Johnston on MMA: Playing UFC matchmaker

January 3, 2013, 7:17 PM

There were a lot of interesting results late in the year, especially in the middleweight division, which should set up some important fights in the next few months.

The days and weeks following UFC events is often the most exciting time for mixed martial arts fans because it affords them the opportunity to debate and speculate about what UFC matchmaker Joe Silva should do next.

A new year means new matchups, so here are a handful of intriguing matchups that I’d like to see take place in the first half of 2013.

– Hector Lombard vs. Luke Rockhold

Hector Lombard put himself back on the map and showed fans what he is capable of with his dominant first-round knockout of Rousimar Palhares at the TUF Smashes finale. Many (including myself) believe Lombard should have been awarded the decision at UFC 149 when he lost a controversial split decision to Tim Boetsch — it was later revealed that Lombard was suffering though a broken sternum during the fight. If the judges had given the former Bellator champion the nod he would currently be on a 27-fight unbeaten streak.

Speaking of impressive streaks, Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold has won nine in a row, seven by stoppage. Rockhold was scheduled to defend his belt for one final time in the soon-to-be-defunct promotion against Lorenz Larkin but injuries forced him out of that matchup on two separate occasions. With Strikeforce fighters now being transferred to the UFC, Rockhold is expected to make his UFC debut this year.

UFC president Dana White announced following UFC 155 that Michael Bisping will be the next challenger for Anderson Silva if he can beat Vitor Belfort on Jan 19. But if Bisping loses, or Silva eventually beats him, the UFC will be looking for a viable, marketable No. 1 contender.

Silva going up against the winner of a Lombard-Rockhold matchup could be billed as a champion vs. champion showdown.

– Chris Weidman vs. Yushin Okami

Weidman is another realistic option for the UFC to put in a title fight. The unbeaten New Yorker has finished every fight that he didn’t take on short notice, has a win over former top contender Demian Maia, and is coming off a brutal TKO of Mark Munoz that had people talking for weeks.

The 28-year old is currently recovering from shoulder surgery but is expected to return by the summer. A win over Okami — a proven veteran who has fought the best for years and is back on a win streak — would legitimize Weidman’s claim that he’s the No. 1 contender.

– Alan Belcher vs. Tim Boetsch

Both men are coming off disappointing losses at UFC 155 that snapped four-fight win streaks. Belcher had four straight stoppages and was inching closer to a title shot, but he was controlled by Okami for much of their 15-minute bout and lost a unanimous decision. Boetsch, who had been unbeaten at middleweight, was stopped by Constantinos Philippou in the third round of a fight where Boetsch suffered multiple facial lacerations and hurt his hand.

A win by either man over the other would put them back into the title picture.

– Francis Carmont vs. Constantinos Philippou

Philippou has been on a steady climb since his UFC debut and is unbeaten in the UFC when competing at 185 pounds. He just beat Boetsch who was thought to be potentially next in line for a title shot.

Carmont is unbeaten in the UFC, even though many felt he lost his UFC 154 bout against Tom Lawlor (Carmont won a split decision in Montreal), and has been asking for a top-10 opponent. Phillipou fits that bill and the winner would arguably move into the top five in the division.

– Chad Mendes vs. Dustin Poirier

Many think Mendes has the best style to beat featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo, even though he was knocked out in less than five minutes when the two fought last January. Mendes is as motivated as ever to get another title shot; he’s coming off back-to-back KO wins in a combined 2:26. First he deflated Cody McKenzie with a body shot then put Yaotzin Meza to sleep with his big right hand. Those were good victories but Mendes needs to fight fellow contenders.

Up until his loss to the Korean Zombie in May, many felt Poirier was next in line at 145 pounds. That was his first loss at featherweight, but the Louisiana native is as talented as anyone in the division. He is still a top contender and his d’arce choke of TUF 12 winner Jonathan Brookins in December reaffirmed that.

– Jim Miller vs. Rafael dos Anjos

Dos Anjos and Miller can compete with the best in the lightweight division and possess the skills to beat anyone on any given night. Miller just won a Fight of the Year contender against Joe Lauzon and Dos Anjos has won three in a row. The 155-pound division is the deepest in the sport and these are two of the best.

– Todd Duffee vs. Pat Barry

Two popular heavyweights that are always in exciting fights, win or lose, who are each coming off impressive KO wins. Put this as a co-main on a televised card and who wouldn’t tune in?

– Timothy Elliott vs. John Moraga

The flyweight division is still being developed, but Moraga and Elliott have already proven they are future contenders. In fact, Moraga has been so impressive in his two UFC bouts that a win over someone like Elliott might be enough to earn him a title shot.

– Mike Pyle vs. Mike Pierce

Pyle and Pierce are two of the best fighters in the UFC that don’t get nearly enough attention. Pyle has skills everywhere and Pierce has the power to stop any welterweight.

– Abel Trujillo vs. Daron Cruickshank

At UFC on FOX 5, Cruickshank and Trujillo put themselves on the map with impressive second-round stoppage wins. Trujillo manhandled Marcus LeVesseur, while Cruickshank earned one of the best knockouts of 2012 with a head-kick of Henry Martinez.

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