The UFC’s middleweight division has not been this exciting since Anderson Silva first made easy work of then-champion Rich Franklin at UFC 64 on Oct. 14, 2006. Of course, the 185-pound weight class was not as stacked as it is today, and in fact has never been as deep as it is today. That is in no small part thanks to the acquisition of the Strikeforce roster and the imports of notable fighters such as Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Tim Kennedy and Luke Rockhold.

There have also been two high-profile light heavyweights who have decided to make the move to middleweight in Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi, both top-10 fighters in their own right. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen 205-pounders make the cut and become top-10 fighters—Mark Munoz and Tim Boetsch both did it—but it is the first time we’ve seen it happen while they were still very much viable contenders within their original weight class.

The last time we saw a mass influx of fighters which added new light to the roster was in 2007 and 2008 when Zuffa acquired Pride FC and the WEC. This allowed Anderson Silva to unify the UFC and Pride belts in his bout with Dan Henderson. We also got to see Chael Sonnen challenge for two titles on three occasions. Both fighters remain top-10 contenders, this time in the light heavyweight division. Of course, if either chose to drop back to middleweight, it would not take long to see them have similar rankings there as well.

Former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort made quick work of Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, and Henderson but he came up short in his most recent title bouts to then-champion Silva and current light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones. Current champion Chris Weidman already dispatched of Munoz, who after securing a solid victory over Boetsch, was knocked out by Machida, also a former light heavyweight UFC champion.

The presence of Belfort and Machida have made determining the next contender more difficult than ever. Belfort has been seemingly passed over before because of his previous failed attempt in addition to the controversy surrounding his testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) use. Machida also poses problems as both he and Silva have stated on numerous occasions that they will not fight. So, depending on how UFC 168 plays out as Silva rematches Weidman, we could also see Machida on the sidelines.

There are a number of other fighters, veterans and up-and-comers alike, who have neither held a UFC title before, let alone fought for one, who we could very well see wearing gold at some point in the future. Established personalities like the aforementioned Bisping, Jacare, and Mousasi, as well as guys like Kennedy and Francis Carmont. Kennedy was a longtime staple under the Strikeforce banner, but has been building an even bigger following with more momentum now that he is on the biggest stage in all of MMA. Carmont, on the other hand, is coming off a dominating performance over fellow top-10 fighter Costa Philippou and is set to square off against Jacare on Feb. 14, 2014. Kennedy is currently without an opponent.

The real question is not necessarily which of these “new” contenders will eventually fight for a title, but who stands the best chances of actually winning one. And that’s where things get tricky.

Mousasi is the likely favorite, as he has held titles in other notable organizations before, such as the Strikeforce light heavyweight championship, as well both the middleweight and light heavyweight belts in Japan while fighting for Dream. He had difficulty with wrestler Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, but is undefeated in his last seven outings. He has a difficult style of striking to train for and, at 28 years old, has only gotten better since that bitter defeat. He must first get past Machida, who himself is renowned for unorthodox striking and counters, as well as his takedowns and takedown defense, both of which seem to have only improved in his new home at 185 pounds. Mousasi very well may have the skills to become champion one day, but if he can’t get past Machida, then it won’t matter anytime soon.

Bisping has the honor of having the most wins inside the UFC’s Octagon without getting a title shot. It’s a distinction to be proud of, but one that “The Count” would surely trade in for one crack at the gold. It’s not surprising, though, as he has come up short on three separate occasions in title eliminator bouts, first to Henderson, then to Sonnen, and most recently to Belfort. He’s the guy who’s never far from a title shot, in no small part because of his star power and exciting stand-up style, but always seems to take two steps back when he needs a win the most. Overall, it’s unlikely he’ll be winning the belt anytime soon, if at all, especially with Belfort still on a winning streak and Sonnen talking about returning to middleweight. However, whenever the guy strings together two decent wins, he’s always right back in the hot seat, making him the guy to beat. It wouldn’t be surprising if he did eventually fight for the title, especially since such a bout would almost be a slam dunk at the pay-per-view box office, but first we need to see him clear that hurdle. Of course, if he’s the guy to beat, that means he’s still a viable contender.

The man some are saying is all but a shoe-in for a title shot in the not-so-distant future is Jacare. His official UFC record says 2-0, but it should say 3-0, as his final fight in Strikeforce was against Ed Herman, who was and is active on the UFC’s roster and was brought in so Souza could have an opponent on the promotion’s final show. Nonetheless, he is on a five-fight winning streak with his only loss in his last 11 bouts coming by way of decision to fellow top-10 fighter and Strikeforce import Rockhold. Aside from quickly disposing of former title challenger Yushin Okami, he also holds wins over Kennedy and No. 3 welterweight Robbie Lawler, and he had an impressive knockout over Derek Brunson, who also has back-to-back wins since making the move from Strikeforce to the UFC. If his fight against Carmont is anything like his last four first-round finishes, then Jacare won’t just be a potential contender anymore, but a serious threat to the title.

Also trying to work their way up the ladder are Rockhold and Philippou. Rockhold has yet to see a win inside the Octagon, but then again he’s only had one fight and that was against Belfort. He does, however, hold wins over two fellow top-1o fighters in Kennedy and Jacare, so his current placement at No. 6 isn’t entirely undeserving. But if you ever want to fight for a title, you have to win, and win big. Like Rockhold, Philippou saw his climb stopped short in his most recent fight. The two will square off on Jan. 15, 2014, in what is the perfect match-up to see who can get back on track and who will continue to fall down the ladder.

Kennedy and Carmont are in a different boat, as they’ve seen their stock rise as of late. After going 6-2 in Strikeforce, with losses to Rockhold and Jacare in title fights, Kennedy has put together a three-fight winning streak with two of those victories coming in the UFC. While he’s received criticism for not fighting top-level talent, he’s hardly to blame for matchmaking and last-minute replacement of opponents. For his part, he has made every effort to call out top guys. Currently without an opponent, it’s possible all his Twitter activity will pay off soon enough, as Bisping has shown an interest in taking on the challenge. Such a fight would do wonders to either fighter’s ranking, but would not necessarily show us if either will be a true contender. Either way, it is likely to be an exciting fight between two top-10 opponents, and it could easily set up a bout with the winner of any of these other match-ups.

When you look at a guy like Carmont, it’s hard to say he isn’t right on track in his career. He’s compiled a 6-0 record in the UFC, defeated a top-1o fighter and fellow up-and-comer, and is slated to take on a higher ranked fighter and true veteran of the sport in Jacare for his seventh performance. By contrast, Weidman had only fought five times in the UFC prior to his title shot and was coming off back-to-back victories over top-1o fighters. Thanks to Bisping losing to Belfort and a lack of interest by UFC President Dana White in a Silva-Belfort rematch, Weidman got his shot. Depending on how these other fights turn out, Carmont could see himself in the same situation. But Jacare is in some ways a much more dangerous opponent than anyone Weidman faced on his road to the title, and this is the perfect match-up to see if the Frenchman, Carmont, is a contender or just another pretender.

Prior to Jul. 6, 2013, it seemed unlikely anyone but “The Spider” would be wearing the UFC belt for a while. Weidman’s upset victory not only proved one of the greatest fighters of all time could be defeated, but also lit a fire in the division as a whole. Thanks to circumstances such as acquisitions and fighters dropping a weight class, we are in no short supply of contenders. But will any of these people ever become champions? It’s hard to say, but it’s no less exciting. Thankfully, they are well-matched to determine not only who’s next in line, but who’s in line two or three fights down the road. That’s something no other division can say at the moment. Silva may reclaim his title, or Weidman may reign supreme for years to come, but it’s also possible one of these men, including some who have yet to taste what it’s like to fight for UFC gold, will be wearing that belt this time next year. That’s why this sport is so exciting, and why this always has been and will be one of the most exciting divisions in it. And that’s the bottom line.

Photo: Michael Bisping (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

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