The next 35 days will go a long way to determining how the Middleweight ranks shake out for both the UFC and Strikeforce for next year. With UFC 122 and 123 pairing up 10 185-pound fighters, and Bellator pushing hard for a Strikeforce superfight for Hector Lombard and Jacara Souza, the division will have some new life by the time 2011 calendars are flipped open.
Signed: Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort
This February title tilt is the best UFC Middleweight Title fight to come along since UFC 82: Pride of a Champion delivered the Pride-UFC unification match between the Spider and Hendo. Silva-Belfort promises to deliver on the prodigious talent both of these superstars possess, but Silva will still be a tremendous favorite to retain his title.
Fantasy: Jorge Santiago vs. Jacare Souza
Bellator's CEO is certainly vocal about getting a "superfight" for his middleweight champion, and he should be. He is running out of options to keep feeding his 185-pound beast. Souza dispatched Tim Kennedy (who I really think is a legit top 10 middleweight in his own right) much more impressively than Lombard did over Shlemenko. Due to that less-than-impressive outing for Lombard, I would give the nod to seeing Jorge Santiago take his Sengoku belt across the Pacific to battle Jacare.
Santiago can't keep fighting the Kaz's forever (Misaki and Nakamura), so a cross-promotional matchup is the best scenario. Strikeforce already has established ties to the Japanese promotions by building a foundation for the Dream-Strikeforce-World Victory Road "alliance," and now would be a good time to draw on that partnership.
Fantasy: Hector Lombard vs. Patrick Cote (or Joey Villasenor)
Bellator needs to maintain and build on Lombard's near top 10 status by finding top-notch fighters for him to fight and continue to build a fanbase for the promotion. Cote, who was recently released from the UFC after a three-match losing streak, still has a name that can be traded on and a skill-set that would make for a good barometer of Lombard's fighting prowess.
If Cote isn't an option, then former Strikeforce contender and long-time King of the Cage champion Joey Villasenor is another great option for Bellator to test their champion. Joey always brings the fight and his resume contains a "who's-who" of MMA competitors.
If Lombard could dispatch either (or both?) of these fighters in an impressive fashion, he would take a big step towards becoming an undisputed top 10 middleweight. Other "name" options could be Denis Kang or Trevor Prangley, coming off a decision over Keith Jardine.
With Strikeforce facing a thin middleweight group, Bellator needs to act quickly to line up decent competition for their champion. Another option for Strikeforce could be in having an internal "Superfight" with Jacare Souza vs. Nick Diaz.
November's busy schedule factors greatly in here, as the winner of Marquardt-Okami fight will jump into the No. 1 contender spot for the UFC, especially with Chael Sonnen's political and pharmaceutical distractions. For Strikeforce, the Robbie Lawler-Matt Lindland matchup in December will likely result in their next No. 1 contender (for lack of other options).
2010 Remaining Fights
Mark Munoz vs. Aaron Simpson, Demian Maia vs. Kendall Grove, Alessio Sakara vs. Jorge Rivera, Dan Miller vs. Joe Doerkson, Gerald Harris vs. Maiquel Falcão, Kyle Noke vs. Rob Kimmons and Kris McCray vs. Carlos Eduardo Rocha.
Signed: Chris Leben vs. Brian Stann
As long as Leben is allowed to travel for this fight after his DUI arrest, the match winner will keep himself in the conversation going forward to build their UFC credentials.
Fantasy: Belfort/Silva Loser vs. Marquardt/Okami Loser
If Anderson Silva loses, doesn't retire and doesn't move back up to 205 for a fight, then he needs to be given another top contender fight right away to get back to a title shot. If Belfort loses, then pairing him up with one of the two previously rumored bouts for him would still be the next best option.
Fantasy: Michael Bisping vs. Alan Belcher
Bisping (and many rankings) seem to have amnesia when it comes to his losses to Wanderlei Silva and Dan Henderson, as somehow decision wins over Akiyama and Dan Miller have "redeemed" his resume.
For my money, Bisping has a LOT more to prove before he can bring up title-shot aspirations. Belcher brings a similar fighting style to the match with "the Count", and is another "on the fringe" top 10 fighter. If Belcher's vision problems are OK, this fight would propel one of these guys into true contender status.
Fantasy: Chael Sonnen vs. Rousimar Palhares
Sonnen has talent but it comes with issues. He lacks the finishing power to be a fan favorite, while Palhares is a ridiculously talented and physically gifted martial artist who suffers from momentary lapses of concentration. This fight would define the future for either of these two middleweights and give the winner a step closer back to contender-ship.
Fantasy: Mark Munoz/Aaron Simpson Winner vs. Demian Maia/Kendall Grove Winner
So far, Munoz has had a solid showing at the 185 class, while Simpson has also had some good moments. The winner of those two needs a solid matchup to follow and the Maia/Grove winner is a perfect eliminator for this group. Maia has proven he can handle grapplers and wrestlers (Sonnen, Dan Miller) but is easily outclassed by quality fighters with striking ability (Marquardt/Anderson Silva).
We'll see how he can handle "Da Otha Spida" with the lanky Grove who has been up and down in his own right. Munoz and Grove have already battled recently with Munoz coming out on top, so that would be the only "no go" in this scenario.
Fantasy: Chris Leben vs. Wanderlei Silva
When a man called the Axe Murderer calls out his opponent, it is wise to take heed. I couldn't agree more with Wanderlei in this case, because a battle with Leben (if he beats both Brian Stann and DUI charges) would be a very entertaining one.
Fantasy: Tim Kennedy vs. "Mayhem" Miller
Mayhem does not deserve a title shot based on his recent fights, nor on his recent antics. Strikeforce would certainly not "reward" him for the carnage created due to the altercation Mayhem instigated. Tim Kennedy represented himself well in the title tilt against Souza, and needs another top-notch fight to gain more respect. Both fighters have a unanimous decision over the other, so this would be for the rubber match.
Fantasy: CB Dolloway vs. Maia/Grove Loser
Dolloway was the favorite to win T.U.F. season seven, but dropped the finale to Sadollah. So far, however, he has been the better UFC fighter and has put together a solid 5-1 record since the TUF finale. Whoever drops the fight between Maia and Grove will be a perfect next step for Dolloway to make inroads into the top 10 of the division.
Just For Fun Fights
Signed: Phil Baroni vs. Brad Tavares
A classic "up and comer vs veteran" matchup takes place here. Tavares was impressive in the Ultimate Fighter season with his strong striking skills and would like to use this fight as a vault into more big name cards in the future.
Fantasy: Court McGee vs. Alessio Sakara/Jorge Rivera winner
Court seems far more "UFC ready" than many of the TUF finale winners over recent seasons but he could use a few more "stepping stone" fights before he begins a serious contender challenge.
Fantasy: Riki Fukuda vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama
"Sexiyama's" UFC career hasn't exactly gone according to plan, so maybe facing fellow Japanese fighter Fukuda (newly signed to the UFC) will help him return to his old form. Fukuda has been impressive as the DEEP middleweight champion but will need to step up his game to make an impact in the UFC ranks.
Fantasy: Cung Le vs. Kaz Misaki
If and when the former Strikeforce MW Champion has enough free time on his schedule to fight, a great cross-promotional event that would create fireworks would be the hard kicks of Le vs. the well-rounded Misaki.
Fantasy: Gerald Harris vs. Dan Miller/Joe Doerksen winner
Harris is another victim of Sadollah's TUF reign during season seven, but still has tons of talent. His 10-fight win streak (three in the UFC) and willingness to take any fight need to be rewarded with a step up in quality by the UFC, providing he extends that to 11 wins over Falcao. Dan Miller is trying to rebound from a previous three-fight losing streak but will need to get by the well-travelled Doerksen to have a chance.
Fantasy: Kyle Noke vs. Brian Stann/Chris Leben loser
If Noke can get past Rob Kimmons, then a shot against either Stann or Leben would set him up to take the next steps in his career. Noke is a seriously tough customer who came through a deep class of Ultimate Fighter candidates.
Please check back over the next few days for the rest of the series, as well as those previously published!