As we found out all over again early this week, things in MMA often turn on a dime. Around here, favor can be fickle, and at times it seems nothing is quite as fleeting as the promise of what’s next.
Just ask Josh Thomson, who on Monday saw his opportunity at the UFC lightweight title evaporate due to a knee injury suffered by champion Anthony Pettis.
Or ask T.J. Grant, who, after six months of waiting for the stars to align in the form of his own chance at the 155-pound strap, might suddenly be back in the driver’s seat because of that same injury.
For that matter, ask Dan Henderson, whose 77-second destruction at the hands of Vitor Belfort on Saturday has him staring up from the pit of three straight losses. Just a couple years back, Hendo was being bandied about as a top pound-for-pound fighter and as recently as 2012 saw his own promised shot at the UFC title scuttled by injury.
The big lesson here? Nothing in this sport is certain, and that’s why we still can’t consider Vitor Belfort’s apparent status as No. 1 middleweight contender a done deal quite yet.
UFC President Dana White said over the weekend that it would take “something crazy” to keep Belfort away from his second crack at the 185-pound title, but if we know anything for sure about this industry, it’s that crazy can and often does happen.
Entire worlds could collapse and dreams disintegrate between now and Dec. 28, when Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman rematch for the middleweight championship. Until they do, it’s impossible to even begin to chart a course for the future of this division.
For now, Belfort appears the odds-on favorite to meet the winner, but in the event that injury or unforeseen calamity (or maybe just cooler heads) prevent “The Phenom” from cashing in his ticket, UFC matchmakers will have other options in a weight class that is suddenly as interesting and talent-rich as ever.
And while we’re on the topic, let’s just get it out in the open: No matter what happens, the company might be better off opting to go with a contender with a little less baggage than Belfort.
Indeed, if he’s truly the division’s top challenger, he’s also its most flawed. The slow burn of his 16-year career suddenly escalated into a wildfire during 2013, powered by a trio of consecutive head-kick knockouts. His ascendence simultaneously divided the MMA community, with one camp of observers taking issue with his controversial use of testosterone therapy while another falls all over itself trying to explain it away.
Just like baseball a decade ago, one half of this industry wants to put asterisks by Belfort’s most recent wins and the other half just wants to yell, “Steroids don’t help you hit home runs!”
Boosting the 36-year-old Brazilian into another title shot—or, knock on wood, having him as champion—could amount to a huge public relations nightmare for the UFC. Why take the risk, when there is no shortage of other middleweights who appear on the verge of title contention?
For starters, there is newly minted 185-pounder Lyoto Machida, who shares many of Belfort’s positive attributes and (so far) none of his negatives. Like Belfort, he is a former light heavyweight champion who can fight in multiple divisions. As recent opponent Mark Munoz can attest, Machida can also knock people out at middleweight.
In addition, we currently have no reason to believe “The Dragon” is doing anything to augment the amount of naturally occurring testosterone in his body. When you get paid to punch people in the face, that’s always a plus. If his upcoming bout against Gegard Mousasi ends positively for him, it would be pretty easy to justify Machida as No. 1 contender.
There is also Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, who has been one of the middleweight division’s most exciting new additions since coming over from the wreckage of Strikeforce earlier this year. His first two UFC fights both ended in first-round stoppages (one submission, one TKO) and he’s 9-1 in his last 10 appearances in the cage.
The one potential drawback to having either Souza or Machida as top contenders could be their mutual friendship with Silva and the fact they’re all already on record saying they won’t fight each other. On the other hand, as we speak, Silva isn't the champion, and if “The Spider” defeats Weidman at UFC 168, the best course of action will likely be to complete a trilogy between the two men.
If Silva emerges from that as champion? Well, he can't very well swear off fighting nearly half of the middleweight Top 5 forever, now can he?
Even in the "crazy" event that the company is forced to venture outside the A-list to find title contenders, it’s not as though the middleweight division would be devoid of viable options. None would be exactly perfect, but they also wouldn’t be completely nonsensical.
Francis Carmont has an 11-fight win streak, after all, with the last six coming in the UFC. His ground-based style hasn’t electrified the MMA world, but it’s hard to deny its effectiveness.
Michael Bisping will also soon be returning, and Tim Kennedy has recently vaulted himself into the top-tier. In addition to that, there is a healthy crop of B-level fighters like Alan Belcher, Costa Philippou, Tim Boetsch, Luke Rockhold, Lorenz Larkin, Munoz and Mousasi; any one of whom could be rehabilitated into a contender with another win or two (or three).
Granted, the 185-pound division still lags behind consistently stacked weight classes like lightweight and welterweight, but right now, it at least looks more intriguing than a few years ago—when it seemed like Silva had defeated everyone besides the 185-pound janitors at Zuffa, LLC headquarters.
If the UFC wants to roll the dice to offer a fighter as widely criticized as Belfort a title shot, then that quite literally is its business. But in the event “something crazy” like injury or—perhaps most defensible of all—good sense prevails, the middleweight division will survive.
And arguably emerge better off.