The State of the UFC Middleweight Division

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2016

Luke Rockhold rests between rounds as he fights Chris Weidman in a middleweight  championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

December was an action-packed month for the 185-pound division. Within those 31 days, a new champion was crowned and a new contender emerged.

As the calendar changed to 2016, the middleweight division immediately hit the headlines with Yoel Romero’s potential USADA violation. This forced the UFC to book the immediate rematch between new champion Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman for UFC 199.

Behind them are quite a few recognizable names on the precipice of contention, but to say that this is a division filled with youth would be a bold-faced lie. It has to be a concerning point moving forward, but for the time being, there is enough intrigue and talent to carry this division forward.

Who are the contenders? Are there any credible prospects on the horizon? That is what we are here to examine in this state of the top-heavy middleweight division.

The Champion

Luke Rockhold (15-2)

One of the most handsome fighters in the entire sport is also not too shabby at his craft.

Rockhold is the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, and he entered the UFC with the tag of being an immediate contender. A spinning heel kick from Vitor Belfort quickly put him at the back of the breadline, though.

But ever since then, Rockhold has been downright scary inside the cage. He is 5-0 with five finishes, including stopping Weidman at UFC 194 to capture UFC middleweight gold. He has shown off fight-ending body kicks, wicked submissions and scary ground-and-pound.

Rockhold is a big middleweight with all the tools to be the division’s reigning king for the foreseeable future. That is not to say there aren’t threats looming just below the surface, but Rockhold will be a betting favorite over each and every one of them.

With his impeccable skills and stunning good looks, the UFC has a marketable, talented and interesting champion to be one of the faces of the brand in 2016.

The Contenders

Chris Weidman (13-1)

Weidman did something perhaps on the level of Brock Lesnar in 2013. He conquered an unimaginable streak—the streak put together by Anderson Silva.

John Locher/Associated Press

The All-American followed that up with a Fight of the Year candidate in 2014 versus Lyoto Machida and a first-round beatdown of Vitor Belfort. Then, he met Rockhold. He will get his chance at retribution this summer.

Weidman only got outclassed when he grew tired, but before that it was a competitive fight. Win or lose, given what we have seen from Weidman, do not expect this to be the final time we see Rockhold and him compete for the UFC’s ultimate prize at 185 pounds.

Yoel Romero (11-1)

One may notice that Romero does not have a number by his name. That is because the UFC removed him from the rankings following his possible drug test failure, and Bleacher Report followed suit. However, no punishment has been handed down yet, and the B-sample has yet to come in.

Should Romero be suspended, then he will likely never be a contender again. He is already 38 years old, and a suspension would take him completely out of the equation. He would have to be recategorized in the “A Long Way to Go” section. But not yet. As of today, he’s still a contender.

Romero’s fights are almost all embroiled in controversy at this point, but that’s not a bad thing from a marketing perspective. It makes him interesting. Add that with his unquestioned athleticism and he makes for a great contender.

If Romero is cleared and comes back, expect him to be right back in the title talk.

Jacare Souza (22-4, 1 NC)

Jacare creeps up to No. 2 in the official UFC rankings following Romero’s removal. Perhaps it’s the slot he should have occupied all along. The majority of fans and media scored his UFC 194 loss to Romero in his favor, but alas it is only the judges who matter.

The 36-year-old’s window is closing, but his world-class ground skills solidify him as one of the most dangerous in the division in the short term.

The Brazilian submission specialist is likely just one fight away from getting a title shot. A loss would be crippling to his future title hopes. Regardless, he is one of the most fun individuals to watch perform inside the Octagon.

Vitor Belfort (25-11)

After a damning loss to Weidman, Belfort’s days as a contender looked to be through. They really did. The UFC put him against fellow old-timer Dan Henderson, a fight that Belfort finished promptly in the first, but it wasn't expected that he would be right back in the thick of things this quickly.

Rockhold wants to avenge his loss to Belfort, and that alone makes him an enticing option. Hence, The Phenom has a de facto title eliminator scheduled against Jacare for May. Belfort will be 39 when he steps into the cage for that bout.

He still has the same flaws he has always had, but he also still has all the tools that make him formidable: lightning-quick hands and KO power. Belfort has to be rooting for Rockhold to retain. The American clamors for that rematch, and should they both be victorious, that will be on deck later in 2016.

Michael Bisping (27-7)

Let’s throw Bisping into the same category as Belfort. He looked done when he lost to Rockhold. Now, here he sits with back-to-back wins and a fight against the returning Anderson Silva.

If Bisping topples the former king, there will be no denying his spot as a contender, and he will also cement his legacy in this sport.

Remember when I said the middleweight division was old and how everyone not named Rockhold or Weidman is over 35? Bisping continues that trend. He will celebrate his 37th birthday in a couple of weeks. The fact this is an aging division actually helps keep Bisping within striking distance. No young guns are forcing out the old guard.

Anderson Silva (33-6, 1 NC)

I’m not sure I would call it surprising, but it was depressing. The “it” in this case was Silva’s UFC 183 post-fight drug test coming back positive. It threw a little mud on his career and put him on the shelf for a year.

Now, he is set to return.

It would have been easy to keep him out of the contender’s section, but truthfully he is still a viable candidate, especially if he defeats Bisping later this month. He has said he wants to get the title back, and Rockhold also welcomes the challenge.

He is currently ranked No. 7 in the official UFC rankings. With a win over Bisping, the proper timing and a little luck, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see his name on the marquee opposite Rockhold in 2016.

The Prospects

Robert Whittaker (15-4)

Whittaker made a name for himself by defeating Uriah Hall as a short-notice replacement. Before that, he didn’t get much recognition. He is 3-0 since moving up to middleweight and has shown a lot of progression since his days on The Ultimate Fighter: Smashes. He is not too far out from serious contention, and at 25 years old, he is one of the youngest up-and-comers in the division.

Tamdan McCrory (14-3)

It seems a little odd to call the longtime veteran a prospect, but he walked away from the sport for five years and returned at a new weight class. That pushes him back down to the level of prospect, since he is still just 29.

McCrory won’t wow anyone with his athleticism, but his ground skills are superb. Plus, his striking is improving. McCrory will be fun to watch now that he is a mature fighter.

Elias Theodorou (11-1)

The 27-year-old just lost his first professional fight in December to Thiago Santos, but that could be a blessing in disguise.

The good-looking Canadian is a must-follow on social media, but he has to hone his raw abilities. Just because he lost doesn’t mean Theodorou doesn’t have a high ceiling. The UFC should foster his development with quality matchmaking as he improves.

A Long Way to Go

Lyoto Machida (22-7)

By just looking at the rankings, one would assume Machida is a contender, but he has lost three of his last four. The two most recent losses were violent as well. There is no immediate call to see Machida back in the cage against elite foes.

Speaking to that end, he is booked against Henderson in April.

Gegard Mousasi (37-6-2)

Mousasi always seems to near contention and then stumbles down the rankings. That is exactly what happened last September when Uriah Hall put him on his highlight reel.

Mousasi has a meeting with Thales Leites later this month, but even with a win he is still a long way out from contention. He will have to put together a string of impressive performances to reach that goal, but on the plus side, he is only 30. That is often overlooked, given how long he has been in this sport.

Dan Henderson (31-14)

He’s 45 and 2-6 in his last eight fights. Why is he even listed here? Name value and the prospect that he could pick up a key win in just a couple of months.

Henderson battles Machida once again in April, and if he wins, it will be a quality victory over a ranked opponent. With Henderson’s name value, that will still make him a valuable commodity. But as far as being a contender, he will need to do a lot more than beat The Dragon. Hendo is closer to retirement than he is a title.

Tim Kennedy (18-5)

Kennedy, honestly, should be in the contender’s section. So, why isn’t he?

Well, he hasn’t fought since 2014 (a controversy-fueled loss to Romero), and his outspoken nature will keep him from getting preferential treatment. If he were a company man, we may have already seen him against another top contender by this point.

Even still, at 36, he has some time to get back in the cage and establish himself with big victories. He will just need to be impressive and gain fan support, because the UFC won’t be inclined to give him a platform to speak out.

Best of the Rest

Thales Leites (25-5)

Leites returned to the UFC and reeled off five straight wins before dropping a split decision to Bisping. The former title challenger will meet Mousasi in London on February 27, and a win could put him just outside of contention.

Uriah Hall (12-6)

Spinning-kick knockouts, big power shots and undeniable athletic ability. Hall is the prototype of what we want to see. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the aggression and consistency to match his skills. Hall is someone the UFC could really get behind, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together. Losing to Whittaker was a big step back following a big step forward with his TKO of Mousasi.

Derek Brunson (14-3)

Brunson is really beginning to come into his own as a fighter, and with back-to-back TKO finishes, he is starting to climb the ladder at 185 pounds. If he can pick up another win or two in emphatic fashion, expect to hear his name a bit more throughout 2016.

Roan Carneiro (20-9)

Speaking of important February middleweight bouts, Brunson meets Carneiro on February 21. It’s worth watching.

Carneiro returned to the UFC after seven years and retired Mark Munoz. He has quietly put together a six-fight win streak. The 37-year-old is currently ranked as the No. 15 middleweight in the UFC rankings, and a win over Brunson would move him closer to the Top 10.


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