LAS VEGAS – An octagon's worth of observations coming out of an eventful UFC 126 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center:
1. Who's No. 1?: Two months ago, I argued that Georges St. Pierre, not Anderson Silva, is the best fighter in the world. Now, after Silva's latest highlight-reel win, I'm not so sure. So who is? Reporters and fans alike debate that question every time either guy fights, and that's exactly why the time is nearly right to make St. Pierre vs. Silva. Never in modern mixed martial arts history has there been a match between the consensus picks for the world's top two fighters. Both have cleaned out their respective divisions. Silva is the longest reigning champion in UFC history and has the record for successful title defenses (eight). St. Pierre has not lost a single round in seven fights in three years. UFC president Dana White clearly hears the call, and openly talked about making the fight. All that seems to remain is for St. Pierre to defeat Jake Shields, his April 30 foe, for the super fight everyone wants to see.
2. The short end: Vitor Belfort is one of MMA's true gentlemen, and his rise, fall and rebirth as a legitimate title contender is a truly remarkable story. But when push comes to shove, the most noteworthy feature of his eventful career has been his knack for coming up just short when it mattered most. Whether it was a pair of losses each to Randy Couture and Alistair Overeem, or single losses to the likes of Dan Henderson and Tito Ortiz, Belfort had many chances to grab the brass ring but has never quite gotten there. Belfort's career is a complex story with many twists and turns, but his record against top competition is likely to be his career's defining characteristic.
3. Jonesing for a title: Conventional wisdom said the winner of the Jon Jones-Ryan Bader fight would be one fight away from a potential UFC light heavyweight title shot. Jones proved ready for the next step by thoroughly outclassing the previously unbeaten Bader in every aspect. Jones stuffed Bader's takedowns even though Bader, a former NCAA All-American, was supposed to be the superior wrestler. Jones stayed calm and cool when Bader applied a first-round choke, and swiftly worked his way out. Jones showed his trademark inventiveness by leapfrogging Bader and landing on his feet, getting strong position. He finished Bader with a guillotine from a position that, when they first hit the ground, did not appear to offer such an opening. Does Jones actually deserve a title shot ahead of other, more established fighters? The point is moot. Sometimes life is about being in the right place at the right time, and Jones has yet to show anything that would suggest he won't be able to give champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua a run for his money on March 19.
4. Free pass: Stepping into the cage moments after Jones' display of artistry, Forrest Griffin and Rich Franklin seemed to be fighting in slow motion. But the two former champions deserver some slack. Both were coming off long layoffs from serious injuries. Both have well-earned reputations for their willingness to take on all comers and giving their all from bell to bell. And while both showed cage rust, neither fighter shied away from the action. Griffin, the winner by unanimous decision, deserves a crack at a light heavyweight contender to see where he stands in the 2011 pecking order. Matchmaking is a bit tougher for Franklin, as the size and reach difference vs. Griffin demonstrated why he dropped from 205 to 185 all those years ago in the first place. Here's guessing "Ace" will come off the bench again and save a pay-per-view show the next time a headliner gets hurt.
5. Torres tinkers: Former WEC champion Miguel Torres appears to have shaken out of his slump. Torres has been working with respected Montreal trainer Firas Zahabi, and it showed in his methodical victory over Antonio Banuelos. Torres patiently worked his jab against Banuelos, who didn't seem eager to engage. While it's encouraging in some ways to see the evolution of Torres' game, the chess-match approach could ultimately serve as a roadblock on the way back to the bantamweight title. Current champ Dominick Cruz is one of the game's premiere point-scorers; if Torres couldn't finish a gatekeeper in Banuelos with a patient style, he's going to have real problems finding a way to win with a safe approach against Cruz. So a bit of a return to the go-for-broke style that made him such a fan favorite might be in order.
6. I'll be WEC-ing you: Former World Extreme Cagefighting general manager Reed Harris was seen with an ear-to-ear grin out on the floor at Mandalay Bay on Saturday night, and who could blame him? His former fighters swept the televised PPV prelims. The underrated Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson shut down debuting Japanese star Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto; fast-rising featherweight Chad Mendes dominated Michihiro Omigawa and improved to 10-0; and popular lightweight Donald Cerrone looked good in submitting Paul Kelly. Sure, none of these victories puts any of the winners on a fast track for a title shot, but it's an early indication that the idea of WEC stars not being able to hang in the big show was a big lie.
7. Japanese fighters: Whether it's the vast time change, the differences between fighting in a ring and a cage, a step up in level of competition or all of the above, the simple fact is that Japanese fighters have mostly struggled when they've transitioned to the UFC. Such was the case Saturday, when Yamamoto and Omigawa both fell flat in their octagon debuts. Yamamoto, one of Japan's biggest stars, looked overmatched against Johnson. Omigawa, who was 0-2 as a lightweight in a previous UFC incarnation, returned after going 8-1 in Japan, but he struggled at featherweight against the fast-rising Mendes. Last month, former PRIDE lightweight champ Takanori Gomi lost to Clay Guida, putting him at 1-2 in the UFC. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, as Yushin Okami has blossomed into an elite middleweight. But overall, Japanese fighters' lack of success against mid-tier American fighters doesn't speak well for the current state of MMA in their homeland.
8. Ready for a ride: A mere few months ago, there were no marquee fights on tap for 2011. Now there's an embarrassment of riches. The March 19 UFC show suddenly became more intriguing, with the tale of Jones' ascension to the top. April 30 will be the biggest UFC event to date, with St. Pierre headlining the Toronto debut. May likely features the Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard rematch; June has Brock Lesnar vs. Junior dos Santos after three months of "The Ultimate Fighter" buildup on television; the UFC's Brazil debut in August is promising; and the distinct possibility of Silva vs. St. Pierre later in the year looms. And that doesn't include Strikeforce's heavyweight tourney. So buckle up, MMA fans; 2011 is likely to be one heck of a ride.