With Robert Whittaker upsetting the odds, at UFC on Fox 24, how do the contenders in the backlogged UFC middleweight division stack up?
As a result of Whittaker’s victory, several studs are left jostling for a crack at middleweight gold. In a deep division (for the time being) let’s break down the order of potential title contenders at 185, at the minute.
Yoel Romero (12-1)
“Cheater”, “Dirty Fighter”, “Juicer”, “Scumbag”, “Homophobe”.
All the above insults have been leveled at Yoel Romero but they really don’t make too much of a difference. Romero is the #1 contender for Michael Bisping’s title, whether Bisping wants to acknowledge that fact or not…and it seems he really doesn’t. The return of GSP has scuppered Romero’s call for a title shot. The UFC, sorely lacking in needle movers at the minute, needed to comply with whatever GSP wanted on his return. That seems to be a crack at the middleweight title. No matter, Romero will be waiting.
A latecomer to MMA, Romero who recently turned 40(??!!!), has adapted quickly. Having made his professional debut in 2009, aged 32, The Soldier of God entered the UFC in 2013. He has yet to taste defeat in the octagon, amassing an 8–0 record. Some of these victories have been shrouded in controversy, however. Romero has had a propensity to take his time moving off his stool at the end of tough rounds, grabs cages to prevent takedowns and has also been accused of drenching himself in water between rounds to buy extra ‘toweling’ time. Following UFC 194, Romero was also popped for a potential PED violation. He was found innocent of this accusation however, as the failed test was due to a tainted supplement. He does himself no favours, but due to a string of impressive knockouts, like his nasty knee KO of Chris Weidman, Romero is top of the queue.
It is a pity that we focus on the dark arts that Romero employs because, behind all that, the man is an absolute specimen. A 40-year-old man, who has been wrestling and fighting at the highest level for near 20 years, should not be in a position to perform back handsprings like some sort of jacked Simone Biles! But that’s exactly what he is capable of. His explosiveness, sheer strength and excellent wrestling background make him a formidable foe for the entire division. One gets the impression that if he does get his match up with Michael Bisping, Romero could hold the title prisoner, for as long as Father Time dictates. And judging by the ‘Soldier of God’s’ astonishing physique, he has Father Time under his thumb, at least for a little while longer.
2. Luke Rockhold (15-3)
Prior to UFC 194, Luke Rockhold was extremely confident. He believed he had the skillset to dethrone Chris Weidman. The performance that followed left little to argue with. Rockhold was imperious, smashing through the previously undefeated Weidman, earning a stoppage victory. Fast forward six months and he was dethroned by perennial gatekeeper, and current champion, Michael Bisping. What the hell happened?!
Parallels can be drawn between how Rockhold lost his belt and how Weidman first won his. Anderson Silva treated Weidman with minimal respect and got KO’d because of it. When Weidman pulled out, 2 weeks prior to a scheduled rematch with Rockhold at UFC 199, Bisping was drafted in and it seemed that Luke overlooked the new challenger. Next thing he knew, Big John McCarthy was pulling Bisping off him. Rockhold hasn’t been seen in the octagon since.
All of this reads like an obituary for Rockhold’s hopes at recapturing the title. That is not the case. Luke Rockhold is incredibly talented. He may have the most diverse arsenal at his disposal of all the 185ers. The supine hip movement that Wonderboy would respect, the slick submissions that could make ‘Jacare’ take note and the size that would allow Rockhold move to 205 with ease make him a problem that’s very difficult to solve. Only Bisping and a TRT-pumped Belfort have defeated Rockhold in the last 9 years! The highlight reel liver kicks, left high kicks, inverted kimuras are all timely reminders that Luke Rockhold hasn’t gone away.
With his sublimely rounded game, and a fantastic team, in AKA, at his disposal, Rockhold is still a real danger. He needs to banish the memories of the Bisping loss though. And this may be where his affiliation with AKA proves a hindrance. Rockhold had to pull out of his fight with ‘Jacare’ in November, with a knee injury. Given the frequency of pull outs from the AKA camp in recent years, the question must be asked if sparring with the big dogs like Cormier and Cain Velasquez is counter-intuitive to Rockhold returning to the cage as quickly as possible? Then again, they are probably the whetstones that sharpened Rockhold’s razor sharp skill-set.
3. Gegard Mousasi (42-6-2)
Cage Warriors middleweight champion, Dream light-heavyweight and middleweight champion, Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion. Gegard Mousasi is one of the most decorated mixed martial artists in the world. The only dream left for him to catch is UFC gold. He’s certainly going about business promptly in his pursuit. 5 fights in the last 15 months, 4 finishes, Mousasi has catapulted himself into the title picture through sheer work and some stellar performances. So why isn’t he feeling the love?
A technically delightful kickboxing stylist, who mixes his slick striking with effective grappling, Mousasi has fought 50 times professionally at just 31! He has a genuine anyone, anytime, anywhere attitude. He has fought from welterweight all the way up to heavyweight, trading leather with some of the greats — Machida, Souza, Belfort, Henderson, Hunt, the list goes on. Of his 50 fights, only 10 have gone to the scorecards. Gegard Mousasi’s biggest issue may just be his own personality. He’s surly, abrasive, opinionated and seems to have a chip on his shoulder. To be fair to the man, as a multiple time world champion in other organisations, he does deserve more respect. But that’s not always how things work. Mousasi needs another high profile win before being considered for a tilt at the title. Particularly given the controversial nature of his finish of Chris Weidman.
4. Robert Whittaker (18-4)
Robert Whittaker was given a fighting chance by bookmakers at UFC on FOX, but ‘Jacare’ Souza, the 4/9 favourite, was expected to deal with the striking threat, thus reasserting order to the middleweight division. Somebody failed to deliver the memo to ‘Bobby Knuckles’. Jacare enjoyed little joy on the ground and was dropped by the powerful Aussie in the first round. In round two, Whittaker poured on the pressure. A thunderous overhand right found its mark, then an uppercut and two head kicks spelled danger. ‘Jacare’ was auditioning for Bambi on Ice by this stage and Whittaker took full advantage, claiming the biggest win of his career.
Riding a 7-fight win-streak, Whittaker is reaping the rewards of fighting at his natural weight. Following a starching at the hands of ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, and a decision win over Mike Rhodes, Whittaker stepped up to middleweight. He has been on a tear since, earning 4 stoppages in 6 fights. While the ‘Jacare’ win was by far the most important of his career to date, wins over Brad Tavares, Rafael Natal and Derek Brunson cannot be sniffed at either. Unlike the people above him on this list, Robert Whittaker has age firmly on his side. At just 26, Whittaker isn’t even in his prime yet. The fact that he is still learning is a scary prospect for the rest of the division.
Whittaker has always been known for having dynamite in his hands, but after surviving an assault from ‘Jacare’ on the ground, early in round one of their fight, it is clear there is more to Whittaker than just landing bombs. Throw in a ground game, to complement those hands and you have a real problem, gentlemen.