Michael Bisping’s knockout win over Luke Rockhold at UFC 199 was the 11th title change in the UFC over the last year and a half, and the list of champions in the organization now holds numerous names most couldn’t have anticipated even a few short years ago. It’s also a very different landscape than it was just five years ago, and in the wake of this latest title change it’s worth looking at each field, where the current champions were at in June of 2011, who held the top spot at that point in time, and how we got here.
Champ June 2016: Stipe Miocic
Champ June 2011: Cain Velasquez
Of all of the divisions in the UFC, heavyweight has always been the most volatile. No fighter has ever defended the belt more than twice, and the nature of the division lends itself to wild finishes and brutal knockout losses. It’s not all that surprising that Stipe Miocic found a way to become the latest to hold onto that belt, but he wasn’t even the UFC at this point five years ago.
The then 28-year-old had just won his sixth straight fight in June of 2011 to start off his MMA career, but it would be another four months before he’d make his debut in the UFC. Then-Champ Cain Velasquez had captured the belt in October of 2010 by stopping Brock Lesnar in the first round, but he hadn’t yet defended the belt. In fact, he would go on to lose the title himself in his first defense to Junior dos Santos a month after Miocic’s debut.
Dos Santos would defend that title once before dropping it to Velasquez, who then defended it twice (including in the rubber match with dos Santos), only to lose it to Fabricio Werdum, who then fell to Miocic. It’s less of a hot potato than some others simply because Cain Velasquez’s injury layoffs kept him as the technically longest reigning Heavyweight Champion in that time, but the division continues to be in a state of flux from fight to fight, and that’s unlikely to change.
Champ June 2016: Daniel Cormier/Jon Jones
Champ June 2011: Jon Jones
Jon Jones’ run as UFC Light Heavyweight Champion began just over five years, and his would be the longest continuous reign in the sport were it not for his legal issues leading to him being stripped of the belt last year. Cormier’s only in this spot because of that as well, because he probably wouldn’t be fighting Jones here at UFC 200 if not for Jones taking himself out of the picture and allowing Cormier to step in.
This is one of two divisions which has stayed consistent because of a dominant champion, as Jones has been the best fighter in the world over that five year period. He was a surprise challenger for the title that spring in 2011 because of Rashad Evans’ injury, but his run as the best in the world began in earnest in 2011, and he’s only come into his peak since then. Should he regain the title proper over Cormier at UFC 200, he’s going to continue holding control of this division for a long time to come.
Champ June 2016: Michael Bisping
Champ June 2011: Anderson Silva
In June of 2011, Bisping was in the midst of a 4-1 run after his huge loss to Dan Henderson at UFC 100, but while he was trying to work his way into a spot as a contender it didn’t quite seem like he would get himself into that position. He spent the next five years falling short in big fights, alternating wins and losses, and establishing himself as a consistently competitive fighter more than an elite name. Now, he’s somehow found himself with a belt around his waist ten years after his debut; it’s an incredibly improbable story, but it’s come in a division that now has very little consistency when compared to Anderson Silva’s run.
Silva in 2011 had finally come into his own as a superstar, thanks in large part to his close first bout with Chael Sonnen and then his front face kick KO over Vitor Belfort. The new ever-changing title picture makes things more unpredictable than they’ve ever been, and it started with Chris Weidman’s shocking KO over Silva in their first meeting in 2013. Now that Weidman’s lost, and Rockhold’s lost, we’re in a spot where just about anything can happen, and that’s a very different feeling than we had with the 185 lb. division five years ago.
Champ June 2016: Robbie Lawler
Champ June 2011: Georges St-Pierre
Welterweight is the other significantly changed landscape because of the absence of their long reigning champion. Georges St-Pierre had such a stranglehold over the 170 lb. division (his reign once regaining the title in 2008 lasted well over 2,000 days until he relinquished the belt himself) that it was felt someone new and special was going to have to come along to take over at the top. Instead, St-Pierre left, and allowed a whole new level of parity to take hold.
In June of 2011, Lawler was having a poor run in Strikeforce, having gone 2-3 in five appearances (and just over a month away from a fourth loss, and a fifth would come before his time in Strikeforce was done). He’s had a complete resurgence in the UFC since returning in 2013, winning eight of nine fights, capturing that title, and defending it multiple times. He’s likely to hold onto it for now, and the turnover may not be as severe in that field as we’ve seen elsewhere.
Champ June 2016: Rafael dos Anjos
Champ June 2011: Frankie Edgar
The lightweight division hasn’t had a truly dominant champion since B.J. Penn’s run, the last five years has seen a bit of a revolving door. Several of the champions have been active, defending the title multiple times, there have been a couple of strong reigns, but no one has held full on control as the clear best of the best over the last five years.
From Edgar (who had an epic draw with Gray Maynard in the beginning of 2011) having several significant Lightweight Title bouts, to Benson Henderson’s reign, to Anthony Pettis, and now Rafael dos Anjos, it’s clear this division is as competitive as it comes.
Dos Anjos is a prime example of that in this division. By June of 2011 he was a month away from his return after 11 months out following a brutal submission loss to Clay Guida in 2010 – which brought him to 3-3 overall in the UFC at that point – and it took him a very long time before title contention became anything close to a reality. He had to win nine of 11 fights to get a title fight, and timing played a big factor in that as well, but he got there through big wins over some of the best, and if he can keep that going he could try to take a role Penn held for years.
Champ June 2016: Conor McGregor
Champ June 2011: Jose Aldo
Five years ago Conor McGregor was a 22-year-old prospect in Ireland wondering whether or not fighting was going to be his career. He was just a few fights removed from his second career loss, and he was another couple of fights away from what would be titles in two divisions. Meanwhile, Jose Aldo came over from the UFC and made a successful debut in a win over Mark Hominick in front of 55,000 fans in Toronto.
Aldo would hold on to that title throughout the next four and a half years, while McGregor turned from prospect to superstar in record time after entering the UFC. Aldo went through six more challengers during his reign, hampered at times by injuries which kept his activity more infrequent than any would have liked. McGregor talked his way into big spots, continued winning fights, and shockingly took the belt in 13 seconds in December.
McGregor’s distraction with Nate Diaz aside, it’s not clear just what we’re going to see here at featherweight. There are three potential challengers in Aldo, Edgar, and Max Holloway who could prove to be capable of taking that belt, and the parity there could lead to multiple title changes. At the same time, McGregor could return and retain. It’s one of the bigger question marks in the UFC right now.
Champ June 2016: Dominick Cruz
Champ June 2011: Dominick Cruz
Cruz was the debuting Bantamweight Champion in June of 2011 out of the WEC. He was a month away from his debut fight with Urijah Faber, and five years later that’s the fight which kept the belt around his waist on Saturday night. The emergence of other names at 135 lbs. in Cruz’s injury absence kept things moving, and after Renan Barao’s lengthy run T.J. Dillashaw seemed the heir apparent.
Now the bantamweight division is one of the more interesting in the organization, with Dillashaw trying to get back after a rough split decision loss to Cruz that should have gone his way, and his old teammate Cody Garbrandt now a potentially serious threat. More names are going to emerge in the next year as it’s a younger field overall, but Cruz’s ascendance back to the top makes for a continuously intriguing story given his lengthy injury layoffs.
FLYWEIGHT/WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT/WOMEN’S STRAWWEIGHT
Champs June 2016: Demetrious Johnson/Miesha Tate/Joanna Jedrzejczyk
None of these divisions were part of the UFC in June of 2011, with the flyweight field coming a year later, and the women’s divisions being introduced in 2013 and 2014, respectively. So where were our champions five years ago? “Mighty Mouse” Johnson had won his fourth straight fight just before June of 2011, which set him up for an October title fight at bantamweight against Cruz later that year. After that loss and his draw with Ian McCall in his flyweight debut, he went on to become the only Flyweight Champion and one of the most dominant fighters in the sport.
Tate was just a month away from a title fight in Strikeforce against Marloes Coenen in June of 2011, a fight she’d win to capture that Bantamweight Championship. It would be the basis for her feud with Ronda Rousey, and though she had her ups and downs over the ensuing five year stretch, she now sits as the woman to beat at 135 lbs.
Jedrzjeczyk hadn’t even entered MMA by June of 2011. The then 23-year-old was a highly successful Muay Thai fighter instead, eventually turning to MMA the following year. That kicked off what has been a four fight run of mostly excellence, and has seen her emerge as a genuine female star in the UFC.
Looking back at where the UFC was five years ago makes the 2016 scene all the more surreal. A number of dominant champions have fallen, replaced by an unpredictable mess of turnstile champions in many divisions, while several other unexpected names have risen to the top through resilience and determination. Michael Bisping capturing the UFC Middleweight Championship is the epitome of that, and whether he manages to hold onto it or not it’s an incredible change from where things were just a few short years ago.
[Photo (c) Jake Roth via USA Today Sports]
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