UFC Contenders, Gatekeepers, and Journeymen: The Middleweights (Part I)

Justin Fuller@FightFactorLIVECorrespondent IDecember 11, 2010

DALLAS - SEPTEMBER 19:  UFC fighter Vitor Belfort  (L) battles UFC fighter Rich Franklin (R) during their Catch weight bout at UFC 103: Franklin vs. Belfort at the American Airlines Center on September 19, 2009 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

The UFC Middleweight division has had a tumultuous year, but one man has continued to reign supreme over all challengers. The man we think of when we picture UFC Middleweights, current UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson “The Spider” Silva, who is arguably the most dominant champion in MMA history.

Of course when Anderson Silva pictures the Middleweight Division, he doesn't see himself. He sees the next challenger. Right now it is Vitor Belfort, but Yushin Okami is right around the corner, and Chael Sonnen will be in search of a rematch the first chance he gets. Perhaps there are a few other willing contenders lurking in the shadows or in need of that "one big win" to take them to the top.

So what separates these top contenders from the gatekeepers? And at what point does a future prospect transform into a contender? And when does a former champ or contender get reduced to gatekeeper?

In this edition of "UFC Contenders, Gatekeepers, and Journeymen" we will take a look at the current UFC Middleweight Division's contenders and gatekeepers.  We will look at where they stand now, how they got where they are, and where they are headed.

The Contenders

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Anderson Silva has sat atop the division for over four years, but with his near-loss to Chael Sonnen last August at UFC 117, it seems the end may be closer than we all thought possible for the 35-year-old champ. With the round-robin of contenders starting to thin out, these are fighters waiting for a chance to beat the odds.

Vitor “The Phenom” Belfort (19-8)

Who he has beaten: Rich Franklin, Matt Lindland, Randy Couture, Heath Herring, Gilbert Yvel, and Wanderlei Silva

Who he fights next: Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva at UFC 126 on February 5

Criticism: Belfort has yet to fight at Middleweight in the UFC and has been out of action for over a year

This legendary fighter and former UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion has not only fought some of the best fighters in the sport, but he’s done it in three different weight classes. With little left to prove, “The Phenom” will try and add one more accolade to his 13-year resume. If he succeeds in dethroning Anderson Silva then he will surely go down as one of the greatest of all time…at the age of 33.

Yushin “Thunder” Okami (26-5)

Who he has beaten: Nate Marquardt, Mark Munoz, Dean Lister, Evan Tanner, Jason McDonald, and Anderson Silva

Who he fights next: Supposedly the winner of Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort which is set to take place at UFC 126 on February 5

Criticism: Okami has the credit of being the only fighter in the UFC with a “W” over Anderson Silva…it’s too bad Okami earned the win because he was knocked unconscious due to an illegal knee strike in the first round.

Okami hoped to silence the critics with a dominating win over Marquardt at UFC 122, but a judges decision was good enough to advance him. Considering the matchup in styles, this fight could have turned out to be far more boring than it was. Now we have to wait and see if Okami will get a chance to test his style against “The Phenom” or get a non-controversial win over Silva.

Chael Sonnen (25-11-1)

Who he's beaten: Nate Marquardt, Yushin Okami, Dan Miller, Paulo Filho, and Trevor Prangly

Who he fights next: A final decision by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) on Thursday determined to what extent Sonnen will be punished. The final judgment: Reduction of suspension by six months (fun fact: Sean Sherk’s 12-month suspension by the CSAC was reduced to six after he appealed with the help of lawyer Howard Jacobs, who also represented Sonnen).

Criticism: Not only did Sonnen fail to finish Silva in their encounter at UFC 117, as well as fail to take Silva the distance, but it turns out he was on Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). Enough said.

With Sonnen’s punishment reduced, we can now see him back in action as soon as February. Just in time for UFC 127 in Sydney, Australia, but not in time for UFC 126. The smart money is on him having a rematch with Demian Maia.  Of course the betting man’s pick would be a change in the lineup at UFC 127 with Sonnen facing Michael “The Count” Bisping.

The Wild Card: Michael “The Count” Bisping (20-3)

Who he has beaten: Yoshihiro Akiyama, Dan Miller, Denis Kang, Chris Leben, and Matt Hamill

Who he fights next: Game-Opponent Jorge Rivera at UFC 127 on February 27…or does he?

Criticism: The Count has proven he has what it takes to be a force in the division. The problem is he’s consistently known for losing the big fights to the likes of Rashad Evans, Dan Henderson, and Wanderlei Silva. These were all fights that could have launched him closer to the top instead of having to fight the uphill battle that he is doing now.

Why he’s the Wild Card: The Count is riding a 2-fight winning streak, and is 6-2 at Middleweight, all in the UFC. Add on the fact that he is one of the highest grossing fighters on the roster, thanks to his international status, and he ripe for the picking when it comes to marketing a title fight. All he needs now is to take down another contender.

The Dark Horse: Maiquel Jose “Rig Rig” Falcao Goncalves (26-3)

Who he has beaten: A plethora of fighters in the Brazilian circuit, but only Gerald Harris so far in the UFC.

Who he fights next: Alessio Sakara at UFC on Versus 3 on March 3

Criticism: Aside from the fact that no one really knows who Falcao is, he didn’t exactly put on the most crowd-pleasing fight in his UFC debut due “playing it safe” in the third round, not to mention the controversies associated with the officiating of the match itself. In order for Falcao to be in the spotlight and be taken seriously in the division, he’s going to need to start putting named-fighters away, and quick, no matter what his record is.

Why he’s the Dark Horse: Although Falcao failed to put away Belcher, he has finished 24 of his 26 wins, with 21 by way of (T)KO. If he can bring that same steam and momentum into his next 1-2 UFC bouts, then by all accounts a fight with another contender or a big draw gatekeeper is in his near future.

The Gatekeepers

In boxing gatekeeper is someone who has been unable to achieve contender status, yet is still considered a well-rounded fighter with skills above that of your average journeyman.

For MMA we must adjust the criteria due to a high turnover rate in champions (or for Middleweights, a high turnover of contenders), fewer average career matches than those experienced in boxing, and the higher popularity of non-champion fighters in MMA as opposed to those in boxing.

As such, all of the UFC's gatekeepers are either former champions (UFC and Pride respectively) or contenders. Of course with the Middleweight Champion consistently reigning supreme for some time now, this list will have to mostly include the latter.

As for the remaining masters of their craft, they are always one or two fights away from being contenders yet again, or allowing a future prospect to become one. They are also always one or two losses away from being reduced to journeyman status, or worse, cut from the UFC altogether.

Demian Maia (14-2)

Who he has beaten: Kendall Grove, Dan Miller, Chael Sonnen, Nate Quarry, and Gustavo Machado.

Who he has lost to: Anderson Silva and Nate Marquardt

Who he fights next: Nothing scheduled yet for the one-time title challenger, but he is coming off a dominating win over Kendall Grove at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale. Expect a rematch with either Chael Sonnen or Nate Marquardt to further settle their round-robin affairs.

Why he's a gatekeeper: Although Maia is on a two-fight winning streak after his loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 112, he’s yet to face a top ranked opponent or finish a fight since then, so no one is clamoring for him to have another crack at the champ.

Maia has gained the respect of fans and fighters alike since his bout with Silva. He was also able to display improved striking in his latest bout. Maia will have to at the very least erase the other blemish on his record, a KO loss the Marquardt, before calls for a title-shot come anytime soon.

Nate “The Great” Marquardt (30-10-2)

Who he has beaten: Demian Maia, Jeremy Horn, Dean Lister, Izuru Takeuchi, Kazuo Misaki, Kiuma Kunioku, and Shonnie Carter.

Who he has lost to: Yushin Okami, Chael Sonnen, Thales Leites, Anderson Silva, Ricardo Almeida, Izuru Takeuchi, Kiuma Kunioku, and Gil Castillo.

Who he fights next: Nothing scheduled yet, but Marquardt has called out Wanderlei Silva in order to reestablish himself as a contender. A rematch with Demian Maia is just as, if not more, likely.

Why he's a gatekeeper: Since losing to Anderson Silva, Marquardt has gone 5-3. All three fighters he has lost to have gotten title shots either immediately or shortly after defeating him. The first two lost their fights to Silva as well, and the third is set to face the champ in February. You do the math.

The former King of Pancrase has been given ample opportunity to get back to the top (more than most in fact), and despite wins over top fighters like Demian Maia, he has failed to secure the necessary win to get a rematch with Silva. Although Nate believes he can make one more run at the title, the fact is he’s much more likely to remain the division’s best gatekeeper.

Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva (33-10-1-1)

Who he has beaten: Michael Bisping, Keith Jardine, Hidehiki Yoshida, Rampage Jackson (twice), Kazushi Sakuraba, Dan Henderson, and Guy Mezger.

Who he has lost to: Tito Ortiz, Mirko Cro Cop, Dan Henderson, Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson, and Rich Franklin.

Who he fights next: Injury and surgery have kept the former Pride champ out of action, but everyone who can get face time in front of a camera has called him out.

Why he's a gatekeeper: Wanderlei is no doubt one of the most exciting and accomplished fighters still active, but the move to middleweight in hopes of greener pastures has been arduous as best. He first lost his 195 lbs catchweight fight to Rich Franklin in a decision and then failed to put away Bisping, but did get the win.

With injury keeping him inactive for almost a year, and a projected return date of “early 2011” it is doubtful the Axe Murderer will be able to make a serious run at a title again. Let’s just hope he remains active enough to put on exciting fights and help filter out the contenders in the division for at least a couple more years.

Yoshihiro “Sexyama” Akiyama (13-3-0-2)

Who he has beaten: Alan Belcher, Katsuyori Shibata, Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoof, and Kestutis Smirnovas.

Who he has lost to: Michael Bisping, Chris Leben, and Jerome Le Banner (WTF, right?).

Who he fights next: Nothing scheduled yet for the Asian Games Gold Medalist and former K-1 HERO’s Light-Heavyweight Tournament Champion.

Why he's a gatekeeper: Akiyama was at one point the best Middleweight fighter not in the UFC, if not one of the best period, but after suffering back-to-back losses he seems to have fallen quickly down the rankings.

Nevertheless, Akiyama has earned “Fight of the Night” honors in all three of his UFC fights. Taking into account his past accolades and accomplishments, we’re sure to see the Third Degree Judo Black Belt fight many more times.

Honorable Mention: Rich “Ace” Franklin (28-5-1)

Rich “Ace” Franklin is a former champion, has beaten and lost to former champions, and is scheduled to fight another former champion in the form of Forrest Griffin. He earns a spot on this list simply because if he didn’t make the permanent move back up to Light-Heavyweight, then there would be very little doubt in anyone’s mind that Franklin would still be one of the top Middleweights in the UFC.

Whether or not Franklin is serious about making a title run at 205, he’s sure to have his work cut out for him against Griffin. Then again with the way the Light-Heavyweight title seems to have a revolving door of owners, who’s to say Ace can’t be one of them? At the very least he should settle in as another gatekeeper to an already stacked division.


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