1. Cain Velasquez (9-0)
During his first week at the American Kickboxing Academy, trainers thought Velasquez was a future UFC heavyweight champion. On Oct. 21 in Anaheim, Calif., he made that a reality, blowing away Brock Lesnar in the first round to claim the UFC heavyweight crown. While he can celebrate for now, Velasquez will have to return early next year to defend his throne against fellow young heavyweight Junior dos Santos.
2. Brock Lesnar (5-2)
Following his lopsided loss to Cain Velasquez in October, the next step for Lesnar remains unclear. UFC President Dana White started laying the groundwork for a rubber match with rival Frank Mir in the media, but fans and pundits alike were quick to skewer the bout, forcing White to publicly rethink the matchup. For now, Lesnar remains without a dance partner.
3. Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1)
On Aug. 18, Werdum underwent surgery and had 27 loose bone fragments removed from his left elbow. Now physically cleared to resume his training, the author of this year’s most significant upset now targets a return to action in the first quarter of 2011. He hopes to secure a fight outside of Strikeforce before meeting either Alistair Overeem or Fedor Emelianenko in a rematch.
4. Fedor Emelianenko (31-2, 1 NC)
The chicanery of another Emelianenko pre-fight has begun. Emelianenko’s promoters at M-1 have openly announced their interest in fighting Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, on the condition that the Dutchman submits to Olympic-style drug testing. Naturally, little headway has been made surrounding Emelianenko’s next bout.
5. Junior dos Santos (12-1)
Dos Santos’ next step is now clear. Courtesy of Cain Velasquez’s thrashing of Brock Lesnar at UFC 121 on Oct. 23, “Cigano” will challenge Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight crown in early 2011 in a great pairing of thrilling young heavyweights.
6. Shane Carwin (12-1)
Carwin was schedueled to face “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 winner Roy Nelson atUFC 125 on Jan. 1. However, due to ongoing back problems, he opted for surgery. After a successful procedure, the Colorado native looks to get back into training sometime in early 2011.
7. Frank Mir (14-5)
At UFC 119, Mir and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic underwhelmed the Indianapolis crowd for 14 minutes with a dreadful exhibition of aimless clinching. Finally, with just 58 ticks left in the fight, Mir landed a colossal knee that crushed the Croat, notching one of the least impressive highlight-reel KOs in recent memory.
8. Alistair Overeem (33-11, 1 NC)
The Strikeforce heavyweight champion’s efforts continue to come in kickboxing rather than MMA. “The Demolition Man” earned an easy first-round KO over Aussie Ben Edwards on Oct. 2 in Seoul, South Korea, to advance to December’s K-1 World Grand Prix finale in Yokohama, Japan. As for an MMA return, it remains anyone’s guess for now.
9. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-6-1, 1 NC)
Back in December 2008, Nogueira was taken out by Frank Mir in lopsided fashion. He was scheduled for a chance at redemption against Mir at UFC 119 on Sept. 25, until a hip injury struck, forcing “Minotauro” from the fight and onto the surgeon’s table.
10. Antonio Silva (14-2)
Silva’s hope was that he would get to face Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem. With “The Demolition Man” dealing with his K-1 duties in December, “Pezao” will instead meet the Dutchman’s older brother, Valentijn Overeem, on Dec. 4 in St. Louis.
Other contenders: Josh Barnett, Cole Konrad, Roy Nelson, Ben Rothwell, Brendan Schaub.
1. Mauricio Rua (19-4)
“Shogun” underwent another knee surgery, stemming from an injury suffered in his May 8 title capture against Lyoto Machida. Recovery and rehab have postponed his bout with former champion Rashad Evans. Their encounter now looks as if it might be greenlit for March, as Rua and Evans could headline the proposed UFC 128 bill in the United Arab Emirates.
2. Lyoto Machida (16-1)
Despite his father, Yoshizo, announcing he would like to see his son retire, Machida will do just the opposite. Coming off his brutal knockout loss to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in May, Machida will get right back into the 205-pound fray later this year. He will face another former UFC champion, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, in the main event of UFC 123 on Nov. 20.
3. Rashad Evans (15-1-1)
The wait continues for the toe-tapping Evans, who will remain on the sidelines until Mauricio “Shogun” Rua fully rehabilitates his knee and allows the two stars to contest the UFC light heavyweight crown. It now appears they will collide in March, possibly at the rumored UFC 128 event in the United Arab Emirates.
4. Quinton Jackson (30-8)
Coming off a tough decision loss to rival Rashad Evans in May, Jackson will stay right in the hottest fires at 205 pounds. In the main event of UFC 123 on Nov. 20, Jackson will take on fellow former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in a must-win bout for “Rampage.”
5. Forrest Griffin (17-6)
With his second book penned and injuries healed, Griffin is due for his return to the Octagon. He will take on former middleweight champion Rich Franklin at UFC 126 on Feb. 5 in what could be a highly entertaining affair at 205 pounds.
6. Ryan Bader (12-0)
It was not a thrilling victory, but at UFC 119 on Sept. 25, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner earned a unanimous decision over well-established veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, the twin of his reality series coach. The win sets up Bader for a Feb. 5 showdown with fellow fast-riser Jon Jones at UFC 126.
7. Jon Jones (11-1)
The 23-year-old Jones seems destined for greatness. The next step in the evolution for “Bones” will be a major prospect-versus-prospect showdown come Super Bowl weekend. Jones expects to meet fellow blue chipper Ryan Bader at UFC 126 on Feb. 5.
8. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (19-4)
Nogueira made a sterling UFC debut back in November 2009 but has been lackluster in two subsequent bouts against Jason Brilz and Ryan Bader. Next up for “Minotoro” will be former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz in March, possibly at UFC 128 in the United Arab Emirates.
9. Rafael Cavalcante (10-2)
Cavalcante will defend his Strikeforce light heavyweight title for the first time in early 2011. He will get a look at his next contender on Dec. 4, when Dan Henderson andRenato Sobral square off in a de facto title eliminator. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker has indicated the winner would be the first title challenger for “Feijao.”
10. Muhammed Lawal (7-1)
“King Mo” had his crown taken by Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante on Aug. 21 in Houston. A slow start and an overreliance on his stand-up skills saw Lawal play right into Cavalcante’s game. It got him stopped just 74 seconds into the third round, as he suffered the first loss of his MMA career.
Other contenders: Rich Franklin, Matt Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko, Gegard Mousasi,Thiago Silva.
1. Anderson Silva (27-4)
At UFC 126 on Feb. 5, Silva will square off with fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort. However, should he get past his countryman, the MMA world already knows the identity of his next foe. Yushin Okami, the last man to beat Silva, albeit by disqualification, waits in the wings for the Silva-Belfort winner. If Silva takes out “The Phenom,” he will get the chance to put five years of controversy to rest in a rematch with “Thunder.”
2. Chael Sonnen (24-11-1)
The bizarre tale of Sonnen continues. He failed his post-UFC 117 urinalysis test after it revealed elevated testosterone levels and now faces a one-year suspension if his appeal is denied. Though Sonnen has formally appealed, he has yet to speak on the issue, and a potential rematch with Anderson Silva is now off the table.
3. Yushin Okami (26-5)
In the past, Okami had always let the moment get away from him in big fights. Such was the case in his clashes with Jake Shields and Rich Franklin. However, at UFC 122 in Oberhausen, Germany, “Thunder” capitalized on his opportunity. A more aggressive Okami outboxed and outwrestled the favored Nate Marquardt to earn a unanimous decision, as well as a crack at the winner of the UFC 126 bout between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort.
4. Nate Marquardt (30-10-2)
Marquardt’s three-year journey to earn another shot at middleweight ruler Anderson Silva hit another speed bump in Oberhausen, Germany. For the better part of 15 minutes, Marquardt was outboxed and outwrestled by a surprisingly aggressive Yushin Okami, who took the unanimous nod and with it a UFC middleweight title shot. The defeat dropped Marquardt back into the rest of the population at 185 pounds.
5. Demian Maia (13-2)
At UFC 118, Maia dominated a tough Mario Miranda for 15 minutes and returned to the win column after his April debacle against middleweight champion Anderson Silva. The grappling ace will be back in the cage on Dec. 4, when he meets “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3 winner Kendall Grove at “The Ultimate Fighter 12” Finale.
6. Vitor Belfort (19-8)
After injuries canceled two scheduled title clashes with Anderson Silva in 2010, it seemed Belfort would have to go through the rugged Yushin Okami at UFC 122 to secure a UFC middleweight title shot. However, Chael Sonnen’s alleged UFC 117 drug test failure has forced the UFC to switch up Silva’s next fight, meaning Belfort will likely face “The Spider” for the gold at UFC 126.
7. Dan Henderson (25-8)
In April, Henderson’s much-anticipated Strikeforce debut ended in ennui, as he was outwrestled for the majority of his bout with Jake Shields en route to losing a unanimous verdict. The former two-division Pride Fighting Championships titleholder will return on Dec. 4, when he takes on Renato Sobral, a man who defeated him in the final of the Rings King of Kings tournament in 1999.
8. Jorge Santiago (23-8)
In a rematch of last year’s most underrated fights, Santiago and Kazuo Misaki turned in arguably the best bout of 2010 so far. The back-and-forth five-round war culminated in Santiago — who had already been nearly knocked out and submitted in the fight — retaining his Sengoku middleweight crown by pounding on a hapless Misaki until his corner threw in the towel.
9. Ronaldo Souza (13-2, 1 NC)
“Jacare” became a father on Aug. 20, just a day before he became Strikeforce middleweight champion by besting Tim Kennedy in Houston. The grappling king will likely return to the cage in February to make the first defense of his crown.
10. Michael Bisping (20-3)
The UFC seems keen to use Michael Bisping when it returns to Australia for UFC 127 on Feb. 27. A potential matchup with suddenly relevant journeyman Jorge Rivera could be in the cards, should Bisping accept the bout. The Rivera camp has described the fight as “95 percent likely.”
Other contenders: Alan Belcher, Gerald Harris, Chris Leben, Hector Lombard, Wanderlei Silva.
Georges “Rush” St. Pierre
1. Georges St. Pierre (20-2)
With Josh Koscheck’s May 8 win over Paul Daley, St. Pierre’s next title defense was set. But before he meets Koscheck in a rematch of their August 2007 encounter, the two welterweights will square off as opposing coaches on the 12th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” with a very convenient and apparent good guy-bad guy dynamic.
2. Jon Fitch (23-3, 1 NC)
After besting Thiago Alves for a second time, Fitch was hopeful he would get another crack at the UFC welterweight crown. That opportunity will be going to Jake Shields. Instead of another title shot, Fitch will simply receive another tough welterweight, as he meets Jake Ellenberger at UFC 126 on Feb. 5.
3. Thiago Alves (17-7)
A lackluster loss to Jon Fitch in August, coupled with missing weight, seemed to signal Alves’ move to 185 pounds. Instead, “Pitbull” has linked up with MMA fighter-slash-nutritional guru Mike Dolce, who has vowed to get him in shape and on weight for a 170-pound clash with John Howard at UFC 124 on Dec. 11.
4. Jake Shields (26-4-1)
Shields took a split decision over Martin Kampmann in his UFC debut in October, but whether one wants to call it “successful” or not was another story. However, it does appear the former Strikeforce middleweight champion has done enough to earn a UFC title shot. Shields figures to take on the winner of December’s Georges St. Pierre-Josh Koscheck clash in the spring.
5. Josh Koscheck (15-4)
With high stakes up for grabs — a UFC welterweight title shot and a coaching stint opposite Georges St. Pierre on “The Ultimate Fighter 12” — Koscheck dominated Paul Daley for 15 minutes on the floor en route to a unanimous decision victory at UFC 113. After blocking a post-fight sucker punch from Daley and taunting the Montreal crowd, Koscheck cemented himself as one of MMA’s premiere heels and set in place the groundwork for the build-up to his rematch with St. Pierre.
6. Martin Kampmann (17-4)
Kampmann gave former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields all he could handle in his Octagon debut at UFC 121 on Oct. 23. However, Kampmann did not do enough to earn the nod, losing a contentious split decision many observers feel he deserved.
7. Carlos Condit (26-5)
Condit’s resurgent 2010 campaign has earned him an all-action fight to kick off 2011. At UFC 127 in Sydney, Australia, the “Natural Born Killer” will take on free-swinging veteranChris Lytle in a fight that promises wild action and bears welterweight contender consequences.
8. Dan Hardy (23-8, 1 NC)
Europe had been magical for Hardy during his UFC tenure. However, that was not the case at UFC 120 on Oct. 16. “The Outlaw” was smashed with a brutal left hook from Carlos Condit that took him out of consciousness and away from the top of the UFC welterweight division.
9. Nick Diaz (23-7, 1 ND)
In one of the year’s most entertaining affairs on Oct. 9, Diaz exorcised some three-year-old demons, as he outboxed rival K.J. Noons over five fun rounds in San Jose, Calif., and took a unanimous decision. Diaz’s next challenger remains uncertain, but with Paul Daley wielding a Strikeforce contract and up-and-comer Tyron Woodley making strides, there are exciting affairs to look forward to.
10. Paul Daley (25-9-2)
By the skin of his teeth, Daley edged out a decision win over usual lightweight Jorge Masvidal on Sept. 11. The win set up “Semtex” for a multi-fight deal with Strikeforce, which will begin Dec. 4 when the British banger makes his promotional debut againstScott Smith in St. Louis.
Other contenders: Ben Askren, John Hathaway, Jay Hieron, Dan Hornbuckle, Mike Pyle.
1. Frankie Edgar (13-1)
In August, Edgar proved he was no fluke, dominating B.J. Penn over five rounds. However, the major hurdle for Edgar will now come as we enter 2011. On Jan. 1 at UFC 125, he will defend his title for the second time, risking the strap against unbeaten Gray Maynard — the only man to beat “The Answer.”
2. Gilbert Melendez (18-2)
With his girlfriend giving birth to their first daughter in August, Melendez is now primarily concerned with paternal duties. However, fans and media are beginning to bang the drum for a Strikeforce-versus-Bellator Fighting Championships showdown between Melendez and Eddie Alvarez — the most attractive lightweight bout that can be made outside the UFC.
3. B.J. Penn (15-7-1)
After a pair of disheartening back-to-back losses to Frankie Edgar, Penn claims he contemplated retirement. Instead, UFC President Dana White knew how to excite “The Prodigy.” At UFC 123 on Nov. 20, Penn will meet rival Matt Hughes in a rubber match to settle his score with the man he beat for the UFC welterweight title in 2004. Hughes stopped him in their 2006 rematch.
4. Gray Maynard (10-0, 1 NC)
Maynard has been vocal for months about deserving a UFC lightweight title shot. “The Bully” will finally get his chance as the year rolls over. He meets champion Frankie Edgar on Jan. 1 at UFC 125 in his own adopted backyard of Las Vegas.
5. Shinya Aoki (26-5, 1 NC)
In a no-brainer, Aoki returned to the promotion that launched his career — Deep — for its 10th anniversary show on Oct. 24. It took him only 60 seconds to keylock MMA neophyte Yokthai Sithoar, a former muay Thai and boxing world champion.
6. Eddie Alvarez (21-2)
In his Oct. 21 bout with Roger Huerta, Alvarez was positively destructive, using his uppercut and newly found low kicks to batter the UFC veteran and force the doctor to halt the fight after 10 minutes. Alvarez took the post-fight opportunity to call out Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, and the promotion itself further exacerbated the call for the crossover mega-fight.
7. Kenny Florian (14-5)
Florian did not fight up to expectations in August, when he had little to offer Gray Maynard in their 155-pound title eliminator. There will be no soft bounce-back fight for the Bostonian, as “Ken Flo” has signed on to face fast-rising lightweight prospect Evan Dunham in the UFC “Fight for the Troops 2” on Jan. 22.
8. Tatsuya Kawajiri (26-6-2)
Many tabbed Kawajiri to be the next Dream champion, figuring he had exactly the right skill set to replicate what Gilbert Melendez did to Shinya Aoki in April. However, on July 10, Kawajiri spent most of the night fending off foot locks, until finally tapping out to Aoki less than two minutes into the first round.
9. Sean Sherk (36-4-1)
After 16 months on the shelf due to a plethora of injuries, Sherk returned to action at UFC 119 against unbeaten up-and-comer Evan Dunham. After a strong first round, Sherk flagged in the bout, losing in the eyes of most onlookers. However, two of three people that matter — the judges — sided with Sherk, who secured a crucial but highly unpopular win.
10. Evan Dunham (11-1)
At UFC 119, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth over Dunham’s controversial split decision loss to Sean Sherk. However, Dunham continues to be treated like a winner. He will meet divisional standout Kenny Florian in the main event of UFC “Fight for the Troops 2” on Jan. 22.
Other contenders: Takanori Gomi, Benson Henderson, Jim Miller, George Sotiropoulos,Josh Thomson.
1. Jose Aldo (18-1)
As the sport’s top featherweight and one of MMA’s most dynamic fighters, Aldo will naturally be a focal point of the UFC-WEC merger. That project will come to a head on Jan. 1 at UFC 125, when Aldo puts the newly coined UFC featherweight title on the line against Josh Grispi in his third title defense.
2. Manny Gamburyan (11-5)
With his corking of former WEC champion Mike Thomas Brown in April, Gamburyan earned his shot at Jose Aldo. However, when the two met at WEC 51 on Sept. 30, the tough Armenian had very little for Aldo, who leisurely strolled through the first round before turning up the heat and halting Gamburyan in the second, seemingly at will.
3. Mike Thomas Brown (24-6)
In April 2004, a lightweight Brown tapped out to Japanese vet Genki Sudo in the first round. Nearly seven years later, Brown will return to the Octagon as a featherweight to tangle with once-beaten Brazilian Diego Nunes at UFC 125 on Jan. 1.
4. Michihiro Omigawa (12-8-1)
Having solidified himself as Japan’s top featherweight, Omigawa is being sought by the WEC. Whether or not he signs and accepts a fight at WEC 53 on Dec. 16 will hinge on whether his management group, J-Rock, feels it can secure the 34-year-old a top-notch bout on New Year’s Eve in Japan.
5. Marlon Sandro (17-1)
The dominance of Sandro’s teammate, Jose Aldo, has been so extreme that many fans have taken to downheartedly dreaming of what it would be like if the two Nova Uniao studs could square off. However, Sandro still might have a high-stakes affair in Japan, should Sengoku line up a defense of his featherweight title against Hatsu Hioki.
6. Bibiano Fernandes (8-2)
Dream was hoping to have its featherweight champion back in action on Sept. 25. There was one problem: Fernandes told Brazilian outlet Tatame that he still had not been paid for his March title defense against Joachim Hansen. Though Fernandes was finally compensated in September, it was not soon enough to strike a deal to get the featherweight titleholder on the card at Dream 16.
7. Hatsu Hioki (22-4-2)
On Aug. 22, the Shooto world champion returned to the Sengoku ring, where he embarrassed “The Ultimate Fighter” alum Jeff Lawson en route to a first-round submission. However, the real big ticket fight for Hioki remains a showdown with SRC champion Marlon Sandro, which would be one of the biggest fights to be made outside of a Zuffa promotion, regardless of weight.
8. Josh Grispi (14-1)
As part of the ongoing WEC-UFC merger, the 22-year-old Grispi has been given a monumental opportunity. “The Fluke” will try to avoid becoming the next victim for 145-pound kingpin Jose Aldo, when he challenges for the UFC featherweight title at UFC 125 on Jan. 1 in one of the event’s two title bouts.
9. Joe Warren (6-1)
Warren claiming to be “the baddest man on the planet” seems a tad dubious. However, the former Greco-Roman wrestling world champion showed in his Sept. 2 bout with Joe Soto that he was otherworldly tough, with some power to spare. He came back from a hellacious beating in the fight’s opening round to stop Soto and take Bellator’s featherweight title 33 seconds into round two.
10. Diego Nunes (15-1)
In September, Nunes moved his WEC mark to 4-1 with a unanimous decision win overTyler Toner. Now, “The Gun” will move to the UFC Octagon, where he will face the sternest test of his career. At UFC 125 on Jan. 1, Nunes will take on former WEC featherweight champion Mike Thomas Brown in a fight with major featherweight stakes.
Other contenders: Raphael Assuncao, L.C. Davis, Mark Hominick, Chad Mendes, Joe Soto.
* With his official bantamweight debut, previously fourth-ranked Urijah Faber exits the featherweight rankings.
1. Dominick Cruz (16-1)
As the WEC gained momentum, it seemed like Miguel Torres would be the fighter to carry the bantamweight division on his back and bring it to the masses. Now, Cruz has that chance. After a successful first title defense against Joseph Benavidez in August, Cruz will try to prove he’s the real deal — and not just a placeholder — when he defends his crown against a red-hot Scott Jorgensen in December.
2. Joseph Benavidez (13-2)
He might have two losses to Dominick Cruz, and he might be best suited to fight at 125 pounds, but, apart from the WEC bantamweight champion himself, no 135-pound fighter picks off more top fighters than Benavidez. Stepping in for an injured Brian Bowles, Benavidez put another top 10 win on his ledger by dominating Wagnney Fabiano, choking the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt into submission in the second round at WEC 52.
3. Brian Bowles (8-1)
Injury woes have struck Bowles again. After breaking his hand in his March defeat to Dominick Cruz — the fight in which he lost the WEC bantamweight title — he was expected to return against Wagnney Fabiano at WEC 52 in November. However, a foot injury has put Bowles back on the shelf.
4. Scott Jorgensen (11-3)
After steadily rising up the ranks of the bantamweight division, Jorgensen has earned his shot at the throne. When WEC 53 heads to Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 16, “Young Guns” will have his chance to prove himself the top 135-pounder in the world. There, the former Boise State Bronco takes on champion Dominick Cruz.
5. Urijah Faber (24-4)
Faber was originally set to make his 135-pound debut at WEC 50 on Aug. 18, but a knee injury postponed his bout with Takeya Mizugaki. “The California Kid” made the wait well worth it, as he choked Mizugaki unconscious in the WEC 52 main event on Nov. 11 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.
6. Miguel Torres (38-3)
Torres will be one of the first WEC talents to receive major UFC exposure. The former WEC bantamweight titleholder will make his Octagon debut on Super Bowl weekend, when he meets Antonio Banuelos on the main card at UFC 126 on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas.
7. Takeya Mizugaki (13-5-2)
The first time Mizugaki headlined a WEC event, he turned in a barnburner with Miguel Torres at WEC 40. The second time, however, was a harder pill to swallow. Former featherweight ace Urijah Faber made a successful bantamweight debut against the Japanese import at WEC 52, taking Mizugaki’s back and choking him unconscious inside the first round.
8. Rani Yahya (15-6)
A lackluster effort against Takeya Mizugaki in April, coupled with a growing difficulty to make 135 pounds, has Yahya eying a featherweight return. He will step back up to 145 pounds to take on “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung at UFC “Fight for the Troops 2” on Jan. 22.
9. Masakatsu Ueda (11-1-2)
Desperately needing an impressive win to erase the memories of his March upset loss toShuichiro Katsumura, Ueda was on point in his May 30 bout with WEC veteran Akitoshi Tamura. The former Shooto world champion used all phases of his game — developing striking included — to take a well-appointed unanimous decision.
10. Wagnney Fabiano (14-3)
Fabiano was viewed as an imminent title contender when he cut down to 135 pounds. That is clearly not in the cards. After a pair of lackluster wins, Fabiano was dominated en route to another surprising submission loss, this time to Joseph Benavidez at WEC 52.
Other contenders: Demetrious Johnson, Zach Makovsky, Michael McDonald, Brad Pickett, Eddie Wineland.
* With his Nov. 11 loss to Demetrious Johnson, previously seventh-ranked Damacio Pagefalls from the top 10.