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Even with the best matchmaking and the best fighters available, there’s no guarantee that any division will thrive. Sometimes one fighter will so dominate a division that there isn’t drama for the fights. Other times, no fighter will stand out, and instead, there will be a collection of fighters all perceived as mediocre. MMA is at its most exciting when there are a number of top-flight fighters in a division, providing excellent competition where fans can debate who is the best of the best.
In boxing, many fans point to the 1980s as a glory period for the sport when Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, Roberto Duran and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler were competing back and forth for supremacy in the same general weight range for much of the decade. The Pride Fighting Championships middleweight division at its peak thrived in a similar manner because of the depth of elite fighters: Wanderlei Silva, Quinton Jackson, Mauricio Rua, Dan Henderson, Ricardo Arona, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Kazushi Sakuraba, Alistair Overeem and on down. Most of those fighters ended up filtering into the Ultimate Fighting Championship, creating more compelling matchups at 205 and 185 pounds in the years to come.
Throughout the dominant reign of Anderson Silva, the UFC middleweight division wasn’t a hot spot in the sport. Silva himself became a superstar over time, but he defeated opponents so emphatically that it made many fans think the competition just wasn’t that good. Even for those who did believe in the quality of the opposition, there was no getting past the way Silva handled it. As a result, Silva’s fights were usually perceived as wipeouts going in and fights between top contenders rarely had a lot of sizzle. Silva himself brought great excitement, but the division overall was lacking.
As the era of Silva came to an end, it offered up opportunities for other fighters. Now, three and a half years since Silva lost his title to Chris Weidman, the middleweight division is thriving. It doesn’t have the overall depth of the welterweight or lightweight divisions and no one in it is as dominant as Demetrious Johnson, but it has the best class of top fighters in the sport. There are enough fresh matchups between the top stars to last for years, and it will be compelling to see how things shake out.
At the top is Michael Bisping, the cocky longtime star who made his way to the top through hard work and perseverance. However, Bisping is perceived as vulnerable, and there are plenty of sharks circling the champion. Bisping’s status has added stakes to all the other fights in the division because the top contenders have made it clear that they believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that if they can earn a title shot against Bisping, they will capture that championship. It’s analogous to some of the great Western Conference NBA playoff series in the last decade, with top teams battling tooth and nail thinking the Eastern Conference champion will be weaker competition.
There’s good reason for the top middleweight contenders to be confident, because it is an exceedingly talented bunch. First on that list is the scary Olympic silver medalist with otherworldly knockout power, Yoel Romero -- undefeated since 2011 and talking up a storm in Bisping’s direction. Ronaldo Souza is one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners in the history of MMA and has added excellent striking en route to winning 10 of his last 11 bouts. Luke Rockhold is perhaps the most well-rounded of the bunch and has finished five of his last six opponents emphatically. Proud former champion Chris Weidman has the longest title reign of the group and was undefeated for his career before his most recent setbacks to Rockhold and Romero. Those top five fighters are a collective 89-11 when not matched against each other.
It isn’t just that these fighters are all so talented; they also represent a diversity of different styles that will make for distinct fights when the matchups are switched up. From Bisping vs. Romero and “Jacare” vs. Weidman to Rockhold vs. Romero and Bisping vs. Weidman, there are never-before-seen potential title fights left and right. That’s not even factoring in the lingering presence of Silva, the surging Gegard Mousasi or the intriguing Kelvin Gastelum, among others. There’s a wealth of talent, and unpredictability comes with it.
Other divisions may be able to deliver more high-quality fights from top to bottom over the next few years, but no division will have the quality of title fights of the middleweights. It’s going to take time to sort it all out, and there are going to be some classic battles on that road. We are embarking on a genuine renaissance at 185 pounds, and the best is still yet to come.