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Where We Stand: Middleweight Division

Israel Adesanya solidified his star-status by winning the belt in 2019, but plenty of challenges await at 185 pounds.

One of the weirder facts in a sport full of them is that before Israel Adesanya defended his title against Yoel Romero at UFC 248, the last middleweight to successfully keep the belt was Michael Bisping when he took down Dan Henderson more than three years prior. That has a lot to do with a mixture of injuries to Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero’s struggles with the scale and Georges St-Pierre’s brief return to action, but regardless, it seems as if the 185-pound division has some traction going for it with Adesanya seeking an active reign as champ. Lucky for him, he has plenty of options in the near future as well as down the road. 

Let’s take a look at the middleweight division:

More Divisional Breakdowns: Strawweight Women's Flyweight | Women's Bantamweight | Women's Featherweight | Flyweight | Bantamweight | Featherweight | Lightweight | Welterweight | Light Heavyweight | Heavyweight

Champion: Israel Adesanya
(19-0, 14 KOs)

Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Win vs Yoel Romero (3/7/2020)

Next fight: N/A

The Journey: Israel Adesanya
The Journey: Israel Adesanya
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Outlook: Since making his entrance onto the UFC roster a little more than two years ago, “The Last Stylebender” has made good on every shot he called and enjoyed the spotlight while doing so. If not for Jorge Masvidal, Israel Adesanya had far-and-away the highest profile in 2019. He followed his Fight of the Night against Anderson Silva with the Fight of the Year against Kelvin Gastelum in which he captured the interim belt and set his date with Robert Whittaker. Then, in front of the biggest crowd in the promotion’s history, he knocked Whittaker out and made it look relatively easy. Although his first title defense against Yoel Romero left a few more questions than answers, all that matters is that his date with Paulo Costa remains intact. Aesthetically, that fight screams entertainment. Yes, Adesanya’s striking arsenal rightly grabs the headlines, but what makes him so tough is his defensive ability. He stuffs 86.5 percent of his opponent’s takedown attempts, highest all-time among middleweights. Combine that with his fight IQ and meticulous approach, and it’s fun to think about how he’ll game plan for the piece of Brazilian granite that is Costa.

1) Robert Whittaker
(21-5, 10 KOs, 5 Submissions)

Last Fight: Knockout Loss vs Israel Adesanya (10/6/2019)

Next fight: N/A

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JUNE 09:  (R-L) Robert Whittaker of New Zealand lands a kick to the head of Yoel Romero of Cuba in their middleweight fight during the UFC 225 event at the United Center on June 9, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa

Outlook: When Robert Whittaker moved up to 185 pounds, he immediately went on an eight-fight tear that included seven Performance Bonuses, including four Fight of the Night awards. Injury and medical issues hampered his activity after he beat Yoel Romero (the first time) and snagged the interim middleweight belt, which would later be promoted to the undisputed title. He went five more rounds with Romero in one of the best fights of 2018, but medical issues prevented him from fighting Kelvin Gastelum afterward. Although he lost the belt against Adesanya, the fact of it is that “The Reaper” is still just 29 years old with a lot of fighting ahead. Few fighters are as gutsy, powerful and just an all-out fighter than Whittaker. As one of the most respected men in and out of the Octagon, all “Bobby Knuckles” needs is a couple of fights to get back on track and reassert his position as the top contender. For the fans, though, it’ll just be good to see a healthy Whittaker back in the Octagon in some form of regularity.

2) Paulo Costa
(13-0, 11 KOs, 1 Submission)

Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Win vs Yoel Romero (8/17/2019)

Next fight: N/A

Outlook: At times, it’s  amazing to see how raw Paulo Costa was when he competed on The Ultimate Fighter Brazil back in 2014. When he officially made the roster a few years later, he was a devastating, powerful fighter with an all-out motor. Already with a work ethic that precedes the 28-year-old, Costa proved he can not only land bombs, but also take them when he earned a unanimous decision win over Yoel Romero in a Fight of the Night effort at UFC 241. The bout was the first that Costa hadn’t finished, and he’ll have his work cut out for him when he eventually challenges Israel Adesanya for the title. Almost a polar opposite from Adesanya in terms of physique, that bout will test Costa’s ability to stay disciplined, but he carries real power and force in the way he fights. You don’t earn the nickname “The Eraser” without possessing special finishing instincts, and the Brazilian has just that.

3) Jared Cannonier
(13-4, 9 KOs, 2 Submissions)

Last Fight: TKO Win vs Jack Hermansson (9/28/2019)

Next fight: N/A

Outlook: Jared Cannonier’s transformation from his days as a power-punching heavyweight to, well, a power-punching middleweight is rattling, but knowing the kind of sheer dedication with which Cannonier approaches his convictions, it’s not surprising. And, to his credit, he’s getting the results, too. In three fights at 185 pounds, he has three first-round finishes and hasn’t seen past the first minute of the second round yet. As stoic a fighter as you’ll come across, Cannonier carries the kind of weird, earth-shattering power that doesn’t require a huge wind-up. His work caught the attention of Israel Adesanya, though the middleweight champ believes Cannonier is a signature win or two away from securing a title shot. He nearly had the opportunity to do just that against Robert Whittaker, and then Darren Till after the Whittaker fight fell through, but a torn pectoral muscle put his title pursuits on hold for now.

4) Yoel Romero
(13-5, 11 KOs)

Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Loss vs Israel Adesanya (3/7/2020)

Next fight: N/A

Outlook: Yoel Romero’s pedigree as the most freakish, explosive athlete on the roster is well-earned before even considering that the Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler is 42 years old. With that said, the Cuban knockout artist is in a rough patch, having lost four of his last five bouts and missing weight in two of his four title fights in that stretch. His manager said that while Romero is probably sitting at “gatekeeper” status at the moment, Romero absolutely has the ability to pile up a few knockout wins in a row, thus shooting himself back into title contention. It’s wild to think about that, considering his age, but at this point, as Romero continues to defy logic, nothing is out of the question. Even if his most recent title shot was probably the most anti-climactic fight of his career, there’s little reason to believe Romero is going anywhere any time soon.

5) Darren Till
(18-2, 10 KOs, 2 Submissions)

Last Fight: Split Decision Win vs Kelvin Gastelum (11/2/2019)

Next fight: N/A

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 02: (L-R) Darren Till of England punches Kelvin Gastelum in their middleweight bout during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 02: (L-R) Darren Till of England punches Kelvin Gastelum in their middleweight bout during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on November 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: The newest entrant into the middleweight stratosphere is also a welcome one. After falling in his welterweight title bout to Tyron Woodley and subsequently suffering his first knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal in London, Till took some time off to reevaluate things and finally make the anticipated move up to 185 pounds. He said the move up allowed him to really work on his physique in terms of strength and conditioning, and in his middleweight debut against Kelvin Gastelum, Till looked strong and healthy despite arriving to New York City late on fight week. Till’s approach in the fight was methodical, measured and technical, and after the fight, he opened up to the anxiety he felt beforehand. It seems like Till is in a good place, and he is constantly bantering with potential opponents on social media – except, humorously Yoel Romero – and it seems like the weight class is a much better fit for him. A good, technical Muay Thai practitioner with a rebuilt swagger and the attitude that made him such a fun rising star, Till was rumored to fight Jared Cannonier at UFC 248 before injury forced Cannonier out for the next few months. A bout with Robert Whittaker has circulated the rumor mill as well, which would definitely serve as a proving ground for Till to show whether he has what it takes to compete with the best of the best at 185. If you ask him, though, he’ll remind you that “they’re all gettin’ it.”

In The Mix:
Jack Hermansson, Kelvin Gastelum, Derek Brunson, Edmen Shahbazyan

Outlook: With a sub-60-second finish over David Branch and a short-notice decision win in a main event against Jacare Souza, Jack Hermansson was putting together the kind of stretch that would’ve thrown him right into the top of the heap in the division. That came to a halt in the form of a Jared Cannonier uppercut, but the Swede still has plenty to say at 185 pounds. One of the more sound, well-rounded fighters in the division, Hermansson has sneaky, lethal finishing ability with both his striking and submission games. On the opposite side of the coin, nothing is sneaky about Kelvin Gastelum’s game. Few can forget his knockout of Michael Bisping, and in a sport where timing means so much, Gastelum hasn’t found it in his favor. What was supposed to be his title shot against Robert Whittaker evolved into an interim title fight with Israel Adesanya that, while the best of the year, ended with him empty-handed. His bout with Till resulted in similar disappointment, and Gastelum is left searching for a path back to the top, though I’m sure few would argue against a rematch with Adesanya, eventually. Derek Brunson has continued to float right outside the top 5 as he’s been alternating between two-fight winning or losing streaks over his last eight fights. Scheduled to face the fast-rising Edmen Shahbazyan, Brunson has another opportunity to prove he isn’t the middleweight steppingstone. Easier said than done, though, as Shahbazyan is one of the most impressive young prospects in some time. At just 22 years old, “The Golden Boy” finished all but one of his opponents inside the first round. A product of Glendale Fighting Club, Shahbazyan improves by leaps and bounds with each walk to the Octagon. His head-kick knockout of Brad Tavares at UFC 244 was as emphatic an announcement as one could make: the division has a young, ultra-confident contender who might be making real noise much sooner than his age would suggest.

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