MMA: Carla Esparza

Which champs stay (and go) in 2014?

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
11:03
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Johny HendricksStephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY SportsA second chance: Johny Hendricks, right, is staring the UFC welterweight belt in the eye this year.

In 2013, the UFC crowned two new champions at 185 and 155 pounds. It also lost its 170-pound champion, Georges St-Pierre, to semiretirement.

In 2014, we’ll see at least two new UFC champions in the record books. Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler will contend for the vacated welterweight title, and a female strawweight champion will emerge from "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series.

Which fighters are destined to be champions come the end of 2014? I’ll tell you.

Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez

Velasquez is shelved for the foreseeable future, following surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The heavyweight champ is so tough he was actually practicing with the injury before undergoing surgery, according to teammate Daniel Cormier.

It looks as if Velasquez will face the winner of a fight between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne -- and if I had to guess, that will be the only time Velasquez fights in 2014. Maybe he mows through one of those guys and gets booked again immediately, which is entirely possible, but I would lean to just one Velasquez fight in the next 12 months.

Prediction: Browne knocks out Werdum in early spring, only to be a hungry Velasquez’s first meal upon his return.

Light heavyweight: Jon Jones

With the heavyweight belt tied up due to injury and no Anderson Silva superfight on the books, there’s nowhere else Jones needs to be than 205 pounds. This works twofold. With no Silva and no St-Pierre, Jones needs to go out and be the UFC’s breadwinner in 2014. Expect him to stay busy.

Relying on predetermined outcomes of fights is never a good idea in this sport, and I feel that’s a huge transgression in this division right now. Jones versus Glover Teixeira. Alexander Gustafsson versus Jimi Manuwa. Daniel Cormier versus Rashad Evans. Those fights aren’t over yet -- and don’t jump to assumptions on matchups before they are.

Prediction: Jones fights three times in 2014. He beats Teixeira and then Gustafsson more convincingly than the first meeting. Then he wins one more fight … but I’m not entirely convinced it’s against Cormier, who could lose before that.

Middleweight: Ronaldo Souza

The middleweight and welterweight divisions are about to have a really fun year. With Silva gone (for the foreseeable future, at least), the middleweight division looks entirely different.

The Spider’s buddies, Ronaldo Souza and Lyoto Machida, have nothing to prevent them from gunning for the title now. An old friend, Chael Sonnen, suddenly has a path back to a title shot. The bull's-eye on Weidman’s back is about as big as there is right now in all of mixed martial arts.

Prediction: Weidman-Belfort in Brazil. Does Weidman win that? Oh man … yes. He does. On the same night, Sonnen outpoints Wanderlei Silva and calls out Machida. But it’s Souza who earns a title bid with big wins in early 2014 and then takes the title late in the year.

Welterweight: Johny Hendricks

On the way to St-Pierre, it seems that Hendricks beat every welterweight in the division, but if he wins the belt he’ll have plenty of challengers. It starts with Robbie Lawler in March, who just might be the most terrifying man in the UFC right now. This guy was born to hurt people.

You think we hear a peep from St-Pierre in 2014? Gut reaction says no, right? He wanted time off, so he’ll take his time off. On the other hand, when you are as competitive as St-Pierre is, one month away from the cage might feel like three or four. Carlos Condit just pulled about the worst opponent he could in Tyron Woodley, a guy ranked outside the Top 10 but extremely dangerous.

Prediction: Hendricks wins the vacated belt in March, and then beats the winner of Condit-Woodley. Then Hendricks defends the title again … in a fight the UFC books in Montreal, sending front-row tickets to St-Pierre’s address every day leading up to it.

Lightweight: Jose Aldo

Anthony Pettis just needs to stay healthy. The 26-year-old Milwaukee product has been so good when healthy -- which, unfortunately, hasn’t been very often. He hopes to return to the cage by July.

In the meantime, I think Aldo’s days as the 145-champion come to an end. He is a potential star for the UFC and “two-division champion” is a title that would help his drawing power. He will get an immediate shot when he moves up. He and the UFC will argue about his vacating the featherweight belt -- and that’s finally a fight Aldo will actually lose.

Prediction: Aldo defends his featherweight title over Ricardo Lamas in February and then hangs out until Pettis is healthy, narrowly beating him in a Fight of the Year candidate in August, before going on to one title defense late in the year.

Featherweight: Chad Mendes

Aldo moving up to 155 pounds just looks like a no-brainer to me. He has wanted to do so for a long time and the UFC likely wants it to happen, too. It will look as if he’s leaving the keys to the car in the hands of Chad Mendes.

A potential wrinkle in that script is Frankie Edgar. Edgar has to feel good heading into a third meeting with BJ Penn, who hasn’t fought since December 2012. Penn is a warrior and a legend, but Edgar is a tough style matchup, especially at 145.

Prediction: Mendes continues his reign of terror and earns a shot at the vacated 145-pound title against Edgar, who defeats Penn for a third time. It’s a good fight, but Mendes takes a decision and the belt.

Bantamweight: Renan Barao

It’s still officially Dominick Cruz’s division heading into 2014, but maybe only in writing. Barao is the UFC bantamweight to beat this year, and there are really only two 135-pounders up to the task -- Cruz and Urijah Faber.

The circumstances surrounding Cruz’s return -- he’s been on the shelf since October 2011 -- make him a near-impossible pick in his first fight back to beat Barao, but this is Cruz we’re talking about. His work ethic borders on obsessive. If Barao gets by Cruz, he goes immediately to a rematch against Faber, who looks like a pound-for-pound candidate again at 34.

Prediction: Unless Demetrious Johnson gets a little crazy and moves up in weight, this division is a three-horse race. Any one of them could finish 2014 as champion and it wouldn’t be a surprise.

Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson

Unlike Aldo, there isn’t much sense in Johnson moving up in weight in 2014. He can if he wants to, and I don’t think the UFC would forbid it, but he is a natural flyweight. He fought at bantamweight prior to the UFC's adding the 125-pound division and that was only two years ago. Why rush back to 135 pounds?

It makes more sense for him to chase title-defense records than the bantamweight champion. At 27, Johnson is improving between each performance -- noticeably. He may run into a couple opponents multiple times, but there are enough flyweights to keep him busy at least through 2014.

Prediction: Nobody in this division is beating Johnson right now. Nobody. You might read stories about a potential move to 135 pounds, but come December, Johnson will still be a flyweight and he’ll be up to at least six title defenses.

Female bantamweight: Ronda Rousey

Forget defending the arm bar, how about a Rousey opponent defending a takedown first? Occasionally lost in the shuffle of Rousey’s eight consecutive arm bars is her setup -- her takedowns. There might not be anyone in that division who can match her on the floor, so the conversation turns to: Can any of them stop her takedown?

Sara McMann is an interesting opponent, but how comfortable will she be on her back? McMann might be able to neutralize some of what Rousey does, but not all of it. Same with Cat Zingano, although Zingano has the finishing ability to catch Rousey with something, which might be the only way to beat her.

Prediction: Rousey dives headfirst into defending her title -- and makes it look pretty easy. She defends the belt at least three times, finishing at least two more opponents in the first round.

Female strawweight: Carla Esparza

You might think that in an atmosphere as unique as TUF, the best fighter on the show wouldn’t always emerge the winner. There are too many variables, right? The mental strain from being away from one’s family, not having normal cornermen, fighting several times within a short time span, etc.

Surprisingly, though, the best fighter of the group typically does go all the way. You look at previous seasons and, for the most part, the TUF champion has outperformed the vast majority of the average TUF contestants. Keeping that in mind, Esparza has been the best of this group heading into the show.

Prediction: Esparza enters the TUF season a favorite to win and does just that.

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