UFC Crystal Ball: The champions at year’s end?

A light-heavyweight bout between Jones Jones and Glover Teixeira is now slated to headline UFC 172 on April 26. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/via Getty)

The time for starry-eyed reminiscing about 2013 is over.

With last year more than a week behind us, it’s no longer about wishing people “Happy New Year” and looking back on what was a great year inside the Octagon. There is a full slate of fighting awesomeness on the horizon, and trying to predict the future is just too fun to pass up.

Over the next couple days, I’m going to roll out various predictions and projections for 2014, starting with today’s look at who will be wearing championship gold at this time next year.

Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez

The first one is easy, in part because Velasquez will be sidelined until the second half of the year after undergoing shoulder surgery. Once he returns, however, it’s hard to envision the reigning champion losing his title based on how dominant he has looked over his last four fights.

Velasquez has bludgeoned Antonio Silva and Junior dos Santos on back-to-back occasions in the last two years, and I just can’t see the winner of the impending bout between Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne ending his second run atop the heavyweight ranks.

Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones

As much as Alexander Gustafsson gave Jones all he could handle at UFC 165 in Toronto, “Bones” still managed to emerge victorious, winning the final round to retain his title.

Heading into 2014, Jones has Glover Teixeira up first, and a rematch with “The Mauler” waiting in the wings. Both are dangerous fights, but contests the current titleholder should be able to navigate. His length and conditioning will be an issue for Teixeira, and there are few fighters I’d favour more in a rematch than Jones, provide Gustafsson gets there.

Middleweight: Chris Weidman

Yes, he has a ridiculously dangerous fight with Vitor Belfort looming, but after dominating the greatest fighter in the history of this sport on two different occasions in 2013, it’s impossible for me to pick against Weidman at this point.

The current champion is the complete package – someone that can beat you standing or on the ground, and it doesn’t matter to him either way. He’s confident without being cocky, and unaffected by the pomp and circumstance that surrounds his position.

If he can turn back “The Phenom,” we could have another dominant era in the middleweight division on our hands.

Welterweight: Carlos Condit

Over five rounds, I think Condit beats Johny Hendricks. “The Natural Born Killer” was coming on strong in the second half of their fight at UFC 158, and Hendricks can’t keep the same kind of frenetic pace over a 25-minute battle.

Condit faces Tyron Woodley in a very dangerous fight on the same night Hendricks and Robbie Lawler will battle for the vacant welterweight title. A win sets up a rematch with Hendricks later in the year, where the former WEC and interim UFC champion earns a measure of revenge against “Bigg Rigg” to win the strap.

Lightweight: Anthony Pettis

Provided he can stay healthy, I believe Pettis has the potential to enjoy a lengthy run atop the deep and talented lightweight division. Like Velasquez, he’s sidelined until the second half of 2014, but once he returns, “Showtime” will score a pair of successful title defenses to solidify his place atop the weight class.

First up will be Jose Aldo in a “Champion vs. Champion” showdown on the annual Fourth of July show. After turning back Aldo in a Fight of the Year contender, Pettis will return late in the year to thwart the challenge of Gilbert Melendez and cement himself as the ruler of the 155-pound ranks.

Featherweight: Frankie Edgar

Here’s how this one plays out:

Jose Aldo beats Ricardo Lamas in February, and decides to move to lightweight to face Pettis, as mentioned above.

Edgar bests B.J. Penn when they fight for a third time following their coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter, and gets a crack at the vacant title opposite Chad Mendes, who earns another win in the first half of 2014 to lock-up his place in this contest.

Over 25 minutes, Edgar sticks, moves, and scores enough to get the nod over the Team Alpha Male representative.

Bantamweight: Renan Barao

He’s already turned back Urijah Faber once, and there is no reason to think that is going to change when they meet again in February. If Raphael Assuncao keeps winning, he’ll get the next shot, but doesn’t represent a major threat. Barao isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson

Neither is “Mighty Mouse.” As I said after his blistering finish of Joseph Benavidez, Johnson is not only a dominant force, but he keeps getting better, and that’s downright scary. The winner of the John Lineker-Ali Bagautinov fight should be up next, but the champ’s complete arsenal and hard-to-counter style should allow him to secure another victory.

Women’s Bantamweight: Ronda Rousey

The belt isn’t going anywhere until Rousey decides to leave the sport. She’s a world-class athlete and her competitive drive puts her on another level compared to her opposition. Simply put, Rousey wants it more than anyone else, and that won’t change in 2014 despite her dance card being full of potential threats, starting with Sara McMann.

Women’s Strawweight: Joanne Calderwood

Carla Esparza will enter as the favourite since she is the reigning Invicta FC 115-pound champ, but my money is on “Bad MoFo JoJo” striking her way to the top in the finale.

Obviously, everything depends on how the teams shake out and what match-ups get made inside the house – Esparza and Calderwood could face off in the opening fight of the season for all we know.

That being said, I love the way Calderwood mixes up her strikes and applies tons of pressure, and she has the right amount of swagger and focus to not let life in the house impact her performance.

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