MMA Purgatory

The dream of every fighter that enters the UFC’s Octagon is to one day capture Championship gold. As in all sports, some will succeed and others will fall short. While enjoying a long and successful rein as champion is the ideal way to spend one’s career, a large percentage of the fighters who are fortunate enough to compete and maybe even win a UFC title will spend the majority of their careers enduring a state that I like to call MMA Purgatory. Essentially, these are the guys that for one reason or another are unable to procure themselves another opportunity to challenge for the title, despite remaining one of if not the second best fighter in their division. Once entering this state, many competitors will remain here until the end of their careers, others will find new opportunities, and some are still in a holding pattern with their futures yet to be determined. The UFC has a number of competitors that fit this description and here are a select few.

Starting with the Heavyweight division; Cain Velasquez is a name you might not expect to find on this list. He is currently preparing for his UFC 155 title shot against Junior Dos Santos, the man that all too abruptly brought Velasquez’s own championship rein to an end. If Velasquez were to emerge victorious in December then he will have bypassed this entire scenario, but should he suffer a second defeat he will be faced with potentially the hardest stretch of his career. Velasquez is a talented fighter, arguably the number two man in his division, but a pair of losses to the current champion will most likely be too much for even him to overcome.  Should Velasquez lose, he could consider a drop to Light Heavyweight like many before him or he will need to prepare to hold his position against up and coming challengers  while either waiting for a new champion to take the belt or the UFC to run out of viable opponents for Dos Santos. Fortunately for Velasquez, if he were to lose his next bout the relatively short life span of a UFC Heavyweight Champion will most likely yield him another title opportunity against a new title holder in the not to distance future.

Frank Mir has been involved in 5 UFC title fights with his first taking place in the Summer of 2004 and his most recent venture against the aforementioned Junior Dos Santos this past May. He his record in title fights sits at 2-3, having defeated Tim Sylvia to capture his first UFC title and then submitting Minotauro Nogueira to win a interim UFC belt. Mir’s successful start has been followed by three straight losses to Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin (interim title), and Dos Santos in a span of 3 years. These defeats could ultimately prevent Mir from ever getting another shot at the title, especially if the current champion’s holds onto the title for a long stretch. On the positive side, Mir is one of the most well known 265 pounders on the roster and should a new champion be crowned he most likely is only a win or two away from another title opportunity.

Dropping to Light Heavyweight, Dan Henderson arrived in the UFC from Pride Fighting Championships bearing not one, but two title belts. As both the Pride Welterweight and Middleweight champions, he was granted the opportunity to unify his titles with the UFC equivalent. Henderson started his Octagon career with an 0-2 record failing in both of his bids against Rampage Jackson and Anderson Silva. Following this initial setback, Dan went on a 3 fight winning streak defeating former Champion Rich Franklin and destroying Michael Bisping in a Middleweight title eliminator belt.  Despite his return to the top of the division, Anderson Silva felt that his initial besting of Henderson was enough to deny the American a second chance. Unwilling to accept Silva’s denial, Henderson jumped ship to the second biggest MMA promotion around, Strikeforce.  Again, Hendo’s first appearance in the new promotion was for championship gold and again he came up short. After dropping a five round decision to Jake Shields once more Henderson was left with few options. This is where this story temporarily turns around. Dan went on to capture the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight title and despite never defending the belt he was resigned by the UFC. Continuing on his wave of success, Dan defeated fellow Pride alumni Shogun Rua and was set to once again challenge for the Light Heavyweight Championship at UFC 151. There is no need to go into much detail about the event that never was, but simply put without evening stepping foot into the cage Dan has once again slipped down the list of title contenders. With Chael Sonnen is scheduled to battle for the title next, an upcoming meeting between Shogun Rua and Alexander Gustafsson being tagged as a potential number one contenders bout, Dan will need a victory over Lyoto Machida or else he could never again enter the cage with a major title on the line.

When the history of the UFC is written, Chael Sonnen will likely be the second most significant name to come out of the Middleweight division after Anderson Silva. It is hard to unseat the man deemed by many as the greatest fighter in the world, but Chael nearly did. Sonnen put together the best performance that anyone as ever seen against Silva, but his inability to defend a late triangle attempt by the champion was his eventual undoing. Following a 14 month period away from the cage Sonnen returned to do what he does best, talking smack about the champion and beating fellow title contenders. Once again Sonnen found himself preparing for another shot at the Middleweight King, but his UFC 148 title fight was far shorter but produced the same outcome. Sonnen’s second lose to the Champion left him in an interesting predicament; he was undeniably a significant draw as far as Pay-Per View numbers are concern and he could go on facing and defeating other top 10 ranked opponents, but the likelihood of third title shot against Anderson was almost non-existent. Recognizing his limitation, Sonnen made the choice to go up a division and try his luck at Light Heavyweight. In a manner that only the Oregon native could do, Chael nearly talked his way into a UFC 151 title shot without even competing in one 205 pound fight. Although he was temporarily denied his hardly-earned opportunity, he has still succeeded in negotiating his way into a first fight appearance at 205 against Jon Jones with the Light Heavyweight belt on the line. Not only is the belt up for grabs, so to his Sonnen’s relevancy in any formal title discussion. With two defeats against Silva in the books, a loss to the 205 pound champion will all but remove Mr. Sonnen from the title picture in either division for the foreseeable future. While Chael has seemingly talked his way into his current opportunity, I believe it would be incredibly difficult for him to accomplish such a feat with another title fight lose added to his resume. That being said, if anyone can do it, Chael Sonnen can.

Another two time victim of the Middleweight Champion, former UFC title holder Rich Franklin followed a similar path to Chael Sonnen. Franklin’s first encounter with Anderson Silva was of the devastating nature as he dropped his Middleweight title to the Brazilian following a first round TKO. Undaunted, Franklin picked up a pair of wins and was matched, this time in the role of the challenger, against Silva at UFC 77. Suffering a second defeat, eerily similar to the first, ‘Ace’ eventually made the decision to move up in weight competing both at Light Heavyweight and in three catchweight bouts. Franklin will make is return to the division he ruled over from the summer of 2005 to late 2006, and has express an interest in making one more title run. His time away from the division has made a third title fight at Middleweight more likely than it was a few years ago, to escape his current state of MMA purgatory Rich will need to go on a significant run earning upset wins over younger fighters currently positioned above him in the rankings. Franklin, along with Sonnen would both benefit tremendously from either the retirement or dethroning of Anderson Silva, but considering that neither scenario appears likely the two former title challengers could eventually find themselves matched up down the road for the title of best Middleweight to lose to Anderson Silva.

The former American Kickboxing Academy training partners may no longer work together, but they will remain together in MMA purgatory for however long Georges St-Pierre holds onto the Welterweight title belt. Of the two, Jon Fitch has the better chance of earning another shot at the French-Canadian, but it goes without saying that both men will be watching UFC 154 hoping to hear Bruce Buffer announce “the winner and new Welterweight Champion”. Fitch began his career in the UFC with eight straight wins before he was unceremoniously dispatched of by St-Pierre at UFC 77. Fitch’s grinding and not so fan friendly-style made it difficult for him to earn his initial title shot despite a lengthy winning streak. After the title fight loss, he won five in a row but a draw against BJ Penn and a knockout defeat against Johny Hendricks derailed his second title contention hopes. A successful return to action against rising star Erick Silva at UFC 153 has brought Fitch back into relevancy, but as Dana White himself said, Fitch needs Carlos Condit to win. Josh Koscheck has had the “good” fortune to face St-Pierre on two occasions. The first encounter came between title reins; St-Pierre used his wrestling to down Koscheck and the second match-up followed stint for GSP and Kos as opposing couches on the Ultimate Fighter. In their second meeting Koscheck was surgically picked apart by the sharp jab of the Canadian and never really put up much offense of his own. Josh is one of the more universal villains in the UFC and as a result he will always remain marketable, but with his two losses to the champ, a decision defeat against Johny Hendricks, and is ever advancing age his days as a legitimate title contender are all but over. Both Fitch and Koscheck will remain in the upper end of division, and baring a injury replace opportunity an invisible ceiling will prevent either man for progressing back to legitimate title contention.

Edgar is one of the most successful fighters on the list having defeated BJ Penn twice with the title on the line, a draw followed by a decisive win over long time rival Gray Maynard, and a two fight series against Ben Henderson, that many felt should have ended with Frankie still holding the belt. Prior to Edgar/ Henderson II Dana White made it clear that there wouldn’t be a third installment between the two regardless of the outcome. That turned out to be a truly unfortunate statement for the New Jersey native as he left the night without the title, but the belief of many that he won the fight. Unfortunately for Frankie his propensity for rematches during his title run and now two losses to the current champ has forced him back into the pack with other title contenders. As quickly as Edgar lost one opportunity, he was granted another as the 145 pound champion Joe Aldo needed a new UFC 153 opponent, but injuries eventually would prevent the fight from taking place. The match-up of Edgar and Aldo for the Featherweight title is inevitable, but as Dan Henderson will surely attest to losing a title fight in your divisional debut can really be a significant setback to your future standing within the division. While Frankie may never again wear UFC gold he has the most potential of any fighter on this list to spend the next several years in title contention.  A failure at 145 could send Frankie down to Bantamweight, and if he is unable to capture a title there the time spend away from Lightweight competing in the lower weight classes should allow Edgar to return to his original stomping grounds for another run at the title.

Team Alpha Male’s triumvirate of title challengers; Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez, and Chad Mendes share a gym and a similar fate in their pursuit of a major MMA title. Urijah Faber has already the run the gambit of MMA purgatory, entering, escaping, and now returning. Urijah Faber was the face of the WEC for many years holding their Featherweight title until Mike Brown removed it from his waste. Faber was eventually given an opportunity to regain the belt against Brown but came up short. As is the case with a major star, the promotion was willing to give him another shot at the gold when a new champion took hold of the title. Faber yet again came up short, getting blasted by the still dominant champion Jose Aldo and recognized that three straight title fight failures was enough of a reason to make the cut down to Bantamweight. A pre-existing rivalry with champion Dominick Cruz lead to a title shot, but again Faber was unsuccessful. Continuing to ride on his non-title fight success, Faber was granted a spot on the reality show with Cruz with the intent of setting up a third title fight. An injury to the champ gave Urijah a chance to grab his first taste of UFC gold via the interim persuasion, but Renan Barao was able to deny Urijah again. Another title fight lose as returned the ‘California Kid’ to his all too familiar stomping grounds as a top fighter without a direct path to title contention. When Barao and Cruz eventually meet Faber will find himself in an interesting predicament, rooting for long time adversary Cruz, recognizing that if the current does champ prevail the door will once again swing open for a return engagement.

Interestingly enough, Faber’s teammate Joseph Benavidez will be on the other side of the table hoping for a Barao victory. Benavidez was long considered the uncrowned champion of the Flyweight division, but when the opportunity came to take his throne, Demetrious Johnson took his place. While Benavidez will almost definitely get another shot at the Flyweight title, a return to 135 pound division could be an option. Prior to moving to Flyweight, the only man to beat Joseph was the aforementioned Cruz; once prior to capturing the title and once for the strap in the WEC. A pair of losses, no matter how competitive (ask Frankie) to the champ is a death sentence to any fighter’s title hopes. As a result, Benavidez was forced to toil in the division waiting for another opportunity. That opportunity could come in the form of Renan Barao. If Barao wins the title, the combination of a lack of viable title contenders and Benavidez’s impressive record could earn him a shot at the gold with a win or two if he should choose to return to the heavier weight class.

Chad Mendes is quite possibly the second best Featherweight on the plant, but he too has joined his teammates in that unfortunate state of stagnation. Mendes went undefeated prior to meeting Jose Aldo, but a first round stoppage quickly ended his title ambitions. Mendes is a young fighter; young enough to continue to develop his overall skill set and young enough to wait waiting for the champ to either fall or abdicate his thrown in search of greater challenges at Lightweight. Whether Aldo will move up or not is yet to be seen, but the arrival of Frankie Edgar at Featherweight most defiantly will have brought a smile to the face of Mr. Mendes. If Frankie is successful in unseating the Brazilian basher when they inevitably meet, Chad Mendes will be waiting quietly in the wings to step up and offer Frankie his first title defense. If the UFC has any intention of helping Edgar shed his associations with rematches then they will most likely offer Edgar at least one title defence, before a return encounter with Aldo is set up. All three Alpha Male stable mates will most likely challenge for the UFC title at least one more time before the California sun sets on their respective careers, but whether a title will be won is a question yet to be answered.

Before concluding this lengthy examination of the concept of MMA purgatory and the ill-fated souls that have or still occupy its vast expanses, there are a couple of other examples that are due their just recognition.  Georges St-Pierre, the current overlord of the 170 pounders has twice stood on the doorstep of obscurity.  Despite entering the cage twice as a challenger for the Welterweight title, the pressure of firmly on the shoulders of Georges when he defeated both Matt Hughes and Matt Serra. Had GSP faltered in either of these meetings he would have been resigned to wait for a new Champion to arrive on scene as his subsequent 0-2 record against the title holder would have been too much for him to overcome in pursuit of a third opportunity. Subsequently, St-Pierre has banished a pair of the greatest all time to the MMA underworld. Despite a win in their first meeting, losing a pair of fights in definitive fashion against GSP ultimately ended any realistic hopes of Matt regaining his title. BJ Penn suffered a similar fate at Welterweight and was driven down to Lightweight. After an impressive run as champion he was again defeated twice, this time by Frankie Edgar, vanquishing Penn to a world all of his own. With a combined four title losses to Edgar and St-Pierre, Penn was removed from the title conversation in two separate divisions. Penn could consider a return to 155 now that a new champion has taken hold, but age and motivation may prevent him. It is interesting to note Chael Sonnen could be the next man to infamously enter this distinctive level of purgatory should the betting odds hold true and he lose to Jon Jones. Finally before concluding it would be an injustice not to mention Kenny Florian, whose pursuit of UFC gold took him from Middleweight all the way down to Featherweight. Over his career, Florian had multiple opportunities to capture a UFC championship; losing in the finals of the Ultimate Fighter, dropping a pair of title fights at Lightweight, and ending his brief run at 145 pounds with a title fight defeat. Florian was relentless in his chase of a title and although he was never successful, he still carved out a career that many fighters would trade for in an instant.

As in all sports, MMA is made up of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and without one there isn’t the other. No fighter begins his or her career with aspirations to come up just short, to lose the big fight, or to be considered the second best of all time. Sadly, the vast majority of competitors that step inside the cage will do just that and some will accomplish far less. For those fighters that are able to climb all but the highest of MMA’s mountains, there will be consequences. Some will fold under the pressure, while others will use their early missed opportunities as motivation to continue to work hard and eventually even succeed where they had originally failed. The future is uncertain for warriors like Cain Velasquez, Jon Fitch, Frankie Edgar, and the rest of the men that I have listed above. Fortunately for all in the world of Mixed Martial Arts anything can happen and most often does; an opportunity lost today can be one found tomorrow.

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