The UFC middleweight division has known nothing but Anderson Silva as its champion for almost six years now. Whether it has been former champions like Rich Franklin and Vitor Belfort, or icons in the sport like Dan Henderson, foe after foe has entered the Octagon and notch after notch has been added to Silva’s belt.
No fighter has ever seemed so unbeatable, so immortal as “The Spider” now seems today. Every time Silva steps into the Octagon he finds a new and incredible way to add to his already impeccable reputation as the pound-for-pound king.
Even with mortality (Silva is 36-years-old) settling into the picture, it’s hard to find a fighter who is the ideal person to dethrone Silva from his middleweight title. Where most fighters excel at one or two styles of MMA, Silva seems to take it upon himself to not only excel at everything, but do so better than everyone else.
The legend will live on forever. No one can take that away from the middleweight champion. But, if there is anything MMA has taught us, it’s that all good things must come to an end.
And Silva, even with all his gifts, is not exempt from that fact.
The UFC’s middleweight division is widely seen as one of the weaker divisions in the UFC, due largely to the effect of Silva’s reign as champion. However, there are fighters moving up the ranks clamoring for their shot at Silva.
Some are familiar faces to the champion and some have careers that are just picking up. All of them, however, have one thing in common—they all have the ability to eventually push Silva to the limit.
Perhaps the biggest prospect in all of MMA, Chris Weidman doesn’t have a ton of tape or experience when judging just how high he can fly in the UFC’s middleweight division.
The tools are all there for Weidman to succeed. If there is one thing every fight fan learned from the Chael Sonnen vs. Anderson Silva fight, it’s that Silva can (keyword being "can") struggle with elite-level wrestlers.
Weidman is a two-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler and has proven he can use every bit of that experience in the Octagon.
Wrestling, however, is only part of his game. With three submission wins in his professional career, including back-to-back submissions of Jesse Bongfeldt and Tom Lawlor—the former being a Submission of the Night bonus—Weidman has proven he is fully capable of ending a fight once he’s gotten his opponent to the ground.
Add a continual growth to his striking game and the middleweight division better take note of the “All-American.” It’s just a matter of time before he’s taking on the middleweight champion with the opportunity to prove he can do what he said he could—finish Silva.
Meet the only man on the list that can give Anderson Silva a run for his money in the grappling department.
Rousimar Palhares has made his money on the bread and butter of his MMA game—Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. With 10 of his 14 wins coming via submission, Palhares threatens to not only force any opponent in the Octagon to tap, but also take one of their limbs home with him as a trophy.
Where Palhares is at a distinct disadvantage against the champion is the striking game. Palhares, at times, looks uncomfortable standing up, something the champion would almost assuredly take advantage of should Palhares ever be granted a title shot.
But, don’t discount Palhares’ ability to get his opponents to the ground. Although Silva has very good takedown defense, he has shown to have lapses in that defense and it only takes one of those lapses for someone the size of Palhares to take advantage of it.
Palhares is still a ways away from being ready to take on a fighter with the skills of Silva. He still has not beaten a top-level middleweight, a division renowned for its lack of competition and has lost to fighters who were already soundly beaten by the champion. But, even at 32, Palhares is still learning all the nuances necessary to be a top level fighter.
If Palhares can get his striking to even half of what his grappling game is, there is no telling what he can do in the middleweight division. No one may be at the level of Anderson Silva as an overall fighter, but it only takes one swing of momentum for a fight to go bad for anybody, and if Palhares can get Silva to respect his stand-up enough to open him up for a takedown—Palhares has the skills to beat anyone on the ground.
The first fight between Vitor Belfort and Anderson Silva was over before it had even begun. With less than two minutes left in the first round, Vitor ate a foot for dinner and before he knew what was going on, Silva was standing over him, barraging him with punches in line to a KO victory.
A tough pill to swallow.
As long as Silva is champion, it’s going to be hard for Vitor to get another title shot. “The Phenom” didn’t have enough time to be anything but unimpressive, and, quite frankly, there are a list of fighters now ahead of him in line.
Vitor does have all the tools to seemingly give Silva a challenge should he get past the first round of the fight.
Belfort’s striking game speaks for itself. Yoshihiro Akiyama, Rich Franklin, Matt Lindland, Wanderlei Silva and Randy Couture have all felt the wrath of Belfort’s fists and paid dearly for it. So, clearly, Belfort’s striking can not only hang with anyone in the middleweight division, but he can take out a very high caliber of fighter in the weight class right above it.
The underrated ground game of “The Phenom” is something that is rarely talked about leading up to his fights. Maybe it’s because he only has three submissions in his professional career, or because it’s something that just isn’t featured in many of his fights, but Belfort does have excellent Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for which he does carry a black belt.
Add a black belt in judo and Belfort, on paper, looks like the ideal fighter to defeat Silva.
But, fights aren’t won on paper.
Vitor has a long road back to Silva and along the way the one big thing he has to work on is his discipline in the Octagon. There are times when Belfort can become wild—throwing punches and haymakers uncontrollably—leaving easy avenues for the most disciplined of fighters to take advantage of.
The wild flailing isn’t the only characteristic Vitor needs to fix. Watch the tape from the first fight with “The Spider” and the champion clearly drops Vitor’s guard by looking down and then throwing the front kick. It’s the oldest trick in the book, yet, Vitor fell prey to it like an amateur.
Belfort has all the physical tools of a champion and of someone who can dethrone Silva. His striking rivals Silva’s, his ground game is very good and he has proven he can take out the best of the best. If he can fix the problem between his ears, Vitor can hang with anybody in the middleweight division—anybody.
The fact that Michael Bisping is one of the most polarizing figures in all of MMA has to contribute mightily as to why he doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves.
For what seems like most of his career, Bisping has had his critics nitpicking his game, all the while simply taking it in stride (not always humbly, however) and continuing to develop into a contender.
One of the biggest critiques of Bisping’s game has been his ability to stop the takedown. While the current champion prefers to keep things standing, the path to the champion is littered with guys like Mark Munoz, Chris Weidman and a fighter he has already fought in Chael Sonnen—all guys Bisping needs to beat if he ever wants a title shot.
In his last fight with Sonnen, Bisping not only proved he could stuff the takedowns of an elite wrestler, but that he can also get to his feet when he had been taken down and, in turn, take down said wrestler.
Bisping has always been a very crisp striker, but his clinch work has come full circle as well—something Silva will always showcase in his fights. Now, is Bisping better, or as talented in the clinch as the current champion? No, but can he handle himself if he gets caught in Silva’s clinch—maybe.
Size, strength and striking all contribute to Bisping being a serious contender. Silva is used to dictating any and everything in the Octagon, so opponents have to attack, yet do so with poise, while being able to have the power to let Silva know he’s in a fight when all those stars align.
That’s why no one, but Sonnen has come close to beating him in the UFC.
It’s important to be able to handle all the nuances Silva has to offer. Although no one may have the sheer talent of the champion, Bisping does have a rock-solid striking game, efficient and improving clinch work and better-than-average takedown defense. If he continues to evolve, Bisping will give Silva a fight.
No man may be more tailor made to beat Anderson Silva then “The Filipino Wrecking Machine."
Mark Munoz is right up there with the best of the best wrestlers in MMA. In college, Munoz won a national championship at Oklahoma State and was a two-time All-American.
But wrestling isn’t the only trade Munoz brings to the table, in fact it’s only one of the many tools Munoz showcases.
The fight doesn’t really start for Munoz until he has gotten his opponent to the ground. Once there it’s time to say goodbye to those boyish good-looks and hello to some of the nastiest ground-and-pound anyone will see in the sport.
UFC mainstays Demian Maia and Chris Leben can attest to the unpleasantries of Munoz’s ground-and-pound. Maia looked somewhat sharp in their fight before getting taken to the ground and beat on for two rounds. As for Leben, well, he received a beating that left him physically unable to see after Munoz was done with him.
Munoz’s overall striking game has come a long ways since his days in the WEC, too. While it is still raw at times, Munoz throws a lot of powerful, but still technical, punches that not only do damage, but help setup for the inevitable takedown to utilize his ground-and-pound.
Don’t underestimate “The Filipino Wrecking Machine’s” ground game either. A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Munoz not only proved that he can pound on Maia’s face, but that he also could ward off his incredibly skilled submission game as well.
All these tools are key in fighting current champion Anderson Silva. To be able to beat the champ, you need to be far better than average in all aspects of the fighting game and Munoz is steadily getting there.
While Chael Sonnen may have given the blueprint to beat “The Spider,” Sonnen had a glaring hole in his game that Silva would exploit to steal a victory away from him—his submission defense.
Lesson learned—minimize weaknesses.
Munoz has some time to fix the little things in his game to get prepared for Silva. The striking still needs a little fine-tuning, cardio has to be a must for the championship rounds and you can never be over-disciplined when preparing for a fighter of Silva’s talents.
There’s nothing worse than winning four rounds of a title fight, only to be slapped in a triangle and choked out for being overzealous.
While all the other fighters on this list have to sit and wonder if they have what it takes to beat the UFC middleweight champion, Chael Sonnen is the lone exception to that very question mark.
Sonnen knows he can beat Anderson Silva.
UFC 117 saw Sonnen coming within minutes of defeating “The Spider.” For four rounds, Sonnen brought the fight to Silva, controlling how the fight was fought and soundly winning in everyone’s eyes leading up to the fifth and final round.
Then Sonnen pulled, well, a "Chael Sonnen."
Perhaps getting too comfortable and taking for granted that he had the fight won, Sonnen let his guard down and fell victim to the one thing that has haunted him for a large portion of his MMA career—a submission. Silva would catch Sonnen in a triangle choke and the rest is history.
But the past is the past. Sonnen is next in line and this time he goes into the fight knowing he has everything it takes to defeat the legend that is Silva.
Sonnen pretty much has everything a fighter needs to defeat Silva. His wrestling prowess aside, Sonnen has a better stand-up game than people give him credit for. Just look at the first fight between him and Silva, where he not only controlled the fight on the ground, but he also handled the champion standing up.
Wrestling will always be what the No. 1 contender features in his MMA bag of tricks. It’s what keeps fighters honest when they fight him and what makes everything else he does in the Octagon so dangerous.
The one big difference in Silva vs. Sonnen II will be the challenger’s improved grappling game. In his fight against Brian Stann, it was obvious Sonnen had been practicing his jiu-jitsu skills. Not only did he execute multiple and surprisingly impressive passes, but he also attempted several submissions before locking in an arm triangle to seal the deal.
In other words, a more dangerous fighter.
Only time will tell if the improvement in his grappling game will be enough to beat the middleweight champion. While no one is saying that a slight improvement in his grappling game is enough to even remotely compete with Silva’s, it may be enough to keep Sonnen from falling victim to yet another submission.
Something that had he done the first time around, would render all of this moot.