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By: Rich Hansen, MMATorch Columnist
Middleweight is a quagmire. No other division has so many fighters who are so close together. There's no foolproof objective methodology to separate a ton of these guys, so this is the most subjective analysis you're going to see in this series. After the top two fighters at 185 lbs. (Silva and Sonnen. No, really), it's impossible to know who's really good and who isn't.
Fighters like Mark Munoz, Michael Bisping, and Alan Belcher don't have a signature victory, but each have unquestioned talent. Fighters like Vitor Belfort, Yushin Okami, and Nate Marquardt have long lists of huge victories, but they each have problems of their owns. To steal from Winston Churchill when discussing Russia, middleweight, "...Is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
Here's a drinking game we can play. Come up with your own list. Starting with #3, every time we match, you do a shot. You'll be sober at the end of the drinking game.
1.) Anderson Silva - Dude. Next fight: Chael Sonnen, June 23
2.) Chael Sonnen - Sonnen is more than hype, his use of wrestling in MMA is maybe the best ever. Certainly the best in the modern era. Mark Kerr fans, don't pillory me. He's the only guy to ever threaten Anderson Silva in the UFC, save for maybe two minutes of Travis Lutter 28 years ago. Next fight: Anderson Silva, June 23
3.) Jake Shields - Word on the street is that Shields has finally made the decision to move up. Since he's fought at 185 in the past, I'm ranking him as a middleweight. If Shields gets and wins a big fight in his UFC middleweight debut, he deserves to lose a fight with Anderson Silva or Chael Sonnen. Next fight: TBA
4.) Vitor Belfort - And everyone from here though #19 on the list is essentially interchangeable. You've got guys Anderson Silva has crushed, guys he would crush, and guys who will never get the chance (thankfully for them) to be crushed by Silva. Vitor might be the best of the lot. He certainly has the most dynamic resume of victories. Next fight: Wanderlei Silva, June 23
5.) Nate Marquardt - Funny how I ranked Shields as a MW because he's going to fight at MW, but leave Marquardt at MW even though he's going to be dropping. The difference? Shields has an established track record at 185, whereas Marquardt doesn't have the same for himself at 170. Plus, this is just easier for me. Next fight: TBA (rumored, Tyron Woodley, May 19)
6.) Chris Weidman - This is a little high, but rankings are subjective. Not to mention how gelatinous everything is in this part of the division. I liked how he stepped up against Demian Maia in January, cutting a ton of weight in less than two weeks. He's improved each time he's fought in the UFC. It's a speculative ranking, sure. That's the nature of the beast. Next fight: TBA
7.) Luke Rockhold - I'm a huge Jacare fan, and Rockhold beat him up a few months ago. I was very impressed by what we saw in that fight, and he kept steady by decimating an overmatched Keith Jardine. A fight with Tim Kennedy or a rematch with Jacare would be excellent. Next fight: TBA
8.) Michael Bisping - As I've said many a time, I don't understand the vitriol directed towards Bisping. He's a good fighter who knows how to get his name out there. Nothing wrong with that. He showed a lot in the Sonnen fight, but it was still a loss. The Boetsch fight is a hinge; either it springboards him to a title shot, or it's the nail in the coffin for his dreams of ever getting that elusive title shot. My money's on him winning over Boetsch. Next fight: Tim Boetsch, July 7
9.) Tim Boetsch - You just can't overstate how big it is to beat someone as good as Yushin Okami. There aren't a lot of fighters who hold that notch in their belt. But more than that, the reason Boetsch is in the top 10 is because he's a finisher. Having the ability to end a fight quickly is a vitally important that most elite fighters must possess. Next fight: Michael Bisping, July 7
10.) Yushin Okami - To give you an idea how closely bunched the middleweights are, in my first draft of this list I had Okami at #4, now I have him at #10. In the draft before this, I had him at #15. The case for #4? He is 26-7 with losses to Jake Shields, Rich Franklin, Chael Sonnen, and Anderson Silva. And he thoroughly stuffed Mark Munoz. And his loss to Tim Boetsch was in a fight he had dominated through two rounds. The case for #15? He's lost two in a row, and you have to rank him behind Boetsch. Honestly, You could take anyone from 4-19, place them in random order, and more often than not you'd have a perfectly acceptable list. Next fight: TBA
11.) Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza - Jacare's a personal favorite, so I don't like putting him so low on this list. But regardless of whether or not Luke Rockhold's resume warranted a title shot, credit to Rockhold for doing what he did. Jacare's a much better kickboxer than the other BJJ stylists at middleweight, and he is much more athletic than all of them as well. I'd love to see him in the UFC, because he's fought all the noteworthy Strikeforce middleweights. I still salivate over the thought of him vs. Cung Le. He should win that easily, but stylistically? Yes please! Next fight: TBA
12.) Mark Munoz - His signature win in the UFC (Demain Maia) doesn't look as good now as it did at the time (and I thought it was a draw). I've never been a Munoz guy. I respect him immensely, I hope if I have a son he grows up to be Mark Munoz, but I don't think he's an elite middleweight. I'm in the minority on this one, admittedly. I'd be happy to reconsider if he beats a Weidman or someone like that his next time out. Next fight: TBA
13.) Alan Belcher - Here's a man who's just begging for a signature victory. He was set to main event a Spike show in September 2010 when a detached retina put him on the shelf for over a year. He's since come back with a resounding victory over Jason MacDonald, but that was six months ago. It's a shame for fans that Belcher is on record saying he only wants to fight about twice a year, because the Duke Roufus trained fighter never puts on a bad fight. If he gets through Palhares and follows up in the fall with a win over a top-10 fighter, he's going to skyrocket up this list. Next fight: Rousimar Palhares, May 5
14.) Rousimar Palhares - I hate that my two favorite fighters at 185 are scheduled to face each other. But at least it'll be on Fox, and can't help but be an exciting fight that millions of people get to see. I just want the winner to be pushed into a huge fight, and for the loser to look so good in defeat that nothing is lost. Next fight: Alan Belcher, May 5
15.) Hector Lombard - Lombard's free of his Bellator contract (although there's a matching clause), so we'll see if he wants to be the big fish in a small pond, or if he wants to try to prove himself to be a big fish in a big damn ocean. He moves up five slots if he signs with the UFC, and hovers forever if he chooses to be Gilbert Melendez 2.0. Next fight: TBA
16.) Tim Kennedy - Did you know Tim Kennedy served in the military? Just ask him, he'll tell you all about it. Of course, he'll wait for the applause to die down before he continues. And he'll also tell you how he thrashed Jacare and deserves a rematch. At least, he deserved the rematch until Jacare lost to Rockhold, now he deserves Rockhold. Based off of what, exactly? Beating Melvin Frigging Manhoef and I Used To Be Robbie Lawler? Is a Strikeforce belt really that important to anyone anymore? If so, they better test him for hallucinogens before he goes back in the service. Next fight: TBA
17.) Anthony Johnson - He's got more talent than Alan Belcher, but less control than Tim Kennedy's mouth. I'm almost willing to pay him to spend two yeas with Mike Dolce. Almost. Next fight: Dave Branch, May 25
18.) Brian Stann - Stann made waves by shocking the world with his KO of Chris Leben, back when everyone was all over Leben's career resurgence (which was built on the false premise that a victory over Yoshihiro Akiyama actually meant anything). Chael Sonnen, who is no slouch, reminded us that Stann's the same guy who lost a fight to Steve Cantwell. The same 7-6 Steve Cantwell who has lost five UFC fights in a row. Stann's great fun, and I want him to succeed, but right now, this is who he is. Next fight: Alessio Sakara, UFC on Fuel 2
19.) Demian Maia - As long as Demian Maia wants to be a decent kickboxer with no jits, I'm ranking him as such. Start choking fools, and I'll rank you as, um, as a fool choker? Yeah. Fool Choker, I like that. Yes, I know, he's dropping to welterweight. Again, no track record there, so he stays here until we know who he is as a welterweight. If he's a kickboxer at 170, he won't crack that list. 170 is as deep as it gets. Next fight: Weight cut
20.) Jorge Santiago - Santiago got a raw deal from the UFC, being dropped after losing to Stann and Maia in consecutive fights. So, Steve Cantwell gets five losses in a row, Dan Hardy gets four losses in a row (soon to be five, BANG!), but Jorge Santiago gets two. Yeah, ok. Go watch his second fight with Kaz Misaki and then tell me if there's room for him on the roster. I'll wait. Next fight: TBA
21.) Ed Herman - I'm still waiting. I didn't link to that fight so that you'd skip through to Ed Herman. Next fight: TBA
22.) Robbie Lawler - Fine. Don't watch that epic fight, doomed to be overlooked in the annals of history. You have no idea what you're missing. Let me ask you this... Would you rather watch one of the great fights of all0time, or would you rather read about Robbie Lawler? I hope you chose the former, because, well, meh. Next fight: TBA
23.) Alexander Shlemenko - I've been a fan of Shlemenko since he he fought on the very last Elite XC show (ShoXC, if you will), one week after Kimbo Slice got Petruzelli'd. In the last eight years, he has a record of forty wins against five losses And yes, I know that not one of those wins is over Anderson Silva. But he consistently outclasses good fighters, and he hung in as tough as anyone against Hector Lombard. Next fight: Either vs. Hector Lombard or the winner of the season six Bellator tournament, date TBA
24.) Costa Philippou - I'll chalk up the Nick Catone loss to a case of the jitters, not uncommon for one's UFC debut. Since that setback, he's taken it to Jorge Rivera, Jared Hamman (who was coming off of the best win of his own career), and Court McGee. Next fight: Riki Fukuda, UFC 148
25.) Mamed Khalidov - Khalidov is good. He fights nobodies in Poland. Wake me up when he signs to fight over here. Next fight: Somewhere in Poland, most likely against someone whose name I won't ever be able to spell.
Fighters who weren't ranked on July 12: Rockhold, Johnson, Herman, Shlemenko, Philippou
Fighters who dropped out since July 12: Chris Leben (1 loss, drug suspension), Dan Miller (1 loss), Yoshihiro Akiyama (1 loss, drop to WW), Aaron Simpson (1 win, 1 loss, dropping to welterweight), Kyle Noke (2 losses)
Follow Rich Hansen on Twitter @MMATorchRich
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