Nobody can touch the BJ Penn right now – just ask Diego Sanchez – but contrary to perception, plenty of challengers remain in the mix for a shot at the Prodigy and his title, including one (Kenny Florian) who’d love a second shot and one (Sam Stout) who just entered the picture.
In fact, each division in the Ultimate Fighting Championship is stacked with top contenders. Here’s who we think are on-deck for title shots, why we think they deserve a shot and what they need to do to get it.
Champion: Brock Lesnar
Who: Frank Mir, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Why: Mir and Carwin will square off for the interim belt at UFC 111 while Lesnar recovers from mono and a rumored bout with diverticulitis. Minotauro is a legend who found his Mojo with a decision win over Randy Couture at UFC 102 and deserves one last run at glory – but only if he defeats the unbeaten Velasquez at UFC 110. Dos Santos elevated his stock with an impressive first-round stoppage of PRIDE veteran Gilbert Yvel and is part of a young core of heavyweights that will set the course of the division.
What: Lesnar’s future is the wild card. If he’s cleared to return he defends the title against the interim champion. If not, expect the winner of Nogueira-Velasquez to fight the winner of Mir-Carwin. A Velasquez victory means he’s one more victory over a top contender from securing No. 1 challenger status and Nogueira protege dos Santos would be the perfect opponent.
Champion: Lyoto Machida
Who: Mauricio Rua, Rashad Evans, Jon Jones, Randy Couture/Mark Coleman
Why: Rua is already booked for a much-deserved rematch with Machida at UFC 113 in Montreal. Evans rebounded from a devastating knockout loss to Machida with a decision win over Thiago Silva at UFC 108, an exciting performance in which he bewildered Silva with head movement and effectively returned to his wrestling roots. “Suga”’s relentless ground attack combined with his speed makes him the next top contender, but not before his long-awaited grudge match with Jackson, which Dana White said could happen as soon as Montreal in May.
Rampage’s falling out with White may make his UFC future bleak even if he defeats Evans. According to his trainers, Jon Jones is on track to be one of the best ever at 205 and he will face former phenom Brandon Vera at UFC Fight Night 21 to determine who moves up the ladder.
What: A win over Rampage and Evans eventually gets his shot at becoming a two-time champion. If Jones wins he puts himself a fight or two from the title but if Randy Couture beats back Mark Coleman at UFC 109 we can expect to see him fight the winner of Machida vs. Rua II.
Champion: Anderson Silva
Who: Vitor Belfort, Nate Marquardt, Chael Sonnen, Alan Belcher
Why: The UFC signed former champion Belfort to challenge Silva, which he will do at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. “Nate the Great” is one of the hottest fighters in the game and is probably the most deserving of a rematch with the champ. Since dropping a split decision to Thales Leites due to being docked two points for an illegal slam Marquardt has reeled off three straight wins, each better than the last. He destroyed Martin Kampmann in 82 seconds, lit up Wilson Gouveia with an amazing barrage of strikes and smashed the previously undefeated Demian Maia with one punch in a mere 21 seconds. Next up for Marquardt is Sonnen, who rebounded nicely from his loss to Maia. Belcher lost his UFC 100 fight with Yoshihiro Akiyama but consecutive “Fight of the Night” honors at UFC 100 and for his UFC 107 destruction of Gouveia put him in the conversation.
What: The winner of Marquardt-Sonnen is virtually assured a shot at Silva or Belfort. Belcher is awaiting his next opponent and is on track to becoming a major player and championship material.
Champion: Georges St-Pierre
Who: Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Paul Daley
Why: Like it or not, Hardy is set to face GSP at UFC 111. Daley’s dramatic climb up the rankings continued with his knockout of Dustin Hazelett at UFC 108 and convinced White he’s ready for the division’s top contenders. An injury forced Koscheck out of his rematch with Paulo Thiago, but a potential matchup with Daley will determine the difference between a top contender and one not ready for prime time. Fitch earned a blue-collar win over a game Mike Pierce at UFC 107 and has lost only once in his last 21 fights including a no-contest – to St-Pierre.
What: Koscheck has made no secret that he and not Hardy is the real No. 1 contender. He’s has been on a stunning hot streak, but must stay healthy and prove that he has more for GSP than he showed the first time around. Daley needs face one or two more top dogs while Fitch faces a healing and angry Thiago Alves at UFC 111.
Champion: B.J. Penn
Who: Frankie Edgar, Kenny Florian, Gray Maynard, Sam Stout
Why: Maynard needed to defeat Nate Diaz at UFC Fight Night 20. He did, but in a lackluster performance that did anything but secure his shot at Penn in April. Edgar’s track record is loaded with wins over Sean Sherk, Spencer Fisher, Hermes Franca and Tyson Griffin. It’s no secret that style matters in the UFC and Sam Stout looked good at UFC 108.
What: Florian tested Penn in their UFC 101 bout before fading late, but needs at least a couple more wins to re-establish himself. If he faces and beats former Pride kingpin Takanori Gomi this spring he’ll likely get a second shot at Penn, who will face Edgar at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. Maynard’s boxing is much improved – if he can finish somebody soon he’ll be next in line. Stout may be inconsistent in the UFC but when he’s on he’s on. If he can string together a couple more impressive wins he puts himself in the conversation.