Saying Lyoto Machida's arrival to the middleweight division was highly anticipated is putting it mildly.
The former light heavyweight champion is undoubtedly one of the most difficult puzzles to solve in mixed martial arts as he's continuously proven to be one of the most pressing stylistic matchups imaginable inside the cage.
Yet, despite his elite level status at 205 pounds, the 35-year-old Brazilian had hit a wall of sorts where titles are concerned in the UFC's crown jewel division. Where his unpredictable striking and rangy attack once forced the opposition to become impatient and make costly the errors, suddenly the fighters he squared-off with inside the Octagon began to follow somewhat of a blueprint on how to defeat him.
While Machida's patience is an attribute that has led to tremendous success, that particular strength has become the most effective weapon to use against him. Instead of fighters charging him in an effort to close the unique amount of distance he'd created, now, the opposition were picking their moments and seemingly more than content to put their fate in the hands of the judge's scorecards.
This led to several setbacks in razor-close fights, and those circumstances forced Machida to exit the weight class he once championed in order to find a new home and a new title race to get after. As a lifelong student of martial arts, Machida doesn't fight for fame or notoriety. He competes to become a champion, and with his title hopes ice cold on the light heavyweight radar, the "Machida Karate" master set his sights on joining the middleweight ranks.
Before he even stepped foot into the cage at 185 pounds, the potential for Machida to become a major player in the division was high. But after his knockout victory over Mark Munoz on Saturday at Fight Night 30, "The Dragon" went from being a fighter surrounded by a reinvigorated sense of expectation to a bona fide title contender.
And things only become more interesting from there. The middleweight collective had long been stagnant, which had just as much to do with pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva's dominance as it did with a general lack of depth in the upper-tier of the weight class. That said, the division has caught fire over the past 14 months as a talented batch of would-be contenders have risen and a new champion has been crowned in young upstart Chris Weidman.
The action in the middleweight upper-tier has never been hotter, and with Machida throwing his hat in the proverbial ring, the race will only get more intense heading into 2014.
A Pair of Rematches Will Impact the Road Ahead for Middleweight Title
Before there can be any real talk about who will get the next title shot at 185 pounds, the highly anticipated rematch between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman will have to play out. With the Long Island native pulling off one of the biggest upsets in MMA history at UFC 162, the buzz surrounding their second meeting is at an all-time high. They will step into the Octagon at UFC 168 on Dec. 28 with more on the line than just the middleweight title.
Weidman will be looking to prove defeating Silva in the first bout was no fluke and was more than just the result of the over-confident champion's arrogance biting him in the backside. The Ray Longo-trained fighter was confident that he had the tools necessary to dethrone Silva leading into their first tussle in Las Vegas, and he validated that notion by knocking out the pound-for-pound great in highlight reel fashion on July 6.
Heading into the second fight and having already leveled the longest reigning champion in UFC history, Weidman will enter the cage at the MGM with even more fire than he showed the first time around. Another victory over Silva legitimizes his hand being raised in the first fight and officially stamps his place as the new king of the middleweight division.
On the other hand, should Silva defeat Weidman in the rematch, a "rubber match" is all but a given. If Silva returns the favor and bests the 29-year-old New York-based fighter, it would be difficult to imagine the UFC not making the third fight. If that turns out to be the case, movement in the title tier of the division will be stalled well into 2014, which would create some interesting options where the major players are concerned, the most notable of which being Vitor Belfort.
"The Phenom" has been on a tear since returning to 185 pounds and has his sights firmly locked on earning another championship opportunity. The 35-year-old former light heavyweight champion has defeated Michael Bisping and former Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold respectively since returning to the weight class and has done so in brutal fashion.
He salted "The Count" with a head kick at UFC on FX 7 in January then used a spinning wheel kick to flatten Rockhold four months later at UFC on FX 8. Following his victory over the AKA fighter, Belfort's campaign for a title shot intensified, but with Weidman defeating Silva and "The Spider" being granted an immediate rematch, the momentum on his bid for a chance to fight for the middleweight title slowed for the time being.
This scenario resulted in the former title challenger taking a fight with former two-divisional Pride champion Dan Henderson. The two heavy-handed knockout artists will square off at Fight Night 32 on Nov. 9 in a rematch seven years in the making. They first met at Pride 32 back in 2006 with "Hendo" winning the bout via unanimous decision.
Despite their rematch taking place at the 205-pound weight limit, a victory for Belfort will keep his stock high and make him a likely candidate to receive the next title shot at 185 pounds. On the other hand, should Henderson once again defeat the Team Blackzilians fighter, the odds of him being reshuffled to the back of the line of potential contenders in the middleweight division are high as well.
Several Variables Could Become Major Players as Well
In addition to the high-profile rematches set to go down in the next two months, there are several variables that could also play a major role in determining how the title picture shapes up at 185 pounds. With Machida solidifying his place in the divisional hierarchy, there are a handful of fighters who are looking to do the same.
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza has been on a tear since coming over from Strikeforce early this year. "The Alligator" has cut like a buzzsaw through the first two fighters he's faced under the UFC banner as he made short work of Chris Camozzi at UFC on FX 8 back in May, then upped the ante in grand fashion by dismantling perennial contender Yushin Okami in his following outing at Fight Night 28 in September.
Simply defeating "Thunder" is enough to make a case for title contention, but the manner in which he steamrolled the Japanese fighter cemented his status on the middleweight title radar. While "The Alligator" has always been a nightmare when the action hits the canvas, his recent performances have shown a drastic improvement in his striking skills as the 33-year-old Brazilian has used power and precision to cut through the opposition.
Since 2009, Souza has found victory in eight of his nine showings, with his only setback coming against Rockhold under the Strikeforce banner. Following his loss to the Santa Cruz native, Souza has collected five consecutive wins and has looked more impressive with each showing inside the cage.
Another potential contender who needs to be considered in the hunt is Michael Bisping. While the brash Brit hasn't put together the type of winning streak Souza has enjoyed, his status as a stable in the upper-tier of the middleweight division is undeniable.
All signs pointed to the former TUF winner earning his long-awaited title shot if he could get past Belfort at UFC on FX 8, but things wouldn't turn out in his favor as he suffered a knockout defeat in the second round of their tilt in January. The 34-year-old would ultimately bounce back in his next outing against Alan Belcher at UFC 159 in April, but his performance in the fight wasn't impressive enough to catapult him to the front of the line.
With that in mind, the California-transplant accepted a bout with Mark Munoz at Fight Night 30 in Manchester, England. The bout was figured to put Bisping within striking distance of a title shot if he could defeat Munoz, but in an unfortunate turn, he suffered an eye injury in preparation for the bout and was forced to withdraw. Machida was tapped to take his place, and the rest is history.
While the road to title contention is still open for Bisping, it will take a bit of work to get there. He will most likely have to face either Souza or Machida to solidify his spot, and if neither of those fights are made, there is another player in the title picture that would also present a difficult challenge in Gegard Mousasi.
"The Armenian Assassin" will be returning from injury in 2014 and has his sights set on making a run at the middleweight title. The 28-year-old made his long-awaited UFC debut back in April at UFC on Fuel TV 9 when he defeated last-minute replacement Ilir Latifi in Stockholm, Sweden. He was originally slated to face Alexander Gustafsson in the tilt, but "The Mauler" suffered a cut a week out from the fight and was forced to withdraw.
Mousasi's UFC debut was made at light heavyweight, but immediately following the bout, he announced a drop down to the middleweight division. He has competed in multiple weight classes throughout his professional MMA career but hasn't competed at 185 pounds since 2008 when he defeated Souza via knockout to win the Dream Middleweight Grand Prix and became the inaugural Dream middleweight champion.
With the title race in the middleweight division heating up, Mousasi will be an interesting addition. He has one of the most versatile striking arsenals in the game and could prove to be a legitimate threat to any fighter in the 185-pound collective.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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