Who should Cain Velasquez face next?
They call him "Bigfoot." But last Saturday night Antonio Silva was more befitting the nickname "Bigfist," as it was his clenched hamhocks that played the starring role in laying waste to Alistair Overeem at UFC 156 in Las Vegas. Then again, considering the state of the top of the heavyweight division in the wake of Silva's upset win over the man mountain who'd been promised the next shot at the championship, perhaps the name we should attach to the hefty Antonio is "Bigmess."
With "The Reem" out of the picture, what's the next challenge for champion Cain Velasquez?
It's at times like this when you wish the UFC had some official mechanism for determining the order of the queue of fighters pining for a title shot. Oh, wait, the fight promotion does have such a thing: its brand new official rankings. Yeah, I know company president Dana White has said he and matchmaker Joe Silva are not beholden to the hierarchy created by the invited media panel. But with no one from another weight class trying to talk or text his way into a shot at the big-boy belt, it's probably safe for us to rely on the promotion's own Top 10.
So let's go right down the official list of contenders:
1. Junior dos Santos: A rubber match between the ex-champion and Velasquez will come and it will be a beaut, but the UFC loves concocting a narrative around its big fights, and right now the most dramatic story involving Junior is his feud with Overeem. Alistair began the verbal sparring session back when Dos Santos owned the belt and the big Dutchman wanted to cut in line in front of Cain. Whether it was opportunistic posturing or genuine disdain, The Reem's words got Junior's juices flowing, and now is the time to let these guys settle things in the octagon. If Dos Santos wins, he'll then get his dance with the man he dethroned and who subsequently dethroned him. If Alistair wins, it'll show that the Silva bout was just a dizzying bad night and earn him back the title shot he squandered.
2. Fabricio Werdum: He already has a date planned for June with Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, his opposing coach on the Brazilian version of The Ultimate Fighter.
3. Daniel Cormier: He has a fight with Frank Mir scheduled for April, and guess who'll be helping him train for it. Yes, Cain Velasquez. The two are teammates at American Kickboxing Academy and have said they will not fight each other. That's not to say the UFC won't try to make it happen, though. As Cormier acknowledged last week, in an interview with Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter previewing UFC 156, "If Overeem doesn't get the job done, then there may be some pressure."
4. Antonio Silva: At Saturday's post-fight press conference, the question of whether "Bigfoot" had earned a shot at Velasquez was brought up, and Dana White said, "I wouldn't be opposed to that." Yeah, but the local emergency room might be. Did you see the ruthless beatdown Cain put on Silva last May? If the UFC wants to make that rematch, fine, but please alert the Red Cross so it can conduct a blood drive.
5. Frank Mir: He's got Cormier on April 20 in San Jose, Calif.
6. Alistair Overeem: First things first, he needs to try to do what he couldn't do against "Bigfoot": back up his big mouth. It was one thing for "The Reem" to disrespect Dos Santos as he angled for a title fight and Silva in the lead-up to their bout. But even once the fight started last Saturday night, Alistair showed no respect, keeping his hands low, challenging "Bigfoot" to throw leather with him. That cost him both the fight and any claim on a title shot. For now.
7. Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira: He's got the June 8 rematch of his 2006 victory over Werdum in Pride.
8. Roy Nelson: He's scheduled for a fight with Cheick Kongo in April. And really, now that we're down this low in the Top 10, no one can justifiably stake a claim on a title fight, right?
9. Stefan Struve: Contrary to what I wrote just above, I've heard mention that Struve's fight with Mark Hunt next month could serve as an eliminator to determine Velasquez' next dance partner. I just don't see it. Of course, I didn't see Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen coming, either.
10. Shane Carwin: He hasn't fought in 20 months, and hasn't had his hand raised in nearly three years. How'd he get on this list? (He wasn't on my ballot.)
So where does all that leave us? Planning a retirement party for champion Cain? Or should Velasquez just follow the trends and cut to 205 pounds?
No, I believe the best option is Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum.
While waiting for either Dos Santos or Overeem to establish a one-fight winning streak, why not create a little intrigue by sticking Velasquez in the cage with someone he's not yet fought? Werdum is the highest-ranked fighter who'd be new to Cain. (I actually ranked Cormier ahead of Werdum on my ballot, but [a] who cares what I say? and [b] why upset the AKA apple cart now when there are other options available? Plus, I'd rather see Cormier establish himself in the UFC to the point where a showdown with Cain is inevitable. We aren't there yet.)
Sure, it's not ideal to scuttle the planning for the Brazilian reality show. But the show could go on as planned, with Werdum and Nogueira coaching. Wouldn't it only add to the ratings appeal, having one of the coaches be the next challenger for the heavyweight championship?
Werdum would pose an interesting challenge. His submission game might be the best there is in the heavyweight division, so Velasquez would take him down at his own peril. It was Fabricio's armbar triangle that handed Fedor Emelianenko his first legitimate defeat back in 2010. Half of Werdum's 16 wins have come by submission.
And while Fabricio was a one-trick pony for much of his career, he's shown improved standup skills. He held his own on his feet with Roy Nelson in a unanimous-decision win last February, and just under five months later he needed less than three minutes to knock out Mike Russow. Now, Velasquez isn't Russow, but he'd be a handful for anyone. So why not Werdum?
Dana White already is on record as saying Werdum is on the cusp of a title fight. Speaking with Brazilian reporters to hype the Brazilian TUF season, the UFC poobah said that a win over Nogueira would earn Fabricio a title shot. Let's not wait. Let's allow Dos Santos and Overeem to sort things out, Cormier to fancy up his resume, "Bigfoot" to take a few more big steps forward from last year's demolition, Nogueira to welcome home a healed up Carwin, maybe, and Nelson and Struve to try to climb another rung on the ladder. While all that's unfolding, it's time to schedule Velasquez and Werdum for a date in the octagon. It's not the fight of the century, but it's a fight. And Cain needs one.