MMA Draft 2014: Picking the Top 32 Franchise Fighters in the Sport Today
Don't be angry at the NFL. They saw a good idea and took it.
It's OK that you're confused. Very few people today remember that mixed martial arts held the very first draft. It's true!* You can look it up!**
A reminder of the ground rules: 32 picks. Every active fighter is eligible to be drafted. Every promotion, every age, every weight class.
But we're not just ranking the best 32 and dressing it up in the costume of the season. Our eyes are on the future. Sure, raw numbers are important, but so is upside, a winning pedigree, intelligence (thankfully, no Wonderlics, though) and other intangibles like character and marketability. These are not just the best fighters available but the faces of the franchise.
So here we go. With the first pick in the 2014 MMA draft, we hereby select...
*Very, very true
**Don't look it up
1. Jon Jones
Other notables: UFC light heavyweight champion, footwear spokesperson, best fighter on Earth
No need to overthink this one. Jon Jones is the first man off anyone's board.
Just a couple of weeks ago, he defended his title for the seventh straight time, displaying his usual dominant and exciting style in all phases by manhandling a true warrior in Glover Teixeira at UFC 172.
He's no public relations whiz and seems to have a touch of the rabbit ears. But he's still young and learning and desperately wants to be liked. Inside the cage, there is, indisputably, no shortage of reasons to do so.
2. Ronda Rousey
Other notables: First and only UFC women's champion, Olympic judo medalist, magazine cover person, enthusiastic heel
Time and again, Ronda Rousey has shown everyone how patently unstoppable she is as a fighter: nine wins, nine stoppages, all but one in the first round, all but one by armbar submission. Until she leaves for Hollywood or prison or something, women's MMA will be Rousey and then everyone else.
She has chinks in the armor. She seems rather, uh, excitable, with even the tiniest things blasting her to DEFCON 1. She has anger issues. She's a sore winner (and, one would assume, loser, though no one really knows). Her time coaching The Ultimate Fighter revealed her to be someone who might just have a case of the crazy.
But she's an awesome fighter and arguably MMA's biggest crossover star. Just make sure you have someone around to pick out the red M&Ms. You wouldn't like Ronda Rousey after she's seen a red M&M.
3. Cain Velasquez
Other notables: Heavyweight champion, MMA ambassador to Mexico, quiet storm of destruction, only logical choice to represent humankind in hand-to-hand combat with alien with future of species in the balance
Take the pound-for-pound out of it. Heck, leave the pound-for-pound in it. Velasquez is the most dangerous fighter in the world and baddest man on the planet.
Outside of that fluky knockout to the great Junior dos Santos, Velasquez's record is spotless, and his belt is unthreatened.
Does he give the greatest interview? No, he does not. But that's part of the appeal, from a certain point of view.
Velasquez, the son of migrant farm workers including a Mexican father who crossed the border into America, is at the vanguard of the UFC's push south of the border, where boxing fans are legion but MMA has yet to take hold. Zuffa brass is hoping his coaching turn on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, followed by his fight with Fabricio Werdum at UFC 180 in Mexico City, will change that.
4. Anthony Pettis
Other notables: Lightweight champion, upcoming The Ultimate Fighter coaching stint
Only injuries are holding Anthony Pettis back from being even higher on the big board.
A couple of knee injuries have halted his growth as one of the sport's brightest stars. But even despite that, he has achieved a top level of success, submitting Benson Henderson to take the lightweight strap last August.
What sets the charismatic Pettis apart is his ability to hit video game moves in even the biggest contests. He's flashy but not for the sake of flash. When he runs up the side of the cage and then lands a somersault kick on his opponent (OK, not that crazy, but close enough), there's a method in the madness. It's more than empty novelty.
He's really, really good, in other words. Unfortunately, he hasn't fought since taking the title. But that will (hopefully) change at the end of TUF 20, when he'll face rival coach and longtime standout Gilbert Melendez. After that, a megafight with featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo may still loom. Now that would be something.
5. Jose Aldo
Other notables: Featherweight champion, nine-year winning streak
Plenty of hardcore fans will tell you Aldo is the sport's true pound-for-pound best. They coo over his ferocity, which is always tempered with efficiency. They drool over his Anderson Silva-esque cage acumen, watching him stand in the pocket and silently decipher his opponent. They rave over his complete fighting game—that classic Brazilian blend of jiu-jitsu poured over muay thai.
So why isn't he higher on the list?
Part of it, as with Pettis, is the injury bug. If it's not a training injury, it's a motorcycle accident. He can't ever seem to stay at 100 percent for any significant stretch.
There's also the language barrier. Aldo's English skills are not up to a fluent level. It's going to be hard to be a crossover star without strong English, because it's America's language but also, to some extent, the de facto common tongue for the rest of the world. That's not my rule. That's just the way it is.
His skill set transcends language, even if he and this crazy game do not.
6. Johny Hendricks
Other notables: Welterweight champ, thunder fists, stylish facial hair
It's more than the big knockout, which he has done eight times and against some of the world's best welterweights. It's more than the college wrestling championships, which all but assure he will never be a one-trick pony. And it's more than the gold around his waist.
Everyone keeps waiting for Johny Hendricks to falter or get exposed somehow. But Georges St-Pierre couldn't do it, not really, and neither could Robbie Lawler in one of the best fights so far of 2014.
He keeps right on rolling, excelling despite relatively low expectations, at least for a UFC champion. And he keeps on smiling, bearding, yucking and aw-shucksing his way through countless interviews. He's a good ol' boy made good. And there's a good chance he's going to get better.
Hendricks killed some of his own momentum with a biceps injury after UFC 171. And that's a shame.
With Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre on extended shelf stays and Rousey and Jones failing to launch (at least to date) in a huge way with the public, there's a much-discussed star-power vacuum in the UFC right now. The new welterweight champ may be in position to step into the breach.
7. Renan Barao
Record: 32-1 (1)
Other notables: Bantamweight champion, seven-year unbeaten streak
As with his countryman and Nova Uniao campmate Aldo, Renan Barao loses points for living on the wrong side of the language barrier. A newer competitor who is fighting in an even lighter weight class, he's also more anonymous.
Still, he easily cracks the top 10 for his amazing skill set. The way he's dispatched all comers from Urijah Faber to Brad Pickett, it's hard not to think he'll be around for quite a while. That unification (of sorts) match with former titleholder Dominick Cruz has to happen sooner or later, possibly this year. That would send his star even higher, assuming he comes out on top.
8. Chris Weidman
Other notables: Middleweight champion, Anderson Silva slayer
The Long Islander is an undeniably great fighter, smoothly combining his wrestling base with heavy boxing and some pretty slick submissions. Weidman also undeniably earned a lot of points with a lot of people for knocking out a showboating Anderson Silva.
Still, he could drop quickly if he loses. There's a veneer of invincibility around him, but that veneer is thin. Despite his spotless record, most of his fame comes from two fights against one person, and both of those arguably ended under unusual circumstances (particularly the second, in which Weidman won by TKO after that gruesome Silva leg break).
It also doesn't help that Weidman treats most microphones like they're made of communicable fungus. But he's still a terrific talent with youth and a heaping share of All-Americanness on his side.
9. Demetrious Johnson
Other notables: Flyweight champion
Fairly or not, the flyweights have once again slipped down the big board. Still, the champ will shake the imaginary commish's hand while the numbers are still in the single digits.
Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson might be the UFC's most athletically gifted fighter on top of one of its most talented. His quickness makes him look like he's skating on ice, even against other freaky-fast flyweights. The last time he lost, there was no flyweight division in the UFC. While he wins close decisions sometimes, those decisions also are clear. This could be a long title reign.
10. Alexander Gustafsson
Other notables: Swedish
It's hard to believe the Swede is still only 27. And it's hard not to believe that he'll hold light heavyweight gold as soon as Jon Jones departs. Who knows? Maybe before that.
Every fan knows that Alexander Gustafsson gave Jones the fight of his career last year. And every fan has been waiting ever since for the other shoe to drop. During that wait, the affable Gustafsson has performed admirably as a shepherd dog, or whatever dog breed that is, keeping the big rematch in the news cycle and spoiling for his second chance at Jones.
He even trucked Jimi Manuwa this winter. Just for fun. Just to stay fresh. Just to collect two more post-fight bonus checks.
It looks like the Jones-Gustafsson rematch might become reality later this year and could go down in a big stadium in Sweden. My business sources tell me that one could do a decent number.
11. Luke Rockhold
Other notables: Former Strikeforce middleweight champ, talented, handsome young man
Look at that photo! There's a whole collection of photos like this. I half-expect George Clooney to go shooting by on his speed boat in the background, and he's got that new fiancee with him, and the fiancee goes, "Who's that?" and jumps off the side of the speeding boat, and Rockhold is like, "It's just me, Luke Rockhold, hey, want a beer?" and everybody's like "Swoooon."
What can you say? Guys want to hang out with him. Girls want to be with him. So on and so forth. And he has the massive talent to back it all up. Did you see him twist up Tim Boetsch like a crab pretzel a couple of weeks ago in Baltimore? Did you see him gut-KO Costas Philippou?
The former Strikeforce middleweight champ is good at fighting, he's telegenic, and he is coming for that belt. And he understands the marketing side as well. And I don't just mean this photo shoot. Before and after his Boetsch win at UFC 172, Rockhold called out Jacare Souza, Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort (the last man to beat him) in a single interview. He chops it up on Twitter and Instagram, too, just to drive it all home.
If he can avenge that Belfort loss, he might have a clear path to the title and a much higher spot on next year's big board.
I recall @Bisping telling me to win a fight before calling him out! Hmmmm— Luke Rockhold (@LukeRockhold) April 22, 2014
12. Frankie Edgar
Other notables: Former lightweight champ, fought in seven straight title fights
Remember: This is about more than pure talent. It's about star power and marketability. Charisma. Putting the backsides in the seats.
Ask casual MMA fans about their favorites, and almost inevitably Frankie Edgar's name comes up. That's why he is where he is.
He's starting to show some wear and tear from waging so many battles in recent years, including seven five-round fights between 2010 and 2013. But this coaching stint on TUF opposite B.J. Penn is providing a much-needed break from toiling in close decisions with UFC champs and challengers.
He should get another nice notoriety bump from the show, polish off Penn for a fairly easy big-name scalp and then return to the contender grind in the featherweight division.
13. Daniel Cormier
Other notables: Former Olympic wrestler, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner, new entrant to light heavyweight division
Daniel Cormier's style isn't designed to move the crowd. It's designed to maximize control time while completely crushing and demoralizing his opponent. And it's darn effective, too.
He showed against overmatched, mouth-running Patrick Cummins that he's also capable of closing the curtain, felling the young man by TKO in his light heavyweight debut.
Cormier is old at 35 but still new to the sport. Ergo, we're grading on a bit of a curve when it comes to this particular fighter's age.
He is also a gifted talker, working the studio booth for Fox Sports and generally styling himself as a sort of MMA answer to Charles Barkley. Meanwhile, he's on a fast track to the light heavyweight title, where he's already laid plenty of tracks with Mr. Jones.
14. Benson Henderson
Other notables: Former UFC lightweight champion
This could be the first steal of the draft.
Benson Henderson lost some shine when he dropped the belt to nemesis Pettis. The huge and powerful lightweight has a clinch-heavy, war-of-attrition kind of style that doesn't endear him to action-oriented fans.
In his first bout after Pettis, he earned the third split-decision win in his last four victories (the other was a unanimous decision). And the wins aren't squeaky clean, either. It seems each one comes with at least a trace of controversy over the real winner; some come with a lot more.
Either way, the former champ is an excellent, if overlooked, fighter. If he can defeat Dagestani phenom Rustam Khabilov in June, that would be a step in the right direction. You know what would make it even better? Something memorable.
15. Rory MacDonald
Other notables: Still the UFC's top prospect after all these years
Give it up for "The Canadian Psycho."
Rory MacDonald still can't legally rent a car in the United States, but he has already weathered a career's worth of ups and downs.
After an uninspiring, defaultish win over Jake Ellenberger, he lost to Robbie Lawler in November. He was tentative to attack in both, and there was some talk he had become gun shy.
Then came the fight with Demian Maia, where MacDonald rallied after early danger to fend off Maia's takedowns and batter him on the feet for the decision win.
MacDonald gives off the air of someone a bit overprogrammed (not to mention overdressed)—a bit of a combat savant or cyborg. Beating someone's head in seems to come easier to him than explaining how or why such a thing just happened.
That's part of his strange appeal. And that appeal will only grow larger if he can get past Tyron Woodley—a fighter eight years his senior but with three fewer pro fights—at UFC 174. That win would presumably get MacDonald to the title.
16. Eddie Alvarez
Other notables: Lightweight champion
Assuming it actually comes off this time, Bellator's first-ever pay-per-view, going down May 17 in the form of Bellator 120, will obviously be a big turning point for the promotion.
It's fitting that the card will be topped by the promotion's two best fighters competing in a rubber match of the promotion's best rivalry. That's right: Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler III, for the strap.
Alvarez took the rematch last fall in a bout that doubled as his return to action following lengthy and acrimonious contract negotiations with Bellator.
More than the lightweight belt is on the line. The winner will probably be considered the best Bellator fighter ever to date, assuming you're ready to pretend Ben Askren never existed.
Alvarez has an exciting boxing style that he's ridden to 14 knockouts. He's never met a mic he didn't want to crush, either. Add in, for upside purposes, the fact that he has more tread on his tires than the average 30-year-old high-level cage fighter (thanks in large part to that negotiation sit-out).
Seems like a good recipe for long-term success to me. Although if Chandler can beat him in 10 days' time, these two could be ready for a draft-day flip-flop.
17. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Other notables: Unstoppable Dagestani freight train
For the young man from Dagestan, the future is so bright, he has to wear a traditional headdress that looks like a blond afro wig.
If you don't know who Nurmagomedov is by now, well, I feel sorry for you. He has rocketed right to the top of this new wave of fighters who hail from Russia and all its various territories (Dagestan is part of Russia but considers itself independent). He has not lost or been threatened, even in six UFC contests.
Most recently, he manhandled another tough fighter in Rafael dos Anjos. If the 25-year-old isn't a contender yet, I don't know what a contender looks like. Grab him here; it seems his stock won't go any lower anytime soon.
18. Gilbert Melendez
Other notables: Former Strikeforce lightweight champion
Gilbert Melendez has quietly been one of the sport's best lightweights for six years. Part of that anonymity was a function of his long tenure with Strikeforce, where he owned the division for more or less his entire stay.
The UFC did the right thing in giving him a title shot in his debut fight, and though he dropped a squeaker to Benson Henderson, he still proved he belonged at that level.
He'll have another chance to prove that when he coaches opposite Pettis on TUF 20, where Melendez will have a certain pair of Diaz brothers in tow. Should be fun.
19. Lyoto Machida
Other notables: Former light heavyweight champion, 2-0 as middleweight
It's not enough to win. You have to win pretty. That's what Lyoto Machida has done since dropping to middleweight.
First came the head-kick knockout of Mark Munoz in his debut for the division. Then came the decision win over Gegard Mousasi. Both earned the UFC's nod of approval in the form of post-fight bonuses.
Now he has a title shot against Weidman. We'll see what happens there. But it's clear the division change was more than a novelty for Machida. He's more powerful there and better than ever, and it has reinvigorated the draft status of the likable karate kid.
20. Chad Mendes
Other notables: Featherweight title contender, possibly best fighter at Team Alpha Male
As long as Jose Aldo is around, it's going to be hard for any other featherweight to break through to the top. But if anyone is going to do it, it's probably Chad Mendes.
The power wrestler lost to Aldo by KO in their first bout back in early 2012. It was another masterpiece by a violent artist. But Mendes has gotten far better since. No member of the prestigious Team Alpha Male camp seemed to benefit more from the addition of striking coach Duane Ludwig. Since his arrival in late 2012, Mendes has gone 4-0 with three knockouts.
That's pretty good. And that's on top of his power wrestling game. Can he get it done in the rematch, which is scheduled for August at UFC 176? Probably not. But he earned the rematch and proved he is better than anyone not named Aldo in the weight class.
21. Holly Holm
Promotion: Legacy Fighting Championship
Other notables: Former world champion boxer, inaugural Legacy FC women's bantamweight champion
Amid all the Cyborg Justino and Gina Carano talk and ever-present Rousey white noise, everyone seems to be forgetting Holly Holm.
All that Bleacher Report's top overall prospect for 2014 has done is film a personal highlight reel at every pro MMA competition she has been a part of. Has she fought great opponents? No, she hasn't. And yet, it seems the former boxing champ has the power, athleticism, talent, grit and screen appeal to be big in big league MMA.
And the bigs are interested, even if contract negotiations with the UFC have been pretty counterproductive to date. There's at least a small chance a deal still could get done some time in the foreseeable future, with UFC President Dana White noting Wednesday on UFC Tonight that Holm is still in the company's sights.
Signing Holm would be more credible from a fighting standpoint than signing Carano, although nobody really cares about that, apparently.
In any event, Holm needs more polish as a fighter, though she'll receive plenty of that as a part of the prestigious Jackson-Winkeljohn outfit. It seems more a matter of when than if for Holm, even if her big MMA break doesn't happen tomorrow.
22. Carlos Condit
Other notables: Former UFC interim welterweight champ, natural born killer
Carlos Condit is, and it's not close, the best fighter in the world who has lost three of his last four fights.
Of course, one of those was to former champion Georges St-Pierre and one was to current champ Johny Hendricks. The other ended in TKO when Condit suffered a freak knee injury.
It's also worth noting that three of those contests also netted Fight of the Night bonuses. So, yeah.
That aforementioned knee injury, from which he is still recovering, might slow his roll a little. Then again, it might not. Open question. But here on draft day, it does introduce some uncertainty, and as such, he has tumbled a couple of spots.
Nevertheless, he remains a solid first-rounder, given that he's one of the toughest, most diverse, most exciting, most spinningest, most all-round best fighters on the UFC or any other roster.
23. Michael Chandler
Other notables: Former Bellator lightweight champion
See slide on Alvarez. Now reverse it for Michael Chandler.
The wrestling-based Chandler is all sorts of skilled and definitely has the tools to finish Alvarez, who is two years his senior. If he does, go ahead and flip-flop them on the draft board here.
24. Ben Askren
Promotion: ONE FC
Other notables: Former Bellator welterweight champion
His style outside the cage is as engaging as his in-cage style is boring.
But both are pretty great in their own ways, and Ben Askren might be the most talented welterweight outside the UFC.
It's unfortunate that the very funny Askren had to marginalize himself by moving to the other side of the world, where he will fight nobodies for the next couple of years and take potshots at Bellator, the UFC and other fighters from afar.
ONE FC is a fine promotion, but it's not big enough to hold a global talent like Askren. Here's hoping he has other chances in bigger ponds.
25. Conor McGregor
Other notables: Former Cage Warriors multi-division champ, major trash-talker
I don't know how Conor McGregor keeps all his storylines straight.
But he does, and he has parlayed those soundbites (and a high-octane kickboxing style) into his current status as the most famous Irish cage fighter of all time at the ripe age of 25.
That might say plenty about the slow evolution of the sport in Ireland, but it also says something about McGregor. Yeah, he talks a lot. Like, a lot. Quite a good bit. But it's working. The UFC (not to mention fans) eat that stuff with a spoon, and McGregor is now headlining a July UFC Fight Night card in Dublin against Cole Miller, one of the 700 or so fighters with whom he has beef.
McGregor is aiming to win titles in more than one UFC division, just as he did in the Cage Warriors promotion. He's 2-0 so far as an Octagon featherweight. We'll see if he can shake off the ring rust he gained after missing almost a year with a torn ACL, and we'll see where a win over Miller—not to mention that unrelenting woof—will land him next.
26. Anthony Johnson
Other notables: Won UFC return match at UFC 172, also first UFC fight at light heavyweight
Anthony "Rumble" Johnson was a big underdog against Phil Davis at UFC 172. He shouldn't have been.
It's bizarre to think back to the time when Johnson used to cut to welterweight. Because he's pretty big even at 205, where he beat Davis to the punch and stuffed plenty of takedowns en route to a dominant decision win. It's what you might call taking care of business.
After repeated problems making weight, the UFC released Johnson. That was 2012. Ever since, he's gone 7-0, including three wins in the well-regarded World Series of Fighting and now a big one back under the UFC banner.
With that devastating striking power and what appears to be a grown man's focus on fighting, it seems like the right time to get all in on the Rumble train.
27. Nate Diaz
Other notables: Nah
We're toward the end of the round now. Go ahead. Take a flier.
This is the kind of move that might make you look like a genius. Then again, it might make you look kind of dumb, too. But hey, this is what makes draft day exciting. Sometimes we must roll the dice in life.
And nothing in MMA says "rolling the dice" like anything having to do with the Diaz brothers. And between Nate and Nick Diaz, younger brother Nate seems like the surer bet than quasi-retired older bro Nick.
That might not have been the case before November, when he was on a two-fight skid. But that knockout of Gray Maynard put him right back on top.
Now, as we all know, Diaz and the UFC are playing some weird game of contract negotiation footsie, with the UFC recently removing Diaz from their official rankings list and subsequently (presumably) taking its ball and going home.
It's anyone guess what the future holds. But here's imagining the wildly popular Diaz lands somewhere. Assuming he actually wants to show up to proverbial camp.
28. Junior Dos Santos
Other notables: Former heavyweight champion, consensus second-best heavyweight in the world
He was beaten handily by Velasquez, twice. They were demoralizing defeats, too, made all the more so by the fact that two losses to the same person generally rules out another meeting.
Junior dos Santos' injured hand, which forced him out of his fight later in May with Stipe Miocic, is another setback. It all explains his big tumble down the board.
But he's still here. Why? Look at it from the other side. The guy remains highly likable, popular (especially in his native Brazil) and dangerous. He'll probably still be only 30 when he fights next, at which point he will dismantle Miocic or Fabricio Werdum or whomever else the UFC wants to throw his way.
He might never beat Velasquez again, and he's in a difficult position in that regard. But he's still a draftable guy. Stash him on your bench for when you need a massive knockout against anyone who isn't Velasquez. He kind of brings a bit of a restrictor plate to the proceedings, but there you go.
29. John Dodson
Other notables: Good victory celebrations, kind of irritating in public
I went back and forth between John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez. Only two months separate them in age, with Dodson being slightly older. Only three fights separate their record sheets, with Benavidez having a slight edge in experience.
Ultimately I went with Dodson for one simple reason: He hasn't lost twice yet to Demetrious Johnson.
That gives him a much wider path back into a UFC flyweight title fight than Benavidez, who was knocked out by the champ for his second defeat in as many title bouts at 125 pounds.
Dodson also has a slight edge in pure athleticism. That includes striking power, which on paper gives him more of a proverbial puncher's chance against the champ.
It's the little things that separate these two, both of whom seem to be in a class of their own in the division, clearly better than all but DJ and each other. It's interesting that they haven't fought each other yet.
Hmm, what are you guys doing in, say, mid-autumn?
30. Pat Curran
Other notables: Featherweight champion
You had to admire the manner in which Pat Curran climbed back on the horse. After losing his title to Daniel Straus, what did he do? Choked him out in the first round in the immediate rematch. I'll take that belt back, thank you.
One of the longtime faces of Bellator is very well-rounded and aggressive. He fought four times in 2013 after fighting only once in 2012. In 2014, I'm hoping for something more like the former.
31. Urijah Faber
Other notables: Former WEC featherweight champ, current UFC bantamweight bridesmaid
Urijah Faber is simply too good to set aside. Yes, he has now lost twice to Barao (even if the second contained some mild controversy). No, he has yet to break through in a UFC title fight.
But the leader of Team Alpha Male is still one of the most popular and recognizable fighters in the sport. He's also one of its best bantamweights and grapplers and surely has some good fights left. At 34 years old, you know the end won't be too far away, but it's still far away enough that you wouldn't mind him anchoring your squad.
32. Anderson Silva
Other notables: Former middleweight champion, greatest mixed martial artist of all time
Lights go off...
"Ain't no sunshiiiiinnnne when sheee's goooone..."
Pushing 40, coming off that horrific broken leg, he might not be the same guy.
But then again, he might.
You pass him up in the first round of your MMA draft. I'm not doing it.
Scott Harris writes about MMA and other things for Bleacher Report and other places. Feel free to follow Scott on Twitter.