One of the more poignant aspects of Chuck Liddell’s forced retirement after his loss to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua last Saturday is the realization that most of the stars responsible for the UFC’s current explosion of popularity are on their last legs.
Liddell. Randy Couture. Tito Ortiz. Matt Hughes. All once dominated their weight classes but now have certainly left their better days behind them. For fans, it’s bittersweet. For promoters, it’s probably terrifying.
Who’s going to sell pay per views now that Chuck is gone? Who’s going to represent the sport with class and dignity when Randy finally walks away? Who’s going get their ugly mug on the side of a can of malt liquor now that Tito has twins with a porn star?
With the old guard shuffling off to that great Octagon in the sky, a new generation of stars will have to emerge to carry the torch.
Who will be the men to do it? These guys. Here’s a look at the UFC’s top up-and-coming fighters, in each weight class:
Heavyweight -- Cain Velasquez.
Truthfully, it’s hard to pick “up-and-comers” in a division where the champion of the world only has four pro fights and stringing together just a couple of wins in the Octagon will earn you No. 1 contender status almost overnight. That said, Velasquez is unquestionably the best young heavyweight in the UFC right now.
The 25-year-old former
Right now, the only person stopping Velasquez from being the consensus top contender to whoever emerges with the title after Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir settle their business at UFC 100 is Shane Carwin. The 34-year-old Carwin is the best big man not wearing a belt in the UFC, but Velasquez gets the nod on this list because of his relative youth.
Light Heavyweight -- Jon Jones.
Jones became the favorite fighter de jour for bloggers and fans alike after he tossed Stephan Bonnar around like a rag doll at UFC 94. Aside from being a former junior college national wrestling champion, he is an unorthodox and exciting striker who floored Bonnar with a spinning back elbow during their fight in January.
Jones’ youth is astounding. He won’t turn 22 until July, but is already 8-0 as a professional. At 6-foot-4, with an 84 ½ inch reach he seems to have all the physical tools necessary to be a big-time contender in the UFC. At this point the biggest risk for the fighter nicknamed “Bones” is that he could become overhyped and overexposed before he can become a seasoned UFC vet. But given time to grown and mature, the sky seems to be the limit for this kid.
Jones’ next fight is scheduled for UFC 100, against Jake O’Brien.
Middleweight -- Demian Maia.
The UFC middleweight division just hasn’t been able to keep up with Anderson Silva. The 185-pound champion has chewed through every contender the company has seen fit to throw his way, so much so that “The Spider” has grown bored and listless with the utter lack of competition.
That’s where the 31-year-old Maia comes in. The Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt and 2007 ADCC submission wrestling champion has looked flawless in his five consecutive UFC wins. Maia (10-0) outstanding enough to make seasoned pros like Chael Sonnen, Nate Quarry and Jason MacDonald look like rank amateurs as soon as their fights hit the ground.
A match-up between champ Silva and challenger Maia would be the most interesting match-up of styles the UFC has in its current middleweight division. While Silva is also a BJJ black belt, the edge would surely go to Maia if he managed to get “The Spider” on his back. Maia’s camp says they expect that fight to happen as soon as UFC 102.
Welterweight – Anthony Johnson.
Johnson (7-2) has all the trappings of a mixed martial arts superstar. At 25, he’s wickedly athletic, an ever-evolving striker and, at 6-foot-2, he’s crazy tall for the welterweight division.
Since losing to Kevin Burns by extremely questionable TKO via doctor’s stoppage last July, Johnson has fired off back-to-back wins in the Octagon. The first avenged his loss to Burns in December, the second was a first-round TKO over Luigi Fioravanti in February. A great competitor with an engaging personality, Johnson has been a mainstay of the UFC’s free TV broadcasts during the last two years. Hopefully he’ll soon become a legitimate PPV draw as well.
With a tough fight against Matt Brown scheduled for June 20, Johnson is one standout in a 170-pound class stacked with young talent. Fighters like Martin Kampmann, Dan Hardy, Carlos Condit and TJ Grant could all make their mark in the coming years.
Lightweight – Gray Maynard.
“The Bully” has been unstoppable since emerging from the cast of “TUF” season five. After joining the star-studded ranks of the Xtreme Couture fight team in
The one knock against Maynard (7-0) is that the powerful wrestler hasn’t been adept at finishing fights. He’s currently riding a streak of four consecutive decisions and has been held up as an example of the typical “lay and pray” American wrestler by some commentators. But Maynard has made strides at becoming a more exciting fighter, as evidenced in recent wins over Jim Miller and Rich Clementi.
If Maynard can continue to improve his game and develop into a finisher, he’ll be an extremely marketable and popular guy.