We've taken a look at the state of the UFC's heavyweight, light heavyweight, welterweight and lightweight divisions. Today, there is no better time than to move one step down from 205 pounds to the middleweight land of reigning king Chris Weidman and those who seek to usurp the throne.
Middleweight is perhaps the UFC's most interesting division in 2014. It has a new-ish champion atop the division who just proved that his two wins over the greatest fighter of all time may have not been a fluke after all. We also have a bevy of challengers making their way to the top of the division, and most of them bring fresh and interesting stylistic matchups.
Without any further fuss, let's take a look at the UFC middleweight landscape.
The Title Picture
Chris Weidman: I'm big enough to admit something: I didn't believe Weidman's two victories over Anderson Silva were valid enough for me to accept him as the true king of the middleweights. Silva got caught in the first fight as a result of his own ego, and the second fight had the horrible leg break.
But watching those two fights back today, I can see Weidman was on his way to either beating Silva or, at the very least, pushing him to the limit. And now, after Weidman's UFC 175 win over Lyoto Machida, I'm comfortable with putting him on the middleweight throne. He's the champ, and he cemented that fact with his performance against Machida.
Yes, there were moments when it felt Weidman was hanging on for dear life, but that's what champions do: they persevere under pressure. Weidman battled through tough moments against a surging Machida, and he came out the other side.
Weidman can't rest on his laurels, though, as he has a host of challengers waiting to test him the same way Machida did.
Vitor Belfort: At some point, Belfort is going to get his title shot. First, he has to clear up his issues with the Nevada Athletic Commission, and we don't know how long that's going to take. Belfort has to apply for a license in the state; what happens if he's turned down due to the failed random drug test from February? He'll have to sit on the sidelines, likely until next February, before he can apply again, and that means his title fight goes out the window.
Belfort should be Weidman's next challenger. We just don't know when it's going to happen.
On the Verge
Lyoto Machida: As I wrote over the weekend, Machida's performance against Weidman—even in a losing battle—likely did more to bolster his reputation with fans than all of the wins that came before it. Knowing he was down on the cards, Machida threw caution to the wind in the third and fourth rounds. He staggered Weidman and nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages.
It wasn't just the fans Machida endeared himself to with his gritty effort. UFC head honchos Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta love when their fighters swing for the fences, and they tend to reward the folks who do more with their opportunities than those who play it safe. Machida lost the fight, sure, but he's still in the title picture.
Ronaldo Souza: Jacare is riding a six-fight winning streak and has won all three of his UFC bouts. He was scheduled to face Gegard Mousasi at UFC 176, but that event no longer exists. The bout has been moved back a month, and the two will tangle at UFC Fight Night 50 in Connecticut.
A win over Mousasi will mean a lot for Souza. It will likely earn him a chance to either face the winner of Weidman vs. Belfort or allow him to face Weidman directly if Belfort's commission issues prevent him from fighting. It will also give him some measure of revenge for the loss he suffered to Mousasi at DREAM 6 back in 2008.
Anderson Silva: First, Silva must return to the Octagon from the horrific broken leg he suffered in December. That's easier said than done; it will take a lot of mental strength for Silva to go in the Octagon and not worry about his leg holding up. Memory is a powerful thing.
Who will be UFC middleweight champ at the end of 2015?
But if he's able to return—and all indications are that he will—it won't take much for Silva to earn another title shot. The nature of his two losses to Weidman left a lot of doubt for the fans, and a third fight between the two is an easy sell for the UFC. If Silva returns and beats Nick Diaz (or anyone else), don't be surprised to see "The Spider" back in the cage, challenging for the title in 2015.
Gegard Mousasi: If Mousasi beats Jacare Souza a second time, it will go a long way toward vaulting him up the rankings. Despite a February loss to Machida, Mousasi has looked good since making the jump from Strikeforce to the UFC, but he'll need a signature win over a top contender before he's seriously considered as a title challenger.
Luke Rockhold: The former Strikeforce middleweight champion has rebounded from his violent May 2013 loss to Belfort by rattling off wins over Costas Philippou and Tim Boetsch. His skill level and good looks give him the potential to be a big star for the UFC, but he'll need a win over a top contender before he gets a shot at the UFC belt. Rockhold wants Belfort or Michael Bisping; I'd rather see him face the winner of Souza vs. Mousasi.
A Long Way to Go
Tim Kennedy: Kennedy is in the news this week because of his demand for random drug testing for his bout against Yoel Romero, which takes place at UFC 178. He's even willing to pick up the costs for his half of the testing. Kudos to him for being willing to put his wallet where his mouth is. He's still a few fights away from a title shot, but making personal efforts to clean up the sport must count for something.
Michael Bisping: It's stunning that a fighter of Bisping's popularity and renown has yet to receive a title shot despite fighting in the UFC since 2006. But I suppose that's what happens when you haven't shown an ability to win the big one. Every time Bisping faces an opponent that can vault him close to the title picture, he loses. He's lost three of his last five bouts. At this point, Bisping may go down as the most well-known fighter to never receive a chance at UFC gold.
Uriah Hall: He went from can't-miss prospect and future title holder on The Ultimate Fighter to TUF loser and someone Dana White said wasn't a fighter. Hall stumbled out of the gate, but he has rebounded with wins over Chris Leben and Thiago Santos. At UFC 175, we saw the version of Hall we expected to see coming out of the TUF house: a devastating and arrogant striker with the skills to make inferior fighters pay. And he did it with a horribly broken toe.
It's hard to say what the future holds for Hall because we don't know which version is going to show up on any given night. But we do know this: If the Hall that put on a show at UFC 175 continues showing up on a regular basis, the rest of the middleweight division could be in a lot of trouble.
Yoel Romero: The Cuban Olympian is 37 years old, which means he's going to need to work quickly if he wants to shed the prospect label and contend for the title before he gets too old to compete. He'll have the chance to do just that when he takes on Tim Kennedy at UFC 178, and you can't count Romero out, even in a fight against a tough opponent. His freakish build, athleticism and wrestling can keep him in the midst of any fight, which means he's a danger to everyone in the division.