It has been a slow start for MMA’s pound-for-pound elite in 2010. However, the first time a divisional leader stepped into the cage this year, spoilage was on the menu.
Brian Bowles quickly, deftly climbed from rung to rung in the bantamweight division, rolling over all challengers, culminating in his sensational August knockout of Miguel Torres to take the World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight title. However, his reign atop the division and tenure on this list was short-lived. In his first defense on March 6, Bowles had no offense and no answer for upstart Dominick Cruz, who ducked, dodged, jabbed and kicked his way to two lopsided rounds before Bowles bowed out with a broken hand before round three.
The weeks ahead, however, will put the pound-for-pound community on display more prominently.
UFC 111 on March 27 in Newark, N.J., will host three of this list’s entrants, including two against one another in a critical battle for second fiddle status at 170 pounds. UFC 112 on April 10 in the United Arab Emirates will feature two pound-for-pound elites defending their respective divisional mantles and UFC titles. When Strikeforce returns to CBS on April 17, the newest addition to these rankings will try to convince stateside doubters he deserves pound-for-pound status by adding the Strikeforce lightweight crown to his hardware. Then, on April 24, the WEC heads to pay-per-view with the number one and number two featherweights on the planet on the slate.
That’s eight of the 10 men on this list in action over the next six weeks. How truly spoiled we are.
1. Anderson Silva (25-4)
As Zuffa knows all too well, booking the pound-for-pound king of the sport is difficult. Silva could be the toughest man for whom to find challenges in MMA, and it’s often reflected by fans and journalists alike writing off his opponents months before they ever set foot in the cage with “The Spider.” On the flipside, it ensures that even when disaster strikes, we get an elite-level replacement. With Vitor Belfort going down to a shoulder injury, Silva’s next title defense at UFC 112 on April 10 in Abu Dhabi will now come against fellow Brazilian Demian Maia, who steps in for “The Phenom.” It's a seamless transition from top 10 opponent to top 10 opponent and will provide Silva yet another opportunity to build on his hefty list of victims.
2. Georges St. Pierre (19-2)
In his last three bouts, St. Pierre squared off with Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn and then Thiago Alves. Coincidentally, all three of those fighters appear on this list. When one’s resume is replete with pound-for-pound entrants, it’s hard for future opposition to measure up. Such is the situation with British standout Dan Hardy, who has put together four quality wins in the UFC and established himself as a bona fide top 10 welterweight. Even though that, spectators are typically down on Hardy’s chances at UFC 111 on March 27 and see the bout as little more than a tune-up for St. Pierre. However, it remains to be seen if the power of propaganda can change public opinion, as the bout is the subject of the second edition of “UFC: Primetime,” which proved instrumental in hyping the St. Pierre-Penn rematch last year.
3. Fedor Emelianenko (31-1, 1 NC)
Emelianenko was supposed to embark on his next conquest for Strikeforce in April, after he wiped out Brett Rogers in thrilling fashion in the promotion’s November CBS debut. However, a contract impasse between Strikeforce and M-1, Emelianenko’s representation, put the breaks on his appearance, which now looks more likely for June or July. In some ways, the delay can be a blessing in disguise. It won't buy Strikeforce a world of time, but if Emelianenko had fought and knocked off Fabricio Werdum as anticipated in April, it would have left the Russian with one last obvious foil — Alistair Overeem — as we entered the summer. Now, the obvious end of Strikeforce’s short heavyweight gallery is further off.
4. Lyoto Machida (16-)
After ripping through Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans in consecutive bouts in 2009, Machida had already ignited complaints about the inability of other light heavyweights to challenge him before he had even defended the UFC title. His October bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vividly showed once again the folly of proclaiming any MMA fighter unbeatable, as Machida’s unanimous decision victory became the most debated and unpopular decision of the year. With the Rua rematch slated for May 8 at UFC 113 and an increasing number of highly gifted 205-pound prospects in MMA, Machida’s road to dominating the light heavyweight division has quickly become a much taller task than previously anticipated for the proud karateka.
5. B.J. Penn (15-5-1)
For the first six years of his MMA career, fans simply wanted to see Penn focus his attention on being the dominating lightweight he could be, instead of pursuing challenges up and down the scale. Over the last three years — one detour against Georges St. Pierre aside — he has, blowing out the kind of Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez. Quickly, even those who wanted to see Penn lord over the lightweights have started to question if there are any challenges to be had for Penn. At UFC 112 on April 10 in Abu Dhabi, Penn will enter his next UFC title defense against Frankie Edgar as a prohibitive favorite. After the bout, it is likely the drum-beating for Penn at 170 pounds will only increase in volume.
6. Jose Aldo (16-1)
Since his World Extreme Cagefighting debut in June 2008, Aldo is 6- with six stoppages, including four in 2009 alone. It is little wonder that the hottest thing out of the Amazon jungle was Sherdog.com’s “Fighter of the Year” for ’09. However, Aldo’s brilliant campaign last year leads to a harder road from here on out. Aldo will now be tasked with defending his title against the top featherweight challengers the WEC provides, fight in and fight out. It starts with former champion Urijah Faber at WEC 48 on April 24 before a highly partisan Sacramento crowd that will want him to lose and lose badly. If Aldo is truly set to become MMA’s first featherweight superstar, we will find out shortly.
7. Jon Fitch (21-3, 1 NC)
If MMA were football, Fitch would be running a jumbo formation for 3 . 5 yards a carry and winning by a field goal. To say that Fitch’s no-frills, top-position grappling has worn the patience of many MMA onlookers would be an understatement. However, there remains the fact that in the last seven years, he has lost once — to Georges St. Pierre of all people. His record in that time? Nineteen wins against one loss, with 11 of those wins in the Octagon against elite opposition. Fitch will have the chance to fortify his resume even further on March 27, when he rematches Brazilian Thiago Alves, whom he stopped in June 2006.
8. Mike Thomas Brown (22-5)
The world has fallen so deeply in love with Jose Aldo that the featherweight reign of Mike Thomas Brown seems like five years ago, not five months ago. While it will be the man Brown conquered twice in his biggest wins, Urijah Faber, who next challenges Aldo for the 145-pound throne, Brown will find a home on the same WEC 48 card — the promotion’s first on pay-per-view. In order to rise back up the ladder for a chance to regain the WEC crown, Brown will suffer from fellow UFC veteran Manny Gamburyan, who is 2- since dropping the more physically appropriate 145-pound division.
9. Thiago Alves (16-6)
Alves’ place in the MMA world reminds us of why context is important. In his last bout, he struggled to win a single minute of 25 against welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre. However, apart from his loss to St. Pierre, Alves smashed outstanding welterweights left, right and center and arguably had a better 2008 campaign — weight issues against Matt Hughes aside — than any other fighter in the sport. As we wade deeper into 2010, Alves will have the chance to solidify himself as one of MMA’s super elite at UFC 111 on March 27, when he rematches Jon Fitch, who bested him in June 2006. The fight will crown the second-best fighter in one of MMA’s richest, most competitive weight classes.
10. Shinya Aoki (23-4, 1 NC)
In the last three years, Aoki has fought 15 times. In those bouts, he has picked up wins over the kind of Akira Kikuchi, Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante, Caol Uno, Eddie Alvarez, Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Joachim Hansen and Mizuto Hirota. Yet, despite one of MMA’s deepest dockets and a staggering highlight reel of submissions, Aoki remains one of the sport’s most polarizing fighters, largely due to his over-the-top and often petulant persona. However, the 26-year-old grappling ace will have the chance to silence doubters on April 17, when he challenges Gilbert Melendez for Strikeforce’s lightweight crown in his stateside debut.
* With his March 6 loss to Dominick Cruz, the previously ninth-ranked Brian Bowles falls outside the pound-for-pound top 10.