About two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled "Where is MMA's Next Great Middleweight?" At the time, most of the division's top fighters were well over 30 years old, and in a search for the next big thing, I focused part of the spotlight on Chris Weidman.
"He's the real deal, probably the most talented guy I've ever come across so far," Weidman's trainer Ray Longo said back then. "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."
At the time of that quote, in August 2010, Weidman was all of two fights into his pro career, and had yet to set foot in the UFC. Seven fights later, Longo better make room on the Weidman bandwagon. The New Yorker's arrival as a top-five middleweight, along with the rise of Alan Belcher and addition of Hector Lombard, at least has the UFC in a position to produce a legitimate challenger to Anderson Silva. But there are many questions surrounding the division, like whether Weidman is ready right now, or needs one more fight, if Rashad Evans should be offered an immediate title shot against Silva, and how exactly Chael Sonnen will go about resuming his career.
Dave Doyle and I examine all those questions and more, on this all-middleweight edition of the MMA Roundtable.
1. What should be next for Weidman after his dominant victory over Mark Munoz on Wednesday night?
Dave Doyle: There's little doubt we're watching something special in Weidman. Maybe, just maybe, we're watching a future champion grow up right before our eyes.
But when I saw the reaction on Twitter on Wednesday from those who want to rush Weidman into a title match against Anderson Silva, I couldn't help but think about the early days of Georges St-Pierre's UFC tenure. He, too, showed great promise. Then he was rushed into his first match with Matt Hughes for the then-vacant welterweight title. GSP lost in the first round and it set his career progress back considerably.
With that in mind, I'd like to see Weidman fight at least one more top-five middleweight before getting a shot at Silva. I assume Chael Sonnen's enthusiastic endorsement of Weidman as a title challenger was his way of saying "I don't get any upside if I fight this guy." So maybe a matchup against someone like Alan Belcher in a high-profile setting like a FOX card or a pay-per-view co-main event to help build the winner's visibility could be Weidman's best bet.
Mike Chiappetta: Because he has just nine pro fights, it's easy to make a case against Weidman getting a title shot against Silva, but with a pair of top 10 wins already under his belt, it's not very difficult to make a case for him, either.
I think Weidman's next fight will hinge on what Lombard does at UFC 149. If he crushes Tim Boetsch, I think the UFC will give Lombard the next chance to fight Silva. Lombard is older than Weidman (34 vs. Weidman's 28) and the UFC just spent a significant chunk of change to lure him away from Bellator. They're not going to sit around and wait before pulling the trigger on Silva-Lombard. On the other hand, Weidman is still developing, and he's not yet making huge money, so they can afford to give him one more fight and build him up a bit further with another high-profile matchup.
I think Dave's Weidman-Belcher pairing is right on the money, and will happen sometime this fall. But if Lombard loses, or wins but comes out of the Boetsch fight with an injury, don't be surprised to see Weidman vault to the title challenger spot the same way fellow phenom Jon Jones did against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in 2011.
2. If Rashad Evans decides to move to middleweight, does he deserve an automatic title shot?
Chiappetta: "Deserve" might be too strong a word, but I would have no problem with him being directly inserted into a title fight without a previous fight at middleweight. The UFC was going to offer former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar a chance to fight featherweight champ Jose Aldo after losing his belt to Ben Henderson, and at this point, Evans has had a career equally as distinguished as Edgar.
If things were different in the 185-pound division, and there was a single, true standout top contender, I would feel differently. Weidman has authored a five-fight UFC win streak, and Lombard has a long stretch of wins behind him, but there isn't yet a groundswell of support for either of those guys. They're simply not known quite well enough. A Silva-Evans fight would be the easiest sell of all available alternatives, and it would also offer Silva an intriguing test. Evans has hand speed, power and a strong grappling game. He would be a legitimate challenge from a polished name, and that would likely offer the UFC it's biggest "event" matchup. Silva's 37 years old and running out of time. Let's offer him the biggest available fight now. Evans recently said he's not going to make the move to 185, but I bet he could be convinced.
Doyle: I keep going back and forth on this one. Part of me thinks that if Evans is going to drop to 185, he should fight Sonnen first, both because Evans hasn’t won a bout at 185 pounds yet and because Sonnen has pretty much cleaned out the next tier of middleweights and doesn’t have a next logical fight. Not to mention, there are only so many headline fights to go around, and given their gift of gab, Sonnen and Evans could be a rare big-selling PPV without a title match as a hook.
But then, as Mike points out, who else is here for Silva? Weidman wants the shot, but I'd like to see him win another fight first. A fight with Michael Bisping would sell, but would likely also be a slaughter. And I’m not yet convinced that Lombard isn’t the latest in the line of Gegard Mousasi-types, who get overrated in some circles because they rack up long win streaks against sub-elite competition. So given all that, and given that Silva has been known to put on less-than-thrilling performances when he’s unhappy with his level of competition, maybe Evans is the best available matchup, regardless of whether he "deserves" it, per se.
3. After losing twice to Silva, does Chael Sonnen have any realistic route to another title shot? What is his best career move?
Doyle: Perhaps we take four of Silva’s top-notch defeated opponents during his run of greatness -- Say, Sonnen, Rich Franklin, Yushin Okami, and Dan Henderson -- and have a tournament to determine the first UFC Intercontinental middleweight champion.
In all seriousness, though, Sonnen basically finds himself in Franklin’s position: Defeated twice by Silva and too small to realistically compete with today’s top light heavyweights. If a title isn’t his greatest concern, then Sonnen is actually in a decent position to pick his spots. Sonnen doesn’t need a title to draw money, he’s a headliner in his own right. He can take fights that pique his competitive spirit (I still think Sonnen-Evans could be great), and/or serve as a name fill-in when a fight drops out. Unless he really is bent on getting another middleweight title shot, in which case, he’s going to have to see if he can stick around long enough to see if Silva loses and then challenge the new champ.
Chiappetta: He's extinguished his opportunities at middleweight until and unless Silva loses. The fact that the rematch was far more decisive than the first fight certainly didn't help his future cause.
During a recent TV interview, Sonnen said he could only continue to fight if kept the same goal of winning a championship. And he also indicated he wasn't ready to quit fighting. So apparently, he's banking on someone beating Silva soon.
Sonnen hasn't mentioned anything about moving up to light-heavyweight, even though he fought at 205 many years ago. He could move back up, but I don't think he will. That said, his best career move would be to cash in on the fame he's built for himself over the last two years with high-profile matchups. He has ready-made feuds with Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort, among others, and if he wins those matchups, he can keep himself around the top of the division, putting him in good position for one more crack at the top should Silva lose or retire.
4. Does Anderson Silva deserve any sort of penalty for his behavior during UFC 148 weekend?
Chiappetta: At most, he deserves a fine. Let's run down his list of transgressions. During weigh-ins, he shoulder checked Sonnen. During the fight, he smeared vaseline on himself, grabbed Sonnen's shorts and threw a knee at a downed opponent that could have at least partially connected to the face.
Taking one at a time, the shoulder check is pretty harmless, all things considered. These guys are professional fighters, so we can't be too surprised when things get physical. On the other hand, it sends a bad message to allow such physicality prior to a bout. If a fighter gets too carried away while in close proximity to his opponent, he could easily headbutt his foe, causing a cancellation. Better to nip that kind of behavior in the bud. The vaseline situation was caught before it became a problem, as ref Yves Lavigne wiped him clean. The shorts grab was blatant, and against the rules. The knee might have had dirty intent, but seemed to land clean. Taken as an entirety, Silva definitely bent the rules, and broke them on a few occasions. All of his actions in the cage were policed by the referee, but his weigh-in shoulder check is under the purview of the Nevada state athletic commission, and I think a fine is in order for initiating physicality in that instance.
Doyle: I think you have to distinguish between the weigh-ins and what happened during the fight. You simply don’t make physical contact with someone at the weigh-ins. Silva should be fined for his actions, and while I’m not the one to determined the dollar figure, he should receive more than a token fine. NAC executive director Keith Kizer should send a message that no one’s above this sort of thing.
As for what happened during the fight? The knee was legal, so that’s a non-issue. As for stuff like the vaseline incident and grabbing Sonnen’s shorts. Yves Lavigne made Silva wipe off the Vasoline in the first case and warned Silva to stop grabbing the shorts in the latter. If Silva had responded by openly smearing himself in gobs of Vasoline after the first round, or had done nothing but grab at Sonnen's shorts for the remainder of the fight, then yeah, we might have a case for the commission. But as it stands, short of an infraction as egregious as Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield's ear, what happens in the ring or the cage should stay there.