Contender or Pretender for the UFC's Top 10 Middleweights

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2013

Contender or Pretender for the UFC's Top 10 Middleweights

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    Chris Weidman shook up the UFC's middleweight division when he shocked the world with a knockout win over Anderson Silva.

    Prior to that KO, the entire division looked like pretenders to Silva's crown. Now, Weidman has a host of challengers chomping at the bit. First things first, he must defend his UFC Middleweight Championship against Silva on December 28.

    How do we determine who is a contender and who is a pretender? By two factors.

    The first is if the fighter can make a run to earn a title shot. If they can not run the gauntlet of a growing division they are most certainly a pretender. The second factor is having a realistic chance, better than 30 percent, at upending the current UFC champion, Chris Weidman.

    Those are the two factors being taken in to consideration for this list. With that, these are the contenders and pretenders of the middleweight division.

Pretender: Tim Boetsch

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    Tim Boetsch is a viable middleweight. He has looked good since dropping to 185 pounds, but he is not a contender in the division.

    What is Boetsch? A gatekeeper.

    If you can defeat Boetsch, you are a top-tier middleweight. Boetsch is the roadblock to the top 10.

    Boetsch has lost two middleweight fights, and those are his two most recent bouts. He lost to Costa Philippou and Mark Munoz by decision. The No. 7 and No. 6 middleweights respectively. That gives you an indication at how qualified Boetsch is.

    He is a gatekeeper, not a contender.

Contender: Chael Sonnen

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    Chael Sonnen seems content competing in the light heavyweight division, but the Oregon native is still ranked in the official UFC middleweight rankings. Thus, here he is.

    Sonnen has lost a bit of luster in the past year, but that is a bit unfair to the former title challenger. He is 5-3 in his past eight bouts, and those three losses are to two of the greatest fighters in MMA history. Twice to Anderson Silva, the greatest of all time, and Jon Jones.

    There is no question he is an elite middleweight who can make another run should he drop down. If he does, he's an immediate frontrunner for a title shot due to his marketability.

    How does he do against Weidman? It's an interesting matchup due to Weidman's wrestling and ground game, but Sonnen poses interesting problems for him. Sonnen would have an excellent chance to claim the UFC title that he covets so much. He is a prime contender at 185 pounds.

Contender: Luke Rockhold

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    The former Strikeforce middleweight champion is a contender in the UFC's division.

    He was on the precipice of a title shot when he made his UFC debut, but a Vitor Belfort spinning heel kick changed that. However, before the kick landed, he was doing well against the former light heavyweight title holder.

    Rockhold is continually improving, and has an all-around game that can match up against anyone. The No. 8 rankings may be a bit low.

    The loss to Belfort will only allow us to see a better Rockhold in his next outing. He is the type of competitor who will work even harder to erase the memory of that knockout. Rockhold has everything it takes to challenge and win the UFC gold.

Pretender: Costa Philippou

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    First, Costa Philippou may never challenge for the title because Weidman is his teammate. However, that is not why he is a pretender.

    Philippou has excellent boxing and is developing a strong overall game. But he is not up to the talent level of the elite.

    Philippou is a top-10 fighter that will probably always been at the back end of that ranking. Much like Boetsch, he is a gatekeeper in the division.

    Even if he would have made it to a title shot, Weidman is an atrocious matchup for him. Weidman's striking is developing at a much greater rate than Philippou's grappling. Weidman would be a big favorite for this fight, and rightfully so. It's just not a good matchup for Philippou.

Pretender: Mark Munoz

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    Mark Munoz was on the brink of a title shot once before, and then he met Chris Weidman.

    Prior to the Weidman fight, Munoz was on a four-fight winning streak. There is no question Munoz possesses the tools to become a challenger for the gold. He's already proved that.

    Where his pretender status comes is in the matchup against Weidman.

    The question heading in to their first bout was how Weidman would deal with Munoz's superior wrestling. Weidman answered those questions by dominating Munoz in that category. The surprising result put Munoz's title chances into perspective.

    There is nothing to suggest the same wouldn't happen in a rematch. Munoz is aging, Weidman is improving, and the champion is in his prime. All bad signs for Munoz.

Contender: Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza

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    Jacare Souza may be the most interesting contender on the list.

    Jacare has only lost once since 2009, a unanimous decision to Luke Rockhold. He has rebounded with four straight wins. All have been finishes.

    His submission skills are second to none in the division, and over the past two years he has shown remarkable improvement in his striking. If that continues to develop he will be one of the most difficult outs in the division.

    Jacare could be a legitimate title contender with one more win, and against Weidman he poses an interesting threat.

    Weidman may decide to take him down, but would he want to play with Jacare's jiu-jitsu? There is no doubt Weidman has the confidence to hold his own. Also, Jacare is the quicker of the two. If his stand-up continues to improve that may be a deciding factor.

    Keep an eye on Jacare. A scary contender in the division.

Contender: Michael Bisping

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    Where Jacare was the most interesting contender, Michael Bisping may be the most difficult to assign.

    We are in the area of the rankings where everyone can get a title shot. They meet the first criteria, and it comes down to how they match up against Weidman.

    Weidman is a tough matchup for Bisping, but the reason Bisping is still a contender is how he has performed in the past.

    Bisping has been in the cage against top-flight wrestlers such as Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen. He has been taken down, but he is extremely difficult to keep there. And that is not to forget his improved offensive wrestling.

    On the feet, Bisping's pace and volume punching can create problems for Weidman. If he can touch up the champion the judges could award him a decision. It is a tough fight for Bisping, but he has a legitimate shot at winning gold if he gets that bout.

Pretender: Yushin Okami

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    This may shock some of you, but Yushin Okami is a pretender.

    Okami has won three straight after losing to Anderson Silva, and he has all the tools to add a couple more to that before getting a shot at the champion.

    Against Weidman, he's a pretender.

    Okami's strength and control are excellent. He uses that to wilt many of his opponents, and he has a good left hand to boot. Unfortunately for Okami, he's too slow to win against Weidman.

    Weidman's wrestling will negate Okami's takedown attempts and clinch game. In fact, it is more likely that Weidman takes him down. And Okami does not win against Weidman from the bottom. On the feet, the speed advantage is even more of an uphill climb for Okami. Too many things fall into Weidman's lap in this fight.

    Okami can get a title shot, but he can't beat the champion.

Contender: Vitor Belfort

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    Maybe I would have called Vitor Belfort a pretender prior to rejoining the UFC in 2009 due to his wrestling defense. If you ask me who I predict to win between Vitor Belfort and Weidman, I'll take Weidman because of his wrestling.

    But I can not discount Belfort's chances. His wrestling has improved quite a bit both offensively and defensively, but we'd be kidding ourselves if he based his contendership status on that alone.

    His speed, especially in his hands, is still amazing at 36 years old.

    Belfort has only lost to the cream of the crop. These are the names lucky enough to hold a win over Belfort: Randy Couture, Sakuraba, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson, Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. That is a who's who list in MMA history.

    All it takes is one shot from Belfort to end the fight. Weidman isn't the fastest in the division, and his striking is still improving. Belfort could easily blitz him. And he continues to add techniques to his attack.

    Belfort vs. Weidman would be interesting, dangerous and fun.

    If you ask me who I predict to win between Vitor Belfort and Weidman, and I'll take Weidman.

Contender: Anderson Silva

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    This should really go without saying—Anderson Silva is a contender to the UFC Middleweight Championship.

    Weidman did knock him out. That cannot be disputed. However, it is important to look at how he knocked out the champion.

    He didn't storm him. He didn't slip in a punch through stiff defense. He caught the champion showboating and making a rudimentary mistake. Is Silva going to give him that clean of an opportunity in the rematch? Not likely.

    Up until that point, Weidman didn't look like he had anything for Silva on the feet. The former champion was doing what he always did against inferior strikers. This time, his flamboyant taunting cost him. Weidman landed flush on the button.

    That is not to discredit what he did, or to say he doesn't have a chance to beat him again. Weidman has a very good possibility of retaining the title. His takedown and top control is excellent. Silva would be in trouble if Weidman made that his primary gameplan. And Silva has to be weary of his power in the second fight.

    December cannot get here fast enough. The rematch will answer all of our questions about the 38-year-old contender.