I remember a day when—and this day wasn't all that long ago, mind you—the UFC's middleweight division was considered a barren wasteland, rendered moot and uninteresting due to Anderson Silva's complete and utter dominance of everyone the UFC threw in the cage with him.
You remember those days, don't you? Back when Vitor Belfort was the best option the UFC had as a challenger to Silva?
That's no longer the case, obviously. While Silva gears up for a 2013 dream fight with Georges St-Pierre, a phalanx of potential middleweight challengers lurks in the background. Chris Weidman, Michael Bisping and Brian Stann have all staked their claim to a title shot, and perennial light-heavyweight contender Rashad Evans has made some noise about dropping down to middleweight if he's afforded an immediate title shot.
Weidman has a strong case. He's undefeated in the UFC and seemingly has the kind of game that could give Silva plenty of trouble in the cage.
His win over Demian Maia wasn't the most emphatic thing we've ever seen, but we must remember that he took the fight on extremely short notice and spent the majority of the days leading up to the fight trying to shed a bunch of excess weight. Then there was his quick win over Mark Munoz, which was as much of a statement as you can make these days in professional fighting.
But despite Weidman's credentials, I don't believe he's the best option. Sure, he's undefeated, but he's only 9-0 in the UFC. And at the end of the day, he hasn't really become that much of a known commodity. His win over Munoz, as violent and dominant as it was, happened on Fuel TV, a station with little market penetration.
If that fight happened on FOX or on a semi-large pay-per-view, Weidman's star power would have grown exponentially. But a big win on a Fuel event doesn't do much for expanding your fanbase. That audience consists mostly of hardcore fans who already know who you are.
Silva has repeatedly noted that, at this time in his MMA career, he's only interested in big fights. That means fights against big-name opponents, dream fights that draw eyeballs and bring in the big bucks. The St-Pierre fight certainly qualifies, and a potential down-the-road bout with Jon Jones would fit the criteria.
But those fights, as much as I want to see them, would leave the middleweight division in a form of stasis. If Silva is going to keep the title wrapped around his waist— and I'm assuming he is, simply because he hasn't said anything about giving up the belt—he'll need to defend against the challengers that are presented to him.
How do you satisfy the fans' desire to see big fights while also keeping the title in play? Evans is a viable option, but he lost his last fight. It'd be tough to present him as a legitimate title challenger without first securing a win in the division.
That leaves only two real options: Bisping or Stann. Luckily, they're facing off at UFC 152 next week, which means you can slot the winner in to face Silva. It's an easy option.
But does Stann deserve a title shot, even if he beats Bisping? I think so, and I'll tell you why.
The former Marine captain is just 6-3 in the UFC. On the surface, it's not exactly the kind of record that screams out "title contender," is it? When your biggest career win came over Chris Leben, it's tough to make a case that you're deserving of a title shot.
But there's more at play here.
Bisping is a long-time UFC veteran, and he's one of the most well-known personalities in the sport. He's also despised by a large majority of MMA fans, which means a win over him would actually mean something.
Remember when Dan Henderson knocked Bisping over the moon back at UFC 100? Henderson is a popular figure with the fans, but the reaction he received in that moment was the kind typically reserved for the biggest superstars.
If Stann is able to knock Bisping out at UFC 152, he'll instantly catapult into the kind of super-stardom typically reserved for the UFC's biggest and brightest.
More importantly, I've long believed that Stann has the potential to be one of the most marketable stars on the entire UFC roster. He has a true Captain America back story, with his heroic actions taken during the Iraq war. He's a good-looking dude, and he's also the kind of well-spoken athlete who the UFC can hitch its wagon to.
Stann always has a pitch-perfect answer for every question he's asked, which is why FOX loves having him as a permanent fixture on its broadcasting crew. Watch Stann closely and you get the feeling that he'd be successful at anything he decided to do.
But is that potential for marketability enough to put him near the top of the division?
In a pure sporting environment, Stann would likely be two big wins away from title contention. But as you already know, we're not a pure sport environment.
This is the prizefighting game, and putting together the biggest fights possible is the name of the game. And the reality is, an emphatic win over Bisping would make Stann the biggest middleweight name available to face Silva.
This is all speculative at this point, of course, and we're putting the cart before the horse. For any of this to happen, and long before we can even begin considering Stann as a title contender, he has to get past Bisping, and that's not a sure thing in the slightest.
Bisping, for all of the vitriol thrown his way, is a very good and technical fighter, and he's the betting favorite going into the fight for a reason. He's a tough out for anyone at middleweight, as Chael Sonnen found out earlier this year.
But let's assume, just for a second, that Stann goes in the cage and knocks Bisping out in the first round, perhaps with the kind of violent right hand that Henderson used to put Bisping to sleep at UFC 100.
Could you truly make a case that Weidman or Evans is more deserving of a title opportunity?
I don't think you can.