The middleweight division sans Silva

It's possible Chael Sonnen wouldn't have to parade around with a fake belt if Anderson Silva retired. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Anderson Silva hung up his gloves after stopping Chael Sonnen on Saturday. The best middleweight in MMA history, arguably the top fighter over the first two decades of the sport's modern era, had nothing left to accomplish. So he did the sensible thing. He walked away healthy. Left with his legacy intact.

OK ... on the unlikely chance you're freaked out right now, relax. My lede is as real as Sonnen's UFC championship belt. Someday, though, Silva, 37, having established and maintained unparalleled records of longevity in the UFC, will leave the sport.

What happens then? A free-for-all at 185 pounds? Will a fighter emerge and establish his own dominant track?

Based on Wednesday's clash in San Jose, Calif., between Mark Munoz and Chris Weidman, the division won’t lack for talent. The unbeaten Weidman was to-a-T perfect, landing a beautiful standing counter elbow that sliced open the Filipino Wrecking Machine en route to a bloody second round stoppage. Perhaps the 28-year-old wrestler from Long Island is the next big thing and the man to end Silva’s reign. He sure looked like a force against Munoz, and whether or not Silva is around to test him, Weidman will surely have a say about the future of the middleweight division.

While the perceived gulf between Silva and his 185-compatriots befits the Grand Canyon, perhaps emerging contenders like Weidman suggests it’s not as wide as we think.

At the very least, a cadre of contenders ensures a merry-go-round at the top of the class, a hint that winning the belt does not come with an implicit guarantee of retaining it.

Who are the best candidates to replace Silva when he finally walks (or maybe before he does)?

Chris Weidman

With less than 10 pro fights you’d think he doesn’t have the experience to challenge Silva. But history suggests this isn’t any kind of deterrent to championship aspirations in the UFC. Thus far, Weidman did everything that promotion has asked of him, and looked great in the process.

Over the long haul, among the contenders that exist today, Weidman has established himself (in my mind at least) as the front-running prospective champion. That could be the afterglow of Wednesday’s one-sided beatdown talking, but this is a guy with all the makings of a serious fighter.

He’s more than a wrestler. He’s a long wrestler. And if there was any doubt about his striking acumen I’ll refer you to the elbow that sealed the deal against Munoz.

Billed by his coach Ray Longo as a natural, Weidman plays the part well.

Chael Sonnen

Yes, Sonnen. He didn’t beat Silva, but who has? It’s a whole different (i.e. less difficult) scenario taking on the smorgasbord that would exist in the Brazilian’s absence. Sonnen’s most trying opponent is often himself. Negotiating mental hurdles to claim a belt, even if it’s not from Silva, remains his biggest challenge.

Michael Bisping

Collective groans from the peanut gallery on this one. But the man deserves more respect than he gets. No matter how vigorously some fans hate on Bisping, it’s clear he’s a threat and continues to improve, especially in the area of takedown defense. When he fights with composure there are few better at overwhelming opponents with angst and volume punching than the veteran Brit.

Hector Lombard

Here’s the thing with Lombard: no one knows how good he is.

You can surmise and infer all you want. The fact is Lombard, formerly the Bellator middleweight champion, hasn’t fought anyone at or near their prime in years. If he gets past Tim Boetsch (big if) then he’ll earn credibility. Without needing to fight Silva, whose length and accuracy are massive factors against the short yet powerful Cuban, Lombard could have a shot at making this happen.

Alan Belcher

Another big middleweight who can do more than a little bit of everything. Belcher’s win against Rousimar Palhares in May indicated the 28-year-old, fighting out of Biloxi, Miss., is nearing the top of his game. With his confidence soaring, Belcher is a test for anyone at 185 pounds.

Luke Rockhold

First things first, he has to matriculate to the UFC. For now let’s pretend that instead of fighting for Zuffa’s unfortunately low-rent Strikeforce, Rockhold has already made his way to the Octagon. The athletic, lanky, aggressive Californian should not be underestimated. He’s learning on the job, which is a strike against him, but so far so good. If he handles Tim Kennedy with ease this Saturday, there’s no reason Rockhold shouldn’t be mentioned in the same class as the cream of UFC’s 185-pound crop.