The middleweight division in the UFC has been under the stranglehold of Anderson Silva ever since he captured the title from Rich Franklin back at UFC 64 in 2006.  At first glance, people might not think that the division is as strong as it really is because of the dominance of the current champion.  “The Spider” is a perfect 13-0 while fighting in the UFC, successfully defending the middleweight title eight times, winning two fights at light heavyweight, and defeating Dan Henderson to unify the Pride FC welterweight and UFC middleweight titles.  He has rolled through the middleweight division, defeating Henderson, Nate Marquardt and Chael Sonnen to name a few.

Ever since Silva first stepped foot in the Octagon he has taken down everyone in his way.  While “The Spider” has cleaned house, there are plenty of people that are nipping on his heels, eager for a chance to take him down.  Silva was on the verge of being upset by Chael Sonnen back in August, which was shocking in its own right.  Now with the middleweight title on the line in a little over a month, the division is as exciting as ever.  Whether it is challenger Yushin Okami walking away with the strap or Anderson Silva retaining his belt, there will be plenty of fighters eager to take the champ down.

Here’s a look at Silva’s next foe and the fighters who will be lining up for their crack at the victor:

Yushin Okami (26-5, three-fight winning streak)

Silva has not lost a fight since 2006 while fighting at Rumble for the Rock 8.  Some question whether or not that loss is even a true loss because the fight ended by an illegal upkick during the first round that rendered his opponent unable to continue, and it just so happens that the fighter who squared off against Silva was Okami, the current No. 1 contender for the UFC middleweight title.  Okami will be in enemy territory as he takes on “The Spider” at UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Brian Stann (11-3, three-fight winning streak)

The fighter whose stock has risen the most over the last year has to be that of Stann.  The former Marine dropped to middleweight after being defeated by light heavyweight Phil Davis at UFC 109 and he has not lost a fight since.  “The All-American” took down Mike Massenzio, Chris Leben and Jorge Santiago in his last three fights and won each fight by stoppage.  Stann is only the second person to ever knock out Leben, joining in the company of Anderson Silva.  Then, when “The Crippler” knocked out Wanderlei Silva earlier this month, Stann’s stock shot through the roof.  Now, the UFC has matched him up against former No. 1 contender Chael Sonnen at UFC 136.

Stann is extremely close to the title.  If he beats Sonnen in October, it would be hard to deny him a chance at UFC gold.

Chael Sonnen (25-11-1, lost last fight)

The most recent fighter to lose to Anderson Silva has been on the shelf since that fight back in August 2010.  He has spent the time since serving a suspension issued by the California State Athletic Commission due to his post-fight drug test coming up positive for higher than normal testosterone levels.  Sonnen also had some legal troubles lately in the form of money laundering and mortgage fraud, which only added fuel to the fire in regards to his fight status.  One way or another, Sonnen is back and has the nasty storm cloud of his loss in the fifth round to Silva his last time out, in a fight that Sonnen was clearly dominating up until the triangle choke.  The Oregon native wants to get the bitter taste of that loss out of his mouth and strap that UFC title belt around his waste once and for all.

If Sonnen beats Stann and Silva beats Okami, it will be very desirable for the UFC to have Sonnen fight for the title.  However, if Sonnen wins but doesn’t dominate, the promotion may want to hold Sonnen out for another fight before a crack at the title.  And should he lose to Stann, that would be two straight losses and it would be hard for him to recover from that.

Michael Bisping (21-3, three-fight winning streak)

Bisping will make his third stint on The Ultimate Fighter during the show’s next season.  Bisping won the third season of the reality series back in 2006 and coached both the winning welterweight and lightweight winners of the show’s ninth season in 2009.  The England native is currently on a three-fight winning streak and most recently scored a controversial victory over Jorge Rivera. The actions of “The Count” that night led many fighters to request Bisping as their next opponent, and that bad-boy attitude was very likely the reason he landed coaching opposite Jason “Mayhem” Miller on the upcoming season of the promotion’s reality show.

A win against Miller could very well put Bisping next in line for the title.  Unfortunately for Bisping, that fight isn’t until December, which means he will have to be patient while he sits on the sidelines.

Chris Leben (26-7, won last fight)

Leben was the original bad boy of The Ultimate Fighter, starring in the show’s first season.  The Oregon native recently took down MMA legend Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132 in less than thirty seconds, an extremely impressive feat.  Leben has been known as the guy who gets tagged with some strong punches and immediately comes winding back for his own brutal blows. When Stann tagged him and earned the knockout in their bout, people thought it was the end of Leben.  As it turns out, Wanderlei tagged Leben in their bout and “The Crippler” went back to being the guy we know and love by earning the knockout just a few seconds later.  Leben put himself back on the right track with the win over “The Axe Murderer” and will be rewarded with a bout against Mark Muñoz at UFC 138.

If Leben defeats “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” in November, he will probably not get the next title shot, but it would likely put him one victory away from it.

Jason “Mayhem” Miller (24-7(1), two-fight winning streak)

One of the biggest acquisitions that the UFC has made in their middleweight division is Miller, who came over from Strikeforce.  “Mayhem” is not only good in the cage, but he has quite the following behind him.  From his wacky cage entrances to his post-fight antics, the Atlanta native definitely knows how to sell a crowd.  Miller is the host of “Bully Beatdown,” a show on MTV where bullies have an opportunity to win money by taking on MMA fighters.  He is also going to be a coach on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, opposite Michael Bisping.  “The Count” will also be his first opponent in the UFC since Georges St-Pierre back at UFC 52.

Defeating Bisping will not earn Miller a title shot, but it likely puts him one fight away from the title.

Mark Muñoz (11-2, three-fight winning streak)

“The Filipino Wrecking Machine” might not be the first name that you think of when talking about a shot at middleweight gold, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t title-worthy.  Muñoz has two career losses with only one of them actually coming while fighting at 185 pounds.  That one middleweight loss came by way of split decision against current No. 1 contender Yushin Okami.  During his winning streak, Muñoz has taken out Aaron Simpson, C.B. Dollaway and former No. 1 contender Demian Maia.

As it stands right now, Muñoz’s name isn’t big enough to sell.  If he defeats Leben in England this November, he could very well be next in line for the title.  However, it is probably unlikely due to the other bigger names that could land in front of him.

While the fighters above are directly in the hunt for the title, there are plenty of guys who are just a couple of fights away from getting a shot.  Let’s take a look at exactly who we’re talking about.

Alan Belcher (16-6, two-fight winning streak)

Two major things going against Belcher are his long layoff – he hasn’t fought in well over a year – and the fact that he hasn’t really beaten anyone of significance in the UFC.  That being said, the guy does have a decent record of 7-4 while fighting for the promotion.  If he beats Jason MacDonald in September and then can win a higher-profile fight afterwards, that would mark four straight wins for the Arkansas native.

Vitor Belfort (19-9, lost last fight)

The most recent victory by champion Anderson Silva came when he defeated Vitor Belfort just three minutes and twenty-five seconds into the first round of their fight.  Belfort was on the wrong end of a front kick to the face from Silva which ended the fight.  While Belfort wasn’t under-qualified to step into the cage for that fight, he may not have been the best contender that could have been chosen.  That fight was the Brazilian’s third career bout at middleweight, and his first middleweight fight for the UFC.  Truth be told, he was mostly chosen due to how weak the 185-pound division was at the time of his selection.  Now, with the revitalized division, “The Phenom” really needs to win to stay relevant in the division and even with the promotion.

Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-3(2), two-fight losing streak)

While he is only 1-2 with the promotion, Akiyama has taken home three Fight of the Night bonuses.  While winning is the be-all-end-all of being able to keep your contract with the UFC, earning Fight of the Night honors will definitely keep you around a little bit longer.  Akiyama has shown his worth for the promotion, even in defeat, and could get himself back on track with a victory over Belfort at UFC 133 in August.

Wanderlei Silva (33-11-1(1), lost last fight)

Wanderlei Silva is one of the legends of MMA that continues to fight.  Silva held a record of 31-5-1(1) in July of 2006, but has gone 2-6 since.  The Brazilian could very well be at the end of his career, and has an extremely long way to go if he ever wants to fight for gold again.  Quite frankly, it would be surprising if the UFC did anything with him except set up a farewell fight for his next time in the cage, if they even decide to do that.

Demian Maia (14-3, lost last fight)

After losing to Anderson Silva at UFC 112, Maia got back on the right track, defeating Mario Miranda and Kendall Grove.  It wasn’t until he recently lost to Mark Muñoz that his stock dropped again.  The fight Maia had against Silva was very unsatisfying, which was mostly because “The Spider” was disengaging during the bout, but Maia did very little to help his own cause during that fight.  The Brazillian needs to win to prove that he is not just a stepping stone, and needs a couple more wins before he fights for the gold again.  A loss against Jorge Santiago at UFC 136 would be a major setback for the former top contender.

Court McGee (13-1, seven-fight winning streak)

The winnerr of the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter, McGee is set to take on Dong Yi Yang in September.  Holding a 2-0 record for the promotion is great, but unfortunately he hasn’t fought anyone worthwhile.  Give him a higher profile fight and we will truly see what the kid is made of.  A couple more wins and he can fight his way to the belt.

Chris Weidman (6-0, six-fight winning streak)

Holding an undefeated record is exactly what promoters want out of their fighters.  The 27-year-old Weidman has exactly that.  He has passed his first two tests in the UFC by defeating Alessio Sakara and Jesse Bongfeldt, and will look to continue his winning ways in his next bout.  Weidman is set to take on Tom Lawlor next and a victory there could put him in the spotlight and just a few fights away from getting a crack at the title.

Aaron Simpson (9-2, two-fight winning streak)

After winning his first seven fights, Simpson lost two straight after he took a step up in competition.  Since those two losses, he has ripped off two victories and put himself back in the hunt.  It is unknown who Simpson will fight next, but signs point to him fighting against harder competition again.  He is about two fights away from a true shot at the title.

Nick Ring (12-0, 12-fight winning streak)

A cast member of the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter, Ring is quite possibly the UFC’s best kept secret.  While it is easy to name the winners from the the reality show, a lot of times we forget about the other fighters from the TUF house.  Court McGee won the show, but not too many remember that Ring actually beat McGee in the preliminary round before he had to withdraw from the competition with a knee injury.  Since undergoing surgery, he has returned to win two fights and is quietly making a name for himself.  Look for Ring to make more noise, and if he does, he will be in the title conversation.

Photo: Anderson Silva (l) and his next challenger, Yushin Okami (Credit: Sherdog)