Picking Champions: Who the UFC Would Choose to Wear the Belt

Steven RondinaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2014

Picking Champions: Who the UFC Would Choose to Wear the Belt

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    A UFC belt is worth a lot. Not just to the fighters, but to the promotion.

    Having a championship bout on top of a card increases sales while boosting the marketability and drawing power of an event. It isn't until the UFC combines a belt with an already popular fighter that it gets a true star. 

    Still, popularity and winning don't always go hand in hand.

    In a perfect world, who would hold belts? What fighters blend together the skills, personality and style that could combine to make a star? 

    Who does the UFC want to have as its champions?

    Find out right here.

Women's Strawweight: Felice Herrig

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    Credit: Esther Lin, InvictaFC.com

    Why the UFC Wants Her as Champ

    When it comes to looks, Felice Herrig is a unique blend of attractive and grizzled. She has a fan-friendly fighting style courtesy of her years of competing in muay thai. Most importantly, though, she has what few other 115-pound fighters have: a pre-existing fanbase. 

    She is one of Invicta FC's best-known fighters and will bring her followers to the UFC. That would set her up to instantly become a solid draw for the UFC in 2014.


    How It Can Happen

    Herrig has a clear path to being a champion. As one of the women set to compete in The Ultimate Fighter Season 20, all she has to do is win four fights in a row, and she'll earn herself a shiny new UFC belt. Simple, right?


    Plan B

    If Herrig doesn't come out on top of TUF 20, the UFC wouldn't be too broken up about having Joanne Calderwood as the inaugural strawweight champ. Calderwood, like Herrig, comes from a muay thai background and is as cute as a button. Oh, and she's also one of the top fighters from an emerging market in Scotland. That doesn't hurt.

Flyweight: John Dodson

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    I love Demetrious Johnson. Really, I do. 

    It's undeniable, though, that a sizable chunk of MMA's fandom isn't going to open up to the 125-pounders. "Mighty Mouse" is likely going to get his chance at headlining a pay-per-view in 2014, and when the buyrate clocks in just barely over 200,000, it is unlikely that we'll see a flyweight get top billing on a PPV again, barring a UFC on Fox 9-style injury situation. 

    The best the UFC can do in that bad situation would be to trot out somebody who is, at the very least, exciting. With dynamite hands and a quirky personality, John Dodson is by far the most exciting flyweight both in and out of the cage.


    How It Can Happen

    With Johnson demolishing the supposed-to-be king-killer Joseph Benavidez, the UFC doesn't have many other options these days. While Dodson and Johnson fought in 2013, it was a very close match that saw the champ get rocked on two occasions. If Dodson stays in the win column, it's only a matter of time before he gets another shot at the belt.


    Plan B

    While Benavidez is the better knockout artist, the current champ reigns as the most technically marvelous fighter in the UFC. While he lacks the "wow" factor of Dodson, Johnson can continue keeping hardcore fans on the edge of their seats while making all the guys gussied up in their best TapouT shirts yawn between swigs of Natty Ice.

Women's Bantamweight: Ronda Rousey

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the UFC Wants Her as Champ

    The women's MMA experiment has paid off in a big way for the UFC. With the departure of Georges St-Pierre and the shelving of Anderson Silva, Ronda Rousey is the biggest draw in the promotion. Her one-of-a-kind blend of supreme athleticism, elite grappling and ability to juggle training and nonstop PR appearances has made her a godsend for Zuffa.


    How It Can Happen

    She is already champion but faces a tough test against fellow Olympian Sara McMann. They face off at UFC 170 in February.


    Plan B

    Rousey became a star by combining four things: good looks, smack talk, hyper-competitiveness and legitimate ferocity in the cage. There is precisely one other female fighter in the UFC who matches (or exceeds) her in those categories: TUF 18 winner Julianna Pena. Pena has a Rousey-style charisma, whether she acknowledges it or not, and she is just as good as Rousey in terms of making fans recoil in horror as she destroys opponents.

    Pena is a star in the making, and a belt would obviously make her an overnight sensation. What's more, having her win would give The Ultimate Fighter a much-needed boost of credibility in terms of being a source of championship-caliber talent. We'll see how that knee injury ends up panning out.

Bantamweight: Urijah Faber

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    With his golden locks and a distinctive surfer chic, Urijah Faber is the kind of guy you can build a promotion around. In fact, the WEC did that not too long ago. He has always been one of the most marketable people under the Zuffa umbrella, and that is the primary reason the UFC has hooked him up with so many title shots over the last four years (the other reasons, of course, are limited options outside Faber and that he's really, really good at MMA).

    Faber is already marketable, identifiable and popular. Imagine adding a belt to that equation.


    How It Can Happen

    Faber faces off with the now-undisputed bantamweight champ Renan Barao at UFC 169. If he wins, Zuffa would get a new poster boy.


    Plan B

    Besides Faber, the bantamweight division is devoid of any sort of drawing power or personalities. Even Barao, for all his skills and amazing finishing power, has failed to click with even the most Brazilian of fans. Because of that, the UFC would be fine with any given fighter from a potentially exploitable foreign market. Takeya Mizugaki, Erik Perez and Kyung-Ho Kang all fit that bill.

Featherweight: Jose Aldo

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    This has gone unnoticed, but it is a big deal. When Anderson Silva lost to Chris Weidman, Jose Aldo was the only Brazilian champion in the UFC for a little while there. Obviously, his friend and teammate Renan Barao has given the UFC a bit of insurance in that regard, but Aldo is a big part of the promotion's presence in Brazil, despite his marginal-at-best drawing power elsewhere.

    The UFC knows it has a good thing going with him. The fact that the promotion has been so adamantly against him moving to lightweight attests to that.


    How It Can Happen

    Aldo already happens to be the proud owner of a UFC belt. He will try and defend it from Ricardo Lamas at UFC 169.


    Plan B

    Last year, I happened to be living in a little place named Gyeonggi-do. It's a tiny province, a little bit smaller than Massachusetts in terms of square mileage, but it happens to be home to about 13 million Koreans.

    During their brutally humid summers, if you're looking to make any sort of sports-related small talk, it will start and end with baseball. 2013 was a particularly eventful year for baseball in Korea, too, between the World Baseball Classic, Shin-Soo Choo going to Cincinnati and Hyun-Jin Ryu becoming a star.

    One sports story got attention in the middle of all that, and that was "Korean Zombie" getting the chance to take a UFC belt. That gave a good boost to MMA's popularity in Korea, but the UFC will need a Korean champ if it wants to take over the market in earnest. The promotion would be well-served with Chan-Sung Jung sporting a UFC belt.

Lightweight: Gilbert Melendez

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    Before Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez, I spelled things out clearly. Mexico is a potentially strong market for the UFC, which is desperately seeking fighters to hype up south of the border.

    It's why Erik Perez was fast-tracked to a bantamweight title shot. More importantly, when Melendez vs. Sanchez turned out to be a barn-burner, it was dubbed not a "war," but a "Mexican world war" by Dana White, per MMA Fighting.

    With Cain Velasquez constantly injured, the UFC needs another fighter of Mexican descent to appease fans. Gilbert Melendez is a prime candidate.


    How It Can Happen

    Melendez is an elite lightweight and has been in the division's top three for a good nine or 10 years now. His fight with Sanchez raised his stock to the point where he is, at the very most, two fights away from another shot at the belt. For whatever reason, his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov fell through, but he is likely going to fight this spring against a top lightweight.


    Plan B

    While you might be thinking the UFC is well off with Anthony Pettis as champion, the fact is that despite his high-flying style and bad-boy looks, he can't draw flies. No, the fact is that he doesn't connect with any particular demographic that watches the UFC. One guy who does, though, is Donald Cerrone. 

    "Cowboy" is well-established as one of the lightweight division's best and most exciting fighters. Unlike Pettis, he falls into a combat sports character archetype: that of the hard-workin', gun-totin', cowboy hat-wearin' everyman. It's a hot demographic these days that appeals not to the guys in the front row but to the blue collars in the cheap seats.

    The fact that the UFC has him fight so frequently against beatable opponents shows just how valuable he is to the organization.

Welterweight: Johny Hendricks

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    Donald Cerrone isn't the only everyman in the UFC. Johny Hendricks also fits that bill. Just listen to Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter:

    Being a Texan, I can tell you there's a certain subset of UFC fan who identify with Johny Hendricks in every way, shape and form. Hendricks will connect with those fans because of the country music and the beard and the aw shucks attitude; what I'm saying, I guess, is that he'll never be booed in southern states...He can pull a Bret Hart and be a hero in the red states while remaining a villain in the rest of the world.

    Hendricks looks every bit the part of a rough-and-tumble country boy, and that's the kind of fighter the UFC would like to promote after the clean-cut Georges St-Pierre, who is spending his time partying between lacrosse games.


    How It Can Happen

    Hendricks came out on the wrong end of a controversial split decision in his fight with Georges St-Pierre at UFC 167, but he is getting another shot at the belt right away. He faces off with Robbie Lawler in the main event of UFC 171. The winner becomes the new welterweight champion.


    Plan B

    Hendricks may look the part of a rough, tough fighter, but he also lives up to the image in the cage by being a brutally hard hitter. The only other welterweight who has Hendricks' one-punch knockout power is Hector Lombard. In reality, the Cuban-Australian is every bit as appealing as Hendricks for the UFC stylistically, but his nationality opens up new doors for international expansion plans.

Middleweight: Vitor Belfort

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    Three fights. Three brutal knockouts in a row. It's hard to deny "The Phenom's" deservedness when it comes to a title shot. All that hard work is about to pay off in the form of a fight with a rising star with strong wrestling chops and heavy hands.

    His name? Randy Couture. 

    The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that goes double for the UFC's irrepressible, somewhat irrational desire for a Vitor Belfort title reign. Steroids or no steroids, TRT or no TRT, the UFC has always had an eyes-closed, fingers-in-ears, hope-for-the-best approach to him. Today is no different than 18 years ago.


    How It Can Happen

    Belfort is lined up to face current middleweight champ Chris Weidman. The fight will happen this coming summer, probably in Las Vegas...assuming the athletic commission is willing to play ball, of course.


    Plan B

    Michael Bisping. Not going to beat around the bush here.

    Bisping has been one of the UFC's steadiest draws for years now, and the fact that a week can't go by without some random middleweight starting a beef with him attests to that. Give him a belt, and he would instantly become a superstar.

Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    The UFC is a bit scared of Jon Jones, but it's the good kind of scared. He is a transcendent personality, one of just three in MMA history and just the second to ever hook up with the UFC. What's more, he is the first fighter to be regarded as a true athlete by the mainstream media. 

    He is a valuable commodity that legitimizes the sport in a way that has never been seen before. 

    He isn't just one of the UFC's biggest draws. He is the single most important fighter in MMA today.


    How It Can Happen

    Jones is already the champ. You know that, silly! He's set to defend his belt from Glover Teixeira at UFC 172.


    Plan B

    Any other fighter is a massive step down from Jones. His impact is measured in comparison to all sports, while the rest of the division is measured in relation to the teeny, tiny sideshow that is MMA. The best of the rest would probably be Rashad Evans.

    He's been there, done that and made Zuffa a good bit of money along the way.

Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez

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    Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

    Why the UFC Wants Him as Champ

    As I discussed, the UFC really wants to expand into Mexico. While it would love to have other folks to pitch to potential fans south of the border, the backbone to the move toward the equator is Cain Velasquez. In fact, he is so important to those plans that the UFC isn't even going to try and head to Mexico without him, per MMA Junkie.

    Think about that. 


    How It Can Happen

    He has the heavyweight belt, of course. Unfortunately, he is probably out for all of 2014 as he recovers from surgery.


    Plan B

    MMA fans dig the knockout. Junior dos Santos, despite two lopsided beatdowns at the hands of Velasquez, is widely regarded as the best heavyweight next to the champ and has proved himself to be, quite possibly, a bigger draw in America than the American Kickboxing Academy product.

    Dos Santos is super-nice, and it's hard not to fall in love when you see that big, goofy smile and a sick kid riding on his shoulder. The fact that he can knock out anybody in the world? That's just a bonus.

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