The UFC middleweight division is poised to be in the spotlight over the next four weeks, with Saturday event at the UFC APEX and UFC 271 the following weekend each being headlined by critical pairings at the top of the 185-pound weight class, and a host of other meaningful matchups taking place across the division in the month of February.
Having a month where the title is on the line and a number of additional key contests are taking place creates a situation where the complexion of the division can drastically shift in a four-week span, depending on how things shake out.
What happens if a new champion is crowned? Are any of the Top 10 fighters competing in February capable of threating either of the title combatants? Will a member of the emerging set collect the kind of statement victory that elevates them into the thick of the chase?
With those questions in mind, let’s set the table for the month ahead and dive into how the middleweight division currently stacks up.
Here’s all the middleweight matchups current scheduled to hit the Octagon in February:
Jack Hermansson vs. Sean Strickland
Punahele Soriano vs. Nick Maximov
Sam Alvey vs. Brendan Allen
Tresean Gore vs. Bryan Battle
Chidi Njokuani vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker (UFC Middleweight Title Fight)
Jared Cannonier vs. Derek Brunson
AJ Dobson vs. Jacob Malkoun
Julian Marquez vs. Kyle Daukaus
Joaquin Buckley vs. Abdul Razak Alhassan
Misha Cirkunov vs. Wellington Turman
Armen Petrosyan vs. Gregory Rodrigues
The Key Contests
Hermansson vs. Strickland (UFC Vegas 47 — February 5)
Each man is currently stationed inside the Top 10 in the UFC Rankings, with Hermansson entering off a dominant decision win over Edmen Shahbazyan last May and Strickland riding a five-fight winning streak, the last four of which have come since he returned from a two-year injury hiatus in October 2020.
Hermansson has been on the cusp of title contention in the past, but faltered in key spots, losing decisions to Jared Cannonier and Marvin Vettori in bouts where a win would have elevated him into the championship mix. This is the highest Strickland has climbed to this point in his career, but he’s 19-0 in the division, on a quality run of success, and feels like a dark horse contender in the 185-pound ranks.
The winner won’t necessarily be next in line for a title shot — though that’s not out of the question — a date with another hopeful or former title challenger looking to regroup would make a lot of sense.
Robert Whittaker vs Israel Adesanya 2
Adesanya vs. Whittaker (UFC 271 — February 12)
The rematch everyone has been waiting for finally takes place this month, as Adesanya defends his title against the last man to wear the belt before him, Whittaker, in a fight that carries a ton of intrigue.
Adesanya earned a second-round stoppage victory over Whittaker in their first meeting at UFC 243, dropping him at the end of the first before finishing things late in the next frame to complete his meteoric rise to the top of the middleweight division. Whittaker was uncharacteristically hurried throughout the contest, and took a break following the loss after acknowledging he was dealing with burn out following a long couple of years.
Since their first encounter, Adesanya has successfully defended his title in victories over Yoel Romero, Paulo Costa, and Marvin Vettori, while suffering the first loss of his career in a failed bid to claim the light heavyweight title from Jan Blachowicz last year at UFC 259. As for the 31-year-old Whittaker, he’s earned unanimous decision wins over Darren Till, Cannonier, and Kelvin Gastelum to cement his standing as the No. 1 contender and set up this sequel with Adesanya.
Cannonier vs. Brunson (UFC 271)
Before “The Last Stylebender” and “Bobby Knuckles” run things back at UFC 271, Cannonier and Brunson will battle it out in a three-round contest that will likely determine the next title challenger in the 185-pound weight class.
Cannonier is 4-1 since moving to middleweight, including wins over Hermansson and Gastelum, while the veteran Brunson has put together a five-fight winning streak that includes handing Shahbazyan the first loss of his career, halting Kevin Holland’s ascension, and submitting Till.
Fighters to Watch
Nick Maximov has garnered some solid buzz thanks to an undefeated record and his affiliation with the Diaz Brothers. He was ranked No. 13 in ESPN’s Top 25 Under 25 towards the end of last year, is coming off a victory in his promotional debut last September, and could catapult himself up the list of emerging talents with a win over Soriano this weekend.
Brendan Allen is now set to face Sam Alvey on Saturday, as the Sanford MMA product stepped in for his teammate, Phil Hawes, who was initially a replacement for their teammate Ian Heinisch. It’s a worthwhile gamble for Allen, who has dropped key fights at critical times throughout his career, and is coming off a second-round stoppage loss to Chris Curtis.
Although Kyle Daukaus has just one win through his first four UFC starts, the former CFFC champion and Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) alum remains an intriguing figure in the middleweight division. He’s a strong grappler looking to get things moving in the right direction following a frustrating 2021 campaign, and a win over Marquez would be a tremendous way to kick off the year.
Gregory Rodrigues is an all-action fighter on a four-fight winning streak, with his most recent win coming in an entertaining back-and-forth battle with Jun Yong Park back in October. The 29-year-old is 11-3 overall, trains with a great crew at Sanford MMA, and should get a step up in competition if he turns back Petrosyan at the end of the month.
Nassourdine Imavov started his 2021 campaign with a majority decision loss to Hawes, but rebounded with stoppage wins over Heinisch and Shahbazyan, finishing each in the second while showing his expert-level understanding of range and distance management. A teammate and training partner of former interim heavyweight champ Ciryl Gane, the 25-year-old “Russian Sniper” is currently slated to face Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 273.
All Andre Muniz did last year was become the first man to submit Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in MMA competition, breaking his arm in the process. As an encore, the DWCS grad tapped out Eryk Anders in December, pushing his record to 4-0 in the UFC and setting up an April date with Uriah Hall
Chris Curtis showed he always belonged in the UFC last year, registering stoppage wins over Hawes and Allen a month apart to land as one of the top breakout fighters of the year. The 34-year-old 36-fight veteran is on a roll right now, having won six fights in 2021 and seven straight overall, and has a date with Dricus du Plessis lined up for April.
Former Glory Kickboxing two-division champ Alex Pereira made his successful UFC debut at Madison Square Garden, stopping Andreas Michailidis in the second round at UFC 268. Still early in his transition to MMA — UFC 268 was his fifth career fight, first in a year, and second since 2016 — the Brazilian is a dynamite striker and could take a major step forward with a win over his surging countryman, Bruno Silva, on March 12.
Looking to the Future
As obvious as it sounds, everything hinges on how the championship clash between Adesanya and Whittaker plays out, because if the champion retains his title, we’re heading in one direction, but if Whittaker re-takes the throne, we’re most likely headed to a trilogy fight later this year.
Cannonier and Brunson are likely battling to be the next title challenger if Adesanya wins, even though the champ dispatched the latter in under a round on his way to the title. Brunson has clearly gotten better, and a win over Cannonier would cement that, but running back a non-title mauling with championship stakes has its challenges.
Whittaker has already beaten both men, toppling Brunson in November 2016 during his march to the title and out-hustling Cannonier at UFC 254, so of the two, a rematch with Brunson is much more immediately palatable.
If a trilogy fight does materialize, look for the Cannonier-Brunson winner to serve as the potential replacement, either as an independent stand-by fighter paid to go through camp and weigh in or in a matchup with another top contender.
But figuring out who that other top contender could be difficult because booking the division beyond what is already mapped out is going to be tough since so many competitors have either already fought each other or are looking to protect their place in the hierarchy.
There is one, maybe two degrees of separation between the division’s elite right now, which makes finding fresh matchups that produce results that move things forward hard to come by.
Pairing someone like Marvin Vettori against anyone would produce an entertaining fight, but “The Italian Dream” has already lost to Adesanya twice, including a failed title bid last year, and has already beaten Paulo Costa and Hermansson. Fights with Whittaker or Cannonier or Brunson would be cool, but where do they lead you?
It’s the same problem you encounter when Gastelum and Darren Till get booked into key fights — they are fun to watch, but both have already cycled through the top names in the division, and running them back doesn’t create another particularly interesting for the future.
The best thing that could happen is for Strickland to get a victory this weekend, and emerging talents like Imavov and Muniz to keep posting victories and moving forward, as that would inject some fresh names into the championship chase. Sadly, that isn’t an approach the UFC takes all too often these days, which is why Imavov is facing Gastelum and Muniz is facing Hall.
They’re fine fights and reasonable challenges for the two hopefuls, but a victory for either would still leave them too far back in the pack to be considered title contenders, which then means they’re stuck facing another veteran that has already been through the same gauntlet, and that’s how we reach a point where everyone has fought everyone and few fresh matchups remain.
Normally the title changing hands would create some fresh opportunities, but all it would do in this case is set up a trilogy fight, which just means more time to create more congestion at the top of the division.
Middleweight is a bit of a mess, and it’s going to take some creative thinking and new names advancing to clean things up.
The AllStar Deep Dive will be a recurring feature that highlights where a division stands, so be on the lookout for future installments in the coming months.