Making Middleweight Great Again

By Eric Stinton Nov 5, 2018

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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There’s not much that’s particularly interesting to say about the UFC 230 main event on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. Defending heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier did exactly what he does best and what basically everyone expected him to do: He took down beloved-but-overmatched contender Derrick Lewis with minimal resistance and proceeded with workmanlike indifference to get the submission finish. Cormier remains undefeated at heavyweight; Lewis remains a fan favorite; neither took much damage; both became much wealthier men; and they lived happily ever after.

There will be punditry this week assessing “DC” as the greatest heavyweight and/or pound-for-pound fighter -- and rightfully so. Those, too, will be as predictable as Cormier’s victory over Lewis. Winning streaks will be weighed, records will be measured, numbers will be crunched. Though Cormier was very on-brand as “The Daddest Man on the Planet” -- he threw out his back sneezing before the fight and almost had to withdraw -- the real story of the night happened on the rest of the main card and in an entirely different weight class.

More than anything, UFC 230 was a showcase for the past, present and future of the middleweight division. Every main card fight below the heavyweight championship match took place at 185 pounds. The full narrative spectrum of a fight career was on display, from prospects and contenders to gatekeepers and veterans.

The co-main event featured the two most established middleweights on the card: former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Chris Weidman and onetime Strikeforce champion Ronaldo Souza. It was easily the event’s most action-packed and dramatic bout, deserving of its “Fight of the Night” honors. Weidman started off strong, setting the pace with an accurate, patient jab that bloodied up the Brazilian. “Jacare” answered with leg kicks and body shots. Despite their strong grappling credentials, the fight was almost entirely a tactical, back-and-forth kickboxing affair. The outcome was uncertain until the final minute of the fight, when Souza landed a big right hand and follow-up punches to score a knockout win.

There are a few storylines here. Weidman is now 1-4 in his last five fights, and each of his losses has been a knockout or technical knockout. The former champ is now in a difficult position. At 34 years old, he certainly has a number of years ahead of him but is no doubt on the wrong side of his prime. Although all four of his losses came at the hands of the division’s elite, that’s not exactly a comforting thought: If you regularly lose to the best, that probably means you aren’t in that category anymore. Between his recent skid and the increasing frequency of injuries, the window back to the title is narrowing by the day.

Then there’s “Jacare.” After a close decision loss to Kelvin Gastelum in May, this was as close to a must-win situation that he has been in since joining the UFC. The 38-year-old answered the test beautifully, notching perhaps the biggest win of his UFC career. He is now 9-3 in the promotion and has collected seven “Performance of the Night” awards. Only one of his wins went to the judges, and two of his losses were controversially close. Though he’s in a tough spot of his own -- he lost to both Gastelum and Robert Whittaker, who are set to fight for the title in February -- it would be a travesty if he isn’t given a title shot.

It’s unfortunate but certainly possible that neither man will get a shot at the title, but there is still some silver lining here. Weidman and Souza are still competing at a high level, which bodes well for them individually, as well as the rest of the weight class. Even if the division has started to pass them by -- which is inevitable but not necessarily the case yet -- it is important that the old guard continues to perform well. When the next generation starts pushing them out of the picture, that process will be even more exciting than it already naturally is.

The other fights on the main card sorted out who the next generation of contenders will likely be. Jared Cannonier impressed in his middleweight debut, dispatching former World Series of Fighting champion David Branch in a little over a round. Cannonier’s UFC career got off to a bumpy start when he joined the promotion in 2015. He went 3-4 in the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions but looked better than ever in his first foray at middleweight, and against a dangerous opponent, no less. It’s too early to anoint “The Killa Gorilla” as anything more than a prospect, even if he’s a bit older than most prospects at 34. Still, with a performance like that, he’s as exciting a prospect as there is right now and a welcome addition to the middleweight ranks.

Yet the true breakout performance of the night belonged to Israel Adesanya. The kickboxing phenom carried high expectations into his MMA career, and those expectations only grew the more he got into the sport. He won his first 11 fights by first- or second-round stoppage and made the jump to the big leagues at the beginning of 2018. Although he remained undefeated after his first three UFC fights, his performances weren’t up to the insane expectations fans held, let alone the expectations Adesanya had for himself. Against the always-tough Derek Brunson, however, he finally had the breakthrough moment for which people had been waiting and in doing so moved himself definitively from “prospect” to “contender.” His emergence may very well end up being a landmark moment in the division, on par with the arrival of Anderson Silva or the absorption of the Strikeforce roster. If that sounds like too much praise too soon, just wait and see.

All divisions go through ups and downs. The middleweight division, anchored by a young and exciting champion, is positioned to become a marquee attraction in the coming years. There are old lions and young wolves in the mix, and all of them are putting on great fights. Prospects are pivoting to either gatekeepers or contenders, and former champions are falling from grace as future champions are ascending through the ranks. I hate to jinx anything, but this is looking like a special moment for fight fans. We may just be embarking upon a new golden era for the 185-pound division.

Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.

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