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Lack of Competition at the Highest Levels is a Thorn in UFC's Side...By Jay Graziani

UFC celebrated its 100th pay-per-view earlier this month, a tremendous milestone for an organization that was once on the brink of bankruptcy and branded as "human cock fighting" by no less than a to-be Presidential nominee. There's no doubt that UFC has finally come of age, finding itself coverage in the mainstream press and a spot on the ESPN ticker.

The last UFC event generated a live gate of over $5 million and drew well over 1 million pay per view buys. The sport is rapidly expanding into new markets...not just new cities, but new countries. Mixed martial arts has finally broken into the public spotlight, and UFC, as the flagship of the sport, is enjoying unprecedented acceptance and popularity.

While the UFC must be given credit for putting together excellent events, broadcasting 5-6 fights with at least a few compelling matchups on each card, the exponential growth can't last forever. Eventually the novelty will wear off and the underlying product itself will have to remain compelling to fans.

Unfortunately, lack of contention for the titles in each weight class are beginning to make for a boring sport. Upsets are what fans tune in for, where a fight can be ended in a variety of ways with little forewarning.

The extended winning streaks of some current champions are making many title bouts little more than over-hyped snooze-fests. The most blatant examples are the welterweight and middleweight divisions, whose champions have each been on top of the pack for 3 years.

Overlooking what is widely acknowledged as a fluke (and later-avenged) loss, Georges St-Pierre has been welterweight champion since 2006, including winning his last 6 bouts. He also has two career wins against reigning UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn, most recently a dominant corner stoppage this past January. That Penn fight was also the only time "GSP" has been less than a 2-to-1 favorite since first winning the title; otherwise he's been, on average, a 4-to-1 favorite.

Middleweight champ Anderson Silva has an even greater aura of invincibility. Like St-Pierre, he's been on top since 2006, winning a UFC-record nine straight including one at light heavyweight. Of those nine fights, only two even made it out of the second round. The oddsmakers haven't overlooked Silva's dominance - he's been a 6-to-1 favorite in his last three fights.

Both champions can't be accused of playing it safe, each demolishing every new contender the UFC sends forth. It's hard to fathom just who will step in to slay these two dragons, as both have already proven their worth against the cream of the crop in their respective divisions.

It's gotten so bad at middleweight that Silva's moving up in weight to fight Forrest Griffin in August. Silva's still a stunning 7-2 favorite, despite the size difference and the fact that he's facing a man who lost the lightweight crown in just his last appearance in the Octagon.

While having two divisions ruled over by near-unbeatable champions might not seem too bad, the outlook for the other three weight classes isn't much better.

The heavyweight division might be headed in the same direction with the recent anointment of Brock Lesnar as heavyweight messiah. Though a fatal mistake in his first fight against Frank Mir left him with a lone loss, he has looked near flawless in the Octagon, despite accumulating only a 4-1 career record so far.

Lesnar's sheer size and power, never mind his world-class wrestling background, automatically make him a heavy favorite against all but maybe one or two fighters in the world. While everyone's hoping for a Brock vs. Fedor showdown in the heavyweight division, contract disputes may prevent that from happening in the near term, if ever.

Another highly anticipated foe for Lesnar is Cain Velasquez, who has looked impressive in running up a 6-0 record. But Velasquez's strength is wrestling, not a great match-up against a former NCAA standout heavyweight. Mirko "CroCop" Filipiovic's return to the UFC may be the best chance at ending Lesnar's reign, if Filipovic can return to his old form - great takedown defense and strong kicks seem like a perfect formula for beating Lesnar.

The light heavyweight division has had a carousel of champions - five different titleholders since 2006 with only one successful title defense between them over that time - but that may be about to change. While it's much too early to crown Lyoto Machida as the next UFC superstar, he's undefeated in professional competition and hasn't lost a single round in his seven fights under the UFC banner. If his promise pans out, he may be installed atop the light heavyweight division for a long time.

The lightweight division is perhaps the last bastion of competitiveness in the UFC. While BJ Penn is the clear leader at present, the competition in that division is thick and BJ's history of inconsistency makes it hard to consider him a long term dynasty, in spite of his talent. Next month's UFC 101 finds him installed as just a 2-to-1 favorite against the very tough Kenny Florian.

A remedy to the lack of legitimate challengers in the sport? Well, things certainly have a way of fixing themselves within the walls of the Octagon, usually when a champion finds himself on the wrong end of a right cross. With new talent constantly coming up from the minors, as well as from competing organizations, its only a matter of time until someone cracks the mystery of how to beat the current champs. And Silva has already expressed a desire for retirement, though he has 4 fights left on his current contract. Nonetheless, the way the champions have performed over the past few years doesn't leave a lot of hope that they'll be unseated anytime soon.

Good thing the UFC puts at least 5 fights on every card - if the status quo holds, the title fights may no longer be enough to draw a crowd on their own.

Jay Graziani

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