After UFC 117, What’s next for the Middleweight Division?

Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen was undoubtedly the biggest middleweight fight in UFC history, likely to do bigger business on pay per view than any previous fight at 185Ibs. With Anderson Silva out of action until early 2011, the UFC will not be able to capitalize on this increased interest by holding a world title fight later this year. However the extra time will give the organization the opportunity to better develop credible and marketable challengers for Silva’s title.

When speaking at Saturday’s press conference, Dana White announced that while he was open to giving Chael Sonnen an immediate rematch with Anderson Silva there was also the question of when Vitor Belfort would receive his long promised title match. Both are attractive fighters who lacked something to make them undisputable number one contenders. In the buildup to UFC 117 Chael Sonnen had impressed everyone with his ability to successfully hype the fight and had proven that he could back up the trash talk in the Octagon by dominating Anderson for the vast majority of their fight. But as I discussed on Sunday, the UFC has built the prestige of its championships by making even the biggest stars earn their title shots with victories and not giving fighters world title fights simply for looking impressive en route to losing.

Vitor Belfort had been promised a world title shot by Dana White after demolishing former middleweight champion Rich Franklin at UFC 103. This was Belfort’s first match in the organization since 2005, and by making him the number one contender White was repeating the mistake he had made in having Anderson challenge for the world title before the fans had gotten to know him. This lack of fan recognition will be all the greater with Belfort having not fought in over year due to his promised world title fight being first postponed due to the champion’s slower than expected recovery from surgery and then cancelled when Belfort injured his shoulder when preparing for UFC 112.

The temptation would be to matchup the two biggest contenders in a final eliminator for the world title. This would be a mistake as both fighters offer a different challenge to the champion and would allow the UFC to market a world title fight towards very different audiences. As we have already seen, Chael Sonnen’s wrestling tests the champion’s suspect takedown defense while Vitor Belfort’s size, power and handspeed would prove a fearsome test for Silva standing. From a commercial side while a popular American challenger like Sonnen would do the best business on pay per view, the UFC would find it very useful to have an all-Brazilian world title to spearhead its planned 2011 return to Brazil. Ideally then it would have two challengers ready for when Anderson Silva returns, one a popular, high profile American and another to be one half of an all-Brazilian title fight.

Luckily the promotion can put together two fights that will do exactly that.

The first would be Chael Sonnen taking on the year’s other breakthrough star at 185Ibs, Chris Leben. Having defeated Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116 after taking the fight on only two weeks’ notice, Leben successfully won over fans with an impressive performance against the Japanese star in one of the fights of the year. Leben has also won fan support for his heartwarming success in rebuilding his life after previously struggling with problems with alcohol and performance enhancers. With both fighters knowing how to sell a fight and having already captured fight fans imagination this year, Sonnen-Leben would make for a very successfully pay per view co-main or even main event. As a fight it would showcase them at their best, with both having aggressive, all-action styles that should make for a crowd-pleasing brawl.

For Vitor Belfort the obvious opponent is Wanderlei Silva, with the legendary Pride superstar looking to build on his successful middleweight debut against Michael Bisping at UFC 110. The fight would pit two of the most revered strikers in the UFC against each other in a fight that would promise to be a full contact standing battle. Not only are both fighters Brazilian but there is also the backstory of the two having fought at the last UFC show to be held in Brazil, 1998’s Ultimate Brazil. It would be a fight that would make for a strong co-main on any PPV, with Wanderlei’s high profile and reputation for entertaining fights ensuring the maximum possible exposure for Belfort.

Both Chael Sonnen vs. Chris Leben and Vitor Belfort vs. Wanderlei Silva are matches designed to give the established contender the best possible chance to win while properly testing them in interesting fights against worthy opponents. Sonnen would be favored against Leben due to his superior wrestling while Belfort’s speed and size should prove telling against Wanderlei. However Leben’s surprise submission victory against Akiyama would raise the possibility of ‘The Crippler’ testing Sonnen’s poor submission defense while Wanderlei has shown signs of rediscovering the intensity that once made him the most feared fighter on the planet.

But should Sonnen or Belfort suffer an upset defeat then the UFC would have little reason to worry. If he were to defeat Sonnen, Leben would be on a four fight win streak having had the Fight of the Night at the year’s biggest show and then defeated the man who pushed Anderson to his very limit. He would have the momentum and the credibility to be a marketable underdog challenger for the World Middleweight Title. While a Wanderlei victory over Belfort would finally set the stage for the beloved Pride veteran to challenge for a UFC world title in what would be a superfight wherever it was held. And both Leben and Wanderlei Silva have history with Anderson Silva, Leben being his first opponent in the UFC while the two Brazilians are former training partners who fell out in 2005 after Anderson left Chute Box.

With fan interest in the middleweight division at an all time high, the UFC must move to ensure that it develops its high-profile contenders into challengers that are both marketable and credible. Allowing either Chael Sonnen or Vitor Belfort to rest on past impressions is not an option, not only must both prove that they deserve a world title shot but it would be wrong to let the division stagnate. Chris Leben vs. Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort vs. Wanderlei Silva would not only give the UFC two blockbuster fights for the winter but create two very different challengers ready to test Anderson Silva upon his return to the Octagon.

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