The Middleweight division is one of the most perplexing divisions in the UFC. The only thing that seems clear about its future is a dominant reign by current champion, Anderson Silva. Talented fighters in the division are seen as hapless losers, hardly what one would call a challenger to the dominant titleholder. Silva is considered by many to be the top striker in all of MMA, and he is a BJJ black belt on the ground as well.
Silva has already tarnished the pristine and undefeatable look that Rich Franklin had in the Middleweight division. Now, after suffering two TKO losses to Silva, Franklin can hardly be considered a contender for the belt anymore. That is, unless someone else dethrones “The Spider” Silva.
The other top contenders in the division include: Yushin Okami (beat Silva by DQ), Dan Henderson (lost title match to Silva), Nate Marquardt (lost title match to Silva), Martin Kampmann, Patrick Cote, Ricardo Almeida, Nate Quarry, Thales Leitis, Chris Leben (lost to Silva), Jason Day, Dean Lister, Jeremy Horn, Demien Maia, and the former TUF 3 Champion and recent newcomer to this weight class, Michael Bisping.
Several key matches involving some of these fighters will be held at UFC 85 on June 7th. One of these matches includes two fighters from this list of top contenders, as Nate Marquardt squares off against Thales Leitis.
Nate “The Great” is 5-1 in the UFC with his only loss coming in a title match vs Anderson Silva. His most notable win came against Dean Lister, a fighter who is 3-0 against other UFC competition. However, Nate still lacks a true stand out performance against another true top contender in the division. After coming back from his loss to Silva, he took a step in the right direction by submitting the well-known UFC grappler Jeremy Horn.
Thales Leitis could be the man to give Nate his first big win. Thales is on a three-fight win streak in the UFC since losing his debut by decision to Martin Kampmann. He has finished the last two fights by submission.
Since both fighters have made their names on the ground, the direction this match takes should be very intriguing. Nate is considered to be the more well-rounded fighter, and it’s likely Thales will look to push this fight to the ground before Nate will. It is a toss-up fight. Whoever prevails, the winner of this match will likely face the same opponent in the next fight.
Another fight on the UFC 85 Bedlam list is a preliminary bout between Martin Kampmann and Jorge Rivera.
Kampmann is listed as 12-1 overall by the UFC, with his only counted loss being by TKO due to cuts against veteran fighter, Andrei Semenov. However, you will find Kampmann listed as 15-2 by other sources, with the other loss coming in the first fight of his career back in early 2002. The former Dutch Thai Boxing Champion is known for his striking and knockout power by most, but has won 7 of his bouts by submission (out of 15). He is 3-0 in the UFC with 1stround submission victories over Crafton Wallace and Drew McFedries. He displayed a great chin and recovery ability in the McFedries fight as well, on a side note.
About this time last year, Kampmann was scheduled to face Rich Franklin in a showcase bout on the UFC 72 card, but had to withdraw due to a knee injury. He has not fought since his impressive arm triangle of McFedries last March as a result. The UFC is setting him up for a tune-up win with this fight. If he ends it impressively, he should face other top-notch middleweight contenders in the fight to be the number one contender.
The man looking to play spoiler is the very experienced Rivera. He is 4-4 in the UFC and won his last fight by TKO over Kendall Grove. The chances of this fight reaching a decision are slim to none. I look for Kampmann to win here by submission or TKO in the first two rounds.
Finally, we get to the most anticipated fight at UFC 85: Michael Bisping vs Jason Day. Bisping, hailing from Liverpool, England, is the hometown favorite. He was originally scheduled to duel with Chris Leben, but due to legal issues for Leben, Day has stepped into the spotlight.
Day won his first UFC fight by an impressive first round TKO against UFC veteran Alan Belcher. However, he faces a different caliber of opponent in Bisping. Bisping has fought at 205 pounds for years, but recently moved down to 185 in March of this year. Bisping also won his first UFC fight at 185 by TKO over the now retired Charles McCarthy.
Bisping is a dedicated fighter who trains with a great camp that includes Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Cheick Kongo. Day has not yet made the transition to full time fighter and I think that will hamper his progress for now. Bisping should finish this fight in the first two rounds, likely by TKO.
At UFC 86, Patrick Cote faces Ricardo Almeida.
Patrick Cote lost his first four fights in the UFC. He lost to Tito Ortiz at 205 after taking the fight on short notice in his debut at UFC 50, The War of ’04. He was mostly dominated by Ortiz’s wrestling and ground-and-pound, but showed promise in defeat. He scored a knockdown on Ortiz but was not able to finish it. He lost his next two fights in the UFC as well, and required his career to be resurrected by TUF 4: The Comeback.
He reached the finals of the tournament before being submitted in the first round by Travis Lutter. Despite losing, it opened the door for Cote’s return to the UFC. Thus far, he has answered the opportunity with authority. He has won all three of his last UFC fights, and won his last two fights by TKO over Kendall Grove and Drew McFedries. Now, he will face another middleweight contender with an interesting story behind him.
Ricardo Almeida is a renowned submission fighter. He fought three times in the octagon at UFC’s 31-35 in 2001 and 2002. After a record of 1-2, he took his fighting journey to Japan. He went on a 6-fight win streak in Pancrase and Pride competition, including a win over Nate Marquardt by Guillotine Choke, but the streak was halted in May 2004; Almeida gave up the sport of MMA as his job.
Since then, the world of MMA has exploded, and “Big Dog” Almeida took note. He made his long awaited return to the octagon at UFC 81 in February this year, and won by Guillotine Choke over Rob Yundt in the first round.
This fight sets up to be as pure a Striker (Cote) vs Grappler (Almeida) fight. This means it should be a test of wrestling to see who can impose their will. It is a hard fight to call, but the winner should face the winner between Dean Lister vs Jeremy Horn.
Yet, more depth is still left to be discussed in the middleweight division. Rousimar Palhares started his UFC career at UFC 84 with a dominant win over Ivan Salaverry.
He took the fight to the ground with a powerful takedown, falling immediately into side control. From there he made a quick transition to mount, and this lead to taking Salaverry’s back. And finally, he transitioned from Salaverry’s back to an arm bar in a display of brilliant BJJ to end the fight.
He looks to have great physical strength packed into his 5'8" frame that could pose problems for many fighters in the division, and he could be posed for a trip to the top of the division with his skill set, one that would seem to be appropriate for defeating the champion Anderson Silva (take down and submit). Just seeing Palhares is a sight, as his thickness and width is comic-book-like.
He’ll have several more fights to go before achieving top status. In his next bout, I look for him to fight Damien Maia. In a division chock-full of amazing ground wizards, Maia could be the best. This would be a test for both fighters and one would emerge as a man posed to receive great fights in the future as the UFC attempts to raise them to no. 1 contender status.
There will certainly be a great deal of fighters getting knocked off in the matches aforementioned that would serve as gatekeepers to fighters like Palhares and Maia in their ascent.
Now, stage is set in the division, and I will move on to the title situation.
The next title challenger for Anderson Silva seems pretty clear: Yushin Okami. Yushin is known for his great size and strength as a middleweight fighter. Yet, Rich Franklin is known for similar attributes as well, and Franklin was brutalized in each of his fights vs Silva. Okami lost his match to Franklin back at UFC 72 when he took the place of Kampmann. Anderson Silva should finish this match by submission or TKO as he has the rest of his UFC opponents.
Now, there is only one other fight that truly needs to happen in the near future of this division, and it should take priority over any other non-title match ups: Rich Franklin vs Dan Henderson. Each fighter has fallen from grace recently, but are still the men undoubtedly considered to be the #2 and #3 middleweights in the world, in varying order. Henderson was the 185 and 205 pound champion of Pride simultaneously before coming to the UFC. He has now lost championship bouts against Rampage Jackson at 205 in a five-round war by unanimous decision, and against Anderson Silva by rear-naked in the 2nd round since his return to the octagon.
Henderson has knockout power in both hands, amazing strength, and an Olympic caliber wrestling game, but has yet to truly showcase his talent in the octagon. A fight against the amazingly popular and talented Rich Franklin would be the perfect opportunity to do it.
Franklin has great stand up, great submission defense on the ground, raw strength and size, and is known for his amazing cardio. Suffice to say there’s a reason he was once a dominant champion in the middleweight division.
If Henderson wins this match, he should get a rematch with Anderson Silva just as Franklin formerly received a rematch for the title. Henderson showed that he can take Silva down with his wrestling advantage and that’s how he should look to dictate that fight if it happens.
In their first match, Henderson took Silva down early and laid on top of him for the rest of the round, while his ground and pound was limited. In the second round he was rocked, knocked down, and Anderson proceeded to work on him from the top and the back before finally securing a rear-naked choke. Henderson needs to stay more aggressive in the event of a rematch, and let his ultimate goal be to setting up, then completing take downs, and finally enforcing ground and pound.
If Franklin wins, he’ll have more competition to defeat before getting a third shot at Silva. He has a while to go if Silva is still the champ.
The next fight I’m looking for should be an exciting stand up war between Chris Leben and Nate Quarry.
Quarry is 5-1 in the UFC with his only loss coming in a title bout against Rich Franklin. In the fight he was knocked out and sustained an injury on his fall to the canvas. After nearly two years away from the octagon, he returned on September 19th 2007 and knocked out Pete Sell. On April 19that UFC 83 he fought again and won by 3-round boring decision over Kalib Starnes. But the bore was not his fault, it was the retreating Kalib Starnes. Quarry demonstrated amazing stand up, while Kalib offered no reply but running away for the majority of the fight.
Chris Leben is also on a two fight win streak himself, defeating Terry Martin by KO and Alessio Sakura by TKO, and there is no chance he will back down to Quarry’s stand up as Starnes did.
This fight should happen as soon as possible, and I can only hope it’s at UFC 87 Seek and Destroy. Although the times between fights wouldn’t match up particularly well, I would love to see the winner of this fight face the winner of Thales Leitis vs Nate Marquardt. If not, perhaps an even better fight for the winner here would be a match with Rich Franklin, whether Franklin is coming off a win or loss vs Dan Henderson.
Now, if none of these fighters are ready to face Silva again other than perhaps Henderson, then who else could be a potential title contender for Silva? My answer is the winner of a fight between Martin Kampmann and Michael Bisping. Ideally these two will both win their fights at UFC 85 Bedlam and set up a highly anticipated match.
Although Bisping’s biggest win in his UFC career was in a split decision win over Matt Hamill, where the judging was horrendous, Bisping has the name power and record to promote a title match between himself and Silva. At 185 Bisping is seen as a much more dangerous fighter and rightfully so. His two worst performances at 205 came against big guys and dominant wrestlers, the previously mentioned Hamill, and his only loss in or out of the octagon that came against Rashad Evans (via split decision).
Meanwhile, the UFC has already shown their confidence in Kampmann’s abilities when scheduling him to fight Franklin in the past, and wins over Rivera and Bisping would only solidify that recognition. A 5-0 record in the UFC is a perfect pitch to the fans to say Kampmann is a worthy opponent. Just as in the welterweight division, Jon Fitch’s 8-0 record in the UFC forces attention to be paid to his match at UFC 87 vs the seemingly unbeatable champion Georges St. Pierre.
Now, who would win a match between Bisping and Kampmann? It is very hard to say. Both fighters are very well rounded and the fight could end up a stand-up war or a scrambling submission battle if one of them is getting the worst of it on the feet and manages a take down. I'd have to favor Bisping.
Regardless, both fighters would be expected to lose in their title opportunity, be it against Anderson Silva, or perhaps the only man seen by most fans and experts with a chance to beat Silva at 185, Dan Henderson. But, maybe after seeing either of those two win two more times, our opinions of Bisping or Kampmann may have changed...
Now, there are two other fighters seen with potential to duel Anderson Silva for the middleweight title, and neither of them is currently in the division.
One, is Wanderlei Silva, former Pride light heavyweight Champion. He could make the drop down in weight classes in the near future. While his domination (KO in 36 seconds) of Keith Jardine at UFC 84 should postpone the transition, it is still an interesting prospect. Wanderlei is considered a small Light Heavyweight, and his potential in the Middleweight division is exciting to consider.
A fight between Wanderlei and Anderson, Silva vs Silva, would be the most anticipated stand up battle since Wanderlei fought Liddell at 205. Both fighters excel in the clinch and have knocked out top competitors with their knees.
Wanderlei defeated current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson twice with knees, and Anderson utilized knees to help destroy Rich Franklin twice himself. Wanderlei is a BJJ black belt as well as Anderson, and the chances either would feel it necessary to take it to the ground for an advantage is minute. It could be one of the most exciting fights in UFC History and would very likely end in TKO or KO.
However, the possibility of this fight does not exist until Wanderlei loses again at 205.
The other is Georges St. Pierre, current UFC welterweight champion. Georges is a huge welterweight who is known for walking around at around 200 pounds before cutting on a regimented program to make weight. He could certainly fight up at 185 to face Anderson Silva.
His wrestling game has come to be widely considered to be at least one of the top five pound for pound in the UFC, despite lacking the pedigree in his background. If he fought Anderson Silva, this would have to be where he tries to exploit “The Spider”, with take downs, ground and pound, and avoidance of Silva’s submissions from his back. And while Georges has very good standup, it is simply not in the league of Silva’s..
My only question about this fight relates back to the Dan Henderson vs Anderson Silva fight(s) that may have taken place by this time. If a wrestler of equal or greater reputation in Henderson cannot defeat Silva, then why would Georges St. Pierre stand a chance to do any better?
If this fight were to ever take place, I would hope each one notches at least three more title defenses in their respective divisions first. There are still worthy fighters in each one’s divisions yet to receive a chance, and I don’t want to assume the two are unbeatable; I want to see them prove it. They need to do more to make this a true “super fight” in my eyes.