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Surveying the Middleweight Mountain - Part One

Michael DiSanto, UFC - The UFC middleweight division is a bit of an enigma.

Its long-time ruler, Anderson Silva, is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. His record-breaking nine-fight winning streak to start his UFC career has cemented that claim, and to even further establish his dominance, Silva will venture 20 lbs to the north for his second foray into the UFC light heavyweight division, facing former champion Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 on August 8th.
By Michael DiSanto

The UFC middleweight division is a bit of an enigma.

Its long-time ruler, Anderson Silva, is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. His record-breaking nine-fight winning streak to start his UFC career has cemented that claim, and to even further establish his dominance, Silva will venture 20 lbs to the north for his second foray into the UFC light heavyweight division, facing former champion Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 on August 8th.

While the champion distracts himself with what will likely be the toughest test of his career, his middleweight minions continue jockeying for position to catch the next 185-lb title shot. The cast of characters most likely to secure that shot include the division’s perennial contenders, Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson and Yushin Okami. Hendo appears to be the most likely future candidate following his destruction of fellow top contender Michael Bisping at UFC 100. Marquardt, however, will have the opportunity to make his case when he faces undefeated rising star Demian Maia on August 29.

But the list of possible title challengers doesn’t end with those three names. Maia can make as strong a case for being the No. 1 contender as anyone in the division if he is able to either submit or thoroughly beat down Marquardt. And don’t forget about reigning welterweight king and pound-for-pound great Georges St-Pierre. He has openly mused about a potential fight with Silva down the road.

Who is next up for champ? Let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse. Will the champion ever return to the 185-lb division; does his bout with Griffin mark the start of a permanent campaign at 205? What about the division’s longshoremen—the guys who pack a lunch each time they step into the Octagon? Can they upset the balance of power in the near term?

Forgetting the title picture for a moment, what other great middleweight fights are out there?

Let’s try to make some sense out of the middleweight mountain.

THE POUND-FOR-POUND KING

Anderson Silva: Silva is not only the reigning UFC Middleweight Champion. He is also a fighter with no peers. A 185-lb dictator with no identifiable threat to his reign. A pound-for-pound great who isn’t afraid to challenge himself by moving up 20 lbs to face former 205-lb champion Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 on August 8. Simply put, he is the best fighter on the planet. That is all fine and good, but the middleweight division is being held hostage while its champion faces Griffin in a 205-lb nontitle fight. Will he eschew the division he has ruled since first battering Rich Franklin in October 2006 in favor of a 205-lb title run, assuming he is successful against Griffin, who is the biggest, strongest opponent he has ever faced? That was a very real possibility until his good friend Lyoto Machida stopped Rashad Evans last month. Silva has said on more than one occasion that he will never fight Machida. Thus, Silva is likely headed back to 185 lbs after his bout with Griffin, win, lose or draw. Then again, UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta recently stated that he will not tolerate guys who won’t fight teammates if that means robbing fans of the best fights. Who knows? Whatever the case, Silva is as close to an unbeatable fighter as we have seen in the UFC. With top-of-the-food-chain striking skills (including a deadly clinch game), a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt from the Nogueira brothers, and the ability to seamlessly transition between those two aspects of his game make Silva the perfect (so far, at least) UFC fighting machine.

USUAL SUSPECTS

Dan Henderson: More than a decade after beginning his UFC career, Hendo is finally getting the domestic shine that he so richly deserves due to his coaching stint opposite Michael Bisping on The Ultimate Fighter. And he capitalized on that shine like no coach before him, savagely stopping Bisping with a single right hand at the biggest event in the history of the sport. That knockout, which separated Bisping from consciousness long before he hit the ground, will forever grace the UFC’s highlight reel. It was that good. Hendo is that good. There is no disputing that this guy is one of the best fighters in the history of the sport, pound for pound. Period. The Team Quest superstar earned a permanent spot in the record books by becoming the first (and only) man to simultaneously hold titles in two different weight divisions of a major MMA promotion, accomplishing that feat in February 2007 when, as the reigning PRIDE 183-lb champion, he knocked out the Wanderlei Silva to win the PRIDE 205-lb championship. Despite returning to the UFC last year with back-to-back losses in Anderson Silva and Quinton Jackson in title unification bouts, Hendo has placed himself back at the forefront of the contender’s queue with three straight wins over Rousimar Palhares, former champion Rich Franklin and Bisping, and after his 205-pound rematch with Franklin at UFC 103 in September, expect him to return to 185 to once again knock on Silva’s door.

Nate Marquardt: In nine trips to the Octagon, ‘Nate the Great’ has suffered only two setbacks—a first-round technical knockout at the hands of Anderson Silva and a questionable split decision loss to Thales Leites. Back-to-back wins over Martin Kampmann and Wilson Gouveia have the former title challenger back on track. And a tough test against undefeated contender Demian Maia at UFC 102 might be the perfect stage for Marquardt to earn a much desired return engagement with the champion. Marquardt’s strength as a fighter is the well-roundedness of his game, though he has shown an increasing preference for standing and striking with foes in recent bouts. He will want to do just that against Maia because going to the ground with a BJJ savant like Maia is career suicide. By contrast, if he is able to keep the fight on the feet, he may be able to score his third-consecutive knockout, raising legitimate questions whether he or Hendo is the true No. 1 middleweight contender.

Yushin Okami: Honestly, it must be frustrating to be Yushin Okami. He is without a doubt one of the best middleweight in the UFC that isn’t a household name among the fans. The Japanese ground-and-pound expert has a 7-1 Octagon record, which ranks up there with the very best in the division. He is also the last person to score a victory over reigning champion Anderson Silva – albeit, it was via disqualification after Silva knocked him silly with an illegal kick in Rumble on the Rock five months before the champ’s UFC debut. Okami was poised to challenge for Silva’s title at UFC 90, but a broken hand derailed that fight. He returned at UFC 92 with a solid win over Dean Lister, though a torn knee ligament sidelined him for the second time in less than a year, forcing him off the UFC 98 card. Okami is targeting a September return. Whether that is a realistic timetable remains to be seen. Will he ever get his chance at UFC gold? Time will tell.

IN LIMBO

Michael Bisping: The big question UFC fans were asking in the aftermath of Michael Bisping's loss to Dan Henderson was 'why did he continue to circle to his own left against Hendo, placing himself squarely in harm’s way?' Not only that, but he circled with his hands down. As a result, a guy who was a breath of fresh air among 185-lb title contenders has to work his way back to the top, and Bisping remains the only top middleweight who hasn’t yet scored a win over a true world-class opponent. Hendo, Marquardt and Okami all have marquee names on their list of vanquished foes. The biggest name gracing Bisping’s trophy case is Chris Leben – no disrespect to Leben, but he isn’t among the division’s elite, not yet anyway. So getting a high-profile victim on his record in his comeback fight is the first order of business for Bisping, and while it’s back to the drawing board for the British superstar in a lot of ways, if anyone can learn from such a devastating loss, it’s “The Count.” A major dose of humble pie might be just what the doctor ordered for a guy with amazing potential.

POUNDING ON THE CHAMPIONSHIP DOOR

Demian Maia: Many professional mixed martial artists like to a talk about how the quickest way to turn a BJJ black belt into a blue belt is to punch him in the face. MMA is far, far different from submission grappling tournaments, and the skills that work in the latter don’t necessarily translate into success inside the Octagon. Nothing could be farther from the truth as far as Demian Maia is concerned. Then again, this guy isn’t just another black belt. He is a multiple-time BJJ world champion with a solid set of whiskers and an uncanny ability to take down opponents, a skill many BJJ experts sorely lack. Not to mention the fact that Maia has shown that while he still lacks anything more than nascent striking skills, he is a fighter deep down in his DNA where the word “quit” just doesn’t seem to exist. The result is that Maia’s transition from BJJ tournaments to MMA has been stellar. He is perfect as a professional, including five wins in the UFC, all by submission. That leaves Maia as the only UFC middleweight with a spotless record who has at least 10 professional fights and five bouts inside the Octagon. The only knock on his claim to the No. 1 contender spot is that he has yet to face a true A-level opponent. That criticism will fly out the window after UFC 102. If he is able to defeat Marquardt, particularly if he scores yet another submission victory, then it will be difficult to argue that anyone in the division is more deserving of the next shot at Silva’s crown. If Maia is smart, he isn’t thinking that far ahead and is focusing solely on developing a game plan to get “Nate the Great” on the ground, where he will have a sizeable submission advantage, just like he does against every middleweight in the UFC, including Silva.

STAR-STUDDED NEWCOMERS

Wanderlei Silva: If MMA’s capo di tutti capi Dana White announced three years ago that he had just signed Wanderlei Silva to compete in the UFC middleweight division, it would have sent waves of shock and fear throughout the division. Today, Silva’s drop in weight is viewed as a necessary evil after suffering five losses in his last six fights, including three by knockout. His lone win during that stretch was a 36-second mauling of Keith Jardine that resembled an African lion slaying a helpless baby gnu as much as it did a man conquering an opponent in a sporting contest. That is the “Axe Murderer,” the guy who ruled PRIDE’s 205-lb division with terror never before or since seen in the Land of the Rising Sun. We saw signs of that guy in his close decision loss to Rich Franklin at UFC 99. Actually, some fans felt that Silva, who landed the only true concussive blows in the fight, did enough to win. Win or lose, the Franklin fight was contested at 195 lbs, not 185 lbs. So major questions still exist whether Silva can actually make the 185-lb limit and retain all of his trademark power and aggressiveness. Oh yes, he also needs to bring with him punches in bunches. Silva is on a terrible trend of throwing fewer and fewer combinations in his fight, and for a man with a wild, winging style of throwing punches, shots in bunches are the best way to score knockout wins. If he shows up at 185 lbs with all his strength, aggressiveness and combination punching, then things could get very interesting very quickly for the Axe Murderer.

Yoshihiro Akiyama: Life is good for UFC newcomer Yoshihiro Akiyama. Forget the fact that he is married to Japanese fashion model Shiho. Ignore that the decorated Japanese judoka is already a star in his native land, starring in a Nike commercial of all things. Look past the fact that he is a very successful mixed martial artist so far in his career, racking up a near perfect MMA record, including a K-1 tournament championship in 2006 where he defeated deadly striker Melvin Manhoef in the finals. Let’s not mention that he also holds a decisive first-round knockout win over fellow UFC middleweight Denis Kang. Definitely gloss over the realities of his lone career loss—a circus-like matchup in K-1 against legendary heavyweight kickboxer Jerome Le Banner in Akiyama’s second career fight. None of that matters anymore because the star-studded newcomer put on an amazing show in his UFC debut, scoring a thrilling split decision victory over tough Octagon veteran Alan Belcher at UFC 100. The best part is that he did it by trading punches with a bigger, stronger foe in order to thrill the fans, rather than playing it safe by relying on his elite judo skills. The win was far more significant than just scoring a ‘W’ over a rugged UFC veteran. It separated him from other elite fighters who either earned their bones, or otherwise spent a long stretch fighting, in Japan’s MMA organization before plying their trade in the Octagon. Heath Herring, Dan Henderson, Denis Kang, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Rameau Sokoudjou, Dokonjonosuke Mishima and countless others in that category fell short in their debut in or return to the Octagon. Akiyama did not, and that is noteworthy.

Next up, we will take a look at the next tier of contenders, some of the division’s longshoremen, a couple of prospects and then a few words on the rest of the division.
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