If 2011 was the year of change and transition - new champions took their throne and the UFC signed a blockbuster, seven-year deal with the Fox Media Company - then 2012 promises to be a year of building on these new relationships. We can always expect big fights, but in this new UFC-Fox world, the stakes are higher, the rewards are bigger, the platforms even larger and the challenges as great as they've ever been in the sport.
Here are four fights to watch out for in 2012 that could change the face of the divisions in which they take place and help define the trajectory of mixed martial arts as well as the UFC for years to come.
1. Alistair Overeem vs. Junior dos Santos - after dos Santos' destruction of former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and Overeem's demolition of Brock Lesnar, these two striking giants are on a collision course. For Overeem, winning the UFC heavyweight championship fulfills the promise of his career and makes good on the hype surrounding his move to the heavyweight division in 2007. For dos Santos, it would solidify him as the top heavyweight in the sport and represent a rather significant feather in his cap in terms of trophy kills. For fans, it represents the strongest heavyweight fights in nearly a generation. When was the last time boxing delivered heavyweight action like this?
2. Dominick Cruz vs. Jose Aldo/Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar - among these three fighters you have some of the top talent in the entire sport, but three fighters whose visibility and popularity isn't commensurate with ability. If either of these fights is made, that in and of itself would not be a solution to their invisibility issues. But putting these fights together on the right kind of card on the right kind of platform could be just the catalyst these fighters - and the divisions they represent - need to get the lift off in terms of popular appeal they all need. And frankly, they all deserve.
3. Ben Askren vs. top UFC welterweight - there are obvious hurdles to making this happen. Bellator needs Ben Askren much more than the UFC does. And so long as he's champion, Askren's contractually obligated to his current employer. Speaking abstractly, however, Askren could use this opportunity as a true measurement of his ability. The former Olympian and Dan Hodge Trophy winner didn't blow anyone's doors of in a workman-like decision win over Jay Hieron. But like fellow collegiate wrestling standout Johny Hendricks, Askren could be on the cusp of turning a corner in his career. He's got the athleticism, fundamental skill sets and in-cage experience to make big moves. Is he capable of them? Can he do it? Who knows? But pairing him up against a known welterweight commodity in the UFC could be exactly the test than answers those questions.
4. Georges St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva - UFC President Dana White indicated UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva may only have two fights left in his career. He'll first have to (likely) face the winner of Mark Munoz vs. Chael Sonnen (to be determined at UFC on Fox 2). But then? White says Silva is looking for a super fight, most likely with either UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones or GSP. GSP's got his hands full with the winner of UFC 143's Nick Diaz vs. Carlos Condit, but could fight twice in 2012. Jones is a strong candidate for an Anderson Silva super fight, but White has indicated he doesn't want to push the young, 24-year old champion into big experiences like that too early. At 30 and after ACL-surgery rehab, GSP's a much better candidate for the final fight on Silva's docket.
Whatever happens in 2012, the talent is strong and the possibilities intriguing enough to keep any fan entertained. Here's to a year of ruckus inside the cage.