Middleweight contenders and pretenders

The first time I saw Anderson Silva in action live was the week he fought Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 in August 2009.

I had seen him on tape previously, but it’s different in person. You see the fluidity of his motion firsthand and hear the crack of his punches -- and subconsciously cradle your own ribs as he throws knees from the Thai clinch.

I felt all of that while just watching him hit the heavy bag, by the way.

As far as the fight went, well, it was maybe the most tailor-made matchup I’ve ever seen for Silva’s skill set, but still. It was awesome.

That was nearly four years ago. Back then, there wasn't a great pool of talent to challenge Silva for the middleweight title, and he wasn’t interested in fighting for the 205-pound belt because his buddy Lyoto Machida was wearing it. The feeling was Silva would just hang on to that 185-pound strap, which he did.

What has changed? The main thing hasn’t. Sitting here, writing this today, I still say there is no middleweight in the UFC who beats Silva if the two fight tomorrow.

Looking ahead, though, Silva celebrated his 38th birthday last month. If UFC president Dana White was correct in comments made last month in New York, Silva has signed a new deal that keeps him around another 10 fights.

If Silva (33-4) enters the Octagon another 10 times, even if a superfight against Jon Jones never happens, that’s a lot of fights. Could a middleweight beat him?

With that, let’s get into our third installment of "Contenders and Pretenders." The question: Who will become the first middleweight other than Silva to hold the UFC title since Rich Franklin in 2006?

The Honorable Mentions: Alan Belcher, Tim Boetsch, Tim Kennedy, Hector Lombard, Mark Munoz, Yushin Okami, Costa Philippou

Lombard may be the honorable mention of the honorable mentions. If he could consistently fight the always confusing Rousimar Palhares, he might rattle off 18 knockouts in a row. A move to welterweight might help, but the problem is that he’s a bit of a one-trick pony -- along with most of the middles on this list.

Belcher is the pound-for-pound champ of “jumping into the camera with a crazy, happy look on your face for future promo reels.” He has perfected it. Skills-wise, he’s a bit one-dimensional like Lombard. We saw that in the Michael Bisping fight, with no adjustments round to round. It will forever be difficult to forget the frightened cat look Okami wore in the cage with Silva in 2011. Kennedy struggles when he can’t outgrapple his opponent. Boetsch is the definition of solid, but he lacks athleticism. Philippou would have lost to Boetsch if it weren’t for early injuries. Munoz, although 35, has the most upside of this group, but the clock is ticking.

The Reality Star: Uriah Hall

Take a second before blasting me for even mentioning Hall. Let’s make this argument in baby steps, because I feel I’m already close to losing you.

Even though Kelvin Gastelum upset Hall in the TUF Finale, we still walked away from this season thinking Hall has the most potential in terms of winning a title. With his potential, unlimited resources await him. He seems loyal to his East Coast team, but if he wants to travel and practice his craft, any gym or trainer will welcome him with open arms.

He’s got nothing but time. Let’s say he fights four times between now and December 2014. The UFC feeds him a couple stand-up fights and allows him to progress. Is it crazy to think Silva would still hold the belt by December 2014? No. That Hall would work into title contention in that same amount of time (19 months)? No. That Hall, turning 30, could actually stand with Silva, who would be pushing 40, by then? No.

The Old Lion and The Count: Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping

Let’s keep this simple. Discussions on these two could take up a lot of room, but the topic of the day is the middleweight title and who holds it next. I don’t see either of these guys, as talented as they are, as the answer. Maybe if Silva loses to a guy like Chris Weidman and then Belfort or Bisping get their shot, they could hold the belt. But if Silva is still there when these two arrive, it’s a nightmare matchup.

Belfort is a stationary, (at times) inactive target, and questions about his gas tank remain. Bisping probably can’t outwrestle Silva for five rounds and doesn’t have enough power to scare you on the feet.

Right Place, Right Time: Luke Rockhold

Rockhold really didn’t get any favors in his first UFC fight. Vitor Belfort? On TRT? In Brazil? The reigning Strikeforce champ has taken it in stride, and should he win, it really sets him up.

If Silva defeats Weidman in July, Rockhold looks like the No. 1 contender. He would either get Silva next or (maybe even better) take one more fight while Silva deals with the superfight business. Here’s the potential scenario: Rockhold, in his third UFC fight, gets Silva fresh off a megafight that’s been years in the making. If that were to happen, it would be a potential letdown spot for Silva and a great opportunity for Rockhold.

Right Place, Wrong Time: Chris Weidman

In many ways, Weidman feels like the UFC middleweight to finally beat Silva -- but the timing is off.

Weidman will be battling the effects of a year off when he fights Silva in July. Not the end of the world, but to a fighter still developing and heading into the biggest fight of his life, that layoff works against him.

He has earned the No. 1 contender tag, but he hasn’t had that one performance yet, the one where fans in the arena and at home are looking at each other saying, “Yeah, this is the guy.” Jon Jones didn’t have a long résumé when he fought for the title, but he had those performances. Weidman did what he had to in tough circumstances against Demian Maia. He caught Munoz with the elbow. He’s done enough to get here and get us thinking, but he hasn’t Jon Jones’d it along the way.

At 28, the chances of Weidman holding UFC gold during his career are very good. Does he do it now, against Silva? I don’t think he does, and it will take him some time to get back in that position.

The Teammate: Ronaldo Souza

It’s risky to put Souza atop this list, for many reasons. First off, he and Silva are teammates and may shoot down the idea of a fight between them. Second, and less concerning, he’s never fought in the UFC. Sometimes, martial artists find the going rather difficult in the Octagon, but I’m not worried too much about that with Souza. Last, he’s 33 -- not old, but if he refuses to fight Silva and waits for a vacated belt, time will work against him.

Souza is made of champion material. The fact he and Silva are teammates is truly awful, because their styles would make for a terrific fight. Souza’s stand-up is improving, and he’s dedicating himself heavily to wrestling. The athleticism and fearlessness is there to create a dynamic takedown artist, and we know how brilliant he is once his opponent is on the mat.

The final word on this is that even as Silva approaches 40 and the middleweight division adds depth, it’s difficult to find the next champion at 185 pounds. I don’t know if Silva will retire with the belt around his waist, especially if he signed a 10-fight deal, but I kind of feel the same way I did the first time I saw him live in Philadelphia. I can't point to any middleweight who is beating this guy.