Chael Sonnen (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)UFC Title Picture: Where Does Chael Sonnen Fit in the Middleweight Division? Justin Fuller March 6, 2014 Spotlight Recently, three-time UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen made comments about his plans to return to the 185-pound division following his fight with Pride legend Wanderlei Silva. In addition to referring to the “Axe Murderer” as a bum, “The American Gangster” said he already had a specific fight in mind. That match-up would not only require him to walk away unscathed from his upcoming bout, but also for there to be a specific outcome for his prospective opponent. Sonnen is currently ranked No. 9 as a light heavyweight in the UFC’s official rankings. He has not fought at middleweight since he lost his second bid for the 185-pound title, then held by Anderson Silva, at UFC 148 in July of 2012. If he were to drop back down a weight class, it is unlikely either he or the UFC would want him to fight anyone but a top-10 opponent, and if he is victorious over Wanderlei, it is also likely he would be fighting someone else coming off a win or a title shot. With Chris Weidman holding back-to-back victories over Anderson Silva, and a trio of Brazilians vying for the No. 1 contender spot, the entire division seems to be in a scramble. Throwing Sonnen back in the mix will not only heighten the excitement, but also add some much-needed stability to the rankings. Any conjecture as to the identity of the opponent Sonnen has in mind might seem like a fool’s errand. However, take a look at the current match-ups in the division involving top-10 talent, and the task is much more manageable. In fact, only five people (six, if you count the No. 11 spot) in that pool have fights coming up. Of those six, two are fighting a week prior to Sonnen, two others a month before and the last two compete six weeks prior to Sonnen. Winner of No. 5 Michael Bisping (24-5) vs. No. 8 Tim Kennedy (17-4) at The Ultimate Fighter Nations Finale on April 16 Although this bout does pose some interesting questions for the division and would set the winner up for a big fight, it’s unlikely they’ll be getting an immediate title shot. Even with a win, Bisping probably won’t be ranked above Lyoto Machida and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Meanwhile, this would undoubtedly be the biggest win of Kennedy’s career, but that doesn’t change the fact he would still have some work to do before receiving a title shot. Machida was the unofficial contender in waiting, and he was willing to take a fight against Bisping or Jacare, but now that No. 2-ranked Vitor Belfort has been scrapped from his second bid for the middleweight title, “The Dragon” will be stepping up in his place. That leaves a spot open for Sonnen to swoop in and take on the winner of this bout. Sonnen previously fought Bisping to a close unanimous decision in January 2012. There were those who were not only impressed with how well Bisping did against Sonnen, but even felt he had won the bout. Since it was a close and exciting fight that didn’t end in a finish, a rematch is certainly justifiable. It will also give Sonnen a top-five fighter to test his mettle against back in his natural division. We also might get to actually see these two properly hype the fight. Their last encounter was a last-minute change-up, and therefore little time was given for each to do his due diligence in ensuring adequate “wolf tickets” were sold. Sonnen vs. Kennedy in some ways is much more interesting. Kennedy is now 2-0 in the UFC, but he has yet to fight a ranked opponent. He has solidified his status as a true top-10 contender, whereas we’ve seen many other fighters come and go in the last couple years from those No. 8 through No. 10 spots in the rankings. If Kennedy can pull off the upset, then he may even find himself in the No. 5 spot, or very close to it, and have more than deserved a shot against someone with as big a name and as dangerous a status as Sonnen. Don’t expect a lot of trash-talking in this one. In that context, it will be similar to when Sonnen fought Brian Stann. That doesn’t mean the fight won’t be full of fireworks. Loser of champion Chris Weidman (11-0) vs. No. 3 Lyoto Machida (21-4) at UFC 173 on May 24 In what is one of the biggest moves this year, Belfort was removed from a title fight against Weidman in order to avoid the chance he might not get licensed by Nevada in time. The promotion replaced Belfort with fellow Brazilian and former light heavyweight champion Machida. This erased all questions of whether Machida would need to fight again before getting a title shot and temporarily took him off the list of guys to beat for those wishing for a title shot of their own. Sonnen has more than his fair share of experience in title fights and title-eliminator bouts, and taking on the loser of this fight would not only help to demonstrate Sonnen’s viability as a threat to the belt, but also determine if the loser of this fight can work their way back up to the top. Each of these fighters is a pay-per-view headliner-worthy draw, so, from a business standpoint, the UFC won’t have any trouble getting the most bang for its buck. There isn’t bad blood of any kind between Weidman and Sonnen, but Sonnen does possess some skills which might give the New Jersey native trouble. A win for Weidman would put him right back on track to reclaim his belt. Sonnen has previously directed his eloquent vernacular towards Machida, so a fight between the two already has plenty of video footage and quotes to choose from in order to make the hype real. The match-up is also interesting. Machida has shown great takedown defense and recovery against top-level wrestlers. It would be unlikely for Machida to earn another title shot anytime soon, even with a win over Sonnen, especially as he approaches his 36th birthday, but that doesn’t make the fight any less intriguing or important. Sometimes you just want to see two great top-level guys go at it. Besides, Sonnen will be 37 next month and hasn’t looked old yet. Winner of No. 6 Luke Rockhold (11-2) vs. No. 11 Tim Boetsch at UFC 172 on April 26 In some ways, this is both the least and most likely fight for Sonnen. Neither Luke Rockhold nor Tim Boetsch is a draw anywhere near the level of Sonnen, but two fights ago Sonnen was headlining a Fight Night card, and he will be doing so again in his next bout. Also, there’s nothing that says Rockhold or Boetsch might not break out into the next level of stardom with a win at UFC 172. A win there and then another over Sonnen would have any fighter clipping at the heels of a top-five spot in the division, especially if Bisping comes up short in his own bout. Rockhold is a former Strikeforce middleweight champion who is still working his way back up the ladder after his first-round knockout loss to Belfort. Boetsch, on the other hand, is trying to prove that he still deserves to be considered as part of the top-10. Rockhold will be the heavy favorite in this one. He, like many other fighters, has his eyes set on fighting Bisping for, you guessed it, personal reasons. Of course, it is also very possible there are professional reasons at play in wanting to fight the No. 5 fighter, who also happens to be one of the UFC’s biggest global draws. However, Rockhold probably wouldn’t turn down a chance at a co-main event pay-per-view slot or another Fight Night headlining fight opposite Oregon’s own Sonnen. Having Sonnen fight Boetsch sends a message that says you have to work your way back up to the top just like everyone else. If Boetsch can secure the “W” over Rockhold, then he’ll not only be right back in the top 10, but he will also prove he’s a legitimate opponent for Sonnen’s return. Critics might call it a tune-up fight, but it would be very smart matchmaking given the state of the division right now. Both fighters possess similar skills, but they have a widely different approach. Sonnen uses his wrestling, clinch work and ground-and-pound in an almost orchestral fashion, whereas Boetsch goes more of the improv, heavy metal route—it’s not pretty, it’s not clean, but it gets the job done. It’s always intriguing to think of what fights are out there for a guy as interesting as Sonnen, especially when he has a match already booked that he needs to focus on first. With the way things have been going in the middleweight division, his return will be more than welcome. He is the true 185-pound gatekeeper, and he is still capable of returning to title contention. Of course, maybe this is all a ruse. Maybe, instead, he’s planning to wait for Anderson Silva to return so they can have a third match. Sure, Anderson won the first two decisively, but both fighters seem more than amicable now, letting bygones be bygones, and both have jokingly agreed to a third fight. It might not mean much to some who are sticklers for proper rubber matches, but it would be one hell of a fight guaranteed to make each fighter just as rich as in their previous encounters, if not richer. And that’s the bottom line.