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The pretenders to the UFC thrones

As ever in the UFC, there are fascinating stories unfolding in every division, with champions looking to maintain their belts in the face of challenges from exciting youngsters and established veterans in all nine UFC divisions.

While the likes of heavyweight king Cain Velasquez, women’s bantamweight queen Ronda Rousey and flyweight superstar Demetrious Johnson all currently look unbeatable at the top of their divisions, the landscapes of the other weight classes could look a lot different this time next year.

So let’s have a closer look at the biggest threats in the division to each champion, and which of these could be holding a UFC title at this point next year.

Champion: Demetrious Johnson
Contender: John Dodson

John Dodson has been desperately trying to get another crack at Demetrious Johnson since losing a points decision to the champion at the beginning of 2013. While Johnson has continued to dismiss the prospect of a rematch with Dodson as something that he doesn’t need, the time looks to have come when the champion has no other option. While Johnson has taken care of every challenger that has come his way, seemingly with greater ease each time, Dodson has gone about cementing himself as the division’s number-one ranked contender and proving he is the next best in the division with a string of knockout wins.

With stoppages in four of his five victories inside the Octagon, Dodson has been a popular fighter with the UFC brass and is someone who they feel should be next in line for Johnson. With his only loss in the UFC coming at the hands of Johnson, Dodson won’t be happy with anything other than another crack at the title in his next fight after going through the likes of Jussier Formiga, John Moraga, Tim Elliott and current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw during his time in the UFC.

With KO power in both hands, Dodson will always be a fan favourite and having an opponent who garners even a bit of attention would be an improvement on Johnson’s recent challengers.

Champion: T.J. Dillashaw
Contender: Dominick Cruz

In some people’s eyes, Dominick Cruz is the true bantamweight champion and T.J. Dillashaw is the number one contender. The former champion never lost his belt in the Octagon and Cruz will rightly still view himself as the best in the bantamweight division.

However, after handing over his belt in the middle of a three-year injury lay-off, the division had to move on and Renan Barao was finally named the full champion after carrying an interim strap for almost two years. Dillashaw tipped the division on its head with his incredible victory over the Brazilian in May though, and now the Alpha Male fighter is expected to make the second defence of his title in an intriguing bout against Cruz early next year. It is a contest many are seeing as a true unification fight and one that Betfair punters are struggling to pick a winner from.

After spending three years battling career-threatening injuries, Cruz shocked the world by bulldozing Takeya Mizugaki in 61 seconds at UFC 178 to announce his return to the cage in spectacular style. A unification fight with Barao had given Cruz the chance to prove he is the best bantamweight in the world only for a groin injury to put paid to those plans earlier this year. When he steps into the Octagon to face Dillashaw, Cruz will know that it will be his time to leave everyone in no doubt as to just who the bantamweight king is.

Champion: Jose Aldo
Contender: Conor McGregor

There may be a host of featherweights above Ireland’s Conor McGregor in the UFC rankings but there is little doubt who the next contender in the division will be. While Chad Mendes is preparing for his second shot at Jose Aldo’s belt, thoughts are already turning towards which fighter will defend the belt against the Irish sensation next year. Due to be cage-side in Brazil for the Aldo-Mendes fight, McGregor will no doubt make it clear that whoever leaves the cage with the belt will only be holding on to it until they meet him.

With a vocal and passionate fan-base that seems to include the UFC bosses as well as the entire country of Ireland, McGregor doesn’t have to worry about not having enough people fighting his corner. The Irishman’s performances since signing for the UFC alone might not have been enough for him to be mentioned in the title mix just yet, but the likes of Cub Swanson, Frankie Edgar and Dennis Bermudez shouldn’t be too aggrieved to have seen McGregor leapfrog the queue after just four fights in the UFC. While those names have all done everything they can in the Octagon to warrant a title shot, McGregor has caught the eye for his work outside the cage as much as he has for his convincing victories inside it.

Champion: Anthony Pettis
Contender: Donald Cerrone

Anthony Pettis’ enforced break from the cage through injury and then the filming of TUF20 has seen the lightweight title sat on ice since August 2013, during which time Cerrone has racked up five impressive straight victories. Pettis has had the belt since last August, but is still yet to make his first defence. This will come later this year when Pettis returns to the cage to face fellow TUF20 coach Gilbert Melendez, but you better believe that the UFC will want whoever wins the belt to make a fairly quick defence. While the lightweight division is one of the UFC’s most packed, it would be hard for anyone to argue against Cerrone being given the next shot.

Despite suffering a loss to Pettis at the beginning of 2013, Cerrone has done everything and more to put himself in place for a first crack at UFC gold. Cowboy’s biggest test was supposed to be Eddie Alvarez at UFC 178, but aside from a few dodgy moments in the first round, it was another faultless display from Cerrone against an opponent who will give anybody in the top 10 a massive test.

Criticised for choking in the big fights, Cerrone has looked like a genuine title contender over the past year and someone from whom many other fighters in the division could learn.

Champion: Johny Hendricks
Contender: Rory MacDonald

Rory MacDonald’s path towards the top of the welterweight division has been as tough as they come. While the presence of George St-Pierre as champion made it impossible for training partner MacDonald to fight for the belt, the road towards the title is now GSP-free and the 25-year-old has finally been told that he is now in line for a shot at the title. While Johny Hendricks will defend his title for the second time against Robbie Lawler, MacDonald knows that the winner of that fight will have to face him next.

One of the most complete mixed martial artists in the world, MacDonald only has losses to Lawler and Carlos Condit among his 20 fights, 11 of which have come in the UFC. Since his split-decision defeat to Lawler in late 2013, MacDonald has put himself back in the title mix with impressive points victories over Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley before making a real statement by knocking out Tarec Saffiedine in Canada in early October. If MacDonald does go on to win the title at some point next year, the proposed return to the Octagon of GSP becomes all the more interesting.

Champion: Chris Weidman
Contender: Jacare Souza

Undefeated in the UFC, Jacare Souza has done more than enough to warrant a title shot in his next fight. Since his arrival in the UFC, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion has run through tough opponents in the shape of Chris Camozzi, Yushin Okami and Francis Carmont, while most recently he gained revenge over Gegard Mousasi – one of only three men to have beaten him. The jiu-jitsu black belt knows that current champion Chris Weidman has to take on Vitor Belfort in his next defence, with victory over the former champion opening the door for Weidman to face off against yet another Brazilian.

With an improved striking game, there are some who will argue that Jacare has all the tools to push Weidman all the way. After tearing the title away from Anderson Silva, Weidman proved his champion status with a sensational performance against Lyoto Machida. The only middleweights who have looked as dominant as Weidman over the past couple of years have been Belfort and Souza and it seems right that the Brazilian duo are potentially Weidman’s next two opponents.

Champion: Jon Jones
Contender: Daniel Cormier

In this instance, we know the true number one contender in the division is next up for the current champion. Jon Jones had been scheduled to meet Daniel Cormier at UFC 178 in a fight that didn’t need the hype that came from their much-publicised scuffle in Las Vegas following some media face-offs. An injury to Jones put the fight back until January 3, by which time Cormier will have fully recovered from the knee injury that has been bothering him for much of 2014. It isn’t often two undefeated fighters meet in a title fight, and UFC fans are rightly counting down the days until Cormier challenges Jones for the light-heavyweight title.

After working his way to the top of the heavyweight division, Cormier took the decision to drop down a division in order to fight for a title without having to face training partner and heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. While Jones is widely-regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, there has been a real belief that Cormier has everything needed to beat the champion. Possibly the best wrestler to have every competed in the UFC, Cormier’s odds in this fight are significantly shorter than those challengers that Jones has run through during his time as champion.

Champion: Cain Velasquez
Contender: Fabricio Werdum

Fabricio Werdum earned his shot at Cain Velasquez’s heavyweight title at UFC 180 with an incredible points victory over Travis Browne in April. Now preparing to head to Mexico to face home favourite Velasquez in the first UFC event in the country, Werdum will have to prove a lot of people wrong if he is going to come away with the belt around his waist. It’s not wise to underestimate Werdum though, and the Brazilian has shown in the past that he is more than happy to rip up the script on his way to a victory.

Many had expected Fedor Emelianenko to run through Werdum when the two met in Strikeforce in 2010, but the jiu-jitsu black belt shocked the world to submit one of MMA’s pound-for-pound greatest. While Fedor is rightly regarded as a legend of the sport, Cain Velasquez is a different beast entirely and someone who has taken the heavyweight division to the next level in recent years. Werdum could well end up joining the list of fighters who have been comprehensively put in their place by Velasquez.

Women’s Bantamweight
Champion: Ronda Rousey
Contender: Cat Zingano

After a significant spell on the sidelines, Cat Zingano made a huge statement in her long-awaited return to the Octagon at UFC 178, beating the fast climbing Amanda Nunes with a third round knockout. Now expected to meet Ronda Rousey at UFC 182, Zingano will finally get to test herself against the queen of the bantamweight division. The two had been in line to meet earlier this year after filming The Ultimate Fighter, only for a knee injury to rule Zingano out of action. This led to Miesha Tate stepping in and playing a big part in an explosive season of TUF before a second armbar defeat to Rousey.

While Zingano will rightly head into the title fight as the overwhelming underdog, the feeling is that Rousey could be set to face the toughest opponent of her UFC title reign. An all-round mixed martial artist, Zingano will pose Rousey problems that she won’t have faced in recent years, not to mention the fact that the champion will be defending her title against a fellow undefeated fighter.

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