Once upon a time the middleweight division was so weak that we had the likes of Thales Leites being put forward as challengers for the title. His dismal showing against Anderson Silva and his exit from the UFC not long afterwards highlighted 185lbs as a painfully thin weight class in terms of contender talent.
Fast-forward to today and there are any number of middleweight contenders straining at the leash for a chance to get at Anderson and his shiny gold belt. There’s a contender case to be made for a good few middleweight names so, who will get the next shot at the title now that Chael Sonnen is out of the picture?
Bisping has been angling for a title shot for a while now. He has been fighting for the UFC since 2006 and has gone 4-1 in his last five outings, with the loss being a narrow decision dropped to Chael Sonnen in January.
He has the name value to make a big fight and he will definitely sell the fight well, as Sonnen did. Bisping is a better kickboxer than Sonnen and also has an under-rated wrestling game, making him a pretty decent match for Anderson.
The big question mark is how he would stand up to Anderson’s power landing directly on his jaw. Having been stopped just once in his career he isn’t someone who could be considered weak-chinned, but he has been dropped by more than one right hand from other fighters over the years.
For me its the biggest fight available for Silva and the match that makes most sense for the UFC right now. But Bisping is coming off a loss and so he is going to need a win to parlay himself into that pole position.
He’s been on a superb run in the UFC and has all the skills to take a win over Anderson. A solid wrestling and submission game plus a high workrate and a high level of aggression would possibly make for a re-run of UFC 117 - except Weidman trains under Matt Serra and has better submission awareness and defence than Sonnen had in that fight. He won’t leave an arm in.
Cons - he doesn’t have much of a name yet, although that is changing, and so he is a very unattractive fight for the Silva camp because he combines a dangerous skillset with a low name value. That won’t sell PPV either and so the UFC is likely to want another couple of wins from Weidman - plus a PR push to establish his personality - before he gets the shot.
Former Bellator champion, represented his native Cuba at the Olympics, has a 20-fight win streak behind him and is 24-0-1 going back to 2006 when he dropped a decision to Gegard Mousasi at a Pride Bushido show. Really aggressive and likes to put on a show and put his opponents away.
He has lots of stoppage wins but there are question marks over the quality of his opposition to date. He generally hasn’t been fighting at the level that the elite UFC middleweights have, although he has fought and beaten a number of UFC veterans.
His UFC debut against Tim Boetsch will be very revealing and if he finishes Boetsch in style he could well be fast-tracked to a title shot. But again Anderson’s camp aren’t keen on him, ostensibly because he is unknown to the UFC fans for the most part, and so they are likely to oppose this until Lombard has built up some name recognition with the PPV buyers.
The Strikeforce middleweight champion retained his belt against Tim Kennedy at the weekend and was then mentioned as an attractive opponent by the Silva camp. Why on earth they would refuse Lombard as having no name recognition but then land on Rockhold, who is in a dying promotion that has few viewers left, is a mystery.
Rockhold isn’t getting moved over to the UFC anyway, so its a moot point.
Is saying recently that he intends to take a third run at a UFC title and this is apparently at middleweight. Having been flattened by Anderson at UFC 126 with a front kick that Belfort says was “a lucky shot”, the veteran Brazilian has since gone 2-0.
But his demolition at Anderson’s hands is still fresh in everyone’s minds and he won’t be a credible challenger until he smashes a fellow contender or two to pieces for an enthralled television audience. The UFC 126 fight was massive in Brazil and a huge catalyst for the organisation’s current popularity there, so that will earn Belfort bonus points and, with a couple of wins, he is definitely in the mix.
This is the name on a lot of people’s lips after his absolutely stunning performance against the feared Rousimar Palhares at May’s ‘UFC on FOX’ event. Prior to the bout a lot of people were expecting leglock merchant Palhares to take one of Belcher’s lower limbs off. But Belcher promised he would actually take the fight to the floor himself if possible and would out-grapple Palhares when he did.
In the event it was Palhares who took the fight down but Belcher who emerged victorious, living up to his promise to outdo the Brazilian on the floor. He eventually took top position and a TKO win via elbows to earn a huge win which boosted his profile with UFC fans and executives alike.
Belcher is now 4-0 in his last quartet of outings and is well-known to the UFC fan base. He doesn’t have a rabid following but he did earn a lot of new fans with his win over Palhares and he is well-respected. He also isn’t afraid to say what he thinks - his pre-fight promise to test his BJJ against Palhares was derided at the time, but looks frankly prophetic in retrospect.
At one point he was the Boogeyman of the UFC middleweight division with a reputation as someone who would hit a possibly career-ending leglock the moment he got you to the floor. He has heel-hooked a lot of people and prior to Alan Belcher stepping up, several high-ranking middleweights had turned Palhares down as an opponent.
Belcher has gone some way to shattering Palhares’ myth and exposing some weaknesses but even had Palhares won, he’s not near to being a first choice contender for the UFC.
A very ‘unique’ personality, Palhares’ in-cage UFC moments have included being knocked out by Nate Marquardt while turning round to have a chat with the referee mid-round and, against Dan Miller, deciding the fight was over and jumping on the cage to celebrate - except it wasn’t over and the referee made him get down and continue fighting.
Palhares will need some upper-tier wins and a PR boost before levering himself into contention. He has a very compelling life-story and a likeable personality; fans like him for his savagery and his aggressiveness. He could seriously boost his saleability by learning to speak English and he definitely needs to cut down on his odd moments inside the Octagon - while that endears him to fans, the UFC brass are a conservative bunch when it comes to their champions and contenders.
Somewhat overlooked by many of the masses in favour of his bigger-name peers, Boetsch is a really dangerous middleweight and he’s coming off a big win over a recent title challenger, which has to count for something in ranking and title contention terms.
Against Boetsch is the fact that he isn’t really out there in the public eye as a big character or a contender, and his win over Okami was a comeback rather than a run-over so the big finish shouldn’t completely overshadow the initial struggle.
In his favour is the fact that he is very aggressive and hunts the finish. Fans have really got on board with him after the Okami comeback and if he takes Hector Lombard out in style he certainly gets himself up there in the contender talk conversations.
My prediction: Bisping would be the one had Sonnen won against Anderson. But now he needs a win and he doesnt have a fight lined up yet.
So I think next contender will be Lombard - he will get a shot if he wins big against Boetsch with a highlight-reel finish that the UFC can use in PR material. If not I can see it going to Belcher. Weidman is getting a lot of hype right now but is still a couple of fights away.