Jake Shields (26-4-1) on April 30 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in the biggest show of the promotion's history.
If St. Pierre wins and moves up to challenge Silva, welterweight becomes a wide-open division. If St. Pierre wins and stays at welterweight, he's been so dominant it's almost impossible to conceive of him losing until age catches up with him. That may be years down the road for St. Pierre, now 28.
Jon Fitch (26-3-1) and B.J. Penn (16-7-2) will face off on July 2 in Las Vegas. If Fitch wins, it would be awfully hard to deny him a second title shot even though he lost five straight rounds in a 2008 opportunity. With the Strikeforce purchase, it opens up a potential UFC vs. Strikeforce title match provided Nick Diaz (24-7) beats Paul Daley (27-9-2) on April 9 in San Diego. If Daley wins, Dana White's statement that Daley would never be allowed back in UFC (he sucker-punched Josh Koscheck after their match ended and was immediately fired) may only eliminate a potential match without creating another one in its place.
Lightweight: Edgar (13-1-1), despite two wins over Penn, is the one champion who clearly is not untouchable. Edgar defends next against Gray Maynard (10-0-1, one no-contest) on May 28 in Las Vegas. They've met twice. The first time, Maynard dominated to win a decision before Edgar was champion. The second time, Maynard gave Edgar a tremendous beating in round one; the fight was on the verge of being stopped several times. Edgar recovered over the next four rounds, however, and retained his title on Jan. 2 with a draw.
Anthony Pettis (13-1), the former WEC champion, is on deck for the next shot after Edgar-Maynard is settled. But Pettis is risking it in a June 4 match with Clay Guida (28-11) in Las Vegas. If Pettis wins, he'll get the next shot. If Guida wins, Guida will be in contention with Jim Miller (20-2) for that shot. And at some point, it's inevitable the Strikeforce champion will get a shot, which comes down next to champion Gilbert Melendez (18-2) against Tatsuya Kawajiri (27-6-2) on April 9 in San Diego.
Featherweight: Jose Aldo Jr. (18-1) may be the single-most untouchable champion in the sport. At 24, he's doesn't possess the athletic structure and gifts of Jones, but more than any fighter in the sport he's the one with no discernable weaknesses. Aldo Jr.'s UFC debut will come April 30 in Toronto against Ontario's Mark Hominick (20-8), who vows to show he's a better striker.
Nobody has taken Aldo Jr. down, but Chad Mendes (10-0) is the best wrestler in the company in this division and is likely next in line. The big question going forward: Which lightweights drop down because this division doesn't have nearly the depth as 155? For years, because this was a WEC division, no UFC lightweight star (unless he'd lost a few in a row and had little choice) would voluntarily make the move because of the difference in pay between the companies. But with featherweight coming under the UFC's jurisdiction, it's opened a door that Kenny Florian (13-5) has been the first to walk through. Florian faces Diego Nunes (16-1) on June 11, with the winner likely in line for a shot.
Bantamweight: Champion Dominick Cruz (17-1) may not be viewed as untouchable, but in this weight class, he's untouched. Stylistically, Cruz as champion has been a lighter version of Edgar, using speed, constant movement, great conditioning and solid striking to go 7-0 since moving down. On July 2, he'll face Urijah Faber (25-4), the longtime featherweight champion who handed Cruz his only loss four years ago via first-round choke. Former champion Miguel Torres (39-3) will face Brad Pickett (20-5) on May 28, and with a win is likely to face the Cruz-Faber winner.