Even in losing, though, Sonnen did something of immeasurable value to the UFC: he stayed a viable contender. Beyond the UFC's long-reigning champion, a look at the 185-pound class worldwide shows a wide-open field. More specifically, most of the world's top 10 middleweights are over 30 years old. While opportunities abound, though, few young 185-pound prospects have distinguished themselves.
Most weight classes have their exciting, young prodigies. Featherweight has Jose Aldo, welterweight has John Hathaway, and light-heavyweight has Jon Jones, among others. So where, we must ask, is the next great, young middleweight?
Ray Longo thinks that man is training in New York.
Chris Weidman is 26 years old. He was an NCAA All-American wrestler who beat UFC light-heavyweight contenders Ryan Bader and Phil Davis on the collegiate mats. He's a jiu-jitsu prodigy who qualified for the esteemed Abu Dhabi Combat Club submission fighting world championships after just eight months of formal training. And he trains his hands with Longo, who while now known primarily as the MMA coach who guided Matt Serra to the UFC welterweight championship, initially made his bones as a boxing trainer.
"He's the real deal, probably the most talented guy I've ever come across so far," Longo told MMA Fighting. "He reminds me of when the UFC brought in Cain Velasquez, because his cardio is great, he's got the wrestling pedigree, and he's really, really good at everything."
Weidman, though, is regarded as one of few blue-chip up and comers in the division. According to MMARanked.com, which sizes up prospects around the world, only four of the top 50 prospects are active middleweights. Weidman is the highest among them, followed by Strikeforce's Luke Rockhold, Uriah Hall (who coincidentally faces Weidman in a September Ring of Combat regional event) and Brazilian Bruno Santos.
A look at the dozen or so men who merit consideration as top 10 middleweights shows a class short on youth:
Dan Henderson, 39
Anderson Silva, 35
Wanderlei Silva, 34
Chael Sonnen, 33
Vitor Belfort, 33
Demian Maia, 32
Hector Lombard, 32
Paulo Filho, 32
Nate Marquardt, 31
Michael Bisping, 31
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, 30
Chris Leben, 30
Jorge Santiago, 29
Yushin Okami, 29
Robbie Lawler, 28
While MMA is such a layered sport that many athletes take time to put a complete game together and often peak in their late 20s, each division historically produces an outlier or two who break through to elite status early.
Take heavyweight, for example, where UFC has already lined up its next two contenders to the championship: No. 1 contender Cain Velasquez just turned 28, while top contender in the wings Junior Dos Santos is 26.
Middleweight has no young prodigy.
Some thought Alan Belcher would be the man to break through. Belcher was only 22 when he debuted in the UFC in 2006. He struggled in his early career, going 3-3, but by late 2008, he appeared to be turning the corner. Belcher has won four of his last five, losing only a disputed split decision to Yoshihiro Akiyama during that time. But while Belcher has showed strong recent progression, the 26-year-old recently suffered a career-threatening setback. He is on the shelf indefinitely after having surgery to repair a detached retina.
Belcher is one of the few middleweights under the age of 28 under contract with the UFC. None of the others, though, has yet to fully establish themselves as contenders. Kendall Grove, 27, has had moderate success, but has also been on the verge of a pink slip at times. He's 4-4 in his last eight fights. CB Dollaway, 27, is 4-2 after getting off to a rocky start. John Salter, 25, has split his two UFC bouts, while Ultimate Fighter season 11 champion Court McGee, 25, will make his first post-TUF start against Ryan Jensen in October.
The promotion did recently try to add some young blood into the division, most notably signing promising 25-year-old Korean Dong Yi Yang, who is undefeated at 9-0, as well as 27-year-old Rafael Natal.
Things are not very different at Strikeforce, where 31-year-old divisional champion Jake Shields cut ties with the company, abandoning the belt in favor of the UFC's welterweight class. On Saturday, a new champ will be crowned when Tim Kennedy, who turns 31 in days, takes on Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, who is also heading towards his 31st birthday. The promotion's other top middleweights include Matt Lindland (40), Cung Le (38) and Jason "Mayhem" Miller, who turns 30 near the year's end.
So what accounts for the trend? MMARanked.com's Vikram Sandhu thinks middleweight is an "in-between" division.
"If you look at the top ten lists for middleweight, it would be difficult finding fighters who couldn't make the cut if they wanted to," he said. "When they start losing, they usually do. Many middleweights are fighters that moved up in weight when they ran out of challengers or success fighting at 170, or down from 205 later in their careers."
UFC welterweight Thiago Alves was nearly faced with a similar predicament. After failing to make weight at UFC 117 (the second time in his career he's missed the mark), Alves was implored by UFC president Dana White to move up in class. At just 26, Alves would have suddenly become one of middleweight's hot young prospects. It was a move he's briefly considered in the past, and one he thinks he will make one day. Just not yet.
"When it comes to strength-wise, I don't think they're too much stronger than me," Alves told MMA Fighting. "I don't worry about that. It's more about the reach and size. And I've still got too much unfinished business in the 170-division. Once I do what I need to do in this division, definitely I'm going to move up to 185. That will be another chapter in my life."
Meanwhile, other young talent tries to nudge into the conversation. Three-time NCAA wrestling champ Jake Rosholt, who had a brief UFC run in 2009, is still just 27, and most expect him to find his way back into a major promotion before long. Twenty-two-year-old UFC fighter Brad Tavares, who shot to fame on last season's Ultimate Fighter, is still unbeaten and looks promising, while 26-year-old Alexander Shlemenko gets an opportunity to prove where he belongs on the middleweight radar when he faces the red-hot Hector Lombard in October.
"I think he's a very unique talent," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney told MMA Fighting. "His striking is world class, but don't count out his grappling. What he showed on the ground vs. [former collegiate wrestling All-American] Jared Hess was very impressive work."
While we don't know right now who the next great middleweight is, we can rest assured he's coming. Maybe it's Weidman or Rockhold or the Korean Dong Yi Yang that opens our eyes and makes us believers. But somewhere out there, a young fighter is on his way to emerging and upsetting the status quo.
In this sport, it only takes a few wins to rise to the top. Take it from "King Mo" Muhammed Lawal, who just a year ago was known by only diehard fans, but today is the Strikeforce light-heavyweight champions: when phenoms come, they arrive quickly.
"Rankings are a joke, rankings don't mean nothing," he said. "There could be someone right now that we don't know about who can beat everybody. He could be out in Budapest, Hungary, and no one knows about him because of [a lack of] marketing. He could be smashing people and we don't even know about him yet."
Heavyweight: Cain Velazquez (28) - 8-0 record, UFC No. 1 contender
Light-Heavyweight: Jon Jones (23) - 11-1 record
Welterweight: John Hathaway (22) - 14-0 record
Lightweight: Eddie Alvarez (24) - 20-2 record, Bellator champion
Featherweight: Jose Aldo (23) - 17-1 record, WEC champion
Bantamweight: Dominick Cruz (24) - 16-1 record, WEC champion
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