A New Wave Is Rising in the UFC Middleweight Division

Duane FinleyContributor IMay 5, 2013

July 11, 2012; San Jose, CA, USA; Chris Weidman reacts during his fight against Mark Munoz (not pictured) during the middleweight bout of the UFC on Fuel TV at HP Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For years the middleweight division has been Anderson Silva and everyone else.

"The Spider" has held court over the 185-pound weight class for nearly seven years, and in doing so has carved out the longest and most dominant title reign in UFC history. Over this impressive run, the pound-for-pound great has built a highlight reel for the ages, as he's smashed out every opponent who contested his title in brutal fashion.

His record-setting streak of 10 consecutive title defenses is a large part of the reason he is widely recognized as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. And while Silva's resume is undoubtedly one of the most impressive in the history of the sport, what is perhaps the most impressive is that Silva has managed to cut through the competition in a seemingly effortless fashion.

With the exception of the bout with Chael Sonnen at UFC 117, no one has come close to making a serious threat to Silva's title since he laid claim to the belt in 2006. A revolving cast of No. 1 contenders have come and gone, as no one has been able to knock Silva off the middleweight throne. 

During Silva's title reign, the middleweight division has gone stagnant on several occasions. While the champion's dominance has played a large role in the process, another attributing factor has been the failure of top-tier middleweights to perform consistently. When this happens, Silva either hits the sidelines or takes a fight in the light heavyweight division as the rest of the 185-pound competitors attempt to work out the contention picture.

Where in the past the division had been thin, the last half of 2012 appeared ready-made to buck the trend. A handful of potential title contenders were rising up the divisional ladder, and the race to become Silva's next opponent was hotter than it had been in years. That being said, in a matter of seven months, the picture disintegrated, and the upper tier of the middleweight division went back to being a ghost town.

After getting salted in his rematch at UFC 148, Chael Sonnen left the division. Chris Weidman suffered an injury and was forced out of his bout at UFC 155. Tim Boetsch saw his contender label taken away by Costa Philippou. Alan Belcher failed on his second attempt to solve the Yushin Okami grappling puzzle. Michael Bisping was separated from a guaranteed title shot by a Vitor Belfort head kick.

This turn of events forced the UFC to look outside of the weight class for a potential contender, and they thought they had found one in Rashad Evans. The former light heavyweight champion appeared to be the next in line for Silva, but before he could drop down in the 185-pound waters, Evans had to defeat Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156.

Unfortunately for Evans, an off night against "Lil Nog" resulted in a unanimous decision loss and a potential bout with Silva disappeared into the ether.

Shortly after Evans was defeated in Las Vegas, the UFC announced Weidman would be facing Silva upon his return to action in July. Of the previously mentioned list of contenders, the Long Island native was the only fighter who didn't have his momentum brought to a halt by an opponent. 

The undefeated Ray Longo-trained fighter will face Silva at UFC 162, and for the first time in over a year, the middleweight division appears to be picking up steam. In addition to Weidman, there are a collection of new faces looking to carve out their places in the 185-pound weight class. If they are successful in doing so, we very well could see a changing of the guard in the middleweight division.


Luke Rockhold

As the last man to hold the Strikeforce middleweight title, Luke Rockhold's UFC debut is highly anticipated. The Santa Cruz-based fighter will begin the UFC chapter of his career in two weeks when he squares off with MMA legend Vitor Belfort in the main event of UFC on FX 8 in Jaragua, Brazil.

The battle with "The Phenom" will provide an excellent mark as to where the prospect-turned-contender stands at this point in his career. Should Rockhold be successful against the former light heavyweight champion it would solidify his position in the middleweight divisional hierarchy and lock him firmly into the title conversation at 185 pounds.

While his upcoming tilt with Belfort is currently under the spotlight, in the bigger divisional picture, Rockhold's presence in the middleweight fold brings plenty to get excited about.

After entering the Strikeforce Challengers Series in 2008, the Californian displayed a steadily improving skill set as he carved his way through the now-defunct promotion's 185-pound roster. On the strength of a six-win streak, Rockhold earned the opportunity to face "Jacare" Souza for the middleweight title, where he bested the submission ace via unanimous decision.

The NorCal native would go on to defend the belt two more times before the doors of the organization finally closed in early 2013. Nevertheless, Rockhold built solid momentum competing under the Strikeforce banner and will be looking to take his game to the next level when he steps into the Octagon later this month.

Rockhold is an athlete of the naturally talented variety, and his style has the potential to give anyone in the middleweight division fits. He is a rangy fighter who not only has proven to use his length effectively, but also has the ability to close distance in rapid fashion. While his striking has received the most attention, Rockhold's wrestling and jiu-jitsu are both solid weapons in his arsenal, and this makes him one of the most well-rounded competitors in the 185-pound division.

It also serves to be noted that Rockhold is just 28 years old and coming into his athletic prime. If he can put everything together inside the cage, the AKA product has the potential to make a huge impact on the weight class.


Ronaldo Souza

Where the rest of his Strikeforce peers had to wait for the Octagon debuts before they were able to get a feel for UFC talent, Souza had an early preview. The former middleweight champion locked up with TUF alum Ed Herman at the promtion's final event and disposed of "Short Fuse" in quick fashion. 

Following a brief feeling-out period between the two fighters, "Jacare" took the action to the canvas, where he locked up a fight-ending kimura on the UFC veteran. The victory over Herman was Souza's third consecutive win and made him successful in seven of his last eight outings, with his only setback under the Strikeforce banner coming in a hard-fought battle against Rockhold.

Defeating the always-gritty Herman in seemingly effortless fashion put Souza on the radar of the UFC fanbase and made his promotional debut against fellow contender Costa Philippou a highly anticipated affair. Unfortunately for Souza, the heavy-handed middleweight would suffer an injury in the lead up to the bout and the jiu-jitsu ace will now face scrappy prospect Chris Camozzi in the co-main event of UFC on FX 8.

With legitimate world-class grappling credentials and an ever-improving striking game, Souza has the ability to solidify himself as a top middleweight under the UFC banner in a short amount of time. In addition to his submission skills, "The Alligator" has also shown improvement in his stand-up game, which was highlighted by his 41-second drubbing of Derek Brunson back in August of 2012.

Much like Rockhold, if Souza can put everything together inside the cage, the Brazilian has the potential to make a lot of noise in the 185-pound weight class.


Gegard Mousasi

While there hasn't been an official announcement made as of yet, there is a good chance MMA fans will see Gegard Mousasi return to middleweight waters in 2013. The former Dream and Strikeforce champion hinted on his Twitter he was considering a drop down to 185 pounds, and Mousasi in the middleweight mix will present some interesting scenarios.

"The Armenian Assasin" entered the UFC with a shot at the light heavyweight championship in mind, but powers beyond his control have stalled that progression for the time being. The 27-year-old was originally set to make his long-awaited Octagon debut against surging contender Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 9, but a cut suffered by the Swede in the final week leading up to the bout put the nix on the fight altogether. 

In a chaotic storm of events, Mousasi not only had the high-profile opponent he wanted taken away, but any talk of immediate title contention went out the door with Gustafsson. Despite the last-minute change of opponent, the Dutch Armenian fighter went forward with the fight and properly thumped replacement Ilir Latifi for 15 minutes in Stockholm. 

The victory over Latifi did nothing for Mousasi's career in terms of divisional movement. And with a small cast of contenders above him in the title picture, the move to middleweight makes a lot of sense for Mousasi's title hopes.

Upon entry into the 185-pound division, Mousasi would immediately become one the division's premier strikers. He has K-1-level kickboxing and his understanding of spatial difference is matched by few in the sport.

On the other hand, Mousasi hasn't competed as a middleweight since 2008. Motivation—or lack thereof—has been a constant issue throughout his career, and cutting down to 185 pounds would certainly require a full commitment from the young fighter. That being said, Mousasi going "all in" on a run at the middleweight title would certainly be interesting to watch.