UFC Roundup: Analyzing Every Title Challenger (Part 1)

Women's bantamweight champion "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey remains undefeated, drawing comparisons to "Iron" Mike Tyson and Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell as a result of her quick finishing ability and ruthless fighting style. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Undefeated women’s bantamweight champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey.
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

It’s amazing how much things have changed in less than a year. Chris Weidman is now the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight champion after beating Anderson “The Spider” Silva not once, but twice. Renan Barao shed the “interim” modifier and became the undisputed champion when yet another injury prevented Dominick Cruz from returning for their unification bout. Johny Hendricks became the new welterweight champion when he eked out a close decision against Robbie Lawler in a fight put together after the long-reigning champ George “Rush” St-Pierre walked away from the sport.

Despite changes in the title picture that left them with less immediately saleable names, the UFC nonetheless trudged forward with their plans for “world fucking domination,” establishing versions of the reality series, The Ultimate Fighter, in China and Australia while continuing the show’s development in Canada, Brazil and the United Kingdom. Combine that with the newly introduced UFC Fight Pass, their multi-year television deal with Fox and more pay-per-views than ever before and we’re looking at a little more than 40 events this year in total – a record for the company (for comparison, the promotion held 32 events in 2013).

At UFC 172: Jones vs. Teixeira in Baltimore this last Saturday, Jon “Bones” Jones handed lightweight title challenger Glover Teixeira his first loss in more than nine years, walloping him from pillar to post in a brutally brilliant reminder of why he now sits atop the pound-for-pound rankings. Just eight days earlier, Fabricio Werdum quashed all talk about Travis Browne posing a legitimate threat to the heavyweight title when he absolutely embarrassed him in their five-round #1-contender elimination main event.

We’re just a couple days away from entering the second third of the year, so what better time is there to glance over the title picture in each weight division and analyze every #1 contender’s chances against their respective champions?

Ladies first…

Alexis Davis, undefeated in her last five fights, is the most logical choice to challenge Rousey next for the title. (Photo by Joshua Lindey/USA Today Sports)

Alexis Davis, undefeated in her last five fights, is the most logical choice to challenge Rousey next for the title.
(Photo by Joshua Lindey/USA Today Sports)

Women’s Bantamweight (135 lb.) Division:
Champion: “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey [9-0]
Challenger: Alexis “Ally-Gator” Davis [16-5]

The weight division UFC president Dana White and company essentially created for current champion Ronda Rousey has experienced some tough times in the injury department. First, #1 contender Cat Zingano had to pull out of her title fight with Rousey when she shredded her knee in practice, ceding both her shot at the gold and the coaching gig on The Ultimate Fighter that came along with it to Meisha “Cupcake” Tate, a fighter who she’d just beaten. That season’s winner, Julianna “The Venezuelan Vixen” Peña (who came out of the show appearing to be on the fast track to the top herself) suffered an even worse injury and has been sidelined indefinitely.

Since then, Rousey armbarred Tate once again (albeit in the third round rather than the first – a distinction thus far enjoyed by none of her other opponents) and soundly trounced former Olympic wrestler Sara McMann via first-round TKO.

Her latest challenger, Alexis “Ally-Gator” Davis, was wisely chosen despite earlier talk of bringing in former Strikeforce 145-pound champion Gina Carano (who hasn’t fought professionally since losing her title to Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino back in August 2009). Davis, like many of her WMMA sistren, is a transplant from Invicta FC, an all-female promotion created by Janet Martin and Shannon Knapp with the purpose of giving the still-largely underrepresented gender (in its combat sports capacity) a visible, well-regulated and executed outlet. Currently riding a five-fight win streak – during which time she beat the likes of Shayna Baszler, Rosi Sexton, Liz Carmouche and Jessica Eye – the seven-year veteran from Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada will try to do what no other woman before her has yet been able to – defeat Rousey.

Some interesting things to note: Davis has never been submitted, she hasn’t been legitimately put away since 2007 (the first of two times former Strikeforce bantamweight champion Sarah Kaufman defeated her) and she trains with the rough-and-tumble “Scrap Pack” (comprised of Nick and Nate Diaz, Jake Shields, Josh Neer and Gilbert Melendez) at Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. The last tidbit, aside from dropping some fun names, also denotes an interesting thread of coincidence, considering Rousey herself has trained on numerous occasions with that very camp.

While Davis’ grappling credentials are wholly legit (she’s a black belt in both Japanese and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as well as a former Canadian Open grappling champion), she still will likely fall short against Rousey, whose elite judo has proven time and again to be her greatest asset, as it allows her to decide – even against elite grapplers like fellow Olympian McMann – if, when, where and how she will eventually go to the ground. Add to that Rousey’s still-developing but already nuanced striking and she’s a tough outing for anyone at this point. Though Davis is certainly game and should provide some unique moments in their bout, she has little more than a puncher’s chance against the champion.

Alexis Davis’ chance at defeating Ronda Rousey: 15 percent.

Ali Bagautinov's hard-nosed style and sambo background should offer flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson some unique challenges.  (Photo: MMA Sucka)

Ali Bagautinov’s hard-nosed style and sambo background should offer flyweight champion Demetrius Johnson some unique challenges.
(Photo: MMA Sucka)

Flyweight (125 lb.) Division
Champion: Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson [19-2-1]
Challenger: Ali “Puncher” Bagautinov [13-2]

Another fighter around whom it could be argued a weight division was created, Demetrius Johnson has been on an artful tear since the division’s inception in early 2012. Following his split-decision victory over Joseph Benavidez at UFC 152: Jones vs. Belfort, he has since defended the belt three times, looking increasingly impressive in each subsequent performance. Coming off of a first-round knockout over Benavidez in their rematch at UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Benavidez 2, he’ll welcome the Dagestan-born 2012 combat sambo World Champion, #5-ranked Ali Bagautinov, at UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver British Columbia.

Over the course of his 15-fight, four-year career, the wily Russkie has racked up an impressive 13-2 record that includes five knockouts and four submissions. He has never been finished himself. The UFC added him to their still-developing flyweight division after he absolutely murderized former Shooto, Deep and Pancrase veteran Seiji “Oz” Ozuka via first-round TKO only 25 seconds into their main event matchup at Fight Night: Battle of Moscow 11 in April of last year.

Since that time, he’s blasted through the sparsely-populated division, tossing aside possible future contenders including Tim Elliott (who we just saw lose by vicious guillotine choke to Benavidez this last weekend), Marcos Vinicius Borges Pancini (via third-round TKO) and the weight-plagued John “Hands of Stone” Lineker. His well-roundedness, grappling acumen, deceptive power and unquestionable durability make him an interesting (albeit otherwise virtually unmarketable) challenger for the belt, and with John Dodson, Ian McCall and Benavidez still freshly defeated, Bagautinov was the absolute correct choice to challenge next for the flyweight throne.

It’s unlikely any of that will matter. “Mighty Mouse” has looked better and better in every outing, displaying a penchant for finishing that, before his fifth-round armbar finish of John Moraga back at UFC on Fox 8, many believed was nonexistent at the elite level. After stringing together two spectacular finishes, however, Johnson is beginning to be considered among the most exciting fighters in the UFC to watch at the moment. That his only two losses were to former UFC champion Dominick Cruz and former Cage Rage champion Brad Pickett – both at a weight class ten pounds above his natural fighting weight – is a testament to his talent.

And check out the official UFC pound-for-pound rankings. Yep, that’s him one notch above MW champion Chris Weidman and one below HW badass Cain Velasquez.

Bagautinov’s chance at defeating Demetrius Johnson: 15 percent.

As a result of Duane "Bang" Ludwig's tutelage, T.J. Dillashaw's striking will likely be the best it's ever been when he faces Barao for the bantamweight belt. (Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

As a result of Duane “Bang” Ludwig’s tutelage, T.J. Dillashaw’s striking will likely be the best it’s ever been when he faces Barao for the bantamweight belt.
(Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Bantamweight (135 lb.) Division
Champion: Renan Barao [32-1]
Challenger: T.J. Dillashaw [9-2]

Introduced to UFC fans as Jose Aldo’s primary training partner at Nova Uniao, Renan Barao was a largely unknown prospect despite boasting possibly the most impressive record of anyone in the lighter weight classes. It wasn’t long before he proved those numbers unpadded, ripping a 5’7” hole in a bantamweight division that had begun to stale as a result of Dominick Cruz’s dominance. One by one, he knocked off possible contenders such as Cole Escovedo, Brad Pickett and Scott Jorgensen on his way to a fight against fan favorite (and Cruz rival) Urijah Faber for the interim bantamweight belt. After winning a lopsided decision, he has since crushed every bit of opposition thrown at him, submitting Michael McDonald via 4th-round arm-triangle and TKOing Eddie Wineland before defeating Urijah Faber once more (by controversial referee stoppage).

Currently sitting directly behind his campmate Aldo at #3 on the pound-for-pound rankings, he was originally slated to fight fellow Brazilian Raphael Assuncao – or at least it appeared that was the most logical agenda on the BW docket – but a fractured rib sustained by Assuncao at UFC 170 prevented him from being able to take the bout in time. Instead, Barao will face The Ultimate Fighter 14 runner-up and Team Alpha Male member T.J. Dillashaw, a fighter one match removed from losing a close split decision to Assuncao.

Aside from the losses to Assuncao and TUF winner John Dodson (who has since dropped to flyweight), Dillashaw has looked quite good, submitting Vaughan Lee, knocking out Issei Tamura and Hugo “Wolverine” Viana and decisioning the physically imposing Mike “The Hulk” Easton. The 28-year-old Californian, whose wrestling base and penchant for picking up techniques quickly make him an ideal fit for Team Alpha Male, always seems to fall short in pivotal matchups, as is evident in both his high school and wrestling careers and in The Ultimate Fighter.

Unfortunately for him, Barao is quite the opposite, and he’s appeared looser and more relaxed in every progressive outing we’ve see him in. His takedown defense should give Dillashaw fits, causing him to resort to striking with him on the feet – a very bad place to be with someone who probably holds his own (and likely more so) against the murderously gifted Aldo in the training room. There truly is no place this fight can take place that Dillashaw holds any marked advantage over Barao. Expect this to end inside three rounds.

T.J. Dillashaw’s chance at defeating Renan Barao: 8 percent.

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below!

 

(Featured slider image property of Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images. Tuff Gnarl claims no ownership over any image used in this article. In any case of unwanted use, please contact us and we will promptly remove it.)

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Jesse Scheckner

A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a former semi-serious musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest performance in film has yet to come. He is TuffGnarl.com's editor-in-chief, a feature staff writer for MMASucka.com and the 2014 MMA Media Correspondent winner at the Florida MMA Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner to talk about the stuff he writes about with him.

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