Now that 2013 is officially in the books, it’s time we look forward. With a number of title shots on the horizon and even more a short ways down the road, the collection of fighters holding UFC gold is bound to see a few new faces in 2014. Only three of the fighters who sit on top of their respective weight classes today are different from those who sat there one year ago. The rest are the same old champions and despite many being challenged in 2013, only two top dogs truly lost their titles, as GSP simply vacated the position. In the fast-moving world of over-analysis and endless prediction and speculation, you can never go too far. Keeping that in mind, I now present you with my breakdown of which men and women of the UFC will be referred to as ‘Champ’ by the end of 2014.
UFC Flyweight Champion: Demetrious Johnson
If there’s one thing that Mighty Mouse proved to us in 2013, it’s that he is one of the most skilled and capable champions in today’s world of MMA. The scary thing is that he’s only getting better. After receiving multiple bids for 2013 Fighter of The Year, including the 2013 Water Cooler MMA Fighter of the Year award, Demetrious Johnson has slowly climbed his way up to the #4 spot on the UFC pound-for-pound rankings and deservedly so. He has eliminated every contender that has crossed his path, even when journalist and fans predicted the opposite, and I don’t see anyone knocking him off in 2014 either.
UFC Bantamweight Champion: Urijah Faber
Urijah Faber has been on an absolute tear as of late. After going a remarkable 4-0 in 2013, he has cemented his position as next in line for the bantamweight belt. With Renan Barão and Dominick Cruz set to unify the championship and interim championship belts on February 1st, Urijah should be the one to face the winner of said bout. Despite the fact that Faber’s last two losses have come at the hands of Barão and Cruz, I believe we are dealing with a whole new Faber this time around. Even considering his five title defenses in the WEC, I feel that present-day Urijah Faber is the best we’ve ever seen. I think he can avenge his loss against whoever retains the belt at UFC 169 and become the new UFC Bantamweight Champion by the end of 2014.
UFC Featherweight Champion: José Aldo
José Aldo is one of the greats. I firmly believe that he is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC at the moment and he has looked absolutely dominate of late, defending his title seven consecutive times after taking it from Urijah Faber back in 2009. He is the only featherweight champion the UFC has ever known and his list of defenses have come over some of the best fighters in the entire UFC, not to mention the best at 145 lbs. If Kenny Florian, Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar, and the Korean Zombie couldn’t steal the belt away from Aldo, then who can? Aldo will be the champion at the end of 2014 and likely beyond. He’s earned that level of confidence.
UFC Lightweight Champion: Anthony Pettis
Pettis will remain the champion by default. That isn’t to say that he wouldn’t be capable of defending the belt three or four times in 2014, but the fact that he will likely only have to put his title on the line one or possibly two times next year gives him a huge advantage in this particular write-up. After suffering a knee injury at UFC 164, Pettis isn’t expected to make his return until mid to late summer. If he ends up fighting Aldo towards the end of the year, things will be understandably shaken up but for simplicity, let’s just pretend he’s keeping it in his weight class. Pettis isn’t going anywhere this year.
UFC Welterweight Champion: Carlos Condit
With GSP out of the picture, I think Condit is the best in the world at 170 lbs. His only losses since 2006 include Martin Kampman, a razor close split decision that he avenged just over four months ago, Georges St-Pierre, a ‘Fight of the Night’ performance in which he almost managed to finish one of the greatest of all time, and Johny Hendricks, another ‘Fight of the Night’ battle which left many fans to believe that two more rounds may have been all it took to defeat the current #1 contender. He has earned post-fight bonuses in six of his last seven fights and has risen to impossible heights in both his mental and physical game. Condit will have to get through a dangerous Tyron Woodley first, but assuming he does, he will likely be facing the winner of Hendricks vs. Lawler some time in 2014 and I believe he possesses all the necessary components to take the belt this year.
UFC Middleweight Champion: Lyoto Machida
Lyoto Machida is one of the best fighters in UFC history; period. At 205 lbs, he earned a spectacular record of 16-0, winning the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship and defending it against one of the all time greats in Mauricio Shogun Rua. While his run at light heavyweight was impressive, he was always small for the division, often weighing in well below the 205 lb limit. He felt the lack of size gave him a speed advantage, but I don’t fully buy into this notion. I believe that Machida is a natural 185-er and is more than capable of receiving a shot at the middleweight title in 2014. After his explosive 1st round knockout of top contender Mark Muñoz, Machida finds himself ranked in the four spot. If Machida can string together a couple more wins, he will likely be in prime position to take the belt just before the end of the 2014 calendar year.
UFC Light Heavyweight Champion: Rashad Evans
There are a number of ‘ifs’ in this scenario and it all depends on the weight class in which Jon Jones resides at the end of 2014. If he stays at light heavyweight, I don’t see him getting beat. Gustafsson certainly tested him, but I feel he will win the prospective rematch fairly handily. Glover doesn’t worry me too much either, as his record is a bit inflated by the quality of opponents he’s faced thus far. The rest of the top contenders have either lost to Jones already or fail to pose a serious threat to him, at least in my opinion. That pretty much takes care of 2014 at light heavyweight. If Jones decides to remain at 205, he will retain the belt. But we need to take him at his word. He claims that he fully plans to face off against Cain Velasquez at heavyweight within the next year. If this is true, that leaves the 205 lb belt wide open and I believe that scenario favors the former champion, Rashad Evans. His performance against Chael Sonnen was phenomenal and should not be looked over. He’s only three fights removed from a five round decision loss to the current champ. So pending the departure of Jon Jones, Rashad Evans will be the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion once again.
UFC Heavyweight Champion: Cain Velasquez
Junior dos Santos is a champion-caliber mixed martial artist and one of the greatest heavyweights in UFC history. Unfortunately for JDS, he happened to come along at the same time as a Mr. Brown Pride. Aside from dos Santos, nobody has survived to the second round with Cain since 2009. Next up is the winner of Travis Browne and Fabrício Werdum, both of which present their own unique challenge to Cain, but neither too great for him to handle. Werdum will try to use his submission skill of his back to counteract Cain’s outstanding wrestling and ground-and-pound, while Travis Browne will try to out strike Cain and score a knockout on the feet. Bigfoot Silva and Junior dos Santos tried similar plans, respectively, and we all know how that turned out. Whether Jones vs. Velasquez happens this year or not, Cain will hold onto the belt and remain on top of the UFC Heavyweight division.
UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion: Ronda Rousey
Quite frankly, we are yet to see a flaw in Rousey’s game. Is she one dimensional? Perhaps, although I’ll be the first to acknowledge that her striking is underrated and is certainly good enough to compliment the stronger points of her game. Is that one dimension all she needs to dominate as champion? As much as we might not want to admit it, the answer is a resounding yes. The fact of the matter is that we simply haven’t seen any evidence of Rousey being threatened. It has been more or less universally accepted that UFC 168 Miesha Tate was Rousey’s toughest test yet. The reality is that Miesha got dominated for three rounds and submitted via the technique that the whole world saw coming. The harsher reality is that this probably was Rousey’s toughest test. That’s how dominate she has been so far. So for me to believe that she won’t remain champion come 2015 would be a bit far-fetched. I believe Sara McMann matches up fairly well with Rousey, stylistically. But assuming she can get past McMann, I don’t see anyone else stopping her next year.
UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion: Joanne Calderwood
Ah, we can’t forget about our newest 115 lb. addition to the UFC. With TUF 20 set to feature the new strawweight fighters, with the winner capturing the first-ever UFC Women’s Strawweight championship before the close of 2014, the field is wide open. Carla Esparza is the current champion, however it’s anyone’s game, as the old adage in MMA remains truer than ever; anything can happen and probably will. My money’s on Joanne Calderwood. JoJo is a perfect 8-0 in her MMA career. With a background in kickboxing, she brings high level striking into the Octagon. She has finished half of her fights by knockout and certainly has what it takes to KO or TKO some girls on her way to the inaugural UFC Strawweight belt. There is still much to see from this division, but my super-early prediction is JoJo. Take it for what it’s worth.