Pretender or Contender? Sorting Out the UFC Middleweight Division

Clinton Bullock@@clintonbullockFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2014

Pretender or Contender? Sorting Out the UFC Middleweight Division

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    Anderson Silva at the UFC 162 Post-Fight Conference
    Anderson Silva at the UFC 162 Post-Fight ConferenceJayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    At UFC 162, Chris Weidman viciously knocked out the longest-reigning UFC champion of all time, Anderson Silva. In their second matchup, the Brazilian lost once more, triggering a permanent changing of the guard in the middleweight division.

    Silva will be out of action until, at least, the latter part of 2014, due to a broken leg suffered in his last bout. The injury provides a prime opportunity for other contenders to shine in a division that was previously dominated by Silva for six and a half years.

    The following gives light to the UFC’s middleweight top-10 contenders, analyzes their past performances and separates the pretenders from the actual contenders in the deeply stacked 185-pound division.

Anderson Silva

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    Anderson Silva at UFC 148
    Anderson Silva at UFC 148Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    At UFC 168, Anderson Silva attempted a kick to the leg of Weidman. The current champion checked the strike with his knee, causing Silva’s tibia to snap.

    The fight was immediately stopped and Silva was rushed to the hospital where he received surgery to repair the leg. His surgeon stated that Silva would be able to resume training in approximately nine months. After surgery, the former champion exclaimed that he’d “be back,” giving hope to many of his fans in Brazil and beyond.

    Despite his past two losses, Silva, who will turn 39 in April, is the UFC’s No. 1 contender. Realistically, the Brazilian is most likely just one win away from another title shot, and given the freakish way in which UFC 168 ended, Silva’s recapturing of the UFC title would serve as a spectacular, fairytale comeback story.

    Status: Contender

Vitor Belfort

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    Vitor Belfort at a UFC 152 Open Workout
    Vitor Belfort at a UFC 152 Open WorkoutChris Trotman/Getty Images

    Vitor Belfort is set to face the middleweight champion, Weidman, at a yet-disclosed date. Despite his loss against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 152, the Brazilian has put together a three-fight win streak, ending all of them by knockout. He is 10-2 in his last 12 fights, only coming up short in championship matchups.

    The former light heavyweight champion is heavy handed (17 knockouts) and explosive, and poses a great threat to Weidman’s title. His breadth of experience (24-10) will be on display, as he attempts to wrest away the UFC belt from the 28-year-old and undefeated middleweight champion later on this year. 

    Status: Contender

Ronaldo Souza

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    Ronaldo Souza at UFC Fight Night 28
    Ronaldo Souza at UFC Fight Night 28Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

    Ronaldo Souza is a game opponent. He is the middleweight division’s No. 3 contender and boasts a greatly respectable record of 19-3-1. Souza is a multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, and 14 of his MMA wins have come by way of submission.

    However, his knockout of highly touted Yushin Okami at UFC Fight Night 28 and current high ranking within the middleweight division cement his status as a true contender to the championship title.

    At UFC Fight Night 36, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion will face the division’s No. 7 contender in Francis Carmont. Defeating his French counterpart will allow Souza to remain atop the middleweight division and most likely grant him the opportunity to face the champion.

    Status: Contender

Lyoto Machida

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    Lyoto Machida at UFC 163
    Lyoto Machida at UFC 163Jason da Silva-USA TODAY Sports

    Lyoto Machida made his mark on the middleweight division when he headlined UFC Fight Night 30. The former light heavyweight champion made quick work of the formidable and No. 7-ranked contender, Mark Munoz, knocking him out in the first round with a devastating head kick.

    With the win, “The Dragon” swiftly moved up the middleweight divisional rankings, resting at No. 4. Machida will headline UFC Fight Night 36 and take on former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi.

    Machida will be facing an opponent with vast experience who is making his UFC middleweight debut on February 15. Should Machida defeat Mousasi, who hasn’t lost a fight since 2010, he will be one step closer to securing another world title.

    Status: Contender

Michael Bisping

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    Michael Bisping at UFC 159
    Michael Bisping at UFC 159Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Since his entrance into the UFC in 2006, Michael Bisping has consistently lingered at the top of the middleweight division. He is the UFC’s most popular English fighter, and sports a greatly respectable record of 24-5

    However, since winning The Ultimate Fighter 3 as a light heavyweight, Bisping has lost various key matchups that would have catapulted his career into the stratosphere, and perhaps even made him UFC champion.

    Michael Bisping vs. Rashad Evans: Bisping fought The Ultimate Fighter 2 heavyweight winner at UFC 78. During this time, both fighters were undefeated and vying for a championship title. Bisping lost a split decision, and Evans went on to capture the UFC light heavyweight title two fights later.

    Michael Bisping vs. Wanderlei Silva: At UFC 110, the Englishman was presented with the opportunity to defeat a legend in the mixed martial arts game when he faced Wanderlei Silva. Again, Bisping lost the bout by unanimous decision and squandered yet another opportunity to place his name among the greats of MMA.

    Michael Bisping vs. Any Title Elimination Contender: Unfortunately for Bisping, his other three losses occurred during title elimination matchups. At UFC 100, UFC on Fox 2, and UFC on FX 7, Bisping lost to former multiple-time world champion Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, and former light heavyweight UFC champion Vitor Belfort, respectively. In two of those bouts, Bisping was viciously knocked out, unofficially designating himself “gatekeeper” of the middleweight division.

    Status: Pretender

Luke Rockhold

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    Luke Rockhold at Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy
    Luke Rockhold at Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. KennedyScott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

    Luke Rockhold entered the UFC in 2013 with much fanfare. He was highly touted, boasting a 10-1 record, and was the last Strikeforce middleweight champion. However, his UFC debut resulted in disappointment when he was devastatingly knocked out by Belfort via spinning heel kick at UFC on FX 8. Unlike Bisping, however, Rockhold hasn’t established a pattern of losing to high-quality opponents.

    His next opponent will come in the form of Costa Philippou at UFC Fight Night 35. All things being equal, Rockhold will most likely venture past his middleweight counterpart on January 15 and face more difficult opponents in the Top Five of his division.

    Status: Jury Out Until January 15

Mark Munoz

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    Mark Munoz at UFC 162
    Mark Munoz at UFC 162Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Mark Munoz is the UFC’s No. 7-ranked middleweight contender. He sports a decent MMA record (13-4) and is a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestling champion. Although Munoz hasn’t garnered many losses, unfortunately, the defeats that he has suffered, like Bisping, occurred against key combatants in his career.

    At UFC 96, UFC on Versus 2, UFC on Fuel TV 4 and UFC Fight Night 30, Munoz lost to Matt Hamill, Okami, Weidman and Machida, respectively. In three of those four matchups, Munoz was knocked out, illustrating that he was severely overmatched in those bouts. Only against middle-level fighter Okami did Munoz see a decision, though he lost that match as well.

    Weidman, subsequently, went on to become the UFC middleweight champion, and in just one fight, which happened to be against Munoz, Machida became the UFC’s No. 4 middleweight contender, ranking higher than the “Filipino Wrecking Machine.”

    All of Munoz’s losses occurred against significant opponents. As such, he has established a pattern of losing when it matters the most, which leaves him at the bottom end of the UFC’s Top 10 middleweight divisional rankings.

    Status: Pretender

Francis Carmont

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    Francis Carmont at UFC on Fox 7
    Francis Carmont at UFC on Fox 7Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Francis Carmont is 22-7, undefeated in the UFC and on an 11-fight win streak. His ground game and grappling skills have garnered him 10 submission victories. Carmont’s decent record and vast experience in the Octagon have also landed him on the UFC Top 10 middleweight rankings list.

    However, despite a deep number of fights to his credit, the Frenchman hasn’t fought anyone of name value. The most significant opponent whom Carmont has faced is the middleweight division’s No. 10 ranked contender, Philippou. The France native won the latter bout by unanimous decision at UFC 165 and will face his greatest challenge in the No. 3-ranked Souza at UFC Fight Night 36.

    Due to the buzz behind Souza, if Carmont is able to produce a dominant performance on January 15, the 32-year-old could see a title shot sooner rather than later.

    Status: Jury Out Until January 15

Tim Kennedy

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    Tim Kennedy at the UFC Fight for the Troops 3 Weigh-ins
    Tim Kennedy at the UFC Fight for the Troops 3 Weigh-insJoshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    Tim Kennedy is definitely a fan favorite among many. After receiving the prestigious Bronze Star Medal for valor during his time in the military, he then parlayed his combat skills into the world of mixed martial arts. Most recently, he knocked out fellow middleweight contender Rafael Natal in front of his Army brethren at UFC: Fight for the Troops 3.

    Kennedy sports a respectable record of 17-4 and is 5-1 in his last six fights. At the same time, although he hasn’t acquired a great number of defeats, like Bisping and Munoz, his losses have come in key matchups as well.

    At Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine, Strikeforce: Houston, HDNetFIGHTS: Reckless Abandon and IFC: Warriors Challenge 15, Kennedy lost to Rockhold, Souza, Jason Miller and Scott Smith, respectively.

    In addition, Kennedy fought Rockhold and Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight belt and failed to secure a world title in both instances. Undoubtedly, the 34-year-old would have to face one or both of these two men to secure UFC gold in the future.

    Status: Pretender

Costa Philippou

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    Costa Philippou at UFC 155
    Costa Philippou at UFC 155Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Costa Philippou is a decent, mid-tier fighter who rounds out the middleweight division’s Top 10. He sports respectable hands, with half of his 12 wins coming by way of knockout.

    However, the Cyprus native has fought almost no one of great significance in his MMA career, although more than half of his fights have occurred within the UFC. Philippou’s nearly three-year tenure with the largest MMA organization in the world has more than allowed the No. 10-ranked contender to establish himself as a legitimate threat to the middleweight title. However, the latter has not been realized to date.

    At UFC Fight Night 35, Philippou will be granted the opportunity to display his skills and establish his intentions of challenging for the middleweight title when he takes on Rockhold, a former Strikeforce world champion.

    Status: Jury Out Until January 15