The first ever UFC event on the Versus network wasn’t the best debut in the history of the world. There were, however, some exciting moments, particularly by the fighters who were favored by the oddsmakers. Indeed, it was a great night if you were a favorite, as 10 of the 11 fighters favored to win had their hand raised. The following is a look forward at the options for the winners of some of the key matches from Sunday’s show.
Option 1: Ryan Bader
The lesson learned from Jones’ two most recent fights is that his elbows to a downed opponent are among the most viciously thrown in MMA. Well, that, and that Jon Jones is on the fast track to becoming a contender in the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division.
Jones is not quite a contender yet, though another performance like those he had against Brandon Vera and Matt Hamill (the disqualification aside) over the undefeated Ryan Bader would put Jones near the top of a growing list of contenders. Likewise, should Bader beat Jones to remain undefeated, his stock would soar. Perhaps more importantly in the long term is that both fighters have established themselves to the degree that a loss each other would not be particularly damaging to either one’s career, ensuring that the UFC will not only create a dominant new contender but keep another on the rise.
Option 2: Matt Hamill
A rematch with Matt Hamill almost seems unnecessary at this point. Does anyone truly believe that Hamill either won their first match or that he would win a rematch? No, of course not. However, it would be a shame to allow Jones to ascend to the top of the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division with the one blemish on his record remaining unaddressed. Then again, if Jones can become a legitimate contender following his next fight (say, if he does fight and defeat Bader), then I’m sure he’ll manage to sleep at night without memories of his “loss” to Hamill haunting his dreams.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS
Option 1: Cain Velasquez
Provided that Velasquez does not get the next title shot against Brock Lesnar upon his return to action, Velasquez will need an opponent. The winner of dos Santos v. Velasquez would not only become the top contender to the UFC Heavyweight title, there would also be a very compelling argument to consider the winner the top Heavyweight in MMA. Yes, that includes Fedor Emelianenko. To put a fighter of that caliber against Brock Lesnar would be compelling to fans and casual observers of the sport alike and would likely do enormous business, even by the high standards set by Brock Lesnar.
Option 2: Cheick Kongo
If the UFC is leery of sacrificing a top contender by matching dos Santos with Velasquez, Cheick Kongo would make a lot of sense for dos Santos. First of all, it’s a match that dos Santos should win. Second, Kongo has enough of a profile amongst the UFC audience that a win for dos Santos would keep him moving toward a title shot at a healthy pace while a loss wouldn’t be entirely damning. Third, with dos Santos and Kongo having both fought on the same card without suffering any injuries, they are on the same timeline and may even be able to fight again on somewhat short notice given the apparent ease with which they dispatched of their respective opponents.
Option 1: Junior dos Santos
Though this scenario favors dos Santos on paper, the match also makes a lot of sense from Kongo’s point of view. At some point, Kongo is going to have to prove that he can beat the top Heavyweights in the UFC and dos Santos appears to be among their ranks. A win for Kongo would finally move him into title contention, while a loss would do no worse than to put him back against a striker below Kongo’s level, against whom Kongo will likely emerge victorious.
Option 2: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
If not the student, then perhaps the master. Not to take anything away from how successful Kongo was at taking Buentello down and dominating him on the ground, but for all his determination to take fights to the ground, his ability to finish high-caliber opponents on the ground remains suspect. Nogueira would either force Kongo to make tremendous strides in his ground game or, more than likely, force Kongo to stick to kickboxing, which despite what he would like us to believe remains his greatest asset in the cage.
A win over Nogueira, like a win over dos Santos, would move Kongo into title contention, though probably not as emphatically given Nogueira’s loss to Cain Velasquez. A loss to Kongo would be Nogueira’s second in a row and would lead many to conclude that Nogueira’s career is near its end. On the other hand, if Nogueira were to beat Kongo, and that would still be the outcome favored by bookmakers and fans alike, the UFC may be able to convince fans that the former PRIDE Heavyweight champion still has another run at the title left in him.
Option 1: The winner of Nate Quarry v. Jorge Rivera
Despite Sakara’s victory over former UFC Middleweight title contender Thales Leites, there are plenty of questions remaining about his standing in the division. Though officially a TKO, the nature of Sakara’s knockout of James Irvin, combined with Irvin’s questionable conditioning following his first cut to 185lbs. did little to prove himself as a potential contender.
A match against either Nate Quarry or Jorge Rivera would help to move Sakara in that direction by matching him against an opponent who would be on roughly the same skill level as Sakara. Perhaps more importantly, both Quarry and Rivera are likely to put on an exciting performance against Sakara. A match against Quarry would likely be the slugfest the UFC and its fans were hoping to see between Sakara and Irvin.
Rivera would give Sakara a different set of problems as Rivera would likely look to take Sakara down, which has been a glaring weakness in his game throughout his MMA career. However, Rivera has had a rough go against aggressive strikers, suffering losses to Chris Leben, Terry Martin, Martin Kampmann and Anderson Silva. That’s not to say that Sakara is on the level of Anderson Silva (or Kampmann or Leben for that matter), but he has at least one of the tools capable of being used to beat Rivera.
Option 2: Chael Sonnen
The likelihood of this match occurring is very low, and rightly so. The UFC guaranteed Chael Sonnen’s that his next match would be a shot at the UFC Middleweight title. If Sonnen is so inclined, he can wait for the winner of Anderson Silva v. Demian Maia and no one should blame him for doing so. However, if Sonnen chooses to fight in the meantime, Sakara would be a sensible choice of opponent.
Not only is Sakara likely to be available to fight whenever Sonnen is fully recovered from the facial lacerations he suffered against Nate Marquardt, but Sakara poses very little threat to Sonnen. On the feet, Sakara would be the more technically proficient striker, but Sonnen has shown great improvement in his striking in each of his fights for the past several years. When it comes to the ability to take a punch, Sonnen is head and shoulders above Sakara, despite Sakara’s background as a professional boxer. Sonnen would also be able to take Sakara down at will and keep him on his back for as long as he would like.
The match would allow Sonnen to stay fresh while earning a victory over a fighter who has won three consecutive fights, including one over former contender Thales Leites. On the other hand, if Sakara happened to beat Sonnen, he will have four consecutive victories, including two wins over title contenders. At that point, Sakara would be no worse than on the list of potential contenders who the UFC could, in a pinch, put against the champion.