Welcome to FanRag Sports’ MMA quarterly report, where we provide you with all the latest that’s taken place in a particular division in mixed martial arts.
Today we look at the middleweight division, a class that featured some of the more stunning upsets and questionable matchmaking of all weight classes in 2016. Michael Bisping remains the champion going into the new year, but some of the division’s biggest winners in Q4 may have an opportunity to change that early on in 2017.
Greatest Rise in Stock During Quarter IV: Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker
Yoel Romero has been doubted for a majority of his mixed martial arts career. Doubted as a true contender for the top spot in the division due to his age and limited experience in MMA. Doubted as a pure fighter because of his otherworldly physique and controversially failed drug test. Doubted because he’s just one of a handful of monsters atop the class. He quelled a few of those critiques at UFC 205, crushing former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman with a flying-knee knockout. It was the fifth victory Romero picked up against a top 15 UFC middleweight, adding Weidman to a list that already features Ronaldo Souza, Lyoto Machida, Tim Kennedy and Derek Brunson. Romero now finds himself as the undisputed No. 1 contender for the crown.
Robert Whittaker also managed to make some sizable waves in the final stages of 2016. The former welterweight striker is now a perfect 5-0 after moving himself up a weight class, most recently starching an overzealous Brunson at UFC Fight Night 101 in late November. The Aussie fought in front of a home crowd in Melbourne, Australia, stopping Brunson in just over four minutes. The 26-year-old now finds himself nearing a title eliminator at 185 pounds, perhaps one or two wins away from contending for the belt.
Greatest Drop in Stock During Quarter IV: Chris Weidman, Derek Brunson
There’s a reason Romero’s victory allowed him to rise to such heights in 2016, and it has much to do with how highly regarded Weidman was (and still is) in leading up to that fight. Weidman was 13-1 heading into UFC 205, with his lone defeat coming in his most recent fight against Luke Rockhold in December 2015. Now healthy and eager to reclaim his championship, the “All-American” looked poised to handle his elder counterpart and march his way into a grudge match with champion Michael Bisping. It didn’t quite pan out that way. Weidman offered little to nothing in the first two rounds of his fight against Romero before getting caught with a vicious knee that left him a bloody mess on a two-fight losing streak.
Weidman remains a top five middleweight in the UFC and retains much of the praise he’s been given.
Brunson, however, is a different story.
The 33-year-old Jackson-Wink product was on a five-fight winning streak when he met Whittaker on Nov. 26, with his four most recent victories coming by way of first-round T/KO. Problem for Brunson is, save for his win over Uriah Hall, he hadn’t faced anybody with quality striking inside the cage. His knockouts came without controversy, but they were also absent of the technique that could put a fighter like Whittaker away. Brunson came in sloppy, swinging wide while keeping his head on the center line — a formula that will almost always lead to a KO win for a striker like Whittaker. Brunson now finds himself sitting at No. 8 in the division, likely needing another extended winning streak before he can leapfrog the Rockholds, Souzas, Weidmans and Romeros of the division.
Biggest Question Heading into Quarter I 2017: Can Michael Bisping retain his title for a second time?
Most of us are under the impression that Romero is next in line for a shot at the title. That much seems to be true, anyway, now that “Jacare” Souza — the only other reasonable candidate for the shot — is booked to fight Tim Boetsch in what has all makings of a keep-me-busy kind of fight for the Brazilian contender. Romero is a perfect 8-0 in the UFC’s middleweight division, picking up quality wins over former UFC champions like Weidman and Machida, and would-be contenders like Souza, Kennedy and Brunson.
Regardless of who Michael Bisping faces however, we’re all still wondering if he has what it takes to deal with any one of the elite fighters aiming for the target on his back. Bisping’s rise to the championship seemingly came out of nowhere, starting with a surprising upset of Anderson Silva and ending with a out-of-nowhere first-round knockout of Rockhold a few months later. Given the history and circumstances, many pegged “The Count” as a one-and-done champ, primed to drop the title once he faced Romero, Souza, Weidman, Gegard Mousasi or even Rockhold for a third time.
Fortunately for the Brit he was granted a grudge match against Dan Henderson — a fighter ranked far outside the top 10 with nothing more than a lone victory over Hector Lombard to justify the title shot. Bisping, as expected, defended the belt. He now has to move on to a fight against a true challenger.