It wasn’t long ago that the UFC middleweight title contender picture was full of possibilities. Over the last few months a handful of notable fighters have dropped out of the running and newly announced match-ups are narrowing down the field. A pivotal fight this weekend between UFC mainstays Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort, combined veterans of 33 UFC fights, will make the picture that much clearer.

Bisping has been one of the UFC’s biggest international stars, but never one that fans took seriously as a title contender. Belfort already had his shot with middleweight champion Anderson Silva, but his good karma for stepping in against Jon Jones to save the UFC 152 main event has allowed him to keep fighting near the top with the rest of the middleweight contenders. This fight will not necessarily deem the next challenger to Silva, but more than a few factors have it tipping towards that possibility.

Most fans agreed that Chris Weidman would be the next best challenge for Silva, but an injury has put him out till the fall at earliest, and the rest of the middleweights are happily scurrying to fill in during his absence. Alan Belcher and Tim Boetsch were fan-favorite dark horses for the next title challenge, but each suffered a loss at UFC 155 and fell to the back of the line. There’s also Hector Lombard and Yushin Okami, set to face each other, and there’s also Luke Rockhold’s impending introduction into the fray, possibly against Constantinos Philippou or even the winner of Bisping/Belfort.

Bisping has taken most of the attention for himself from fans and media leading up to this fight. He always has something to say and does a great job at insulting his opponent to hype a fight. However, unlike his work on the microphone, his work in the cage against top middleweights still leaves something to be desired. He’s long lobbied for a shot at Silva, but he was never able to take that final step to earn his bid. The timing could be perfect for the Brit to finally receive his turn for a title shot. It will probably be his only chance to finally fulfill that desire, else he will continue to reside in a state of limbo near the top.

To put it bluntly, Bisping is a marquee fighter and a cash cow for the UFC, but his shot at Silva would just be something to finally shut him up from his constant bickering. Bisping’s real job for the UFC is to be one of the promotion’s international stars and a big draw on main cards, not to be a threat to the elite class, especially Silva. Bisping regularly cashes some of the largest paychecks outside of the UFC’s champions, so it is not as if his time isn’t being well compensated.

Belfort, on the other hand, while not as vocally intriguing, still has a marketable history in MMA. As an established veteran and star of the early years of the UFC, Belfort would not need to have his following built up. Yet, when he faced Silva in 2011, he was easily dispatched, so there’s no guarantee that fans want to see that rematch.

Belfort came close to breaking Jon Jones’ arm and winning the light heavyweight title in his last fight, which counts for something, but Bisping would be the most relevant name on Belfort’s ledger in several years, if he were to defeat him. On the flip side, his only two losses in seven years are to Silva and Jones, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Belfort could be sold as a No. 1 contender again.

Even so, Belfort does have more of a tainted history than Bisping, which could have some hesitant about his reliability. In his 2006 fight with Dan Henderson, Belfort was busted for using anabolic steroids. His recent comments on TRT don’t help his case either. In an ESPN interview, Belfort wouldn’t give an answer either way about whether he would consider using TRT, saying instead, “If a question is private, I have the choice to answer or not. If I make it public, it’s not private anymore. If I want to say something private I will say it, but I keep to myself and I respect the laws of the sport. Whatever the organization, whatever the law—they know what to do. This is too controversial, why am I going to say something that doesn’t accomplish anything? If it’s legal, they know what to do. If it’s legal, there’s nothing to say about it. It’s legal.”

When pressed further, Belfort continued with another ambiguous answer, and that is not the type of pre-fight talk that is going to get fans on his side. In this instance, Bisping’s comical trash talk is a welcome distraction and one that fans would rather buy into.

In the end, both fighters are easy sells as the next title contender if they emerge victorious from Saturday evening’s contest.

Fans will continue to clamor for who they think rightfully deserves a title shot, and interesting developments like Rockhold waiting in the wings will need time to unfold. But, then again, what’s the rush to honestly name the next contender? In December, it was announced that Silva had signed a 10-fight deal with the UFC, so shoring up all the loose ends in the division probably isn’t a priority for the UFC. It appears that Silva will be fighting into his forties with the company, and super fights are likely to fill the tail end of that stretch.

Bisping and Belfort are given an equal chance at victory by oddsmakers, and while it is anticipated to be a great fight, most people are looking ahead to the endgame. More than anything, the fans are starved in their desire to see Anderson Silva step into the cage and perform like the MMA virtuoso that he is. It doesn’t really matter who it is against. The fans will be watching regardless.

Photo: Vitor Belfort (Patrick Formosinho/Dentro do Ringue)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.