There’s so much being written and talked about on the heels of Tyron “The Chosen One” Woodley’s stunning first round knockout win over “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler to become the UFC’s new Welterweight Champion Saturday night at UFC 201- mostly about Woodley, and deservedly so.

His performance was outstanding. He is an elite athlete, wrestler and striker who deserves the title and all the accolades. At 34, he has all the tools to become one of the sport’s great champions. He has put it all together at the perfect time.

Woodley blasting Lawler
Brand new UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley (left) landing the devastating right hand that sent Robbie Lawler straight to the canvas and ended his title reign after two successful defenses. (photo by Zuffa, LLC, courtesy of foxsports.com)

But as great as Woodley is, the one thing stands out the most to me in the wake of his win is that a staggering seven title belts have changed hands this year, tying the all-time record set last year with five months remaining on the calendar. Let me repeat that for you. Seven world titles have changed hands in seven months, including four in the last two months, three of them in July and the last FIVE by TKO, four in the first round. And there could easily have been another had Jon “Bones” Jones not been barred from his Light Heavyweight title fight against Daniel Cormier at UFC 200 because of his positive drug tests, but we won’t go there.

New UFC Champs Last 2 Years
A record-tying seven UFC Championship Belts have changed hands this year, on the heels of the seven that set the record just one year ago. With five months remaining in 2016, there’s a real good chance that record could be smashed with a number well into the double-digits. Notice the number of TKO’s (9 out of 14)                                                        (chart by Jim “Gries” Grieshaber) 

Nonetheless, the revolving door at the top of the UFC mountain has never been more active than it is right now. UFC Boss Dana White has strapped belts around the waists of new champions 14 times in the last year and a half, with several more title bouts headed our way over the next five months, possibly at least one in each division. Think about that for a second. We could easily see five or six more belts change hands again this year. That’s simply incredible.

It wasn’t that long ago when legends like Anderson “The Spider” Silva, (10 title defenses at Middleweight over 10 years) Georges “Rush” St. Pierre, (9 defenses, 2x Welterweight Champ over 6 years, never lost the belt in his 2nd term) Jones, (8, Light Heavyweight, almost 4 years) Jose Aldo (7, Featherweight, 4+ years) and “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey (6, Women’s Bantamweight, 2 years) were turning away challenger after challenger to their thrones while dominating their divisions for what seemed like an eternity. These numbers don’t include title defenses from other promotions like Strikeforce, WEC and Pride, or they’d be a lot bigger.

IMG_2284
(top) “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, one of the last truly dominant UFC Champions, with our Jim “Gries” Grieshaber, and Georges St. Pierre, (bottom) two-time Welterweight Champion who defended his belt nine times during his six-year reign that ended when GSP retired after defeating Johny Hendricks in 2013. Title reigns like theirs are becoming increasingly rare as the sport evolves and the overall talent level increases.          (photo’s courtesy of Jim Grieshaber)

GSP Belt

But as is so often the case in professional sports, those days appear to be a thing of the past. As the sport gets bigger and exposure and money continue to grow, more and more great athletes and fighters are striving to make their way into the Octagon, making it a lot tougher to become- and remain- a champion.

In today’s UFC, only undisputed Flyweight King and #1 Pound-for-Pound Fighter Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson can truly be called an all-time great champion, with eight title defenses over a four-year span since becoming the champ in 2012.

Mighty Mouse Belt
UFC Flyweight Champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is the rare fighter who continues to dominate his division, taking out challenger after challenger to his throne since winning the belt in 2012. (photo by Zuffa, LLC, courtesy of foxsports.com)

Other than “Mighty Mouse”, Women’s Strawweight Champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk (3 since March of last year) is the only other fighter who has held onto a belt for more than a year and/or one title defense. Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz and Daniel Cormier have defended theirs one time each.

Of course Jones and Cruz (3 total defenses) never lost their belts, which the UFC stripped them of because of legal issues and inactivity due to injuries, respectively. Cruz, who once held his belt for longer than 3 years, has defended it once since getting it back in January of this year.

Jones Cruz
(left) Jon “Bones” Jones with the UFC Light Heavyweight Belt he held for almost four years and defended eight times before being stripped of it by the UFC. Jones came back to win the interim championship but he is facing a two-year ban following his positive test for a banned substance prior to UFC 200. (right) UFC Bantamweight Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz, from Tucson, (with our Jim “Gries” Grieshaber) is a two-time champ who was stripped of the title following two extended absences due to injury then came back and beat TJ Dillashaw to reclaim the belt he never lost.                                                                     (photo’s courtesy of Jim Grieshaber)

Most of the UFC’s current champions, Conor McGregor, (Featherweight) Stipe Miocic, (Heavyweight) Michael “The Count” Bisping, (Middleweight) Eddie Alvarez, (Lightweight) Amanda Nunez (Women’s Bantamweight) and Woodley (Welterweight) have yet to defend their belts.

Conor Diaz 2
UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor (left) is the biggest star in MMA, but “The Notorious” has yet to defend the belt he took from Jose Aldo last year. McGregor was set to face then Lightweight Champ Rafael Dos Anjos to try to become a two-division champion in March, but Dos Anjos pulled out and Nate Diaz (right) stepped in and beat Conor at welterweight. McGregor will face Diaz in a highly-anticipated rematch at UFC 202 later this month, then likely defend his belt against Aldo, now the interim champion.  (photo by Zuffa, LLC, courtesy of foxsports.com)

Previous champions Fabricio Werdum, (Heavyweight) Miesha Tate and Holly Holm (Women’s Bantamweight)  and Luke Rockhold (Middleweight) lost their belts in their first fights as champions. Lawler (Welterweight) and TJ Dillashaw (Bantamweight) made it through two defenses each, and Rafael Dos Anjos (Lightweight) defended his only one time. That’s seven titles defended a total of five times!

The here today, gone tomorrow life of recent UFC Champions has been truly amazing- like a hot potato game with title belts. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why:

1.) The sport has evolved tremendously over the past several years, especially since the mass exposure and cash infusion from The Ultimate Fighter show and the Fox TV deal combined with the UFC’s aggressive global expansion have attracted so many more great athletes to MMA.

2.) Not only are there more great athletes in the sport than ever before, today’s fighters have to be well-rounded, skilled mixed martial artists to become champions. You better be elite or close to it in all facets of the sport to be a champion in 2016. Those who specialized in just one or two aspects of MMA are a thing of the past.

3.) There have been a staggering number of injuries to top fighters, allowing others to capitalize on their absences to  reach the top of the sport.

For example, Arizona’s own two-time UFC Heavyweight Champ Cain Velasquez, a Yuma native and former All-American Wrestler at ASU, has only fought twice in three years due to various injuries and was coming off of long layoffs both times he lost the belt, to Junior Dos Santos in 2012 and Fabricio Werdum last year. Considering how dominant “Cardio Cain” has looked in all his other fights, how long could “Brown Pride” have held the heavyweight belt if he hadn’t been hurt so many times?

What about Chris Weidman, the former Middleweight champ who not only dethroned Anderson “The Spider” Silva, the longest-tenured champion and one of the top fighters in MMA history, but knocked him out to take the belt and broke his leg in the rematch to defend it. Since then, Weidman has been forced to pull out of two title defenses and his long-awaited rematch against Luke Rockhold to try to get his belt back after losing it to Rockhold while fighting on a broken foot last December.

Weidman Cain Belts
Two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez (left) and former UFC Middleweight Champ Chris “The All-American” Weidman (right) have each dealt with numerous injuries that kept them out for extended periods of time and severely limited their ability to defend their belts.  (photo’s courtesy of Jim Grieshaber)

And of course, many of the UFC’s top fighters have become famous crossover superstars. Movie and TV deals, commercial endorsements, paid appearances and other financially lucrative opportunities, along with additional promotional requirements for the UFC and its media and corporate sponsors. All of these things take away from training, mental focus and sharpness, even for the greatest champions in the sport.

In a nutshell, the UFC is the number-one promotion in the fastest-growing sport in the world, with so much more growth potential within its reach. The exposure, money and fame continue to skyrocket for fighters, especially after the recent sale to the new ownership group led by top talent agency WME-IMG, which will lead to entertainment and endorsement opportunities like this sport has never seen before.

Every day, more and more great young athletes are choosing to pursue their dreams of becoming elite, professional mixed martial artists- and famous crossover athletes.

As they have with every sport, these factors and others like them will continue to produce better athletes and fighters, making the competition at the top even tougher. We’re barely scratching the surface and I can’t wait to see what’s coming our way in the future.

I LOVE this sport, and I hope you enjoyed this blog! Make sure you listen to Cage Side Seat every Saturday at noon on Fox Sports 910, here on foxsports910.iheart.com and on the iHeart Radio app.

Until next time, keep your game tight and your mind right.

Gries