Anderson Silva has just about cleaned out the UFC’s middleweight field, and as a result, the current lack of serious challengers within Zuffa’s 185 pound weight division is becoming harder to overlook. That fact, coupled with The Spider’s recent fight against Patrick Cote, where he seemed to be holding back and purposely taking the fight to deeper waters, possibly as a test of his own cardio, has people talking. Something was certainly up with Silva’s approach and demeanor in that fight and now, once again, he appears to be looking elsewhere for a true test of his skills. If there’s no one left to push you within your weight class, what can you do but move up a division, and Silva appears to be stepping up to 205 again, this time raising the stakes to face off with former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. While that fight could make for an exciting main event, with two of the best strikers in UFC history going mano a mano inside the Octagon, now would be a good time to survey the entire middleweight landscape, inside and outside the UFC, for 185 pound fighters that could give the Spider a run for his money…or at minimum provide for some interesting match-ups. Following is a list of guys we’d like to see get a crack at MMA’s current middleweight kingpin.
The Title Holders:
Robbie Lawler – A Miletich trained, UFC fighter earlier in his career, “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler was thought to possess enough championship caliber skills and knockout power to carry him to the top of the fight game. But after an up and down career in the Octagon, a young Lawler moved on to fight for other promotions, including Pride, King Of The Cage, The IFL and Icon, where he knocked out Frank Trigg to win his first middleweight title. The time away appears to have been beneficial, as Lawler matured as a fighter and found his stride. While he currently wears another middleweight belt around his waist, unfortunately for Lawler, it’s from the now defunct Elite XC organization, and at the moment he, along with the majority of Pro Elite’s talent, currently finds himself stuck in contract limbo. Hopefully that won’t last long, as he’s one of the few fighters at 185 pounds who might be able to go toe to toe with Silva and come out on top. With a record of 16-4, including a spectacular knockout of Joey Villasenor, by flying knee only 22 seconds into their fight, plus wins over Murilo “Ninja” Rua, Chris Lytle and Scott Smith, Lawler, with his devastating power, should be one of the top fighters that the UFC is looking to sign to bolster their middleweight division. With the folding of Elite XC, the door may just be cracking open for a “Ruthless” return to the UFC and a possible showdown between Lawler and Silva.
Gegard Mousasi – This well rounded Armenian fighter, by way of Holland and trained at Red Devil International, is comfortable wherever the fight goes. Possessing an overall record of 24-2-1, with 22 of those wins coming inside the distance, Mousasi is currently riding high on an 11-fight win streak, most recently dominating the Dream middleweight Grand Prix, where he successfully fought through the toughest draw of the tournament. His opening round, upset submission over Grand Prix favorite, Dennis Kang, was followed up by a decision victory over Judo ace, Dong Sik Yoon, in the tournament’s second round. Mousasi continued to raise his game in the finals, where in one night he finished both Melvin Manhoef (armbar) and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (upkick KO), needing less than 4 minutes combined to finish both the top striker and the top submission artist in the tournament, if not the weight class as a whole. He’s also another 185 pound fighter who’s planning a move up to light heavyweight, so there shouldn’t be much of a size discrepancy were a fight with Anderson Silva to actually take place. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon, as recent interviews with Mousasi seem to indicate that the best chances for seeing him fight in the U.S. will be as a member of the Affliction promotion.
Cung Le – Cung Le, who’s undefeated in both kickboxing and San Shou freefighting, is still fairly new to the MMA game, but his 6-0 record is filled with highlight reel action and striking displays that often look like something you’d see in a film or demonstration, rather than a real live MMA fight. Talk about exciting strikers within the middleweight division and Cung Le should be at or near the head of the discussion. While his list of opponents may not be quite as impressive as some of the others on this list, none have made it to the final bell either, all of them falling to KO or TKO. Most impressive was his recent victory over Frank Shamrock, which garnered Le the Strikeforce middleweight title. That fight saw a flurry of punches and kicks by Le coming from all directions and angles, and while Shamrock was able to block multiple kicks, it only led to a fight ending broken arm. A bout between Le and Silva would provide fireworks between two of the most visually impressive and effective strikers in the game, but with Le contracted to Strikeforce and currently taking a hiatus while pursuing acting roles, who knows if this fight will ever happen.
Others Outside The UFC:
Matt Lindland – Matt “The Law” Lindland is an old school Team Quest fighter from the early days with Dan Henderson and Randy Couture. A silver medal winning Olympic wrestler with a 21-5 record in MMA, Lindland has fought for a number of organizations, including the IFL, Bodog and the UFC, going as far back as UFC 29. His list of victories includes Phil Baroni (twice), Ricardo Almeida, Jeremy Horn, Ivan Salaverry, Pat Miletich, Joe Doerksen, Travis Lutter, Tony Fryklund and many more. He’s also not intimidated to move up in weight, having accepted fights with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at light heavyweight and, at heavyweight, none other than Fedor Emelianenko. “The Law” is savvy in the cage and has been around the game long enough to give any fighter troubles. He likes to grind down and smother opponents to take them out of their game, plus his wrestling prowess might allow him to put a fighter like Silva on his back, where The Spider is somewhat less effective and dangerous…but could Lindland really wade through the barrage of strikes certain to come his way, in order to secure a takedown? Currently signed to Affliction and seeming to have no love lost for Dana White and the UFC, it’s hard to believe we’ll ever see Lindland fight for Zuffa again.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza – “Jacare” is widely recognized for being one of the best grapplers in the world, having already won multiple Jiu Jitsu World Championships in the Open Weight Division, and taken runner up at the 2005 Abu Dhabi Combat Club, where in the Absolute Division he lost only to Roger Gracie, a much larger fighter who normally competes at Heavyweight. While still fairly new to MMA competition, this Brazilian fighter who has spent time training at Extreme Couture already holds a 10-2 record, with 9 of those victories coming via first round submission. While some may think Souza isn’t ready for top level MMA competition just yet, he already possesses deadly ground skills which could threaten any fighter who finds himself on the floor with the Brazilian gator. This was evident as he advanced to the finals of this year’s Dream Middleweight Grand Prix. Securing victories over Jason “Mayhem” Miller and Zelg Galesic in order to reach the championship round, Souza then proceded to take Gegard Mousasi to the mat early in the final match. But just when it looked as though he had the fight exactly where he needed it, in order to win the Grand Prix, Souza was knocked out cold by a highlight reel upkick. Regardless of that recent stumble, just add a steadily improve all-around game to already dominant grappling skills, and “Jacare” looks like a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Current UFC Middleweights:
Michael Bisping – While the winner of the 3rd installment of The Ultimate Fighter isn’t quite ready to step up to a championship level fight just yet, UFC management is clearly grooming Michael Bisping for stardom. He’s already become the face of MMA in England and recently garnered the biggest win of his career in a Main Event victory over the popular and heavy handed, Chris Leben. Bisping can only count one official blemish on his near perfect, 17-1 record, that loss coming by split decision at the hands of Rashad Evans, an undefeated fighter who just knocked out Chuck Liddell and will be fighting Forest Griffin for the Light Heavyweight title in December. Not to shabby, specially as that close loss came prior to Bisping dropping down to a more naturally suited 185 pound weight class, where he appears to be quicker without losing any of his power. The UFC is wisely bringing the British fighter along slowly, but a title fight can’t be too far off, just as long as “The Count” continues with his winning ways.
Dan Henderson – Henderson is one of the most experienced and savvy fighters in the UFC, having been a two time Olympic wrestler, UFC 17 tournament champion, Pride 2005 welterweight Grand Prix champ, and the only MMA fighter to ever hold a belt in two weight classes concurrently for a major promotion, when he held both the Pride welterweight (183 lbs) and middleweight (205 lbs.) belts at the same time. With a 23-7 record and victories over a who’s who list of top MMA fighters, including Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Renzo Gracie, Vitor Belfort, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Murilo Bustamante, Yuki Kondo and too many others to list, Henderson has seen and done it all in mixed martial arts, and he’s a fighter that can never be counted out. In March of this year, as Pride Champion, Henderson faced Anderson Silva in a title fight to unify the two middleweight belts. He won the opening round of that match, but got caught in the 2nd and ended up succumbing to a fight ending rear naked choke. At 38 years of age, he’s reaching the latter stages of his career, though I’d still like to see him get one more shot at Silva, because he’s a fighter who plays the underdog role well, and one who I’ll always find it hard to bet against.
Denis Kang – Up until a recent slump, this American Top Team fighter was rated by many as a Top 5 middleweight, with wins over Murilo “Ninja” Rua, Akihiro Gono, Amar Suloev, Marvin Eastman and Andre Semenov. Sporting a 31-10-1 record, Kang hadn’t lost a fight for over three and half years heading into the Finals of the Pride Bushido 2006 Welterweight Grand Prix, in which he won his first match of the night in the tournament semi-finals, but came out of that bout injured. He valiantly attempted to win the Grand Prix championship, but didn’t appear to be a healthy fighter going in, and after 23 straight fights without a loss, Kang was narrowly defeated by split decision in the finals. Since that night he’s gone 3-2 in his last five fights, but each of those losses have come at the hands of top notch middleweights, including Gegard Mousasi and Yoshihiro Akiyama, who was on the short list of middleweights considered for this article. Regardless of those recent bumps in the road, Kang seems to be back on track with 1st round victories in each of his last two fights, needing a combined time of only 2:19 to finish both opponents. A BJJ black belt and striker with knock out power, if Kang is back to his old ways, he might be the type of middleweight challenge that Silva needs…and apparently the UFC thinks so too. As this article was being written, the news broke that Dennis Kang had just signed a four fight deal with the UFC. His first fight in the Octagon should take place in early 2009. If all goes well, we just might see Kang vs. Silva sooner than expected.
On The Rise:
Thales Leites – With an impressive 14-1 record, 9 fight ending submissions, and victories over high caliber middleweights such as Nate Marquardt, Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons, Drew McFedries and Pete Sell, Thales Leites is a dangerous, up-and-coming Brazilian fighter with slick ground skills. Of his 14 wins, he’s only had to go to a decision twice, so if he’s able to put together a strong performance in his next UFC fight, and add another high profile victory to his record, Leites should enter the discussion of fighters that are worthy of getting a shot at Silva. So far Leites’ major strength has been in his submission work, but whether any of the middleweight grappling specialists would actually have much of an advantage in going to the ground against The Spider is up for debate. Though prevailing sentiments may indicate that the champ’s strength lies in his striking arsenal, he too holds a BJJ black belt, from the Nogueira Brothers, proving that he’s truly one of the most well rounded fighters in the game.
Demian Maia – Maia is still young in the MMA game, but he’s already put together an impressive list of accomplishments. Another Brazilian submission wizard and BJJ black belt, he owns an undefeated 8-0 record in MMA and claims an Abu Dhabi championship to his name. While he still needs to build up his name, Maia’s already notched submission victories over Ed Herman and Jason McDonald, and was the first UFC fighter to earn three straight Submission Of The Night honors…coming in his first 3 UFC fights no less. He’s threatening anywhere on the ground and has been particularly adept with chokes. The bout with McDonald, who had also snagged two straight Sub Of The Night awards going into the match, turned into a ground fighting clinic that was one of the most entertaining grappling displays I’ve ever seen in the Octagon. Maia still needs to prove that he can succeed when stepping up to the highest levels of competition, but he’s clearly a fighter to keep your eye on.
Rousimar Palhares – Yet another Brazilian submission machine, Rousimar Palhares trains at Brazilian Top Team, where he earned his BJJ black belt under former UFC middleweight champ, Murilo Bustamante. He’s a former Fury Fighting Championships middleweight champion, a title he earned by winning a 16-man tournament which included opening round submission victories coming over Fabio “Negao” and Chute Boxe’s Daniel Acacio, both in the same night. With just 10 professional MMA bouts to his name, Palhares has already shown the ability to pull off a variety of fight ending submissions, including two armbars, two heel hooks, a rear naked choke and an ankle lock, all on the way to an 8-2 record. Though he suffered a slight setback in his most recent fight at UFC 88, with a decision loss to Dan Henderson, “Toquinho’s” (translation – “Tree Stump”) current UFC record stands at 1-1, with that victory coming in impressive fashion over veteran Ivan Salaverry. With imposing wrestling abilities, plus aggressive and threatening Jiu Jitsu, Palhares is another UFC middleweight prospect who appears to have a very promising future in the sport.