Remember when the UFC heavyweight division was stacked with contenders a couple of years ago?
Upstarts like Travis Browne and Stefan Struve jockeyed for position alongside seasoned veterans such as Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. But 2011 really flattened the division out. With Junior Dos Santos claiming the heavyweight crown, the list of contenders have fallen to the wayside. We've seen Shane Carwin suffer another injury, Travis Browne lose thanks to an injury and rising names such has Stipe Miocic and Brendan Schaub all see their star dim courtesy of an opponent who refused to be a yellow brick road to a title.
So the question now is "who's next?" It's obvious that Alistair Overeem will be the next in line barring a loss to "Bigfoot" Silva at UFC 156. If Cain Velasquez is able to beat Junior Dos Santos, chances are that the two will have a rubber match. However, after that, there's really nobody left. The gap between Cain, JDS and Alistair and the rest of the heavyweights is extremely wide and the UFC is going to have a hard time finding names that are worthy of challenging for the title should Dos Santos end up winning again against Velasquez. Especially when you consider that Dos Santos has already dusted off two of the names I'm about to put in the title mix below.
Here are three names that could get the call by the end of 2013.
He's the most obvious of the bunch. After winning the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix, Cormier appears to be ready for that next step. He certainly has the tools although he will be an undersized heavyweight when having to compete with the goliaths in the UFC. It's obviously a different breed of fighters than what Cormier has faced before. The only other issue is if his teammate Cain Velasquez ends up becoming champion. Then he would end up playing the role of bodyguard to Cain's title. It doesn't seem like anything would derail his ranking unless he loses to unheralded Dion Staring at the final Strikeforce event in January.
The 7 footer is still evolving. Even though he lost to Dos Santos before, it's easy to write that off because it was back when the Dutchman had just celebrated his 21st birthday. Since being knocked out by Travis Browne last May, Struve has hit his stride and reeled off four consecutive victories -- all by stoppage -- against the likes of Pat Barry (submission), Dave Herman (KO), Lavar Johnson (Submission) and Stipe Miocic (KO). He'll be facing Mark Hunt in March and if he's able to score yet another finish, it's safe to say that he deserves to get a shot at the title by the end of next year.
The Fedor slayer has showed much improved striking in his wins over Roy Nelson and Mike Russow after putting up a stinker against Alistair Overeem. His brilliance on the ground would make a fight with Velasquez or Dos Santos interesting. However, his striking would be well behind the likes of Dos Santos, who starched him at UFC 90 back in 2008. I'm not sure if he's earned a spot in the title chase or if he is there by default. He's about to be tied up shooting TUF Brazil opposite Big Nog and a loss in their matchup would destroy his standing.