State of the Union: The UFC middleweight landscape

What does it mean to be top 15? Who are the competitors, how do they fight, how do they match up? It's a question…

By: Josh Samman | 8 years ago
State of the Union: The UFC middleweight landscape
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

What does it mean to be top 15? Who are the competitors, how do they fight, how do they match up? It’s a question asked a lot of analysts and fans, but not quite so much of the competitors themselves. What does a division look like from the inside? Josh Samman, coming off a highlight-reel KO win over TUF 19 winner Eddie Gordon, breaks down every one of the Top 15 in his own division together with Phil Mackenzie, who takes a look at things from the other side of the fence (and the other side of the Atlantic ocean!).

Champion: Chris Weidman

Josh: Once Weidman’s fight with Belfort was cancelled, I had a friend/casual fan text me and ask me why champions were always getting hurt so much. The answer, if I had to guess, is equal parts “I’ve earned the right to have rest/surgery if I’m injured” as it is “I need to continue training like a psycho to maintain this level of success.” Either way, Weidman is quickly joining the ranks of GSP and Velasquez in terms of fighting frequency, giving us all the more reason to appreciate champions like Rousey and Johnson, who are willing and able to defend their belt and dispatch plausible contenders the moment they present themselves.

Word of a potential fight in May has already began circulating, but I’m not sure after three cancellations between the two participants of this fight that an interim title isn’t the best option, for fans and middleweight contenders alike.

Phil: Weidman is quickly slipping into the Velasquez or Pettis mould. He’s a near-perfect champion on paper: likeable, good looking, All-American. He has a great story, and his selection of championship fights, (from Silva the legend, to Machida the enigma, to Belfort the villain) is absolutely primed to get him over with fans. However, in today’s UFC, with an event a week, building engagement with relatively frequent fights is a must. You’ve had your own injury struggles- any advice for the champ?
Josh: Ha, I’m still learning how to avoid these things myself. Not sure how much use I would be in the way of advising a champion, besides the same that things anyone would probably suggest: dedicate more time to recovery. But I can definitely relate.

#1: Anderson Silva

Josh: God damn it. Fuck. Shit. Does anyone else not feel this way about this? I’ve never been more disappointed in a fighter. I could not care any less about Nick’s positive marijuana metabolites. He is a dedicated freedom fighter at this point for all I care. Like Ben Fowlkes said, I imagine a shady Brazilian doctor blaming coming up soon. I’ve never heard of one camp all failing for steroids so many times in the course of one year, let alone all for the same drug. It’s not that I think Ed Soares is over there handing out needles at the door, I just think it’s very conceivable that there is a bad apple over there in these guys’ ears.

High profile positive test failures like this are the very reason why everyone assumes that all athletes/professional MMA fighters are using PEDs. In the last 24 hours I’ve seen this train of thought revamp the incredibly irresponsible “well let’s just let everyone use” discussion. Fuck that. At best, that stuff may have a place in non-combative sports, but in a contest where concussive damage is the objective and quite often the end result, I’m perfectly fine with lifetime bans for one test failure.
I’m inclined to think this Anderson’s first time, because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and the fanboy in me might even be able to be convinced that he’s innocent, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t end his career with the absolute worst three outcomes ever.
Phil: The problem when we look at, well, pretty much anything, is that we always work with incomplete information and I don’t know if there’s a better example of this than MMA. As fans and analysts, we learn a few things about fighters, and then we assume that those few things that we know are the root causes of what’s happening. I don’t really know anything about where a fighter’s head is at, or what injuries they’ve got, or how their home or gym life is, and these are big, big things which affect a fight. For all the millions of words of analysis that get put out, almost none of us really know the first thing about what it’s like to be an MMA fighter.
So when we learn something concrete, it gets hungrily latched on to. That’s why Anderson popping is such a motherfucker. It’s one of the few things we really know, and so people won’t be able to help themselves from applying it everywhere. His entire career comes under suspicion. To clarify, I don’t mean that we know that Anderson definitely, consciously took steroids, but that the accusation is now out there, and it’ll be out there forever, sadly.

#2: Ronaldo Souza

Josh: Super tough fight for anyone. He was slated to fight #6 Yoel Romero on what should have been a critical night for the middleweight division, UFC 184, but was diagnosed with pneumonia and forced to reschedule the fight to a later date. Although I’m not 100% convinced of his #2 ranking, I think he will definitely be next in line for the title with anything resembling a semi-impressive performance against Romero.

Phil: Jacare is an interesting example of an oft-overlooked phenomenon: the slowly improving Brazilian. I think one of the stereotypes in the sport is the divide between the “talented Brazilian” and the “hard-working American”, but a lot of what we’ve seen recently has been steady long-term improvements from fighters like Dos Anjos, Werdum, and Souza. Many of them were already good athletes, but we’ve seen tangible technical improvements. Jacare is still fundamentally the same fighter, but he’s tweaked his effective striking and approach, and is now a two-fisted combination puncher rather than a big right hand. He should already be fighting Weidman in my opinion, and that would be a great matchup between two forward-moving, aggressive fighters.

#3: Lyoto Machida

Josh: Watching Weidman defeat Machida, in the manner that he did, still sticks in my mind as one of the most surprising fights in terms of what actually happened inside the cage. Maybe I need to go back for another look, but I remember Weidman not being fazed by Machida’s counters, not relying only on his wrestling, and tagging the seemingly untaggable Machida with free range of motion strikes. I’m not sure what he does differently if he ever gets the rematch, but I think he presents tremendous problems for anyone else in the division.

Phil: I think Weidman just presents very big problems for Lyoto’s style. He’s a steady, stalking pressure fighter, and those are very difficult for pure counter fighters to go against, because they won’t throw anything until they’re dead certain that they’ve put their opponent out of position. As such, I think it was interesting that a lot of Machida’s success came from… not fighting like Machida. Namely aggression and body kicks. He’s still working with Rafael Cordeiro, and those are two things which “Mestre” specializes in teaching. However, for a fighter who’s in his late 30’s, the clock is definitely ticking on The Dragon’s title chances.

#4: Vitor Belfort

Josh: Elevated testosterone failure + turning down interim title vs. Machida + asking for Munoz (or any fighter coming off two losses in a row) for an interim title fight = Removal from title contention, in my opinion. Yes, it sucks that his fight got postponed twice due to the champ getting injured, but as Weidman pointed out, had Belfort been suspended per his elevated testosterone test, as most of us thought that’s what happens when you fail drug tests, then he would have been suspended until around this time of 2015 anyway. Probably won’t happen, but I say give the interim shot to the guys directly above and below him, as they are slated to fight already anyway.

Phil: I think the important thing is how much the UFC love Vitor Belfort title shots. Because they love Vitor Belfort title shots. He’s just a perfect mix of an old-school, well-known name, and a key figure in the Brazilian market. His initial shot against Anderson Silva came off exactly zero UFC wins at middleweight, and a long time on the shelf. His shot at Jones needs little explanation. Wins over Bisping and Rockhold were the most legitimate of his UFC career, but the giant TRT shitstorm that overshadowed them, as well as the fact that he was struggling to get licensed to fight in Nevada, may have discouraged Zuffa from putting him in there again with Weidman or Silva. Following the Henderson win, it’s full speed ahead for another silly Vitor title shot, damn the drug test failures and the constant suspicion, or anything else.
Honestly, I still kind of want to see it.

#5: Luke Rockhold

Josh: Despite his loss against Belfort, and his placement at the lower end of the #5, I think Rockhold is the guy to beat in the division right now. He’s got a difficult skill set to beat, and seems to be getting in his groove in terms of his comfort level in the octagon. It wasn’t just his quick demolishing of Bisping, it was the nonchalance with which he did it. His body language was as if the idea of Bisping actually winning that fight was the most absurd thing he had ever heard. Add to that the creativity in which he defeated Boetsch, and I think you have a very successful recipe. If I was Joe Silva, Rockhold fights for the title next, whether it’s against Weidman when he comes back, or making his fight with Lyoto for an interim belt.

Phil: I still think that Jacare deserves to be ahead of Rockhold in the pecking order based on recent achievements, but I can fully co-sign on him as him being the man to beat in the division. Not only is he looking far more comfortable and less vulnerable early in fights, but I think he presents an excellent stylistic matchup for the champ. If Weidman is the stalking pressure fighter, then Rockhold is a gigantic, physical middleweight who throws a high volume of kicking offense which Weidman would have to wade through. He was always my pick to dethrone Weidman, and watching the champ struggle a little with Machida’s kicks hasn’t changed that perception. He has to get through Machida first, though, who I think is actually a tougher stylistic matchup.

#6: Yoel Romero

Josh: Yoel Romero is the one fight in the division that I think his opponents have the least say in dictating where exactly the fight takes place. Fans may expect more of his wrestling, given his credentials, but his takedowns and takedown defense are both great, leaving his opponents no chance but to bite down on their mouthpiece and strike, should Romero choose to keep it standing. Kennedy embraced some face punching at the end of round two in his fight with Romero, and found success in a fight that I thought should have been stopped when Romero didn’t get off the stool. He is scheduled to fight Jacare, and would probably need one more win after that to get a title shot, given the thickness of the division.

Phil: What I find interesting about Romero is that he’s really good at things we think of as key to MMA- he’s a great boxer and a really great wrestler, and a phenomenal athlete. In the transitional spaces, though, he’s not nearly as experienced. So Feijao got to him in the Thai plumm, and Kennedy got to him off clinch breaks, and with body kicks. However, boxing, wrestling and athleticism are all such absolute necessities in fights that opponents just always find themselves in his wheelhouse at some point. This kind of unevenness makes it terribly difficult to pick his fights in all honesty!

#7: Gegard Mousasi

Josh: Vitor cited the drastic stylistic change as reason for turning down the Machida fight, but we never got a response as to why no one answered Mousasi’s calls to throw his name in the hat. I thought that would have been a great fight at UFC 184 for an interim title, given Mousasi’s recent momentum with his finish over Henderson. Mousasi seems like a quirky guy, always looking like he rolled out of bed, and I think he would make a fun champion, as well as help to grow the European fan base.

Phil: I love Mousasi, but to me the Moose is a classic example of an incredibly talented fighter who has never quite taken the step up that he needs to be great: still training with his brother, still almost undoubtedly the best athlete at every gym he goes to. Against the elite, his well-roundedness becomes a curse, because they can take him to their specialities (Machida-striking, Jacare- grappling and pressure) without a whole lot of resistance. I still love to see him fight, and he’s a nightmare for anyone beneath the Top 10, but he needs to show something different if he’s ever going to fight for the belt.

#8: Tim Kennedy

Josh: As stated above, I thought Kennedy’s fight with Romero should have been stopped, with Kennedy the victor. I’m cautious to speculate, but if I were pressed for an answer on what happened in that fight, I think we witnessed maybe the one thing that could have possibly have frazzled the iron mind of Tim Kennedy that night. Maybe he could not understand why any referee in their right mind would not be waving off a fight in which one fighter has spent an extra 20 seconds on the stool, and in the heat of the moment, caught in his disbelief, he forgot that he still had a very powerful middlweight across the cage from him, with an extra 30% of recovery time, coming back to try to knock his head off. This is just my opinion, and again I don’t think that fight should have seen a third round anyway. I still put him in the top five toughest fights in the division, higher than his number #8 ranking would indicate.

Phil: Kennedy is one of those guys that has never really gotten the respect he deserves. His outspoken political leanings have overshadowed his fighting abilities, and he was an enormous recipient of “second tier” bias when at Strikeforce. “He lost to Jacare and Rockhold, so he can’t be any good, right?” I think we know now that he’s pretty damn good. Like most, I also thought he deserved the stoppage over Romero. That fight showed me a smart veteran re-tooling their approach for a specific opponent, but Romero’s team (I don’t blame Romero himself) cynically gambled on the passivity of MMA officials, and won big.

#9: Michael Bisping

Josh: Please, Fight Gods, spare me ocular injuries. Once Bisping began to point out how all of his losses were to PED offenders or TRT patients, I started to feel for the guy. Just as much as we saw Luke Rockhold surprisingly lucid during his fight with Bisping, we saw Bisping unusually lost looking. Maybe they were just byproducts of each other’s energy, but I gave up my hopes of Bisping contending for the title after that fight. He still has great name value, and were he not scheduled to fight Dolloway at UFC 186, I would love to see Bisping be Kelvin Gastelum’s first test at middleweight. They’re both coming off losses to contenders that could very well be fighting for the belt next, and I don’t think either one of them lose much luster in a defeat to the other.

Phil: I’m less convinced of Bisping’s deterioration, more I just think that the standard of fighters in the division has surpassed him. His biggest wins are probably… Brian Stann, Chris Leben or Alan Belcher, and while these are good wins, they aren’t what you’d really expect from a perennial top 5. However, his work ethic is second-to-none, and he’s carved out an amazing career for himself. A lot of people have come around to appreciate his Mancunian snark and brutal honesty, and like you said, he’s fought an absolute rogues gallery of PED users. I think he’s one of those guys where a surprising amount will be sad to see him go. Gastelum sounds like a great fight (although I suspect Kelvin may get a bit of an easier fight in his return to 185).

#10: Thales Leites

Josh: If I were to show a new fan Thales Leites’ last three fights, and then showed them the fight with Anderson Silva, they would not believe that it is the same person. I love the story of second careers in fighters, a la Robbie Lawler, and while Laites may not have gone back as far into the early Zuffa days as Lawler, he’s mounted an impressive comeback that will be a great story if he ever is able to capture the belt. I’d like to see him against Kennedy next.

Phil: Leites is not only a super nice guy, but one who has made clear strides without sacrificing what brought him to the table in the first place: grappling! There’s such a differential between the guys at this level and the guys above the Bisping level that I’m not sure that he’ll ever get close to the belt, but he’s earned his top 10 ranking.

#11: CB Dolloway

Josh: His KO over Mutante was surprising and fun. His matchup with Machida was downright mean. He has had a good career with the UFC, with over a dozen fights in the organization, but I do believe he has hit his ceiling, and should be an easy fight for Bisping to bounce back with.

Phil: Clarence Byron is another fighter who’s sneakily rounded out their game. He’s a surprisingly decent boxer, and understands the mechanics of how to mix it together with his wrestling. Unfortunately, he has dynamism issues: he doesn’t have really deadly power, and he’s quite fragile himself. I agree that Bisping probably still beats him unless the Brit really has lost a step, but I think that Dollaway could make it hard on him, particularly early on in the fight.

#12: Costas Philippou

Josh: From the sounds of things Costas has had his bout with Uriah Hall rescheduled, probably in New Jersey close to both of their hometowns. Costas has defeated Uriah once already, and I am intrigued to see how the second one plays out. Uriah has had a habit of having bizarre things happening in his UFC fights, from all the bro-ing in the Howard fight, to the normally indomitable Chris Leben quitting on the stool, to the broken toe vs. Santos, and the unusually fast doctor stoppage vs. Stallings. Will he continue his streak of anomalies in the cage? I’m not sure, but I’m always more inclined to side with TUF 17 alumni.

Phil: Costas has had his own share of weird fights, so that sounds like a good prediction! From the foul-fest against Boetsch, to getting turned into a grappling dummy by Francis Carmont, to suddenly looking great and knocking out Lorenz Larkin, I’m just never sure what to expect from him. I do think, however, that his aggressive combination boxing is a good match for how defensively vulnerable Uriah tends to be when forced backwards. If Philippou does what he did against Larkin- “force opponent to the cage, punch punch punch”, then I can see him picking up another stoppage win over Hall.

#13: Mark Munoz

Josh: Munoz was scheduled to fight Caio Magalhaes, in one of the UFC’s more unusual matchmaking decisions as of late. Mark is coming off two losses, while Caio is riding a very fast two fight winning streak, both by KO. Perhaps they were hoping to finally make a name out of Caio by beating a familiar face, but in either case, Caio pulled out due to complications from a dental surgery. Munoz is now slated to fight a pretty damn talented submission artist on a five fight win streak, in a bout that Munoz could possibly be an underdog in. Hard to pick that one.

Phil: Munoz is similar to Dollaway in my mind. He’s a bit worse at blending strikes and takedowns, packs a ton more power than CB (evinced when he knocked him out) but is just way too fragile. His wrestling never translated to offensive wrestling capabilities all that well, but his own takedown defense has been pretty great. I think the Carneiro fight is a confidence builder and a welcome break from Munoz’s murderously tough schedule of late. 3 of his last 4 against Mousasi, Machida and Weidman? Insane.

#14: Tim Boetsch

Josh: Kind of hard to believe this is the same guy who rained on the Hector Lombard parade when he first came over to the UFC.  Besides that, Boetsch has lost to four guys in the top 15, nothing to scoff at, but where does he go next? A rematch with either Munoz or CB would have made sense to me, but since they are both booked, let him have a go at Nate Marquardt?

Phil: Boetsch is (to be perhaps overly harsh) an object lesson in the dangers of overperforming. Like Pat Healy down at lightweight, he had a breakout performance which then put him in the upper tier of the division. Once there, someone like that makes a great gritty, recognizable stepping stone for fighters on the rise. Which means getting brutally overmatched a lot. Boetsch has actually done a pretty good job of defying the odds every now and again, which means that he just gets more tough matchups. Marquardt sounds like a great, appropriate fight though. I’d watch it.

#15: Brad Tavares

Josh: Tavares is talented, but needs to be tailor fitted with someone that can goad him into an exciting fight, otherwise it becomes a glorified sparring match. Brunson’s recent quick TKO victory over Herman would provide some good momentum into this fight for essentially a pure striker vs. grappler match.

Phil: The “guys who lost to Romero” showdown, eh? I like it. Both fighters who have gotten reputations for being grinders in their respective fields, but Brunson is starting to show way more dynamism (and put forth a much better showing against Romero as well). I think Tavares was starting to open up against Boetsch, but unfortunately I think his capacity to be exciting may well have been knocked out of him by the Maine native.
Even with the champ on the shelf (again), I think we’re going to carry on seeing changes towards the top of the Middleweight division this year. Thanks again for your time Mr. Samman!
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Josh Samman
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