The injury situation in the UFC this year has gone through several stages. It started as a series of annoyances, moved to major frustration, and by the time UFC 133 rolled around earlier this month, it had reached the point where people were almost laughing at the dark comedy of it all after that card had eight different changes.
Six of the seven UFC champions and most of the top contenders have been plagued by injuries in 2011. In almost every case, major fights have been delayed. This has tested the sanity of company officials, who would be promoting one fight only to have it fall through then scramble to find a new opponent and start over.
The flip side is (if bad luck stays at bay) an upcoming 13-week period where every UFC championship will be defended, starting with a middleweight title fight between Anderson Silva and Yushin Okami on Aug. 27 in Rio de Janeiro.
So, by division, here is the current picture:
Heavyweight: Champion Cain Velasquez (8-0), coming off surgery for a torn rotator cuff suffered in his Oct. 23 championship win over Brock Lesnar, makes his first title defense Nov. 19 in his home city of San Jose, Calif., facing Junior Dos Santos (13-1). They are two of the most dominant UFC fighters ever to meet in a championship match. Both have gone the distance only once in their UFC careers, and neither has ever lost a round in UFC competition.
The key may be the takedown defense of Dos Santos. Dos Santos, probably the best boxer among UFC heavyweights, has commanded control in every fight because no no one's been able to get him off his feet. But he's never faced a wrestler the caliber of Velasquez – a multidimensional wrestler who may be able to test him on his feet as he sets up those takedowns. As with every fight, Velasquez would appear to go in with the stamina edge, most important in a five-round fight if Dos Santos can't finish him early. But will ring rust and a long layoff from training affect the champion's conditioning? And how much will the serious shoulder injury affect his strength and his wrestling game?
The big name waiting in the wings is Lesnar (5-2), the company's biggest box-office draw. Lesnar was plagued for 20 months by diverticulitis, an intestinal disorder. Now recuperating from surgery to remove 12 inches of his intestine, Lesnar is expected to be back in action in early 2012. Upon his return, barring a major company signing, he'd likely face Frank Mir (15-5) or the winner of the Aug. 27 fight between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-6-1, 1 no contest) and Brendan Schaub (8-1).
Light heavyweight: Jon Jones (13-1), the company's biggest rising star of 2011, returns Sept. 24 in Denver to face former champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (32-8). Jones returns after opting at the last minute not to have surgery for a chronic hand injury he's been working through for several years. Jones, 24, has looked better with each successive fight. He's yet to be truly tested even though he's only been in the sport for three years. His lone loss was a disqualification in a fight he dominated against Matt Hamill. This may be the last hurrah for Jackson, nine years his senior, who has been transitioning into acting.
Jones doesn't figure to have the speed to keep up with the champion – nobody has been able to figure out the riddle of Jones' 84-inch reach. But Jackson does have knockout power in both hands, and Jones' chin has never been tested by someone with that kind of punching power.
Waiting for his shot is acknowledged top contender Rashad Evans (21-1-1), who looked the sharpest he ever has in his Aug. 6 win over Tito Ortiz.
Evans vs. Jones, because would be a marquee event thanks to Evans' ability to promote a fight and their interesting back-story. The two were training partners. But when Evans injured his knee, Jones got Evans' title shot at then-champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on March 19. Jones captured the title. The two vowed never to fight, but Jones changed his tune under pressure. This led to Evans leaving his longtime home with coach Greg Jackson to form a new camp, which got him in the best shape of his career.
Middleweight: Silva (30-4), the current No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, fights for the first time in almost eight years in his native Brazil on Aug. 27, battling Okami (26-5). While Okami is the last person to beat Silva, on Jan. 20, 2006, before either man was in the UFC, he won early when he couldn't continue after Silva delivered an illegal kick and was disqualified. While it's interesting trivia, that fight proved nothing and will have no bearing on this fight. However Silva has been bothered by it in the past, feeling Okami took the easy way out by not continuing and getting the DQ win as opposed to getting up and finishing the fight.
Okami's specialty, takedowns and ground control, is similar to the style of Chael Sonnen, who dominated Silva for four and a half rounds before losing in the champion's toughest title defense. Sonnen (25-11-1), out for the past year due to a suspension for failing a controversial drug test for testosterone, faces Brian Stann (11-3) on Oct. 8 in Houston for the next title shot.
Welterweight: The seemingly untouchable Georges St. Pierre (22-2) faces former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz (25-7) on Oct. 29 in Las Vegas in what is expected to be the biggest MMA pay-per-view match of 2011.
Diaz brings a 10-fight winning streak outside of the UFC, with six knockouts and three submissions, as he tries to avenge the loss St. Pierre handed to his training partner and good friend Jake Shields on April 30 in Toronto. St. Pierre is coming off an eye injury suffered in that fight. Takedown defense is the key here. Aside from his upset loss to Matt Serra in 2007 where St. Pierre was clocked early on and never recovered, St. Pierre has never been outstruck in a fight. But Diaz's speed and punch output has given every opponent fits, including top-level strikers like Paul Daley and K.J. Noons. Early in his career, Diaz's Achilles heel was against wrestlers with good submission defense. There may be nobody better in the sport at those two facets than St. Pierre. In Strikeforce, Diaz was given a steady diet of strikers as he captured the title and kept building his streak. So how well he shored up that former hole in his game is untested in competition.
Waiting in the wings for the next shot is Carlos Condit (27-5), who faces B.J. Penn (16-7-2) on the same show, risking his top-contender status.
Lightweight: Champion Frankie Edgar (13-1-1) returns from back and rib injuries to meet Gray Maynard (10-0-1, 1 no contest) for the third time Oct. 8 in Houston. Maynard won the first meeting in 2008 through size, power and wrestling, before either fighter was in the title picture. The second meeting, on Jan. 1 with Edgar defending, was a five-round war and one of this year's best fights. Everything Maynard did in the first fight as far as using wrestling and power didn't work against Edgar in the second battle. Edgar used his superior speed to come back after huge punches from the challenger left him as close to being finished as humanly possible several times during the first round. With the draw, followed by injuries to both men that delayed the fight several months, the lightweight division has been put on hold all year.
During that period, both Anthony Pettis and Jim Miller, each being acknowledged next contenders, lost to Clay Guida and Ben Henderson, respectively. This leaves the company having to make a decision between Guida, Henderson and perhaps Melvin Guillard, who faces Joe Lauzon on Oct. 8, for the future top-contender spot.
Featherweight: Jose Aldo Jr. (19-1), bothered by a herniated disc in his neck all year, brings a 12-fight winning streak to Houston on Oct. 8 where he defends against Kenny Florian (15-5). Florian dropped to featherweight this year in quest of a UFC belt after actually starting in the UFC as a ridiculously undersized middleweight on the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show in 2005. He got the title shot by beating Aldo's stablemate at Team Nova Uniao, Diego Nunes.
Similar to Jones vs. Jackson, Florian got his opportunity partially due to uncertainty as to when Aldo would return. Rather than sit around indefinitely, top contender Chad Mendes (11-0) was booked to fight Rani Yahya in Philadelphia on Aug. 6. Unlike the lightweight contenders who risked their shots and lost, Mendes breezed to a relatively easy decision win.
Bantamweight: Dominick Cruz (18-1) rebounded from a hand injury to avenge his only career loss, beating Urijah Faber on July 2 in Las Vegas, the company's first-ever bantamweight main event. On Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C., on Versus, he defends against Demetrious Johnson (10-1) in the first UFC title fight on free television since 2007.
Johnson got his shot by taking a close decision win over former champion Miguel Angel Torres. Johnson, undersized even at 135 pounds, relies on quick takedowns and overall speed. Speed is Cruz's forte, and he has proven he's got a strong takedown defense, frustrating the wrestling games of Joseph Benavidez, Faber and Scott Jorgenson in his most recent fights.
Faber (25-5) and Brian Bowles (10-1), the latter the former champion that Cruz won the title from, meet for the next title shot Nov. 19 in San Jose.