It’s funny how things have a way of working themselves out.
Last July, Chris Weidman announced himself as a legitimate title threat in the UFC middleweight division with a devastating second-round knockout win over Mark Munoz. It was the fifth consecutive victory in the Octagon for the Serra-Longo Fight Team member, and ninth straight win to start his career.
To some — myself included — the former two-time All-American wrestler from Hofstra University had done what was needed to earn the opportunity to challenge Anderson Silva for the middleweight title.
No one in the 185-pound ranks had put together as strong a run. There were some with bigger names, and match-ups with fighters from other divisions that popped more than a Silva-Weidman pairing, but in terms of the division and working your way up the ladder, no one made as good a case for a championship shot as the 28-year-old New Yorker.
But Silva balked at the idea, echoing the sentiments of fans and media who said Weidman wasn’t a big enough name to share the marquee opposite the record-setting Brazilian champion. He suggested Weidman bide his time, build his name, and get a couple more wins under his belt before lobbying for a title shot.
The UFC seemed to share the thinking of their longest reigning champion, setting Weidman up for a UFC 155 showdown with fellow surging contender Tim Boetsch. At the same time, tenured contender Michael Bisping was matched up with veteran Vitor Belfort atop the first fight card of 2013, with “The Count” standing as a potential title challenger should he come away with a victory.
An injury forced Weidman from the bout with Boetsch, and a subsequent surgical procedure put him on the sidelines until the spring, leading to Bisping to being officially tabbed as “next in line, providing he wins” heading into his fight with Belfort.
Over the last few months, the list of potential challengers for Silva has been whittled down to one: Weidman.
Boetsch remained on the UFC 155 fight card, losing to Weidman’s teammate, Costa Philippou, in a fight filled with accidental fouls and an unfortunate broken hand. Alan Belcher, another surging contender, was stifled by former title challenge Yushin Okami.
In January, Bisping’s dreams of facing Silva were dashed by Belfort. Last weekend, the potential of Rashad Evans moving down in weight to challenge for the middleweight title went out the door when the former Ultimate Fighter winner lost a tepid decision to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
Seven months, one surgery, and zero fights later, Weidman is the last man standing.
There is a certain irony to the way things have played out at middleweight since the unbeaten prospect dominated Munoz and starting calling for a title shot.
At the time, marketability and pay-per-view potential were the key elements fans and media wanted to see in prospective title contenders. Weidman’s shortcomings in both categories caused many to push him aside in favour of more recognizable names that had done less to merit the opportunity.
Fast-forward to today, and the criteria have been completely reversed. In the wake of Chael Sonnen, Nick Diaz, and Frankie Edgar all being awarded title shots many believe they had not earned, fans and critics are calling for fighter records to be the key factor used to determine title contenders.
Personally, I think this is the way it should have been from the start, and I’ve been saying as much since Weidman left Munoz face down on the canvas in San Jose last summer. As much as the UFC has been searching for a way to align Silva with a bigger name, all of those plans have gone up in smoke, leaving the division no further ahead than it was seven months ago.
Silva is still the champion, and hasn’t defended the title since defeating Chael Sonnen. Former title challengers Belfort and Okami remain above the likes of Bisping, Boetsch, and Belcher in the rankings, but out of the running for a title shot because the memory of their losses to Silva are still fresh in our memories, and no one new has emerged to enter the conversation at the top of the division.
Seeing where we are now — seven months into the future without much to show for it other than Bisping being officially out of the running for a title shot – doesn’t it kind of make you wish the UFC had just gone ahead and booked Silva versus Weidman?
The aim should always be to keep things moving forward while making the best match-ups available, and ending up back at Silva versus Weidman now underscores that. Instead of this being the dominant champion taking on the unbeaten contender fresh off back-to-back wins over top-10 opponents, it feels like an “I guess we’ll have to settle for this” scenario — like asking the most popular girls in school to the prom, getting turned down, and taking your cousin Stephanie instead, just so you can go.
But a Silva versus Weidman fight isn’t a consolation prize or an awkward trip to prom with your cousin: it’s the most compelling and intriguing match-up that could possibly be made in the middleweight division.
It was that way seven months ago, and it remains that way today. Now let’s just hope the UFC does the right thing and makes it happen.