UFC Roundup: Analyzing Every Title Challenger (Part 2)

Featherweight champion Jose Aldo will defend his title against Chad Mendes for the second time. (Photo: Sherdog.com)

Featherweight champion Jose Aldo will defend his title against Chad Mendes for the second time.
(Photo: Sherdog.com)

Alright folks, it’s been exactly one week since I began opining on the state of the UFC and its title pictures. In the first installment, we examined the women’s bantamweight division and the men’s flyweight and bantamweight categories and, suffice it to say, things looked outright grim for each class’ respective next title hopefuls, with no challenger exceeding a 15-percent likelihood of unseating the current reigning champ.

Today, we’ll take a gander at the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight divisions and see if those vying for the title next stand any better of a chance against the crème de la crème in their weight class. Considering two of the three champions discussed below have yet to defend their belt even once, divisional shakeups may very well be on the horizon.

Tempers were high in their first meeting, but the defending champion reigned supreme by the end of the first round. (Photo: MMA Junkies.)

The anticipation leading up to their first fight was high, but the defending champion reigned supreme by the end of the first round.
(Photo: MMAJunkie.com)

Featherweight (145 lb.) Division
Champion: Jose “Scarface” Aldo [24-1]
Challenger: Chad “Money” Mendes [16-1]

These two seemed to be on a collision ever course since Chad Mendes joined several of his Team Alpha Male brethren in the WEC back in 2010. Although his friend and mentor Urijah Faber was still fighting in the same division (Faber was Aldo’s first title defense, at WEC 48 – a card Mendes also fought on), many believed “Money” to be the new blood in the division, and he looked to be every bit the “Faber 2.0” MMA pundits were suggesting he was, stringing together an impressive unbeaten record leading up to his UFC title fight with Jose Aldo back in January 2014 at the HSBC Arena in Rio De Janeiro.

We all know how that ended. Mendes – as he was expected to – initiated several unsuccessful grappling exchanges while showing deficiencies in the striking department. Aldo – also as he was expected to – made it back to his feet when Mendes manged to get him down and showed great aptitude in defending the takedown. With roughly one second remaining on the clock, “Scarface” landed a gorgeous knee to the face of the two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, sending him crashing straight backwards in a spectacular knockout. Referee Mario Yamasaki stepped in immediately, calling an end to the bout, Aldo ran into the surging Brazilian crowd and that was all she wrote.

Sure, there was that part where the champ grabbed the cage, effectively preventing what was an assured takedown, but aside from that, it wasn’t much of a contest.

So what would be different this time around? Since that loss, Mendes has returned to his winning ways, stringing together five straight wins, with four of them coming by way of knockout. To properly put that into perspective, it’s worth noting that his first round knockout over Cody McKenzie in his comeback fight at UFC 148: Silva vs. Sonnen 2 (via a rare body punch knockout) was the first KO he’d recorded since he pounded current UFC fighter “Super” Steven Siler into oblivion at Tachi Palace Fights: Best of Both Worlds back in 2009.

Much of this success could certainly be attributed to the appointment of Duane “Bang” Ludgwig as Team Alpha Male’s head coach; since began overseeing the camp’s day-to-days, the team’s win percentage has gone up by 39 percent, their overall finish rate has risen by 94 percent and their KO/TKO finish rate has risen by – get this – a whopping 151 percent.

Please return your jaw to its upright position.

Mendes has looked stronger and more confident in his recent fights than ever before, and considering he sits just below Aldo on the featherweight rankings, this was the right fight to make and the right time to make it.

Jose Aldo is a fucking monster, however. He’s fast, strong, accurate, mean, opportunistic, creative, durable and big for his division. He also has more confidence in the cage right now than anyone not named Jon Jones (and maybe Anthony Pettis, whom we’ll be discussing next). That Mendes has a newfound self-assurance in his striking and power only plays into Aldo’s stand up game which, outside of a time-and-space-bending punch, is far superior in almost every department. Granted, a nagging neck injury and a questionable gas tank (that didn’t show very much in his last fight title defense against Ricardo Lamas) have been pointed to as chinks in his otherwise impenetrable armor, and these are fair areas of concern for the champ.

If Mendes plays it smart and tries to tire Aldo out by grappling with him in the early rounds, he may find openings in the latter stanzas. Whether or not he’ll get there is another issue altogether, and if he gets caught holding his chin a little too high coming in for a clinch or a single-leg, that could easily spell night-night once again for “Money.” He’s the biggest threat to Aldo in the division currently, and there is no doubt it’ll be more competitive this time around, but it likely still won’t be enough for him to take the strap.

Chad Mendes’ chances at defeating Jose Aldo: 35 percent.

Gilbert Melendez has spent his entire career spoiling the hopes of his opponents. (Photo: Esther Lin//Strikeforce.)

Gilbert Melendez has spent his entire career spoiling the hopes of his opponents.
(Photo: Esther Lin/Strikeforce)

Lightweight (155 lb.) Division
Champion: Anthony “Showtime” Pettis [17-2]
Challenger: Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez [22-3]

Of all the people that were absolutely sure that Anthony Pettis was going to become the UFC lightweight champion (this writer included), no one was more certain of this than the current champion himself. Ascending to renown on the heels of what is still considered among the most amazing in-cage maneuvers in the history of MMA, the Duke Roufus-trained Pettis has delivered on every bit of the promise he showed back in his WEC debut in 2009. Time and again, he’s shown an enormous aptitude for in-cage invention, fearlessness verging on disregard for his opponent’s abilities (see his fight against Donald Cerrone) and some of the finest footwork inside the Octagon.

Gilbert Melendez, on the other hand, has, until very recently, been long considered one of the best fighters not signed by the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion. That assertion was clearly acknowledged and matched when he was given an immediate title shot after signing to the company a year after it engulfed the Strikeforce promotion he had fought under (and reigned as champ in) until then. Although he came up short in a razor-thin split decision loss to Benson “Smooth” Henderson (who has, at this point, lost two titles to Pettis – the WEC lightweight belt and, most recently, the UFC one), he bounced back in a fight-of-the-year performance against the always game Diego “The Sleep-Related Nickname” Sanchez (Yes!).

This is a brilliant matchup between two incredibly talented and well-rounded competitors. Neither fighter has been finished in their professional careers and both are capable of ending the bout with a single well-timed and placed strike. Melendez holds the wrestling advantage. Conversely, Pettis’ wicked slickness off of his back should serve to counteract some of the ground-and-pound offense “El Nino” sometimes likes to employ.

Some points of concern:
1. The first man to beat Melendez since his five-round decision loss to Josh Thomson back at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Thomson in 2008 was none other than the aforementioned Henderson, a man who has not only lost twice to Pettis but – get this – beat Thomson, himself, as well.
2. Pettis is coming off of a long layoff due to a knee injury. Despite he and Melendez having only a two-month difference between their last fight dates, injuries are always a tentative thing. Considering his style relies so heavily on freewheeling motion and improvisation, even the slightest bit of hesitation could sound his title reign’s death knell.
3. The two will be getting to know each other quite well as opposing coaches on the first all-female season of The Ultimate Fighter, which will culminate in naming the UFC’s inaugural women’s strawweight champion. Though individually both fighters will likely be respectful and considerate, the same can’t be said of their entourage – namely Melendez’s, which includes the always impulsive Diaz brothers.

With their mutually iron jaws, thus-far infallible grappling games and proven abilities to perform under the brightest of lights, this should be a title matchup for the ages.

Gilbert Melendez’s chances of defeating Anthony Pettis: 50 percent.

Newly-crowned UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks will defend his belt against one of these two competitors - but which one? Read further for a succinct answer. (Photo: MMAWeekly.com.)

Newly-crowned UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks will defend his belt against one of these two competitors – but which one? Read further for a succinct answer.
(Photo: MMAWeekly.com.)

Welterweight (170 lb.) Division
Champion: Johny “Big Rigg” Hendricks [16-2]
Challengers: Tyrone “The Chosen One” Woodley [13-2] or Rory “Ares” MacDonald [16-2]

And now, as an MMA writer, pundit and self-appointed odds extrapolator extraordinaire (I’m still waiting for that sarcastic font, typographers), I find myself in quite the conundrum: there is no current, definitive challenger for the title that now rests around Johny Hendricks’ ever-morphing waistline.

There is, however, a number one contender elimination match set between the two above-mentioned challengers.

So let’s talk these fighters, their chances against one another and their respective chances against the reigning and first-time defending champion.

Rory MacDonald

Once considered the heir apparent to the George St-Pierre throne, “Ares” (formerly “The Waterboy”) has encountered some rough terrain recently en route to owning the welterweight strap in the form of the phoenix-like resurgence of “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler, a man who handed him his first loss (via a rightful awarded split-decision victory) since he ceded a late third round TKO victory to Carlos “The Natural Born Killer” Condit almost four years ago.

He bounced back recently with a telling victory over submission wizard Demian Maia, however his decision-heavy activity as of late – coupled with the obviously dejecting loss to Lawler – has him poised to likely be the underdog going into his bout with Woodley.

Against Woodley, he’d have a pair of things going for him and a pair of things going against him. He’ll obviously be longer and taller, however these are attributes Woodley has proven to have no issue with in the past. Where his most interesting technical advantage lays is in his proficiency in elbow strikes – an area in which Woodley has shown some holes in his past performances.

MacDonald doesn’t thrive against explosive fighters however. He’s far too measured a combatant and often fails to factor in the fact that his opponent may sometimes come in with a very powerful piece of offense and, despite being 18 fights deep into his career, he appears to have patched up this breach rather insufficiently. Furthermore, when out-aggressed, he relents pace – a horribly detrimental offense in the fight game and one that could mar a career if left unchecked.

Tyrone Woodley

Fast, strong, hyperathletic and full of piss and grit, Tyrone Woodley bounced back from a dejecting loss to Jake Shields in his second UFC fight with back-to-back knockout wins over Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit. Sure, the Condit win was a result of an injury but, as Woodley rightfully argued, that injury was created and exacerbated by his own actions in a fight he was clearly winning up until it ended prematurely, and his win should not be disputed or invalidated by arguments appealing to any extraneous circumstances.

Against MacDonald, he’ll be stouter, quicker and – as I expect it – more eager in the exchanges (re-watch the Condit fight for any substantiating evidence). As long as he’s wary of his opponent’s elbows and can properly time his transitions in and out of range, he should be able to come out victorious when they meet at UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov on June 14th.

Tyrone Woodley’s chances at defeating Rory MacDonald: 70 percent.

Okay… I lied – I am so sure that Tyrone Woodley is going to beat Rory MacDonald that I’m only going to focus on his chances (in the event that I’m wrong – and I’m often wrong – I’ll post a redaction with a new projection, which will likely mean nothing after I’ve already squandered my good name in punditry by way of hubris-laded assumption).

Hendricks and Woodley are two very similar fighters. Both come from wrestling bases (of course, Hendricks’ is far more formidable, as he is a four-time Division I All-American and a three-time Big 12 Conference champion in wrestling), both have explosive knockout power and, despite all of their previous laurels, both of these rough-and-tumble gents have developed an unabashed love for the knockout game.

What’s weird is, Woodley – “The Chosen One” – has more submissions recorded than he does knockouts. This is a perplexing stat considering his fight style, but it adds color to another facet of his overall game: he’s an opportunist in every area the fight takes place. Conversely, it almost seems at times like Hendricks throws away good positions because he’d much rather fuck around and show how dominant he is. That kind of unnecessary risk-taking may be all it takes to grant Woodley the opening he needs to lay “Big Rig” out in crash-and-burn fashion.

Then again, Hendricks is one of only four men to make former UFC welterweight kingpin and perennial G.O.A.T. contender George St-Pierre look human. Food for thought.

Tyrone Woodley’s chances of defeating Johny Hendricks: 30 percent.


(Slider image courtesy of cagepassion.com… or the UFC/Zuffa LLC. I’ve neither the time nor patience to go all super-detective on an innocuous picture of a belt.)

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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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