In the final four-week stretch of 2016, UFC in December kicks off with a championship contest that nobody particularly asked for. Demetrious Johnson defends his title against a currently unknown competitor from this season of The Ultimate Fighter, while this season’s coaches battle (presumably) for the next shot at the crown.
Even for as much certainty as we have for this upcoming card in Las Vegas, we can’t help but focus on some key questions in the final days leading up.
Is Jake Ellenberger still on that last-chance leash?
Much was made of Jake Ellenberger’s last victory over Matt Brown. Admitting he was cut from the UFC prior to begging them for one last opportunity to prove his worth to the company, Ellenberger stormed the cage and ran through a durable Brown to pick up the biggest win of his professional career.
While it was a heartwarming victory for “The Juggernaut,” reality had to set in sooner or later. He’s still just 2-5 in his last seven victories, and he now faces a sturdy challenger in Jorge Masvidal. Ellenberger did good on his deal to win in his “one last chance” with the UFC, but is he constantly fighting on that same sort of leash? Is he constantly fighting for his job or has he bought himself some breathing room with an unexpected win over “The Immortal”?
Maybe the former will be of better use for Ellenberger, who proved that he was capable of bringing out “The Juggernaut” of old with his back against the wall.
Are Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo competing against Kyoji Horiguchi for a title shot?
While a specific opponent has yet to reveal himself at time of publication, Demetrious Johnson’s next title challenger has been set in stone. Blessing the latest Ultimate Fighter winner with a shot at a crown no fighter has been able to seize from “Mighty Mouse,” Johnson has a good idea of where his immediate future rests. Beyond that, however, is where things start to get interesting. But, you know, in a dreadful kind of way.
Conventional wisdom typically dictates that whenever a division’s No. 1 and No. 2 contenders face off, the winner of that match is set as the next man in line for a title shot.
Problem for the current No. 1 contender is he already has two losses to the champion, the last of which came via first-round knockout three years ago. The No. 2 contender, meanwhile, is only one fight removed from a first-round TKO to the champion earlier this year. While Joseph Benavidez will have done enough to perhaps warrant a third shot, there’s little to indicate he has much of a chance. His victories have been less emphatic, while Johnson’s have gone the opposite direction.
That leaves one other name in the mix at 125 pounds, though. Kyoji Horiguchi is now 3-0 since falling to Johnson in 2015, with his most recent win coming against fellow former challenger Ali Bagautinov. Ranked third in the division and far more competitive than either Benavidez or Henry Cejudo were in their last shots for the title, Horiguchi may make more sense at this point.
We don’t actually anticipate a Cinderella upset here, do we?
With the exception of Duke University and Lady Tremaine, everybody loves a Cinderella story. You know, the sort of tale that makes our hearts warm for the underdog who succeeds far beyond the bounds we collectively placed around them.
A sport competed with nothing but 4-ounce gloves to separate fist from face, mixed martial arts would — at face value anyway — seem a breeding ground for Cinderella stories to run amok. For as cliché as it may be to constantly remind the viewers that “anything can happen,” anybody can get caught” and victory is never more than one punch away, they’re all true. This year alone we’ve seen Tyron Woodley, Michael Bisping, Eddie Alvarez and Nate Diaz change the trajectories of their futures as a direct result of one punch that changed the momentum of a fight.
But while it may be well before midnight by the time Demetrious Johnson defends his belt against whoever happens to win The Ultimate Fighter this season, there’s almost zero reason to believe he — whoever he may be — has a chance against the greatest active fighter in the world today. We’ll have to wait until we hit the hardwood in March to see a version of the fairytale play out.