1. Renan Barao (29-1, 1 NC)
Though Dominick Cruz is assuredly Barao’s primary focus, the Brazilian’s first task in 2013 is going to be defending his interim title against hot prospect Michael McDonald. Should Barao take out McDonald, he still might wind up defending his interim strap again before Cruz is fully healed from his knee injury.
2. Urijah Faber (26-6)
In January 2006, Faber and Ivan Menjivar met in one of the most sought-after featherweight contests of its day. Seven years after that dissatisfying disqualification, Faber will try to replicate his win against Menjivar at UFC 157 on Feb. 23, this time at 135 pounds.
3. Michael McDonald (15-1)
It was already expected that McDonald would meet Renan Barao in 2013. However, now the stakes are more clear: with Dominick Cruz on the shelf indefinitely, Barao-MacDonald will determine a more legitimate 135-pound champion, one that might even have to defend an interim title again after the contest.
4. Eddie Wineland (20-8-1)
Wineland jumps up a spot thanks to a win over hard-hitting Englishman Brad Pickett at UFC 155. The rangy former WEC champ surprised many observers by outboxing and bloodying Pickett en route to a three-round decision win. Wineland has now won back-to-back bouts against Top 10 opposition and figures to be moving toward title contention in the coming year.
5. Brad Pickett (22-7)
Pickett’s punching prowess was not up to snuff at UFC 155, where the American Top Team representative was outstruck by Eddie Wineland in a three-round standup affair. The decision loss snapped a two-fight winning streak for “One Punch,” who conquered Yves Jabouin and Damacio Page earlier in 2012.
6. Scott Jorgensen (14-6)
In one of the best rounds of MMA action this year, Scott Jorgensen thwarted a tight triangle from "Ultimate Fighter" alum John Albert before coming back and locking up the fight-ending rear-naked choke with less than second left in the round. The thrilling contest earned Jorgensen both “Submission of the Night” and “Fight of the Night” honors at UFC on Fox 5 and helped him keep pace at 135 pounds.
7. Raphael Assuncao (19-4)
Stepping in on short notice seldom pays off with a victory, but it sure did for a game Assuncao. After notching two wins in his first two bantamweight outings, the Atlanta-based Brazilian stepped up to face the once-beaten Mike Easton at UFC on Fox 5 on two weeks’ notice and earned the biggest win of his career via workmanlike decision.
8. Marcos Galvao (13-5-1)
For now, “Loro” is sitting pretty and waiting for his Bellator bantamweight title shot against fellow Nova Uniao representative Eduardo Dantas, who is coming off of his August upset loss to Tyson Nam in Shooto Brazil. Since his Zuffa release in March 2009, Galvao is 7-2 and could easily be 9-0, if not for highly questionable decision losses to Joe Warren and Alexis Vila.
9. Tyson Nam (12-4)
After his breakout win against Bellator champion Eduardo Dantas in August, contractual quagmires over Nam’s previously existing deal with Bellator seemed to put him on freeze. However, it appears at least for now that Nam will take on recent Miguel Torres tormentor Marlon Moraes at the yet-to-be-scheduled World Series of Fighting 2.
10. Eduardo Dantas (14-3)
Nova Uniao’s bantamweight prodigy is still on the road to recovery following the worst loss of his young career -- a shocking August knockout at the hands of underdog Tyson Nam. When he is ready to return, “Dudu” is expected to defend his Bellator title against recent tournament winner and former training partner Marcos Galvao in the promotion’s upcoming eighth season.
Other contenders:T.J. Dillashaw, Mike Easton, Bibiano Fernandes, Ivan Menjivar, Takeya Mizugaki
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