The current state of UFC’s middleweight division

The middleweight division has seen a bit of movement over the past year. New contenders are emerging every month, while some of the bigger names have either moved on to new weight classes or faded into the background of the division.

With a little less than 5 months remaining in the year, let’s take a look at some of the upcoming fights that could present us with the next title challenger once the dust settles from UFC 243. It is important to mention some of the up-and-coming names on the cusp, as well as highlight some of the promotional hurdles current champion, Robert Whittaker, faces as he tries to navigate the divisional sharktank moving forward.

Upcoming Fights to Watch

Yoel Romero (#2) vs Paulo Costa (#7) – UFC 241

This fight is surely on everyone’s must watch list this summer and on paper looks to deliver us yet another FOTY contender. Out of all the recent fight announcements, this one sticks out as the one most likely to give us our next title contender at 185lbs. While this fight certainly looks to deliver action, I can’t help but feel it comes up short in the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ category.

As someone that is a fan of Yoel Romero’s fights, I’m certainly not going to be the one to complain if the UFC decides to grant Romero another crack at the title with a win over Costa. But we just saw him spend the second half of 2017 and the bulk of 2018 unsuccessful at obtaining gold. Added into that was a slew of last-minute matchmaking, botched weigh cuts and some USADA controversy which just leaves the fanbase feeling exhausted. There were some small outcries for Romero to follow the likes of Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman to 205lbs. If he were to earn a loss to Costa here, those calls will likely get louder.

For Costa, this is a perfect matchup to test the Brazilian prospect’s skill. It comes across as a huge promotional risk for the undefeated fighter, considering he hasn’t fought since July of last year. A fight which was only his second fight against a top-15 ranked opponent in Uriah Hall. Since then, this Romero fight has been teased multiple times, all the while giving Costa enough time to run into his own USADA woes outside the cage.

From a ranking’s perspective, Costa is now going from fighting the #11 ranked fighter to the #2. One can only wonder how a win will play out in the long run for Costa who has a huge upside. And given Yoel’s current seating in the division, a win would probably create serious momentum for Costa. Is it possible that will we see this as a fight that never should’ve happened? Will we see glaring holes that end up hurting Paulo’s stock even with a win? Will Costa look rusty after such an extended break, could that be confused as after effects of his USADA controversy? These are all damming questions that could cast a dark cloud over this fight, but given the state of the division I believe it is the best scrap on paper (outside of the tile fight @ UFC 243).

I believe that with a clean finish, the aftermath looks bright for whoever comes out victorious on the other side of this fight.

Jack Hermansson (#4) vs Jared Cannonier (#9) – UFC Fight Night 160

After the next contender is chosen, we will eventually turn to the rest of the division and begin to ask the same set of questions- who is next?

Jared Cannonier is becoming one of the more recognizable names on the roster since moving down from 205lbs and is currently riding  back-to-back stoppage wins heading into his September 28th matchup with Hermansson. When you try to think about who could be next in line for this type of fight, Cannonier certainly has a chance to check off all of the boxes. He has a notable win over Anderson Silva, no matter how lackluster fans may see it, with a win he will be on a 3-fight win streak against ranked competition. A stoppage here would make it 3 finishes in a row. Those are the kind of things that build highlight reels and press packages, and while Cannonier may still be a relative unknown to the casual viewer, one only needs to do a quick search of his name to see that he understands PR, and is at least pushing out more interview content, training footage and other forms of media which everyone knows helps in the long run of pushing for a title campaign.

For Jack Hermansson, he has certainly embodied the role of dark horse throughout his run at the title and this fight could serve as the perfect “big break” for him. It would be his fifth in a row and since he already has wins over the likes of Jacare Souza and David Branch, a win over Cannonier could pay dividends when we begin to look for the next title contender matchup. Not to mention, Hermansson has the added benefit of being the only one in the top-5, outside of the title holders, to be on a win streak of any kind. It’s that kind of quiet, yet respectable, resume that viewers can get behind without much convincing.

As far as outside the cage, Hermansson has also, in the same vein as Cannonier, had a recent uptick of media output and promotional efforts since the beginning of this year.

Derek Brunson (#8) vs Ian Heinisch (#10) – UFC 241

This matchup fits the criteria I laid out above and should produce a name that is just outside of immediate title talks.

When looking for the other half of a title elimination bout, both names seem to fit that mold coming into the second half of the year. Brunson is a bit of a MW fixture by this point and still has some questions surrounding his individual skillset, so he may be at the bottom of all of these names if I had to pick someone, but nonetheless 6 months in advance is just enough time for things to shift around a bit. With a win over Heinisch, not only would Brunson be stopping one of the rising names in his division, but it would also put him on his first 2-fight win streak since 2017, which is perfect timing considering the state of affairs at middleweight.

For Heinisch, this is a little bit more straightforward- he has had a more traditional rise as a contender and is 3-0 inside the promotion to date. A win over Brunson at UFC 241 would not only be his second straight over top-15 competition, but given how their skills match on paper, could serve as a showcase that would push Heinisch into that 3rd man position.

The Unclear/Notables

  1. Luke Rockhold– The reason why I’m putting Rockhold here isn’t because I think he will return back down to 185 and go on another title run, or even because I believe he will grace the middleweight division with his presence again. It’s because it’s unclear to me how much promotional rub was lost by his fight with Whittaker falling through. We never got to see the fight take place, Rockhold is now 0-1 in a new weight class, Yoel took any promotional buzz there was, and with LR recently losing to Jan Blachowicz at UFC 239, one can’t help but sit back and ask what promotional chips got left on the table because that fight didn’t go down in Melbourne.
  2. Chris Weidman– Another former champion at MW that has recently decided to test the waters at 205, we will have a chance to see how that pans out on October 18 in Boston when he takes on #4 ranked LHW Dominick Reyes. As far as what it means for 185, it represents the loss of another recognizable name from the UFC’s MW division. Former champs Michael Bisping, GSP, Luke Rockhold, and Weidman have all either retired from the sport or moved weight classes in the past 2 years. While I don’t think anyone in the fanbase is calling for their return to the division, it’s impossible to write about MW over the past year or so without mentioning the loss of all those notable names. There’s a certain level of prestige one gets from defeating former champions and between GSP throwing a monkey wrench into the division for a year, Whittaker never getting to unify his title, and general injury woes to Whittaker, will never see that promotional boost.
  3. Kelvin Gastelum– This is another contender that was supposed to fight the current champ over the past year, but didn’t. Gastelum is a victim of poor timing and when looking at the rest of the division ahead of UFC 243, Kelvin comes across as the odd man out right now. Sure we can apply the same line of thinking from the section above and 6 months down the line KG’s name could be back in title circulation. But this is unlikely the case and since we last saw him lose to Israel Adesanya at UFC 236, much has changed. At the time of that match being booked, he floated the notion that he was going to hold out and wait for Whittaker to return from injury since he was the rightful #1 contender. The MW landscape is open for business and his name would have been perfect under different circumstances, but now even with a win in the near future, that road back to the top will be a bit longer than it had to be.

Having a serious look at the UFC’s MW division can make you scratch your head a bit when trying to figure out what’s next, there are a few names that could easily get hot within the next 6 months, but there’s also a gap that quietly keeps getting larger.

When it was just Gegard Mousasi signing to Bellator, no one seemed to notice much difference in the rankings. But as we sit here now, the past 4 former champions have moved up or retired, and injuries have ravaged the pecking order and timeline of important bouts.

Should the winner of UFC 243’s main event emerge relatively unscathed and without controversy, we will turn to the rest of the division. Once we hit that collective point, there will be a lot of matchmaking belly aching and PR finessing to determine whose next up.

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The Scrap’s Tyreef Cash has been a Music Producer & Hip Hop Beatmaker since 2013, covering MMA since 2018. Currently studying Media Relations at the Community College of Philadelphia, Cash has also trained Shotokan Karate, Folkstyle Wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Follow Tyreef (@nixon_speaks) on Twitter.