Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (Gleidson Venga/Sherdog)

Who Will Be the Next UFC Middleweight Title Challenger?

For nearly seven years, the UFC’s middleweight division was ruled by an unstoppable Brazilian king named Anderson Silva. He seemed unbeatable until a young, hungry lion from the state of New York named Chris Weidman put Silva’s legacy to rest. Ever since Silva fell from his perch atop the division, the balance of power at middleweight has shifted repeatedly. Three different champions have been crowned in the last three years. The real question now revolves around who might be the next man to climb into the throne.

After winning the championship in July 2013, Weidman went on to successfully defend the belt three times before losing it about a year and a half later to Luke Rockhold, who then lost the title to Michael Bisping seven months later. This past weekend at UFC 204, the main event was a rematch between the new champion, Bisping, and his rival, UFC Hall of Famer Dan Henderson.

Bisping and Henderson coached opposite of each other on The Ultimate Fighter and then fought on the historic UFC 100 card in 2009. Henderson won via knockout in devastating fashion. The knockout has been a fixture of UFC knockout highlight reels ever since. Somehow, a rematch never came until UFC 204. It was a great opportunity for Henderson to get another crack at a title which he fought for only one other time when he took on the aforementioned Silva in 2008 and lost by way of a second-round submission.


Unfortunately, Henderson, who was set to retire regardless of the result of his fight with Bisping, ended up losing via unanimous decision. Two judges gave Henderson two rounds, while one judge gave him just one round in the fight. Henderson announced his retirement right after the fight, making it official during his post-fight interview in front of a packed crowd in Manchester, England.

With the Bisping and Henderson match-up in the books, the cream of the crop in the division can finally get down to business to hopefully determine the true top contender to challenge Bisping next.

The two most important fights in the division are set to take place just a couple weeks apart. First, the UFC’s No. 2-ranked middleweight Weidman will take on No. 4-ranked Yoel Romero, who is fresh off a USADA suspension, at UFC 205, which is the UFC’s inaugural show in New York at Madison Square Garden. Just 15 days later, the UFC’s No. 1-ranked middleweight Rockhold and No. 3 Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza will meet for the second time in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

These are the top four fighters in the division. They are fighting for one spot. They all want to receive the next title shot. The UFC is not apt to go the route of a strict tournament format, where two sets of fights happen and the winners of those fights face off. It is the fairest way to handle things, but it’s not the UFC’s modern styles and it would take far too long. The UFC is looking for a top contender as soon as possible, and a tournament won’t achieve this goal.

The fighter who becomes most deserving of the No. 1 contender spot is not only the one who wins their fight, but the one who wins in the most impressive fashion possible. All four fighters have had great success in the sport and in the UFC, and they have an opportunity to make a statement. They can’t eke out a decision win or play it safe. These men have to go out there and win definitively. If both fights end up being very similar, however, then it will be a judgment call by UFC President Dana White and the rest of the UFC executives.

So, how does this play out?

Weidman will beat Romero via split decision. Weidman, who will be fighting in front of a home crowd in New York, will not only have a lot of pressure on him to win, but he is also coming off a 10-month layoff. His last loss came in the title fight against Rockhold at UFC 194. This might leave him a little rusty coming into his first fight in almost a year. The same goes for Romero, who fought Jacare at the same event, but he’s coming off a USADA suspension, which can’t be doing well for his confidence. Weidman has more experience against UFC competition — and at the championship level, too. It will be a close fight, nevertheless.

Meanwhile, Jacare will beat Rockhold via submission in the second or third round. Rockhold clearly has the stand-up advantage and he is very underrated on the ground, but everybody knows that Souza is absolutely deadly with his submission game. Once the Brazilian gets on top of an opponent, he stays heavy on them and doesn’t let them get away without a struggle. Jacare lost his first fight against Rockhold in Strikeforce, but the fight was more than five years ago and the Brazilian has been on a tear ever since. He did have a loss against the aforementioned Romero at UFC 194, but it was a razor-thin decision that could have gone either way. Outside of the Romero fight, Jacare has been very impressive. He has the momentum. Jacare will be able to get the Bay Area native Rockhold on his back and eventually finish him off. Rockhold, while being extremely talented and still in the prime of his career, tends to fade late in his fights. Even though he ultimately prevailed and won the title against Weidman, he faded late, which nearly cost him. Rockhold was extremely gassed out in the third round and could have been finished, but he survived. However, because of a crucial error by Weidman in the following round when he went for a spinning heel kick, Rockhold got the takedown and finished him via TKO just over three minutes into the fourth frame.

Ultimately, Souza will win impressively. This should get him a title shot against Bisping. Not only is this a great match-up for Souza, but he is a savvy veteran who would take on a fellow savvy veteran when he faces Bisping. Bisping knows how to motivate fighters to put on good fights against him, and he’ll be happy to do the same with Jacare.