MMA: Ronda Rousey

'Cyborg' focused on bantamweight debut

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
9:30
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Invicta Fighting Championships featherweight champion Cris "Cyborg" Justino plans to make her 135-pound debut in December, according to her lawyer George Prajin.

Justino (12-1) has long said she would cut to bantamweight by the end of this year, but originally claimed she would fight one more time at featherweight. She has not competed in mixed martial arts since July 2013.

[+] EnlargeCris Justino-Marloes Coenen
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comCris "Cyborg" Justino is committed to dropping down in weight in order to make a fight against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
On Thursday, Invicta FC announced a live event on Sept. 6 in Kansas City, Mo. Justino was expected to fight on that card, but decided that doing so might compromise her ability to make 135 pounds by December.

Justino is committed to making the weight to book a potential fight against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in early 2015.

"We anticipated fighting three times this year in MMA and now she hasn't fought in almost a year," Prajin said. "We really had to think about it. If she fought in September, it was going to be hard to get down to 135 by December.

"If we're going to do this, we need to do it now. We don't know how long Ronda is going to be in the sport. She might pack up tomorrow and go do movies. Cris wants this fight. She doesn't want to miss the opportunity."

Prajin said the team has enlisted "weight cutting guru" Tony Aponte to help Justino make 135 pounds. The Brazilian currently struggles to make 145 pounds.

According to Prajin, Justino is walking "a little heavy" right now, due to not having a fight booked. She competed in a professional muay Thai bout in March, which she lost via unanimous decision to Jorina Baars.

"She was doing really well and then with the unknown of when she was going to fight, she kind of slacked off a little bit. We hired Tony Aponte, who has helped people cut weight for a long time."

Justino is planning a multi-week trip to Thailand in the coming month to train her muay Thai skills. Invicta FC has not yet announced a December card, but Prajin said that timetable is fairly reliable.

"That's pretty solid," Prajin said. "I don't know the exact date but we're assuming Ronda will be fighting around that time. Cris will fight on Fight Pass one or two weeks prior."

White, Fertitta to meet Carano next week

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
8:59
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Gina CaranoRobert Laberge/Getty ImagesDespite Gina Carano's five-year absence from the sport, Dana White insists she is ready to return.
LAS VEGAS -- UFC president Dana White hopes to have Gina Carano under contract by the end of next week.

The UFC added to its female bantamweight division on Thursday, by signing professional boxer and undefeated mixed martial artist Holly Holm.

White told ESPN.com he and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta will look to add another major piece to the roster in Carano next week, when the two are scheduled to meet with her in Los Angeles.

"One down, one to go," White said. "I'm going to meet with Gina next week and get that f---ing thing done. Next week, man.

"It's just a matter of me and Lorenzo going to jump on a plane to Los Angeles, get in a room with her and her lawyer and get this thing done."

Carano (7-1) is considered the former face of female MMA, but has not fought since August 2009. She exited the sport following a first-round TKO loss to Cris "Cyborg" Justino in a Strikeforce featherweight title fight.

The UFC purchased Strikeforce in 2011, acquiring all of the promotion's contracts in the deal. Technically, Carano remained under Zuffa contract due to her original Strikeforce deal, but that contract expired last month.

A bantamweight title fight between defending champion Ronda Rousey and Carano would equal big business for the UFC. Rousey has stated publicly she credits Carano for her interest in the sport and would relish the opportunity to fight her.

According to White, the holdup in signing Carano (UFC Tonight reported two weeks ago talks had "stalled" between the two sides) has nothing to do with her desire to compete. It all comes down to finalizing details in a new contract.

"There is no doubt about it, she wants to fight," White said. "And she wants to fight Ronda."

Is Davis 'just the next one' for Rousey?

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
10:25
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Alexis Davis had to have gone to bed on May 24 with a smile on her face.

There is no easy way to say this: Davis (16-5) will attempt to do the seemingly impossible at UFC 175 on Saturday in Las Vegas -- that is, defeat UFC female bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in a cage fight.

There is no blueprint on how to do it. Not even close. Rousey, a former U.S. Olympian in judo, has devoured every opponent put in front of her in mixed martial arts. Surviving one round against her infamous armbar has become an accomplishment in and of itself.

There are, however, blueprints for Davis on how to win a fight no one thinks is winnable. Her adopted teammate, TJ Dillashaw, actually just drew one at UFC 173 on May 24.

As many will recall, Dillashaw put a whooping on Renan Barao that night, eventually claiming the UFC bantamweight championship via TKO in the fifth round. The performance was immediately hailed as one of the greatest upsets in UFC history.

Davis, who shared a training room with Dillashaw at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento for large portions of this camp, had a front-row seat at that event.

To be clear, she always believed she could beat Rousey -- but watching Dillashaw dominate a heavily favored opponent was reassuring.
[+] EnlargeTJ Dillashaw
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesTJ Dillashaw's stunning victory over Renan Barao has provided a chunk of inspiration for Alexis Davis.

When preparing to shock the world, it's nice to be reminded that shocking the world is indeed possible to begin with.

"The fight itself was kind of the same scenario as mine," Davis said. "Nobody thought TJ was going to win. Watching that, you kind of feel the anxiety before the fight and then he was doing so well and then came away with the win -- it kind of shoots right through you -- the adrenaline that comes with all that.

"I remember talking to him after and he gave me great advice. He said, 'Nobody thought I was going to win so I just said I was going to enjoy myself. The press, media and then just have fun when I fight.' It was great for me to hear that."
"

I remember talking to [TJ Dillashaw] after and he gave me great advice. He said, 'Nobody thought I was going to win so I just said I was going to enjoy myself. The press, media and then just have fun when I fight.' It was great for me to hear that.

"

-- Alexis Davis, on taking a positive approach to her upcoming fight against heavy favorite Ronda Rousey


It's impossible not to know where you stand when facing Rousey.

Davis is embedded right now in the Rousey Effect. It's inevitable. Certain things happen to you when you fight one of the most recognizable faces on the UFC roster.

An Ontario, Canada, native, Davis says her number of Twitter followers has exploded since the fight was announced. Fans want to take photos with her. Media want to hear from her.

The final stages of the Rousey Effect, however, can look like the opposite of that. Just as suddenly as everyone cared, they don't anymore. Expectations are that, by Sunday morning, Davis will be recycled back into the women's 135-pound division.

Maybe -- some day long from now -- she'll resurface and we can ask her what it was like the day she lost to Ronda Rousey.

Even Rousey (9-0) occasionally lets it slip that is just the way it is. She swears to never take an opponent lightly (and to her credit, she hasn't thus far) but she's aware of the situation. She summarized it rather well in a recent UFC promo.

"Alexis Davis is just the next one," Rousey said.

And in so many ways, Davis does look the part of "just the next one."

She doesn't look necessarily uncomfortable under the spotlight, but admits that during a news conference held on Memorial Day weekend in Las Vegas, she continually reminded herself to, "not say anything stupid."
[+] EnlargeAlexis Davis vs. Jessica Eye
Al Powers for ESPNAlexis Davis, left, envisions herself the victor against the heavily favored champion Ronda Rousey.

That same day, she made the rookie mistake of not wearing high heels. In stare-down photos taken on stage, she appeared half a foot shorter than Rousey.

"I do really wish I would have worn heels," Davis said.

In other ways, though, Davis has reason to believe she's more than just an inevitable footnote to Rousey's greatness.

As you are certain to hear again before the fight starts, Davis is a black belt in both Brazilian and Japanese jiu-jitsu, which makes her more familiar with Rousey's judo than many previous opponents.

"Every single day I visualize the fight," Davis said. "Every single time I get my hand raised. One moment, it's a first-round knockout. Then a submission. Then it goes all the way to the fifth round and it's an all-out war. I always see myself on top."

Not too many share Davis' vision of the fight. Almost none, actually.

But as Dillashaw proved six weeks ago in a building across the street from where Davis and Rousey will meet, sometimes it only takes the belief of one to get it done.

Tate happy to be free of Rousey drama

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
11:05
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Ronda Rousey, Miesha TateJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesMiesha Tate, right, is more than happy to move past Ronda Rousey and the drama that came with her.

LAS VEGAS -- On one hand, of course Miesha Tate is less than satisfied when it comes to her long-standing rivalry with current UFC champion Ronda Rousey.

On the other, she sounds very much ready to move past it.

Tate (13-5) is looking forward to a drama-free bout against Liz Carmouche at a UFC on Fox event on April 19 in Orlando. The buildup so far has been in stark contrast to the circus that surrounded her title fight against Rousey at UFC 168 in December.

“I really like being matched up with Liz,” Tate said. “It’s so refreshing. She has great sportsmanship. I get along with everyone from her team. It’s nice to just not have anything else to focus on. No drama. For most of my life, I’ve been a drama-free girl.”

Drama has not been kind to Tate inside the cage. She gives full credit to Rousey for beating her twice (in March 2012 and again in December) but, as any competitive fighter likely would, believes she could have performed better.

She appeared to essentially play into Rousey’s strengths in the second fight, by loading her weight onto Rousey’s hips during constant attempts to take her down.

Tate says that was never part of her game plan. She wanted to force a standup fight with Rousey, in a way that played to her strengths. She tried for a practice or two to learn a stick and move approach but it felt, well, weird.
[+] EnlargeRonda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate
Ed Mulholland for ESPNMiesha Tate, bottom, admits she departed from her game plan against Ronda Rousey.

“That’s just not my style,” Tate said. “We tried for like a minute to be like Lyoto Machida and it did not work out. I was like, ‘OK, this is not for me.’

“I’m a very forward-style fighter. I like to get in the fight and be in the fight.”

Tate’s team devised a strategy that still allowed her to be aggressive, but in a tactical way. Looking back on the fight, Tate says the game plan was working, until she grew too eager to take Rousey down to win what she thought were close rounds.

“I felt like I had to do something more decisive,” Tate said. “I wanted that takedown to make it so that I won the round for sure. That’s just what happens in the haste of a fight sometimes. It doesn’t come out as clean as it did in training.

“That’s why I think [Georges St-Pierre] is one of my favorite fighters. He seems to be able to stick to a game plan and execute it flawlessly, whether it’s exciting or not. He does it with perfection every single time. I’m like, ‘How do you do that?’”

After tapping to an armbar in the third round, Tate extended her hand to Rousey, who refused to shake it and turned away. It seemed like a move based on a personal rift, but Tate took it as a sign that Rousey didn’t respect her as an opponent.

“That’s on her now and I’m fine with that,” Tate said. “I extended my [hand]. That at that point signified me saying, ‘You got the fight tonight. Congratulations. I respect you.’ She didn’t want to give me the mutual fighter respect.”

In 2014, Tate isn’t concerned with whether or not she has Rousey’s respect. She’s relocated her training camp from Washington to Las Vegas, where she works at Xtreme Couture with coaches Bryan Caraway, Robert Follis and Jimmy Gifford.

She hasn’t given up her dream of winning a UFC belt, but says she’s probably three impressive wins away from another title shot.

“I think that’s fair,” Tate said. “If I beat three top people: Liz, (Cat) Zingano and (Sara) McMann or something like that. Those are the best girls in the division right now. Beating those girls would establish I’m the No. 1 contender.”

If all that happens and Rousey is still wearing the belt, Tate says she’ll fight her “as many times as [the UFC] will allow.” Until then, she’s happy to have her life back to normal -- drama-free.

Cris Justino: Weight cut now feels possible

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
9:20
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Cris JustinoLion Fight PromotionsCris Justino, facing, met her match on Friday -- albeit in a sport other than mixed martial arts.
LAS VEGAS -- It felt like the best (and equally, the worst) time to ask Cris Justino a million-dollar question.

On Thursday, “Cyborg” sat in a chair inside her guest room on the fifth floor of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The thermostat was cranked to 85 degrees, the highest it would go, and she had three layers of clothing on.

Justino looked tired but hopeful. She had just finished an hourlong weight cut and (fingers crossed) weighed 145 pounds on the dot. An electronic scale in the bathroom confirmed this hope moments later.

The cut, for a Muay Thai title bout at Lion Fight Promotions the following day, was one of the best of Justino’s career. She woke up light on the day of the weigh-in, 148 pounds. She never cried once during the final cut, which she’s been known to do.

Even a good cut is still a difficult one for Justino, though. She leaned on her friend and former manager Tito Ortiz at the weigh-in until it was her turn to step on the scale and, immediately afterward, had an IV line inserted to help her rehydrate.

In the final seconds of that weight cut in her hotel room, right when she hit 145 pounds, I asked Justino a question that is currently a big one in mixed martial arts.

“Can you really weigh 10 pounds less than you weigh right now?”

There is one marquee fight for Justino in 2014, and it’s against UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The two have gone back and forth in headlines for years, and a matchup between them would draw big business for the UFC.

The main reason the fight hasn’t happened yet is weight. Rousey has settled into the 135-pound division, and the UFC has said it won’t book her to a catchweight. Justino, who walks around at 170 pounds, has had difficulty cutting to 145 before.

One year ago, Justino and Ortiz, her manager at the time, declined a multifight deal with the UFC based on financial reasons and the fact that it was “impossible” for her to compete at bantamweight. The UFC does not promote a 145-pound division.
"

It's a year later, and I guess all the things Ronda [Rousey] has said about her, all the things [UFC president] Dana White has said about her, it hurt her feelings. Hearing all that makes a person want to make it possible.

" -- Tito Ortiz, on Cris Justino's motivation to cut weight

This year, however, Justino has stated she intends to be at 135 pounds by summer. Concerns about her health still exist, but she is willing to remain at the weight for three fights: Once to prove she can do it and then two Rousey fights. Two fights because she wants to beat her twice, leaving no doubt who is the best.

“It’s a year later, and I guess all the things Ronda has said about her, all the things [UFC president] Dana White has said about her, it hurt her feelings,” Ortiz told ESPN.com. “Hearing all that makes a person want to make it possible.

“If she thinks she can get down there, we’ll try. We’ll make that push. But for this [145-pound Muay Thai fight] she had no carbs. She didn’t lift any weights. She was still walking around at 159 pounds. She’s still having trouble. Yes, it was easier this time, but she’s still making that 15-pound cut the week of the fight.”

What Ortiz is saying is that Justino committing to 135 pounds is one thing. Her actually weighing it is another.

Her stable of coaches is willing to try anything it takes to get her there, and they are supremely confident she would handle Rousey easily (early knockout predictions were made) -- but all of them have reservations about the cut.

“She walks around at 170 pounds with a six-pack,” said Andy Schnadig, Justino’s strength and conditioning coach. “You start getting to 160, and you can see the veins in her abdominals. To get to 135 she’s going to have to lose lean muscle tissue.

“I don’t think going to 135 pounds is really good for her, but she kind of has to do it to prove her point.”

In addition to general health concerns, no one knows how Justino will perform with 10 pounds less muscle on her frame. One of the identifying characteristics of the Brazilian’s success has been her physical strength.

Schnadig said it is difficult to predict where on the body Justino will lose muscle mass and even more difficult to predict what effect it will have on her performance.

“Where it’s going to come off is genetics,” Schnadig said. “We can’t spot reduce and say she has really strong hips, so we can afford to lose muscle in her glutes. It’s going to come off where it comes off.

“I don’t know if she’ll lose some of that incredible power she has in her hips or not. You’ve seen her fight. She’s a killer. She’ll still have that aggression, but everything from basically her bottom rib to her knees is so strong. If she loses that muscle tissue, maybe she doesn’t have that anymore.”

For now, Justino and her camp are putting those concerns aside and taking it day by day. She came in to last week’s cut light partially because of an extensive roadwork program, which saw her run eight to 10 miles per day.

Schnadig would prefer to move away from that schedule, as he said long runs can encourage the body to carry fat as a fuel source. He said 70 percent of Justino's future weight loss will be tied to significantly altering her diet.
[+] EnlargeCristiane Justino
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comCris Justino hopes an altered diet will help her make a cut down to 135 pounds.

The plan is for her to defend her Invicta FC featherweight title in either April or May and then fight for the all-female promotion’s bantamweight title by summer.

Justino lost to Jorina Baars via unanimous decision at the Lion Fight kickboxing event Friday, but that result has no effect on the rest of her year in MMA, according to manager George Prajin.

“She’s a little disappointed, of course, but it doesn’t change anything in our plans,” Prajin told ESPN.com. “Our goal is still get to 135 by summer and fight Ronda Rousey in the fall if the UFC is willing to step up.

“I don’t see how this fight or this loss puts Cris back at all in the MMA world or makes people want to see the [Rousey] fight less. Rousey is out making movies while Cris is taking on the best fighters in the world in other sports.”

If a fight between Rousey and Justino doesn’t happen in the UFC, it won’t be due to Justino’s loss. And likely, it won’t be due to Justino’s friendly relationship with Ortiz, who has a rocky history with the UFC.

“It doesn’t matter at all whether Tito is managing somebody or not,” UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta told ESPN.com. “That might affect whether or not the fighter makes good decisions or not, but it wouldn’t affect whether or not we’d sign them. I have no ill will towards Tito. I don’t care.”

If the fight doesn’t happen, it will be because either Justino can’t make the weight or the UFC decides it can’t contract her at 135 pounds if she intends to fight at the weight only twice in the Octagon.

The first problem is the one Justino has control over, and she’s working on it. She smiled when asked about weighing 135 pounds last week. Still weak from the cut and the fact that she had consumed 8 ounces of water in the last 48 hours, she kept her answer short.

“This time, it does not feel impossible,” Justino said. “In December, I put it in my head that nothing is impossible. I’ve put it in my head that I can. I can.”

Dallas notes: Title shots, Carano's return

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
6:56
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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DALLAS -- Is the UFC 171 co-main event between Carlos Condit and Tyron Woodley a No. 1 contender bout in the welterweight division? That depends on whom you ask.

During a media function on Thursday, Condit and Woodley both said they've been guaranteed a title shot with a win over the other on Saturday. The vacant belt is up for grabs in the night’s headliner between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler.
[+] EnlargeJosh Koscheck vs. Tyron Woodley
Al Powers for ESPNWith a win, Tyron Woodley could be in line for a UFC title shot.

Moments after Condit and Woodley left the American Airlines Center, however, UFC president Dana White said nothing is ever a guarantee -- especially UFC title shots.

“There are no guarantees anywhere in life,” White said. “They’re going to have to come out and perform -- and we’ll see what happens.”

The UFC 171 main card is stacked with elite welterweight talent. Hendricks, Lawler, Condit, Woodley, Hector Lombard and Jake Shields are all potential titleholders at 170 pounds.

Condit (29-7) lost back-to-back fights to Georges St-Pierre and Hendricks but rebounded in August with a finish over Martin Kampmann. His primary focus in the past year has been shoring up the wrestling deficiency that led to those two losses.

“I was in tune with the lack of wrestling ability on my part before those fights, but I feel like the guys I’ve brought in now, the particular coaches, just fit me and my personality better,” Condit told ESPN.com.

“I’ve been told I get a title shot, and I plan on putting on a phenomenal show against Tyron Woodley. I deserve the title shot.”

Woodley (12-2) would essentially jump the line at 170 pounds should he get an opportunity to fight for the belt. A member of American Top Team, Woodley is just 2-1 in the UFC and 2-2 in his past four fights.

That hasn’t dampened his outlook on the situation, however. Woodley campaigned hard for the Condit fight and believes he’s ready to carry the welterweight torch.

“I don’t care who is ranked higher or who is next in line,” Woodley said. “Nobody will be a better champion than me. I think I’m the full package -- a combination of good, hood and Hollywood. I’m marketable, punch hard and well-spoken.”

White, however, apparently hasn’t forgotten another fight on the UFC 171 main card between Hector Lombard (33-4-1) and Jake Shields (29-6-1). Shields has a strong case for a title shot with career wins over Condit, Woodley and Lawler.

“I think pretty much anybody on this card who comes out looking great and exciting can get a shot,” White said.

As for the man who gave up the belt late last year, White said he “knows for a fact” that St-Pierre will eventually return from retirement and fight whoever has the belt.

“I haven’t talked to him, but we’ve texted,” White said.

“Is it fun for Georges St-Pierre to be gone? I wouldn’t say it’s fun, but the welterweight division is exciting now ... and when Georges does come back, whoever is standing there, it will be a fun fight.”

White on Rousey, Carano, Holm



A fantasy fight between UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and former featherweight-turned-actress Gina Carano remains just that for now -- a fantasy.
[+] EnlargeGina Carano
Jon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesDon't expect to see Gina Carano make a return to the cage.

Carano (7-1) has not fought since August 2009 and spent the majority of her career above 135 pounds, but that hasn’t stamped out rumors of a potential comeback.

White maintains there is nothing currently in the works regarding an upcoming opponent for Rousey (9-0), who recently vacationed out of the country.

“There’s absolutely nothing going on,” White said.

White did say that any fight involving Rousey would be done at 135 pounds and not a catchweight, including a bout against Carano. He also confirmed reports of a split between Rousey with her management team, Fight Tribe Management.

The two sides are reportedly involved in a dispute regarding her contract. White said he was aware of it and it would not affect her ability to compete.

“It doesn’t affect it in that way at all,” White said. “That’s between them and has nothing to do with [the UFC].”

White also confirmed he’s scheduled to meet with undefeated female bantamweight Holly Holm (6-0) for the first time this weekend in Texas. Holm has fought for Bellator MMA and Legacy Fighting Championships.

“I’m meeting with her this week,” White said. “I’ve never met them. We’ll see what happens.”

UFC not in the business to protect Rousey

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
11:22
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Ronda Rousey vs. Sara McMannAl Powers for ESPNBody of work: Ronda Rousey's rib-tattling knee helped dispatch yet another UFC opponent.

Some 15 minutes after leaving the Octagon at UFC 170 in Las Vegas, Ronda Rousey ran into UFC president Dana White backstage.

They were each in the midst of a lightning round of on-camera interviews, which is standard procedure these days following every UFC pay-per-view event. Rousey gave her patented, “aw shucks” smile while White commented on the fight.

The first thing he addressed, beyond an obvious congratulation, was the end of the fight. For those who didn’t see it, Rousey defended her UFC bantamweight title over Sara McMann via TKO in the first round. The finish came quickly, when Rousey caught McMann with a knee to the liver.

McMann doubled over and referee Herb Dean immediately stepped in. Milliseconds later, however, McMann stood back up, looking mostly recovered. It prompted an immediate reaction from fans and media alike that the fight was stopped early.

White, who has seen his share of liver kick/punch/knee knockouts wanted Rousey to know he felt the stoppage was justified. Plenty disagree, he said, but they don’t know what liver shots feel like.

I snapped a photo of the encounter between Rousey and White and posted it to Twitter, along with a brief description of what they were saying. The overwhelming reaction I got: Of course White is happy, he needs Rousey to win. She is the most protected fighter in mixed martial arts.

This idea that Rousey is being protected of a difficult fight has started to grow legs. It’s something that can happen in combat sports. Champs duck challengers. Promoters pad their fighters’ resumes -- groom them, if you will.

Is it happening with Rousey and the UFC, though? The answer is "no."

First, the UFC doesn’t have a history of “protecting” its champions. There are probably some individual cases we could argue about, but overall, the company isn’t known for that habit.
[+] EnlargeBrock Lesnar & Shane Carwin
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesNo gimmes here: Brock Lesnar, bottom, took the path of most resistance throughout his career.

The best example of this is Brock Lesnar. Lesnar, a gift sent from the heavens. A pre-packaged heavyweight star with a perfect pay-per-view personality and a giant sword tattooed to his chest.

If there was ever a commodity the UFC should have kept entirely away from the wolves, it was Lesnar. They didn’t, though. He won the heavyweight title in 2008. His first defense was against a guy who had already beaten him in Frank Mir. Then he fought an undefeated, terrifying Shane Carwin, followed by the meat grinder that is known as Cain Velasquez. Then Alistair Overeem, who if you recall, fled the country when he was asked to provide a random drug test prior to the bout.

In short, the UFC doesn’t have a history of feeding champions easy fights.

Forget all that, though. The strongest arguments against the UFC protecting Rousey lie in the details of her first year as its champion.

Many point to White’s dismissive attitude of a potential fight between Rousey and Cristiane Justino, aka “Cyborg,” as evidence he’s shielding her from a potential loss. If it were that black and white, they might have a point -- but it’s not.

White tried to sign Justino to a unique contract last year, which would have kept her under Zuffa rights but allow her to stay busy in Invicta FC. According to White, Zuffa would have paid Justino’s fight purses even when she fought in Invicta.

What purpose did the UFC have for offering a deal like that? Simple: White knows how big a fight between Rousey and Justino would be. One year ago, he was willing to pay money just to keep the possibility of that fight alive.

Justino, at the advice of her manager Tito Ortiz, declined the offer and signed exclusively with Invicta. Not necessarily a bad move by the way, as we don’t know all the details of the UFC deal, in terms of finances and pay-per-view incentives.

But then one year later, White is asked about Justino (who picked his archenemy to be her manager and already turned down a UFC contract offer once) while he’s promoting a fight between Rousey and McMann. His response -- ranting about Justino’s drug suspension in 2011 and overall irrelevance -- was predictable.

It's very likely the UFC will try to make the Rousey-Justino fight happen. Whether or not it does happen relies on a lot of factors. I’m not throwing down a blanket defense of White here; but I’m saying in this situation, he’s done what any promoter would do.

He’s tried to direct attention toward fights that can exist in the UFC, while dismissing one that, right now, can’t.

Meanwhile, Rousey has fought the best the promotion has had to offer. Liz Carmouche might not have been an obvious choice as her first opponent, but history was being made and Carmouche had a good story. She fit the role.

Rousey’s next fight was supposed to be against Cat Zingano, who many think could give her a serious challenge. The fight didn’t happen due to injury and Zingano was replaced with Miesha Tate, who nearly beat her when they fought in April.

And last weekend, there was McMann. The fight was a blowout, but no one really knew that would be the case. I predicted Rousey to win by first-round armbar, but even so, I figured McMann would make it more difficult than she did.

There is no current bantamweight out there in the UFC who Rousey should have fought already and hasn’t. She’s expected to fight Zingano next, which is the most dangerous fight available. Who has she been protected from?

If the Justino fight happens, it should happen at bantamweight. There is no sense in the UFC having Rousey fight higher than 135 pounds if they don’t even have a 145-pound weight class.

If Rousey beats Zingano, Justino proves she can drop to 135 pounds and the UFC is still claiming that fight is irrelevant -- then you can say Rousey is being protected. Until then, I think she’s just so good, she’s making it seem that way.

'Cyborg' unveils plan to land Rousey fight

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
11:22
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Cristiane Justino Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comCristiane "Cyborg" Justino has a calculated plan to cut weight and set up a fight with Ronda Rousey.
Invicta FC featherweight champion Cristiane Justino has a plan for 2014, which she hopes will lead to UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey by December.

Justino (12-1) recently hired medical consultants to help her start shedding weight in an attempt to make the 135-pound bantamweight limit by midsummer.

The plan calls for Justino, aka "Cyborg," to defend her 145-pound Invicta title in late April or early May, most likely against Ediane Gomes. Justino would then fight for Invicta's 135-pound title in a quick turnaround, perhaps as early as July.

In previous interviews, the Brazilian fighter hinted she was entering the final fight on the Invicta contract she signed last year. Invicta president Shannon Knapp wouldn't offer details, but said the proposed two title fights wouldn't necessarily require Justino to sign a contract extension.

"I won't confirm or deny where she is on her contract, but I can tell you she would still be contractually under Invicta on her current deal [in that situation]," Knapp told ESPN.com.

A former Strikeforce champion, Justino publicly stated her intent to drop to 135 pounds last Saturday, hours before Rousey (9-0) was scheduled to defend her title against Sara McMann at UFC 170 in Las Vegas. Rousey won the fight via first-round TKO.

Justino is scheduled to compete in a 145-pound muay Thai bout at Lion Fight 14 on March 28 in Las Vegas. According to her attorney George Prajin, Justino typically weighs approximately 170 pounds between fights and has a hard time even cutting to her current weight class.

The goal is for Justino to gradually drop, under a physician's supervision, over the next few months, which would make her next two cuts to 145 pounds easier. She would then make a practice cut to 135 before fighting for the Invicta bantamweight title this summer.

Earlier this month, Justino's manager, former UFC champion Tito Ortiz, stepped down from his involvement with her. UFC president Dana White has criticized Ortiz's handling of Justino's career in the past.

In February 2013, Ortiz held a news conference during which he said it was "impossible" for Justino to cut to 135 pounds. White has pointed to that admission as a major reason the fight hasn't been made -- and might never be made.

[+] EnlargeCristiane Justino
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comWith former manager Tito Ortiz out of the picture, Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino's new representative are optimistic a deal with the UFC can be reached.
"It's not that I'm against Cyborg," White said last weekend. "It's that she has been put in this box. Tito built this box and stuffed her in there and it's really hurt her bad. [Ortiz said], 'If she goes to 135, she will die. A doctor said it.' Who wants her to fight at 135 then? Not me."

On Wednesday, Prajin told ESPN.com that the news conference White is referring to was "difficult" and admitted Ortiz was "nervous" during it. He disputes the claim, however, that anyone said she would "die" at 135 pounds.

With Ortiz out of the picture, Justino and her representatives are optimistic a deal with the UFC could be reached in time to see her fight Rousey by the end of the year.

Rousey is expected to return to the Octagon before then and will face No. 1 contender Cat Zingano, assuming Zingano has recovered from knee surgery. White has stated Rousey will fight three times in 2014.

Rousey, who hasn't fought at featherweight since November 2011, has maintained interest in a fight against Justino, but only at bantamweight. The UFC currently does not promote a female featherweight division.

"I still want that fight, but she seems hell bent on it not happening," Rousey told ESPN last week.

The fantasy fight might find an unlikely advocate in Knapp who, despite her stake in Invicta, says she's willing to be a liaison between Justino and the UFC.

"Ever since Tito stepped down, [Justino] doesn't have a manager so to speak, so she has been completely bombarded with people trying to represent her," Knapp said. "What Cris wants is someone to communicate and negotiate for her who she trusts. She has asked me to be a part of it.

"When I signed Cris, I knew this fight was out there and that she wanted it. As much as I'm a promoter with my own promotion, I want to see that fight. I would never hold an athlete back in that situation. I'll assist in whatever way I can."

Who can challenge Ronda Rousey?

February, 23, 2014
Feb 23
11:09
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive

LAS VEGAS -- Referee Herb Dean didn't end UFC 170 early. Ronda Rousey did.

Say what you want about Dean’s decision to stop Saturday’s title fight in the first round, awarding Rousey the first knockout of her career. Given the stakes involved, he probably could have given Sara McMann more opportunity to recover, sure.

But don’t ignore reality, either. Liver shots end fights -- in fact, good ones often look more debilitating than strikes to the head. McMann never argued the stoppage forcefully and it’s quite possible she would not have recovered anyway.
[+] EnlargeRonda Rousey
Al Powers for ESPNWhen it comes to the women of MMA, there's Ronda Rousey -- then everyone else.

The venom directed at Dean’s stoppage was, perhaps, due somewhat to the fight in general. For all the talk about Olympians and judo vs. wrestling and undefeated records, the main event was a 66-second blowout. Complete blowout.

Fans of the still relatively new UFC women’s division might not have known exactly what they expected to see on Saturday, but a first-inning, run-rule situation that lasted about a minute wasn't it.

McMann was supposed to be the greatest challenge yet to Rousey’s career. She went out with a whimper, thanks to a very effective but visually uninspiring body shot. A quick knee to the midsection and that’s it? The mountain is climbed? Weak.

That perspective unfairly diminishes the level of skill and preparation that really went into Rousey’s finish, but unfortunately, it's bound to exist after a fight like that: Yes, Rousey is amazing, but I’d sure like to see her in a real fight.

As much as Rousey has seemingly enjoyed her one-sided career, she admits that just three years in, she’s already forced to search for (and at times, create) challenges for herself.

“I keep trying to top myself,” said Rousey, two days before fighting McMann. “It’s hard to keep creative and say, ‘What can I do that is better than the last thing?’”

The UFC’s bottom line is unlikely to struggle when Rousey headlines, blowout or not. Consumers of combat sports have long shown a willingness to tune into less-competitive fights, as long as marquee names are involved.

Rousey, however, seems like a champion who wishes to be challenged. Currently, only a handful of 135-pound females appear even slightly capable of providing one.

Cat Zingano was supposed to fight Rousey last year, but suffered a serious knee injury in May. UFC president Dana White has said Zingano will fight for the belt when she’s healthy, but no firm date for her return exists.

Interest in a fight between Rousey and Invicta FC featherweight champion Cristiane Justino, aka “Cyborg,” is certain to amplify this year. Justino recently announced her intent to drop to 135 pounds and “retire” Rousey by December.

On Saturday, White, who accused Justino of being on performance-enhancing drugs one week ago, said she would have to drop to bantamweight and fight outside the UFC before ever receiving that opportunity.

The simple question of whether Justino would be licensed to fight at 135 pounds remains an interesting one. In 2012, she and her manager at the time, former UFC champion Tito Ortiz, said cutting to that weight puts her health at risk.

“That’s extremely relevant, it’s an admission by the fighter,” said Francisco Aguilar, chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. “If she made that comment, she had reasons for making it.

“If the UFC wanted that fight in Las Vegas, the commission would review her application and decide whether or not to approve that bout at 135 pounds. This is one of those situations we’d really have to look at.”

For years, White claimed female fights would never happen in the UFC because the divisions lacked depth. It was Rousey, White says, who changed his mind.

In some ways, though, every lopsided Rousey win validates White’s initial concern about depth in the women’s divisions. Hopefully, that challenge she’s been looking for is on its way.

Rousey's star power, Cormier shove, more

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
6:24
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive

LAS VEGAS -- Almost exactly one year ago, the question regarding Ronda Rousey’s star power was whether it was enough to carry a UFC pay-per-view event.

Today, that question has turned into this: Is her star power actually so strong that it could end her fighting career?

Rousey (8-0) will attempt to make her third defense of the 135-pound title against Sara McMann (7-0) on Saturday at UFC 170 inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

In addition to fighting three times in the previous 12 months, Rousey, 27, has drawn plenty of interest from Hollywood. She’s already completed filming roles for “Fast and Furious 7” and “The Expendables 3.” She is due back on the movie circuit next month to film an appearance on a movie version of the popular HBO series “Entourage.”

During a news conference on Thursday, UFC president Dana White said he does not consider Rousey’s acting obligations to be distractions, pointing out that Rousey has remained an active champion.

“What is she juggling?” White said. “[She will] obviously have time off [after UFC 170], but what do you do when you have time off? Some people gain a bunch of weight and they have to go lose it in their next fight.”

White did acknowledge that although Rousey is far from the first UFC fighter to appear in films, her earning power is far higher than any he’s seen previously.

If that ability to make money in Hollywood does eventually pull Rousey away from the cage, White says he’ll be happy for her and move on.

“Everybody keeps talking about, ‘What if she leaves for Hollywood?’” White said. “What if she leaves for Hollywood? How is that bad for [the UFC]? Is ‘The Rock’ [Dwayne Johnson] being a huge superstar bad for the WWE?”

White added that the UFC plans to have Rousey fight three times in 2014.

DC shoves Patrick Cummins

Daniel Cormier and Patrick CumminsJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesThe UFC 170 co-main event got off to an early start after Daniel Cormier shoved Patrick Cummins.

Prefight scuffles between UFC opponents are rare, but they can happen.

Daniel Cormier (13-0) shoved Patrick Cummins (4-0) during a stare-down on Thursday, presumably because of Cummins’ comments on their history.

The two former amateur wrestlers trained together years ago at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Cummins, who accepted the fight on short notice after an injury sidelined Rashad Evans, claims to have made Cormier cry once at practice.

The UFC has never lost a fight because of an incident at a weigh-in or news conference, but it was easy to read the uneasiness on White’s face as the shove happened.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like when they touch each other before fights,” White said.

“The one that scared me the most was Diego Sanchez/Josh Koscheck [at UFC 69]. Sanchez hit him so hard he almost fell over the scale. The sneakiest one ever was Anderson Silva when he hit Chael Sonnen [with a shoulder at UFC 148].”

Zingano still No. 1 contender whenever she returns

Cat ZinganoIsaac Hinds According to Dana White, women's contender Cat Zingano is still in line for a crack at the title.
Cat Zingano remains at the front of the line for the next shot at the UFC women’s bantamweight title.

Zingano (8-0) was supposed to coach against Rousey on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series last year but was forced to withdraw because of a torn ACL. Last month, her husband and coach, Mauricio Zingano, committed suicide in Denver.

White did not know a timetable for her return but said she has not lost her place in the division. Zingano was originally expected to return to training in March.

“Cat Zingano and I have played phone tag, and I owe her a phone call,” White said.

“The kitchen sink has been thrown at that poor girl. Losing the opportunity to coach TUF, losing the opportunity to fight for the title, being injured and going through all the emotional crap and then her husband -- you can’t even imagine.”

UFC 170 by the numbers

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
5:07
AM ET
By Andrew Davis
ESPN.com
Archive
The face of women’s MMA returns for her third title defense when “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey faces Sara McMann on Saturday. McMann won an Olympic silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Athens Games, while Rousey won an Olympic bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Beijing Games.

In the co-main event, former two-time Olympic freestyle wrestling team member Daniel Cormier makes his light heavyweight debut against former training partner Patrick Cummins, who will be fighting on short notice after replacing Rashad Evans (Evans suffered a knee injury and was forced to withdraw from the card last week).
[+] EnlargeRonda Rousey and Liz Carmouche
Ed Mulholland for ESPNAll of Ronda Rousey's MMA victories have come via her patented arm-bar submission.

Here are the numbers you need to know for the fights:

8: Rousey has recorded eight submission victories in her career, seven of which have come in the opening round. Rousey is the only UFC fighter, male or female, to win every fight with the same finish. With another arm-bar victory, Rousey will tie Jeremy Horn for the most wins by arm-bar submission in UFC history.

2: McMann scored two takedowns in her promotional debut at UFC 159 against Sheila Gaff. In McMann's prior four fights outside the UFC, she averaged 6.5 takedowns per fight, including a career-high nine against Raquel Pa'aluhi.

6: Rousey landed a career-high six takedowns in her UFC 168 fight against rival Miesha Tate. Rousey landed three takedowns in each of the first two rounds, eventually finishing Tate with an arm bar.

3: The Rousey-Tate fight ended in the third round, the first time in Rousey’s eight-fight MMA career that she’s gone past the first round. Tate is also the only woman to escape a Rousey submission attempt (two escapes in UFC 168 fight).

9: Rousey has attempted nine submissions in six UFC/Strikeforce fights. In four of those fights, Rousey has finished her opponent with the first submission attempted.

2: Rousey (8-0, 2-0 UFC) and McMann (7-0, 1-0 UFC) are facing off in the second title fight in UFC history to involve two undefeated fighters. Lyoto Machida (14-0) defeated Rashad Evans (15-0-1) for the UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 98.

2: Both Rousey and McMann have won an Olympic medal. Rousey was a two-time Olympian in judo, winning a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Rousey was also on the 2004 Olympic team in judo, and McMann was on the '04 team in freestyle wrestling. McMann won a silver medal in the women’s middleweight division.

4: If McMann can win the title, she will join Rousey, Randy Couture and Mark Coleman as former Olympians to win a UFC title. Coleman was a freestyle wrestler on the 1992 Olympic team before winning the first UFC heavyweight title at UFC 12. Couture was a three-time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling before winning the UFC heavyweight title on three occasions and the UFC light heavyweight title twice.

3: Cormier is the third Olympian on the UFC 170 card, joining Rousey and McMann. Cormier was a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team in his discipline of freestyle wrestling. He finished fourth in Athens and was expected to wrestle on the 2008 Olympic team before being sidelined by injury. Despite the injury, Cormier was still a team captain.

2: Cummins was a two-time All-American wrestler at Penn State, finishing fourth in the 2003 NCAA Championships and second in 2004. Cummins went 38-5 in the heavyweight division in 2003-04, his senior campaign.

3: Cormier notched three takedowns in his last fight against Roy Nelson. In three of Cormier's last four fights, he has at least three takedowns.

92: Cormier holds a plus-92 significant striking advantage over his opponents in the UFC. In two fights -- one against Nelson and one against Frank Mir -- Cormier landed 133 significant strikes to just 41 for his opponents.

4: Cummins is 4-0 in MMA competition, ending each of his fights in the first round. While Cummins has a wrestling background, he has two wins by KO/TKO and two wins by submission.

Statistical support from FightMetric

McMann's skills might bridge Rousey gap

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
12:39
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive

It’s difficult not to see flashes of Royce Gracie in Ronda Rousey.

In November 1993, an undersized Gracie mowed through a field of competitors at UFC 1 behind Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills his opponents simply did not understand.

Rousey (8-0) has accomplished a similar feat in female mixed martial arts through 2013, finishing all eight of her professional fights in the same fashion -- arm bar. It’s not the exact same thing Gracie did 20 years ago, but there is a common theme.

As a U.S. bronze medalist in judo in the 2008 Olympics, Rousey has an ultraspecific, unique skill. Her opponents are forced to catch up, cramming judo sessions and defense of the arm bar into their preparations, and it’s an extremely wide gap to make up.

"

I think that every other girl in the division has a very hard and long road to learning how to stop a high-level throw. I don't have that same problem.

" -- Sara McMann,
on Ronda Rousey's judo skills
It is for this reason that Rousey’s next fight against the virtually unknown Sara McMann at UFC 170 on Feb. 22 deserves your attention. That wide gap, finally, won’t exist.

“I think that every other girl in the division has a very hard and long road to learning how to stop a high-level throw,” McMann said. “I don’t have that same problem.”

McMann (10-0) is free to roam the United States with her 4-year-old daughter and go unrecognized. She has fewer than 16,000 Twitter followers and has never been hailed as the face of women’s MMA.

What she has done is take a silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. wrestling team. She has spent her life on a wrestling mat and was introduced to judo in the late 1990s, well before she ever heard the name Rousey.

“My best friend in college my freshman year, when I was 17, had done judo before she started wrestling,” McMann said. “She used to put on a highlight tape, and we would sit and watch it and say, ‘Wow, that is so beautiful.’

“She would show me different things and apply her judo to wrestling. I would see other judo girls do it too. I knew about judo long before this.”

That background contrasts sharply with other Rousey opponents. Sarah Kaufman began her career in her late teens in kickboxing classes. Liz Carmouche played noncombat sports in high school before starting to train MMA in the Marine Corps.

Miesha Tate, considered a strong grappler in her own right, fought Rousey in March 2012 and last month at UFC 168. She began wrestling in high school. She was taken down six times by Rousey in the rematch and submitted in the third round.

McMann, who watched that fight with the knowledge she would face the winner, said she saw nothing significantly wrong with Tate’s technique. It was even worse -- she was using the wrong technique to begin with.

“I don’t think there was anything technically wrong with the double leg she was hitting. It was more the technique she selected,” McMann said. “When you feel a person who can throw you, it’s a lot smarter not to load yourself on them.

“Single and double legs, they absolutely load you onto their hips. Some of the times when [Tate and Rousey] locked up, I was closing my eyes. But it takes years of experience [to know that], going against people who are trying to throw you.”

Many will write off McMann’s chances in the fight based on name recognition alone. Others might say the title opportunity has come too quick and she’s simply not ready for it. Oddsmakers have opened Rousey as a more than 4-to-1 betting favorite.

Without question, there are reasons to predict a third title defense for Rousey, but the suggestion McMann isn’t ready is a loaded one.

On one hand, more time to develop is never a bad thing. On the other, you might argue that her competitive background actually makes her the only woman in the world ready for Rousey.

“When Ronda grabs Sara, she’s going to feel something she hasn’t felt since the Olympic Games,” said Daniel Cormier, UFC light heavyweight and former U.S. Olympic wrestler. “She’s going to feel somebody who is a lifetime athlete, as she is.

“Ronda’s biggest advantage is that she’s a lifetime athlete. I’m not saying all these girls aren’t athletes, but Ronda hit the nail on the head when she told Miesha, ‘You wrestled for your high school team, and I went to the Olympic Games.' Well, Sara went [to the Olympics], and she placed too.”

Which champs stay (and go) in 2014?

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
11:03
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
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.

More revelry than rivalry in Rousey-Tate II

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
8:04
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
Archive
Ronda Rousey defended her UFC women’s bantamweight title on Saturday and again reminded the MMA world of her Olympic pedigree.

With multiple judo throws and hip tosses, Rousey defeated a game Miesha Tate at UFC 168: Weidman-Silva II at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The win earned Rousey Fight of the Night and Submission of the Night bonuses, totaling $150,000.

In the postfight news conference, UFC president Dana White announced Rousey (8-0) will face Sara McMann (7-0) at UFC 170 on Feb. 22.
[+] EnlargeRonda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate
Ed Mulholland for ESPNMiesha Tate found herself in dire straits on the occasions she went to the ground with Ronda Rousey.

While Rousey once again won with her patented arm bar, it was the ease with which she took down Tate that was on display.

Tate started off aggressively, trading strikes with Rousey to keep the fight standing. But inevitably, Rousey pushed toward the clinch, tying up Tate, who took down Rousey at 3:26 of the first round.

But even after getting the takedown, Tate ended up on defense more than offense, as Rousey’s jiu-jitsu was markedly improved. She attributed this improvement to training with jiu-jitsu gurus Rener and Ryron Gracie during her last two fight camps.

Tate also seemed a much improved striker, landing 48 percent of her strikes, up from the 41 percent she averaged while competing in Strikeforce. However, Tate’s wrestling instincts kept her going to the ground with Rousey, and Rousey kept hip tossing Tate to the mat.

In the end, Rousey was able to sink in the arm bar for the win in the third round.

“I have no excuses,” Tate said. “[Rousey] was the better fighter tonight.”

Rousey said her problem has been trying not to rush her attacks and approach. However, entering Saturday's bout Rousey had defeated all of her opponents so handily, she’s never had to slow herself down. Against Tate she needed to regroup and remind herself to take her foot off the gas.

“Judo matches are just five minutes long. So I always felt like I had to get it done in a hurry,” Rousey said. “In the third round, I learned to be patient. My coaches always say to pay attention to what you’re doing and do everything for a reason.”

WHAT’S NEXT?


UFC fans know what’s next for Rousey, but what about Tate?

Now 0-2 in the UFC and a loser in three of her last four fights, Tate has lost twice to Rousey, who originally took the Strikeforce bantamweight championship from Tate in 2012. Thus, the odds are long that she’ll receive a third shot at Rousey anytime soon. With just two women’s divisions in the UFC, Tate really has nowhere to go.

“I don’t really know what’s next. Every day people try to climb up a hill. I see Mount Everest,” Tate said. “But I try to walk away from this with my head held high. I just need some time to figure it out.”

Rousey, on the other hand, relished the opportunity to fight so quickly again.

“Dana approached me about this and I wanted to do it,” Rousey said. “I’m in the best shape of my life. I don’t want to sit on the shelf. It’s the perfect time to go back-to-back. I feel like I could fight again tonight.”

As for the feud with Tate, Rousey’s victory should have ensured the end of any sort of “rivalry” talk, for a rivalry isn't a rivalry when it’s so one-sided. Further, Rousey seemed to soften her stance on Tate and offered compliments in her postfight interviews.

“I need to commend Miesha. She did a great job tonight. She’s an amazing fighter. She really is,” Rousey said.

However, when Tate extended her hand in a gesture of sportsmanship after losing to Rousey, she refused to shake Tate’s hand.

“Once you insult my family, I can’t shake your hand,” said Rousey, referring to some of the practical jokes Tate played on Rousey’s coaching staff during filming of Season 18 of "The Ultimate Fighter." "But I really respect her, and I think she did an amazing job tonight.

"For me, family comes before anything, even the boos and cheers of the crowd. I think it would disrespect my family if I shook her hand. I said she did an amazing job. But I can’t shake the hand of someone who spits on my back. Until she apologizes to my family, I won’t shake her hand."

Rousey might have been the overwhelming favorite coming into the fight, but the crowd made it very clear who was their favorite, as cheers came for Tate, but boos muffled Rousey’s postfight interview. Ultimately, TUF 18 might have represented a sea change in Rousey’s brand and role as an antihero champion. Regardless, there’s no question it helped sell the fight.

“I was aware of the role I was in,” Rousey said. “The best analogy I can give is it was like how Batman knew he had to look like the bad guy and allow Two-Face to be the good guy because that what was needed at the time.”

And she’ll take boos, which she says might help her as she begins training for McMann. Her Olympic pedigree has helped her cope with that part of the business as well.

"When I was doing judo, I got booed in 30 different countries around the world," Rousey said. "Cheering is something new for me. I’m much more motivated by proving people wrong."

Finding a silver lining in Silva's injury

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
7:33
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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LAS VEGAS -- Anderson Silva might never fight again.

What an absolutely depressing, awful thing to contemplate. A man who has been at the helm of so many memorable moments in UFC history might be finished at 38, thanks in no small part to a freakishly broken leg suffered on Saturday.

It’s not like I’ve spent hours of my life contemplating what the end of Silva’s career would look like -- but now that we might be there, I guess, yeah, I had some ideas. None of them involved him leaving on a stretcher, headed for the operating table.

This isn’t 100 percent the end of Silva’s fighting career -- in 2008, Corey Hill suffered a very similar injury in the UFC and he fought 13 months later -- but it should be. I would never put anything past Silva, but a full recovery at age 38 would be a task.

And seeing a 40-year-old, past-his-prime Silva attempt a comeback in 2016 would be even more depressing than witnessing the injury itself. No, I’d rather my last memory of Silva be the one I had right before that kick -- when I knew he lost the first round but there was still almost an expectation he’d find a way to win.
[+] EnlargeChris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva
Ed Mulholland for ESPNDespite the unsatisfying end, Anderson Silva's loss was a case of the former champ losing to the better man in Chris Weidman.

The one saving grace in this unfortunate (and most likely) end to Silva’s career is that the other fighter involved was Chris Weidman.

It wasn’t some random No. 1 contender who happened to perfectly check one leg kick. It was a fighter who, over the course of four rounds, proved he was better.

That’s the problem with the traditional, “passing of the torch” storyline. It’s a give/receive relationship. That’s not how professional sports are supposed to work. A contender wants what the champion has and the champion will do everything he can to keep it. There’s not supposed to be any “passing” involved.

And that’s what happened on Saturday. Looking back on the entirety of the Weidman/Silva fights, you actually get this feeling that Weidman got robbed. He knew he could beat Silva -- twice. He even wanted the second time to be in Brazil.

In fact, Weidman didn’t even look all that happy after the win -- both in the cage and at the post-fight news conference. Of course, seeing Silva suffer a severe leg injury will dampen the mood, but it also appeared Weidman was disappointed that a freak injury prevented him from another convincing finish of Silva.

Hopefully, history will be written correctly when it comes to these two fights. Silva did clown in the first meeting and it helped lead to a certain result, but he played it completely straight in the rematch and was dominated just as soundly.

Silva didn’t look old and he didn’t lack motivation. He wasn’t a former great on the decline. He was still Anderson Silva.

“I thought he looked great tonight,” Weidman said. “Physically, I thought he looked the best I’ve ever seen him.”

UFC female bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey told ESPN.com recently that her hope (and goal) is to retire undefeated and vacate the belt. That said, Rousey made it a point that she would want “her” belt to fall to someone deserving.

A broken leg injury on a checked kick was not how anyone wanted to see Silva go out. It’s downright tragic.

But how did we want to see him go out? The answer to that is probably that it didn’t really matter, as long as it felt like he lost to a better fighter, deserving of his title. At least on Saturday, despite the way it ended, Silva did indeed lose to the better man.

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