Five years ago this month MMATorch senior columnist Shawn Ennis presented an in-depth assessment of the Middleweight Division in his ongoing series titled “Lay of the Land.” Check out where things were back in September 2011 and where some of the fighters ended up going compared to Ennis’s predictions and assessments at the time.
This will be the first of two parts breaking down the UFC’s middleweight division. This week will focus on the top of the division, while next week looks at the rest of the middleweights and what those outside the UFC have to offer.
Anderson Silva solidified his spot at the top of the MMA world with his destruction of Yushin Okami this past Saturday. It’s hard to see who could even give Silva a fight, let alone defeat him. But despite the champion’s historic dominance, there still remains a division that we need to have a look at. Let’s get down to it with the middleweights where we’ve got some one-time contenders, some longtime veterans who probably won’t contend, some guys you’ve probably forgotten about, and maybe a few that could make a run at some point.
Anderson Silva (31-4): The problem here is that there are no more superlatives. Anything I say here is a rerun. You’ve heard it all, you’ve seen it all. I ran down his accomplishments and made the case for his being the best ever in the last Middleweight Lay of the Land. You saw what he did to Okami. No one can touch him. There’s simply nothing left to say about Anderson Silva. He is the best MMA fighter ever. End of story. As for what lies ahead, Luke Thomas and Jonathan Snowden, two guys who are smarter than I am, make the case respectively to move to another division or stay at 185 pounds and let someone come to him. I think I’m more interested in a Jon Jones fight should Jones remain dominant (or a fight with Jones right now should Silva decide to make a permanent move to 205) than I am in a GSP fight, but time will tell the story on that one. For now, the Middleweight king looks out over his kingdom and finds every challenger wanting.
You could put Chael Sonnen here I suppose, but he’s got to make it through Brian Stann before getting Contender status (despite his ludicrous assertion that he wants Silva regardless of whether he beats Stann). Other than that, the field is wide open for someone to step up and get his face kicked off.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
If I were to write this after two more events, without even looking at those cards, this list could change dramatically. I have no idea who’s going to emerge from the pack of would-be contenders to Silva’s title, but let’s have a look at the most likely suspects.
Brian Stann (10-3): After smashing the returning Jorge Santiago in his last outing, Stann looks to continue his ascent to contendership when he faces Chael Sonnen at UFC 136. It will be hard to deny that Stann is deserving of a title shot with a convincing win over Sonnen, but the question becomes whether the UFC would pull the trigger on that fight with the foreknowledge of what would befall the extremely marketable ex-military man. Stann could become a huge star if he continues to win, and putting him in with Anderson Silva would deliver a big blow to that marketability. Stann doesn’t have as long a resume as Vitor Belfort or Yushin Okami, and whereas those two can withstand getting smashed and continue to be held in somewhat high regard, Stann might not emerge so lucky. So while he may indeed deserve a title shot, I think the UFC may just wait and see what they’re going to do with Silva (superfight, move to another division) before sacrificing Stann at the altar of Silva’s greatness.
Chael Sonnen (25-11-1): Not much to say here – Sonnen has come the closest of any man at 185 pounds to dethroning Anderson Silva. After winning four and a half rounds against the champ, Sonnen fell victim to his own lackluster submission defense with his seventh submission loss via triangle or armbar (Silva tapped him with a combination of the two). Details surfaced after the fight that Silva had severely injured ribs. Though most post-fight reports of injury are met with jeers and a roll of the eyes, this one seems to make sense. Should Sonnen get past Stann, he’s the most likely option for number one contender.
Mark Munoz (11-2): Since his embarrassing UFC debut a weight class above his fighting weight (he was knocked out cold by Matt Hamill), Munoz has looked better in each fight. He’s beaten mostly grapplers, though his striking has looked solid against fighters who can hold their own on the feet. Most recently he had an impressive showing against Demian Maia, taking home a unanimous decision victory and handing Maia only his third loss (Anderson Silva and Nate Marquardt gave him the other two; not bad company). Munoz will oppose Chris Leben in the main event of UFC 138 in the UFC’s very first non-title five-round fight. Leben is experiencing a bit of a resurgence as of late, his TKO loss to Brian Stann notwithstanding, and a win over “The Crippler” would certainly help Munoz’s cause to move further into the upper echelon of the division.
Michael Bisping (21-3): Bisping has gone 7-2 as a middleweight since moving to 185 in 2008 following a loss to Rashad Evans. And when you consider that his losses came against Dan Henderson (we all remember that knockout) and Wanderlei Silva in a fight that, if I’m honest with myself, Bisping was probably on his way to winning until the last part of the third round, that’s pretty impressive. Bisping will probably need at least two more wins to move into the top spot in the division, but if he’s able to beat the oft-overlooked-but-extremely-durable Jason Miller when they square off after their coaching stints on TUF, I will certainly be impressed. What remains to be seen is how impressed Joe Silva and Dana White will be.
Rousimar Palhares (13-3): Call him a dirty fighter if you want, and you may even be right, but you can’t deny that “Toquinho” is an impressive fighter. After laying waste to Dan Miller at UFC Rio, Palhares needs a stiff challenge in the form of someone who can strike. I would love to see him take on Vitor Belfort. Less compelling but still a good fight would be Palhares against the winner of Munoz-Leben. If he could get past one of those opponents, he’d start to really open some eyes.
UP AND COMERS
Chris Weidman (6-0): Weidman may not have been all that exciting in his late-replacement UFC debut against Alessio Sakara, but he made up for it with a first round thrashing of Jesse Bongfeldt at UFC 131. Weidman is a Serra-Longo product with what looks to be outstanding grappling, but he’s still pretty green and not extremely well-rounded just yet. On the bright side for Weidman, grappling is certainly a good base to have in MMA, and if he can improve his overall game at a steady pace, the UFC should be able to give him opponents that he can handle in the paper-thin lower-tier of the middleweight division.
Court McGee (13-1): This is McGee’s second appearance in this section, but he hasn’t fought since the last time I evaluated the division. His fight with Dongi Yang at the UFC’s next Fight Night should be quite informative. Yang is a beast at 185, so McGee will have his hands full. Should he be able to pull out the win, it will speak volumes to the progress he’s made since his stint on TUF.
Jared Hamman (13-3): It’s strange to put a guy with a 2-2 UFC record in this category, but it makes more sense when you figure that Hamman went 1-2 as a light heavyweight before dropping to 185 and putting on a great fight with CB Dollaway on the last Versus show. Dollaway smoked Hamman in the first round, but Hamman came out firing in the second, blasting Dollaway on the feet before finishing the fight with ground and pound. Hamman may or may not pan out as a top tier middleweight (signs don’t necessarily point in that direction), but if he keeps fighting like that, he’ll be around for a long time.
Nick Ring (12-0): Though bum knees may ultimately prove to be Nick Ring’s downfall, he has looked pretty good in his UFC run thus far. After taking a hotly disputed decision win over DEEP champion Riki Fukuda in his Octagon debut, Ring came back and beat newcomer James Head definitively at UFC 131. Ring weathered a first round that saw him take some punishment only to wear Head down, give him a nasty cut, and choke him out in the third. Ring faces Tim Boetsch next month at UFC 135, which could be a telling bout for both fighters. Boetsch may find his niche at 185, and Ring will look to prove that he can take out a UFC veteran in what could be his toughest matchup to date.
Let’s start with the guys who are moving out of the division – Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-4) has lost three straight as a middleweight, and was gifted a decision in his UFC debut against Alan Belcher (16-6) at UFC 100. That brings his UFC record to a disputable 1-3. Finally Akiyama will heed the advice of Dana White and countless pundits when he moves to welterweight for his next fight. Akiyama has simply been outsized in this division, though the guy has not an ounce of quit in him. Rich Attonito (10-4) is another who recently went south in weight, as he won his welterweight debut back in June. Nate Marquardt (31-10-2), after spending most of his career at middleweight, was supposed to make the drop at the last Versus event, but as we know by now, that didn’t work out so well when the former seven-time King of Pancrase tested for elevated testosterone levels. Again. And so he’s out of the UFC and will eventually make his BAMMA debut in England at 170 pounds. On a less well-known front, James Head (7-2), who won a spot in the UFC with a win over Gerald Harris, will drop to 170 after losing his debut to Nick Ring. Head will face Mark Scanlon at UFC 138.
As for those who are comfortable at 185 pounds, let’s start with those who have fights scheduled. The Ultimate Fighter winner Court McGee (13-1), whom we mentioned before as an Up and Comer, will fight Dongi Yang (10-1) this Saturday night at the UFC’s 25th (!) “Fight Night” card on Spike TV. Yang was not impressive in losing his debut in split decision fashion to Chris Camozzi (15-4), but he rebounded nicely with a TKO win over Rob Kimmons (23-8) in March, which resulted in Kimmons being cut from the promotion (Kimmons has picked up another loss since leaving the UFC). He should be a nice test for McGee. Camozzi, for his part, was also cut from the promotion after losing to Kyle Noke (19-5-1) in February, but has since been brought back after winning a split decision over Joey Villasenor at Shark Fights 15. Camozzi will face the debuting Francis Carmont (16-7), a teammate of Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre, at UFC 137. Carmont returned from a two-year hiatus in September of last year and promptly won five straight fights, finishing his last four. Most recently he took a TKO victory over UFC vet Jason Day.
Also fighting this weekend will be the returning Alan Belcher (16-6), who last fought in May of last year, taking out Patrick Cote by way of rear naked choke. Belcher suffered a detached retina while training for a fight against Demian Maia (14-3) at Fight Night 22, and has been rehabbing the injury since then, including going under the knife twice. Belcher says he’s at 100%, and he’ll need to be when he faces the crafty Jason MacDonald (25-14). MacDonald is a good opponent for Belcher – someone whom he should beat, but definitely not someone that he can walk through. We mentioned Demian Maia, and as luck would have it, he’s got a fight coming up as well. At UFC 136, Maia will face Jorge Santiago (23-9), who is looking for his first UFC win since 2006. Amazingly, Santiago has gone 1-3 inside the UFC and 11-1 outside since that time. In Maia, Santiago gets yet another tough fight. Maia will be looking to avoid his first ever two-fight losing streak, having dropped a decision to the aforementioned Mark Munoz in his last bout. This is as close as you can get to a must-win for both men.
Coming a bit sooner than Maia-Santiago will be Tim Boetsch (13-4) taking on the aforementioned Nick Ring at UFC 135. Boetsch made his middleweight debut in May by taking a fairly dominant decision over Kendall Grove, who was let go by the UFC after that fight. Boetsch looked completely comfortable at his new weight, and should be able to employ his gameplans much more effectively as a middleweight. This will be a telling fight for both men.
At UFC 136 we have no fewer than four middleweight fights scheduled to take place. In addition to Maia-Santiago and Sonnen-Stann (mentioned in part one), Steve Cantwell (7-4) will make his middleweight debut against Mike Massenzio (12-5). This will likely be a “loser leaves town” fight. Cantwell is being given another shot after being utterly demolished by Cyrille Diabate over three rounds in March. That was Cantwell’s first fight in two years after recovering from a career-threatening injury. Massenzio is also on a bit of a short leash – he was brought in as a late replacement in a light heavyweight bout against Krzysztof Soszynski at UFC 131, and as the UFC often does with late replacements, they are giving Massenzio another shot – this time in his natural weight class. Both men hold losing records in the Octagon, however, and one will likely be sent packing after this fight. Rounding out the action at UFC 136 will be Aaron Simpson (10-2) and Nick Catone (9-2). Catone represents a weird situation for me. You see, I watch every UFC event from beginning to end. Every fight. Every prelim. Catone has a 3-2 record with the UFC since 2009, and I can’t remember a single one of his fights. That’s just strange, and I don’t know whether it says more about his fights or my memory. Either way, Simpson has gotten back on his feet with two straight wins over Mario Miranda (11-3), who has since been cut, and Brad Tavares (7-1). And as segues would have it, Tavares fights next at UFC 137, where he’ll take on fellow TUF alum Tim Credeur (12-4), who is in desperate need of a win after dropping two straight. Credeur’s last win came over Nick Catone in April of 2009 – a fight of which I have no recollection.
At UFC 138 we have the unlikely main event of Mark Munoz (covered in part one) taking on Chris Leben (22-7), who has found new life in the division after going 4-1 in his last five fights, including a 3-0 record in 2010. Leben won’t be a title contender, but he’s as tough a gatekeeper as there is. It was Brian Stann’s punishing win over “The Crippler” that signaled his rise to the upper-ish tier of the division, and it was Leben’s demolition of Wanderlei Silva (33-11-1) that signaled the likely decline of “The Axe Murderer.” (Though that’s one where I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong).
UFC 139 will play host to a couple of intriguing middleweight bouts as well. Tom Lawlor (7-3) will square off against fast-rising prospect Chris Weidman, who we discussed as an up and comer in part one. Lawlor got a much-needed win over Patrick Cote in October of last year after dropping two straight. He was scheduled to fight at the last Versus event but had to pull out due to injury, and Ed Herman (22-9) replaced him, tapping Noke via inverted heel hook in the first round. Lawlor was then scheduled to meet Maiquel Falcao (27-3) at UFC 134 in Rio before Falcao was released from the promotion due to past legal issues. Falcao was also part of the bizzare fight against Gerald Harris (18-4) that saw five seconds trimmed from the first round and resulted in Harris being released after having a boring fight, despite that being his only loss since returning to the UFC. All in all Falcao was involved with weirdness on multiple levels. Going back to the Lawlor fight, it should be interesting to see what Weidman can do in this contest. If he bears more resemblance to the fighter we saw against Jesse Bongfeldt (15-5-1), he could cause Lawlor some serious trouble.
The other fight at UFC 139 is at once interesting and confusing. In the main event, Vitor Belfort (20-9) will fight Cung Le (7-1) in Le’s UFC debut. It almost seems like the UFC is just going completely for the local crowd on this one, giving in to the fact that they have very few options for a main event after pulling Velasquez vs. dos Santos for the first FOX show. In any case, Belfort vs. Le will sell some tickets in San Jose, but I can’t speak for how may buys it will garner. Belfort certainly has some name recognition, but it will be interesting to see how much of a draw he is pretty much by himself. Either way in this fight, it will certainly be violent, and I can’t imagine it’ll go more than a round or two. Belfort really should be able to take out Le pretty quickly, as Le hasn’t fought since avenging his only loss to comeback king Scott Smith (17-9) in June of last year.
Finally, making his debut after coaching on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter, Jason Miller (24-7) will fight Michael Bisping on the TUF Finale scheduled in December. Miller last fought in September of last year when he became the first man to submit Kazushi Sakuraba (26-15-1) since Sakuraba’s first professional fight against Kimo Leopoldo.
There aren’t a ton of middleweights in the UFC who are without a pending fight, but let’s take a look at who’s left and what might make for some good fights. Starting off, we talked about Ed Herman briefly, but he’s on a bit of a roll right now. Herman’s road in the UFC has been circuitous. He lost his first two fights and didn’t look great in doing so. Then he rattled off three victories against lower-level guys before going 1-3 in his next four fights and losing almost two years to injury. Since his return in June of this year, Herman has looked dominant. Granted, Tim Credeur and Kyle Noke aren’t exactly world beaters, but Herman took the Noke fight on short notice and just handled him. So next for Herman, I’d say give him a full camp and see how he does against someone like CB Dollaway (11-4). Dollaway is coming off of two knockout losses, and he probably wouldn’t be long for the Octagon with a loss to Herman, but I think that’d be a good fight for their particular situations.
Then you’ve got the not-retired Jorge Rivera (19-9), who has had a fight scheduled with Alessio Sakara (15-8) I believe 15 or 16 times now, only to have one or the other get injured in the lead-up each time. Maybe since Rivera isn’t retiring after all, we could have that fight happen. It might not mean much, but it could be fun to watch. There’s also former DEEP middleweight champion Riki Fukuda (17-5), who was scheduled to face Rafael Natal (13-3-1) at UFC 133 but was hurt in a car crash and had to pull out. Fukuda’s debut was a controversial decision loss to Nick Ring, and I’d like to see what he’s got in his next fight. You could stick with the Natal fight, or you could go with someone like Jared Hamman. I think either of those works.
Yushin Okami (26-6), despite his rather impressive 10-3 UFC record, will probably take a tumble in UFC relevancy with his dominating loss at the hands of pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. I think the best use for Okami would be as a gatekeeper of sorts, at least until Silva either moves up in weight or decides to do something else. A fight with Wanderlei Silva (33-11-1) could be a lot of fun if Silva is still up for it. And after that, you’ve pretty much got Dan Miller (13-6), Paul Bradley (18-3), Constantinos Philippou (8-2), and Nate Quarry (12-4), who I believe is still planning on returning to action when fully recovered from injury. I think if the timing is right, Miller-Quarry would be a good one, and Bradley-Philippou would work out just fine to see where these guys stack up. Both of them were replacements at UFC 133, and both were somewhat underwhelming. I’d like to see what they can do with a full camp.
As for guys outside of the UFC, the most immediately intriguing fighter is obviously Bellator Champion Hector Lombard (30-2-1), who was supposed to debut in the UFC once or twice as I remember it but was unable to secure his visa, or something to that effect anyway. Lombard is in the midst of a pretty incredible 20-fight unbeaten streak, with 18 of those wins coming by stoppage, and 13 stoppages coming in the first round. Lombard has absolutely steamrolled everyone Bellator has thrown at him and shows no signs of slowing down. He would be a great get for the UFC if it were to ever be possible (the Bellator Champion’s clause combined with the fact that no one outside the UFC is really in Lombard’s league throws some cold water on the idea of Lombard leaving any time soon).
More likely to make their way into the Octagon are two men who just fought this past Saturday night at Strikeforce’s Heavyweight Grand Prix event – Ronaldo Souza (14-3) and the man who bested him, Luke Rockhold (8-1). If you told me that this fight would be contested on the feet, I’d have easily given the advantage to Souza. I thought he’d have more power, and training with Anderson Silva certainly couldn’t hurt one’s striking technique. But Souza looked slow and one-dimensional while Rockhold proved to be far more dynamic on the feet. Both fighters are far better grapplers than strikers, but on that night, Rockhold was able to take the fight away from “Jacare.” I think both would be good additions to the UFC’s roster after Strikeforce’s inevitable demise, but my excitement for Souza took a bit of a hit while my intrigue over Rockhold certainly increased quite a bit. He’s got a ton of upside.
So that’s about it. Did I miss anyone? Let me know what you think in the comments, shoot me an email at email@example.com, or hit me up on Twitter – @shawnennis.
History of the UFC Middleweight Championship
*Bold indicates title changing hands
9/28/01 – D. Menne def. G. Castillo (Decision)
1/11/02 – M. Bustamante def. D. Menne (TKO)
5/10/02 – M. Bustamante def. M. Lindland (Submission)
*Bustamante vacates the title when he leaves the UFC for PRIDE*
2/5/05 – E. Tanner def. D. Terrell (TKO)
6/4/05 – R. Franklin def. E. Tanner (TKO)
11/9/05 – R. Franklin def. N. Quarry (KO)
3/4/06 – R. Franklin def. D. Loiseau (Decision)
10/14/06 – A. Silva def. R. Franklin (TKO)
2/3/07 – A. Silva def. T. Lutter (Submission)
*Non-title fight due to Lutter missing weight
7/7/07 – A. Silva def. N. Marquardt (TKO)
10/20/07 – A. Silva def. R. Franklin (TKO)
3/1/08 – A. Silva def. D. Henderson (Submission)
10/25/08 – A. Silva def. P. Cote (TKO)
4/18/09 – A. Silva def. T. Leites (Decision)
4/10/10 – A. Silva def. D. Maia (Decision)
8/7/10 – A. Silva def. C. Sonnen (Submission)
2/5/11 – A. Silva def. V. Belfort (KO)
8/27/11 – A. Silva def. Y. Okami (TKO)
Longest Title Reign: Anderson Silva (1807 days and counting)
Most Consecutive Defenses: Anderson Silva (9)
Current Reign: Anderson Silva (1807 Days, 9 Defenses)
Enjoy it while it lasts, people – this record may never be broken.
The Champ: Self-explanatory
The Contenders: Fighters who could fight for the title immediately and be taken as legitimate contenders. Fighters coming off of a loss will not typically be in this category.
A Step or Two Away: Fighters who could be in contention for a title with another victory or two over legitimate competition.
Up and Comers: Fighters who have no more than three fights in the UFC, who have shown promise. They’re not always undefeated, but they have potential.
The Pool: Other fighters of note within the division, who could work their way into the top three categories by going on a run and/or proving themselves/proving themselves again in the Octagon. Also those outside the UFC who could make an impact.