By Matt Molgaard
MMANEWS.COM Staff Writer
A lot of people seem to have different ideas of what the term “gatekeeper” means, most confusing the moniker with “journeyman”. So, before I even launch into my list, allow me to just breakdown what a gatekeeper is, in my mind. A true gatekeeper is the toughest guy in a division, sans the champion himself. He's the one man who stands to separate a contender from a bona fide challenger. If a gatekeeper is beatable, then access into the holy grounds of promotional gold is typically extended, and even if that's not the case, access is certainly earned (we all know that there are times in which rankings mean little and marketability means everything).
Now, having gotten that off of my chest, and ensuring you don't confuse or misunderstand my use of the word gatekeeper, follow along while I guide you through the UFC's strongest gatekeepers, division by division.
Flyweight: Ian McCall
The truth of the matter is, we won't know who the true flyweight gatekeeper is until Joseph Benavidez and Demetrius Johnson square off at UFC 152 for the chance to be called the promotion's first 125 pound champion. Until then however, we have a very obvious contender for the Gatekeeper Title in Ian McCall, a man many felt did enough to take a win over Johnson in their first encounter at UFC on FX 2. Johnson and McCall went wild the first time they met, and come the final bell, it seemed as though Ian had done just enough to escape with a narrow victory. Instead, the athletic commission botched the situation, the fight was actually ruled a draw, but announced as a Johnson victory, which was shortly thereafter overturned. An immediate rematch was booked and the two battled for a shot at gold once more at UFC on FX 3. This time, Johnson emerged the clear victor. We know that talent wise, both McCall and Johnson are remarkably comparable. What we don't know for certain is how Benavidez matches up with either man. For my money, he's the future champion, but we won't know that until September 22nd. In the meantime, Ian McCall is clearly the toughest out aside from Johnson and Benavidez, and he earns the GK title at 125.
Bantamweight: Urijah Faber
Urijah Faber was once considered the most dangerous man south of 155 pounds. Then along came a man named Mike Brown and everything changed for the former longtime WEC champion. Since losing his featherweight title to Brown at WEC 36, Urijah has put together a record of 5-4, dropped a weight class and botched a handful of title chances: he was outworked in a rematch with Brown, brutalized by Jose Aldo, and in recent years, campaigning at bantamweight, clearly outworked by current champion Dominick Cruz and now interim title holder, Renan “Barao” Pegado. Urijah is a man who's built for competition, and he's remarkably technical everywhere the fight takes place, but he's lost a step, and the competition has risen just beyond his grasp. Having said that, the only way you're going to get a chance at fighting for 135 pound gold is by getting past “The California Kid”, the toughest guy in the division not named Dominick Cruz or Renan Pegado.
Featherweight: Ched Mendes
Another member of Team Alpha Male makes this list, and quite frankly, that's anything but a negative sign. These guys are tough as nails, and as close to being a champion as one can be without wearing that belt. Mendes has torn through many a foe at 145 pounds, looking every bit the physical specimen he is. A powerful wrestler with crisp punches, Chad's rugged, determined, and durable. The only man in the division with a skillset to genuinely rival this potential future champ (excluding current champion Jose Aldo of course, who put Mendes to sleep at UFC 142) is Pat Curran, and he's currently under contract with Bellator, so that's not likely to be a fight we'll see anytime soon. Hatsu Hioki, Ricardo Lamas, Chan Sung Jung and Dennis Siver are all superb talents, but if it comes down to challenging Jose Aldo for the belt, you'd better be able to get past this monster known as “Money”.
Lightweight: Frankie Edgar
Frankie shocked the world as an undersized lightweight who not only managed to claim the 155 pound title, he did so by beating an incredibly gifted fighter in BJ Penn. Twice at that. Since then Edgar's looked to be one of the most resilient men competing today, being nearly finished on two separate occasions by Gray Maynard, only to rally each time, once resulting in a draw and once resulting in a shocking knockout. The only problem for “The Answer” you ask? Benson Henderson. Henderson took Edgar's title in close but decisive fashion at UFC 144. The two will rematch at UFC 150, and while it's hard to bet against Frankie Edgar, it's even harder to bet against Benson Henderson, who is in affect a larger, stronger version of Frankie himself. Anything can happen in this forthcoming rematch, but I don't see many significant differences, and I don't see Benson leaving the octagon without the belt he now owns. And, quite simply put, that makes Frankie Edgar the baddest man at 155 pounds not wearing gold.
Welterweight: Nick Diaz
There are so many extremely gifted men in the welterweight division it's borderline absurd. Jake Ellenberger, Martin Kampmann, Carlos Condit and Johny Hendricks are all absolute nightmares. Any one of them could potentially topple Diaz, and Condit himself actually managed to do just that when he took a somewhat controversial decision over the Stockton bad boy at UFC 143. The loss set Diaz back, leaving Condit the interim title holder, now waiting in the wings to battle longtime champ Georges St. Pierre. Should GSP defeat Condit when they do finally meet it would theoretically make Carlos the consensus number two man in the division. I myself however am not completely convinced Condit is the second best in the division, and the only way to know where Condit and Diaz stand is to align a rematch. As it is, Condit holds a title, and I'm thus bypassing him for my pick as greatest welterweight gatekeeper. Right now, that title goes to Nick Diaz, who has proven himself virtually unbreakable, boasts the greatest cardio in the division, one of, if not the most dangerous submission games at 170, and he brings the striking output of two flyweights put together. The lone question mark surrounding Diaz is his further developing wrestling, and he's got the kind of bottom game to negate a great wrestler, even if his own chops aren't quite up to par.
Middleweight: Chael Sonnen
Chael Sonnen has come up short in both of his title bids against the sports' most dominating champion, Anderson Silva. There's absolutely no shame in that, and the prove lies in the Oregonian's recent middleweight run. Chael's bullied his way through a series of top contenders over the last few years including Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt, Michael Bisping and the blossoming Brian Stann. Perhaps the most aggressive wrestler in the game today, Chael is the very clear number two ranked middleweight. Following his second loss to Anderson Silva plenty of chatter has arisen: there's been talk of Sonnen retiring, there's been talk of Sonnen moving up to light heavyweight. As of today, Sonnen is a middleweight, and he holds the undisputed title of next-best middleweight behind Silva, hands down.
Light Heavyweight: Dan Henderson
Champion Jon Jones has nearly cleaned out the entire 205 pound division, having captured the title with an amazing throttling of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, followed by extremely convincing victories over challengers Lyoto Machida, Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans. All that remains for “Bones” is Dan Henderson, who looks to be the greatest fighter campaigning at 205 pounds without gold around his waste. Amazingly, Henderson seems to be better than ever before, even at the age of 41. He's recently trounced the likes of Rafael Cavalcante, Shogun and even Fedor Emelianenko in a heavyweight affair. Quite simply put, if you cannot defeat Dan Henderson, there's not a snowball's chance in Hell of making a fight with Jon Jones competitive. Hendo is clearly deserving of his ranking, and looks to be one of the greatest gatekeepers in the business. Want inside? Good luck getting past the “H Bomb”.
Heavyweight: Cain Velasquez
Outside of perhaps Alistair Overeem, champion Junior dos Santos looks to be a nearly unrivaled fighter. Daniel Cormier serves as the divisions greatest promise, but he's still got a little work to do before he's proven worthy of a top 3 ranking. Cain Velasquez on the other hand, possesses all the tools required to make JDS's next title defense a living nightmare. With top notch wrestling, fluent boxing and a generally high fight IQ, Velasquez still blocks the path between challenger and top contender. While I suspect the current champ may once again batter the AKA representative when their rematch finally unfolds, I just don't see anyone else in the division with the proper tools to put Cain away, which makes him the obvious bodyguard at the gates of title contention.
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