Right or wrong, Anderson Silva gets a lot more slack than other UFC fighters. He chooses his events, his contract terms and, to the chagrin of most UFC middleweights, his opponents.
Roughly a year ago, when Silva pushed for bouts against Luke Rockhold, Michael Bisping and (inexplicably) Cung Le, it was seen by many as Silva essentially choosing to fight anybody outside of Chris Weidman, who had just exploded into the middleweight elite by easily dispatching Mark Munoz. Whether or not this was really the case is difficult to call.
Only Silva's most devout fans, the ones who insist he intentionally spent 23 minutes underneath Chael Sonnen and overlook the blend of greasing, short-grabbing and semi-legal knees that contributed to his second victory over “The American Gangster,” don't recognize this. Not only does Weidman have the wrestling chops that, if the past is any indication, will let him repeatedly put Silva into an uncomfortable position, but he also has enough raw knockout power that he can stop almost anybody at 185 lbs.
Who wins Saturday?
Weidman is rightly being recognized as a serious threat to Silva's title reign. What hasn't gone well-noticed, however, is that he is the only fighter left in the division that fits that bill.
Some divisions' upper echelons are stacked with wrestlers; lightweight, welterweight and light heavyweight all fit this bill. That is not the case with middleweight. What's more, if you look specifically at fighters who Silva would realistically agree to fight, there are few matchups that don't favor the champ.
Bisping, a fighter Silva has targeted in the past, stands very little chance on paper and has a tendency to struggle in big fights. Vitor Belfort is in a similar boat, and while he's undeniably one of the hottest fighters around right now, Silva would probably prefer to keep the electrifying UFC 126 front kick knockout as the only memento of their rivalry. Yushin Okami remains a stalwart grappler, but his clinch-based wrestling isn't as fearsome to Silva as the power double of Sonnen or Weidman (that, and he remains very difficult to build a card around).
New talent has risen lately, between Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Costa Philippou. While Souza is a physical beast with four straight stoppages (three in the first round), he lacks the takedowns to threaten Silva with his world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Philippou, meanwhile, remains untested against serious competition and even then, he is a striker, and it's practically unfathomable that Silva could actually be stopped standing.
Other names that commonly pop up in the UFC's official rankings are consistently unmarketable, and/or own ugly losses in their recent past. Mark Munoz, Tim Boetsch, Hector Lombard and Alan Belcher all fit this bill. Each one of them is at least 18 months and a few big wins away from a title shot.
That leaves Weidman as the one true threat left for Silva in the middleweight division.
Yes, yes. This is MMA and in MMA, anything can happen. And yes, yes. He would still likely have a tough challenge on his hands if he fought Mark Munoz, or rematched either Belfort or Okami. However, given Silva's fickleness (and the UFC's willingness to bend his will), we're unlikely to see those fights come to pass (with the possible exception of the Belfort rematch).
That in mind, Weidman may be the last man standing in the way of Silva potentially retiring with the belt. In spite of the fact that Silva recently signed a 10-fight deal with the UFC, his already-advanced age (38 years old), the inefficient frequency of his fights (he has averaged two fights a year since 2008), and his strong desire for super-fights (which always seem to get brought up) all bring down the projected number of days left on Silva's reign.
Again, there are serious challenges left for Silva. As was shown with his reluctance to rematch Sonnen and the way he resisted fighting Weidman, though, “The Spider” hasn't been all that big on challenges in recent years.
Don't get me wrong, Silva has nothing to prove. The thing is, he knows it and acts like it, too.