The UFC middleweight division has been home to some of MMA’s most high-intensity feuds since the inception of the sport. Whether it was Anderson Silva’s run of dominance during his title reign or Vitor Belfort’s Renaissance in Brazil, the action at 185 has always been a constant. But, as the years go by and the landscape of the division changes, other divisions in the UFC such as Lightweight and Bantamweight have taken over in terms of talent and depth in the rankings.
Now, the Middleweight division has two different champions, a handful of disgruntled contenders and a plethora of heavy hitters trying to be the next big thing. The division as a whole continues to lack the structure at the top level necessary to develop true champions that could rival the success that former champions like Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman once enjoyed. With a definitive unification bout in the midst between Michael Bisping and Interim Champion Robert Whittaker there may finally be an answer to who will carry the torch as the next dominant champion at middleweight, but the path to getting here has been turbulent, to say the least.
As top ranked contender Gegard Mousasi announced his switch to Bellator earlier in the month, there has been a growing number of question marks surrounding the vitality of a once booming division within the UFC, and top talent straying away to the competitor is never a good sign. With all the negative headlines that have surrounded this ageing yet still relevant division, it’s necessary to look back into the past and realize just how we got here.
The Luke Rockhold Dilemma
After Chris Weidman achieved the unthinkable at UFC 162, knocking out the longest reigning champion in UFC history Anderson “The Spider” Silva in emphatic fashion and then coming back and defending his title in a dominant, yet controversial way at UFC 168, it felt like we may have finally received a suitable predecessor for a Championship that had big shoes to fill. Weidman’s fortitude as champion would soon be tested as he engaged in tough bouts versus legends of the sport in Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort, handling both bouts with relative success, but his tenure as Champ would soon reach an apex at UFC 194 as he faced a ready and willing Luke Rockhold in a bout that would test his metal more than any other bout he had before. After a tough four rounds and escaping a near stoppage in round three, Luke Rockhold was crowned as the new Middleweight champion of the UFC, and it seemed that the lineage of elite fighters at the top of the division would continue with Rockhold at the helm.
Fast forward to 2017, and none of those seemingly obvious routes for the Middleweight division panned out the way they were intended. The highly anticipated rematch between Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman at UFC 199 ended up being cancelled. Chris Weidman, who pulled out of the fight with a neck injury, would go on to lose his next three fights as he attempted to regain his stock at 185 to no avail, and Luke Rockhold would go on to lose his belt in emphatic fashion that night as Michael Bisping shocked the world with two thunderous left hooks that left Rockhold clamoring to the cage. The aftermath of that fight led to sour grapes between Luke Rockhold and upper management at UFC, with contract disputes and respect issues being the root cause of some pretty public Twitter feuds between employee and employer.
Even with his amazing performance at UFC 199, Michael Bisping still had difficulty winning over hardcore fight fans with his first title defense, as some criticized his rematch with Dan Henderson as a way to avoid more ‘deserving’ competition in Ronaldo Souza and Yoel Romero. After another nail-biting decision and hard fought win under his belt after UFC 204, there was still plenty of noise being made in the MMA community wanting to see ‘The Count against top-tier competition. After months of anticipation in a division that was seemingly at a stand still, there was one contender who went through the gauntlet to rightfully gain his position at the top of that list.
Robert Whittaker has been a surging threat in the middleweight division since his debut against Clint Hester back in 2014. Almost three years on from that fight, and Whittaker has wasted little time in dispatching some of the most menacing names in the sport, out striking top prospects like Derek Brunson and Uriah Hall in emphatic fashion as well as putting on a clinic of determination and skill in his breakout performances against Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza respectively.
In many ways, Robert Whittaker has earned the admiration and respect of fight fans all around the world that led to his ‘people’s champ’ persona in the face of his heel counterpart Michael Bisping, and momentum will definitely be on his side when the two cross paths in the coming months. Whittaker has all the humble characteristics of a true champion with the skill-set to pack arenas all around the world, and if the right steps are made in order for him to achieve success, there is a very real possibility he can be a cornerstone of the UFC brand for years to come.
Planting the Seeds
The rest of the Middleweight division that isn’t at odds with the company or nursing an injury still has plenty to work with to be considered an option for the belt. Chris Weidman has been at the odd end of some peculiar decisions and downright unlucky moments in the octagon against top-tier competitors on his three fight losing streak, and this upcoming main event against Kelvin Gastelum is a perfect bout to test his endurance and striking chops against a reinvigorated Gastelum that is ready to make a name for himself at 185.
Since his move to middleweight back at UFC 200, Kelvin Gastelum has made himself quite the highlight reel taking out some of the bigger names in the UFC and his style of high-volume haymakers mixed with his elite wrestling has been a recipe for success in a division he considers himself physically inferior in. There is no question that the talent and technique is on his side, but the home field advantage will be with Chris Weidman as Gastelum finds himself in enemy territory once again, but Kelvin has been no stranger to pressure in his MMA career and is poised to make a statement with a win against a former Champion if all goes according to plan.
Upcoming prospects like Marvin Vettori and Paulo Borrachinha will be sure to make their campaigns for a title within the coming years, and veterans like Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero are always two or three wins away from a title shot as the division currently stands, but more positive noise needs to be generated from this division in order to regain its position as a trailblazer of the sport.
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