The UFC’s middleweight division left fans with a bitter taste from its last fight. Rising superstar Israel Adesanya made his first title defense a forgettable one with a lackluster unanimous-decision win over the defensive-minded Yoel Romero in the main event of UFC 248 on March 7.
So what now?
The expectation is Adesanya will defend his title next against Paulo Costa, who was supposed to get the first crack but suffered a biceps injury.
Who’s got next after that?
ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim discusses one of the more intriguing divisions in the UFC.
What’s the biggest question you have about this division?
Helwani: Can the highly anticipated Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa fight actually happen? I’m starting to feel like this fight is going to be the middleweight division’s version of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson. I want to see this matchup badly. It would be just the second time in UFC history that two undefeated male fighters fight for the belt. That’s big.
Okamoto: How many title challengers are there, really? Adesanya just won the belt two fights ago, but it already feels like there might be a shortage of challengers for him. Costa, obviously. Darren Till, if he can keep winning. Jared Cannonier, although he lost some momentum when he had a fight canceled because of a pectoral injury that required surgery. Look, three title challengers, usually, are a decent amount. But Adesanya likes to be active. Very active. And if he wins two or three more fights, what is really stopping him from demanding this Jon Jones superfight we’ve been hearing about this past year. That’s not a fight I need to see right now, at all. Both have other challenges. But it also feels a lot closer than it probably should, considering Adesanya has recorded only one title defense.
Raimondi: Will Adesanya become one of the UFC’s great champions? Adesanya was incredible in 2019, taking the torch in a win over legendary former champ Anderson Silva, beating Kelvin Gastelum in the year’s best bout and then knocking out Robert Whittaker to win the undisputed title. Adesanya’s first title defense, though, was a lackluster one, a narrow victory over Yoel Romero at UFC 248. If Silva is any indication — he had several stinkers as champ — that fight won’t ruin Adesanya’s ability to become one of the biggest stars in the sport. “The Last Stylebender” has all the tools to do that, including an aura and charisma that few of his peers possess. Adesanya still has to win, though, and it appears Costa is next. If he can regain form and stop Costa, the Romero fight will be a distant memory and Adesanya will be on his way.
Wagenheim: Does Adesanya have what it takes to sustain a championship reign like those of his idol (Silva, 10 title defenses) or his nemesis (Jon Jones, a UFC-record 11 defenses)? He sure looks the part, from his flashy skills to his brash confidence. His first defense of the belt, a ho-hum decision win against Yoel Romero last month, did nothing to boost Adesanya’s star power. But by fighting tactically rather than being goaded into a firefight that might favor his wild man of an opponent, “The Last Stylebender” displayed the acumen of a veteran prizefighter. He has only eight bouts in the UFC, 19 overall in professional MMA, but prior to his cage career he had 80 pro fights in kickboxing and six in boxing. The Romero fight failed to show off Adesanya’s stylishness but it succeeded in showing off his smarts. And that goes a long way toward enabling a champion to remain a champion.
Who’s the strongest dark horse contender?
Helwani: Does Darren Till count? I think given his following, the fact that he doesn’t have to cut to 170 anymore and the shallow talent pool at 185 right now, it will be a shocker if he doesn’t get a title shot. If that doesn’t count, Edmen Shahbazyan has to be considered. He’s a legit prospect.
Okamoto: Cannonier, for sure. Some would argue he’s not really a “dark horse candidate,” since he’s already highly ranked, but few are talking about Cannonier as a future champion right now. He’s a very legitimate threat, in my eyes. I would also say Robert Whittaker is a dark horse contender. Again, how can a former champion, ranked No. 2, be a dark horse? Well, people are just down on Whittaker, I feel. He hasn’t been extremely active, and the last time we saw him, he got knocked out by Adesanya. But this guy is still under the age of 30, and still a great middleweight. In fact, I’ll say it right now, I strongly believe Whittaker will hold the belt again at some point in the next few years.
Raimondi: Look out for Shahbazyan. He could be a future champion in the division. The California native is just 22 years old and already 11-0. Shahbazyan has won his past three fights in 2:27 or less via finish, including a highlight-reel headkick KO of the durable Brad Tavares at UFC 244 in November. The protégé of coach Edmond Tarverdyan, the longtime trainer of Ronda Rousey, is the real deal.
Wagenheim: I don’t view Till or Shahbazyan as a dark horse, so I’ll point to Jack Hermansson. The only thing that qualifies the Swede as a dark horse is that he’s coming off a knockout loss to Cannonier, which halted his four-fight winning streak as well as his rise through the 185-pound ranks. If his booking against former champ Chris Weidman holds together, it will be just the kind of high-profile showcase that could boost Hermansson (20-5) into title talk.
Other than Adesanya vs. Costa, what’s the one fight you need to see that’s not booked yet?
Helwani: Till vs. Whittaker comes to mind because I just want to see Till’s “Rob?” jokes continue on social media. Otherwise, Cannonier vs. any top contender. I’d like to see Cannonier continue to evolve.
Okamoto: Absolutely love Whittaker vs. Till. Beyond that, I’m still very interested in Gastelum. He’s coming off two losses, but one of those was a Fight of the Year against Adesanya, and the other was a split-decision loss to Till. Gastelum vs. Cannonier would be a great fight.
Raimondi: Maybe Cannonier vs. Gastelum. Cannonier is on a three-fight winning streak and has looked outstanding since moving down to middleweight. He is technically sound with big power and serious durability at 185 pounds. He’s also strong as an ox. Gastelum, meanwhile, took Adesanya to the very wire last year. It was 2019’s best fight and who would not want to see that rematch?
The winner of Cannonier vs. Gastelum, if it happens, could theoretically get a title shot. There are other interesting matchups out there to watch, too. Uriah Hall is scheduled to face Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at UFC 249. Then there is whoever is next for Romero. Middleweight is extremely intriguing right now.
Wagenheim: Can I say Adesanya vs. Costa II? I do envision that rivalry not being contained to one night. But if we’re talking new matchups, I’ll go with Adesanya vs. Shahbazyan. That’s one for way ahead on the horizon, with Shahbazyan (11-0) being just 22 years old with four UFC fights. But if we look inside the cage at some point and see Adesanya staring across at Shahbazyan, both of them undefeated, it will mean the champ has a bunch of title defenses under his belt and the challenger has proved himself night after night. Worth waiting for.
Whom do you think this delay helps or hurts the most?
Helwani: Cannonier is recovering from surgery, so the delay helps him. As far as who the delay hurts, I’ll go with Shahbazyan, who was supposed to fight Derek Brunson on March 7 but the fight got delayed until April 11 due to a Brunson injury, and now it’s not happening altogether. He had goals of breaking Jones’ record of being the youngest champion ever, and he’ll need to win the belt by July 2021 to do so. This obviously puts a wrench in those plans.
Okamoto: I guess it could hurt Romero. Just from the standpoint of his stock is low, and it might take longer to reshuffle the deck at 185 pounds, which could mean more of a layoff, which is not good for anyone, particularly a fighter over the age of 40. I would also say Hermansson. If Hermansson’s scheduled bout against Weidman is affected, that hurts, because Weidman is a big name for Hermansson to try and get back on track against, after losing his last fight.
Raimondi: It probably helps Shahbazyan the most. At 22 years old, he’s only getting better every day and growing into his frame. Maybe he can’t train as much as he would normally due to the stay-at-home order in California, but there’s no doubt that as time goes on he is only going to improve. It also helps Cannonier, who won’t be back until the fall due to a torn pec. Maybe Cannonier won’t even have missed all that much.
There’s no doubt the delay already has hurt Marvin Vettori, who thought he’d be fighting at UFC London. He flew all the way there for an event that didn’t happen, then came all the way back to the United States, still hoping to fight on a restructured event, but it never came together. Vettori, a promising 26-year-old, was supposed to meet Darren Stewart and try to extend a two-fight winning streak. Now, he’s not sure when he’ll fight again.
Wagenheim: It benefits Cannonier, who is the No. 2 contender behind Costa but is healing from a torn pectoral muscle and out until the fall. If Adesanya vs. Costa is pushed back a while, it would give Cannonier time to fully rehab his injury without having to worry that the UFC, with its next-available-man-up matchmaking mentality, would leapfrog him with another contender.
One bold prediction for the division
Helwani: Romero will finish his career as a light heavyweight. Heck, I’d like to see him move to light heavyweight now. No more cutting to 185.
Okamoto: I said it earlier in one of the answers, but I’ll make it my official bold prediction: Whittaker will reclaim the middleweight championship within the next two years.
Raimondi: At 42 years old, Romero is not going anywhere. He will work his way back — somehow — to another title shot. Romero fought Adesanya and Costa very closely. He could have won either of those bouts. Say what you will about Romero’s inactive strategy against Adesanya, but it almost worked. He was within a hard punch landing here or there from being the UFC middleweight champion right now. It all came down to the fifth round. Had Romero won that, he’d be wearing gold.
Romero would probably be favored going into any bout against a fellow contender. Yes, he has lost three in a row. But if he’s able to string a couple of wins together, there’s no doubt he could be in the mix again. The question is, would the UFC want Adesanya vs. Romero II given how poorly received the first fight was? Who knows? Maybe Adesanya loses the belt at some point or moves up to light heavyweight. Romero said he’ll fight another 10 years. You going to tell the “Soldier of God” you don’t believe him?
Wagenheim: Whittaker will be back. Yeah, yeah, that’s pretty bold of me, pointing toward a guy who was in possession of the championship belt as recently as last fall. But the relentless churn of UFC matchmaking has a way of swiftly exiling champions into invisibility, especially those who don’t roll on squeaky wheels. Demetrious Johnson never got a shot at regaining his title. Stipe Miocic had to wait out the promotion’s courtship of Brock Lesnar. It even took a while for Jose Aldo to rise again. And Whittaker, who has fought just once in nearly two years and twice in almost three years, is as quiet as his career trajectory. But he’s not yet 30, and prior to being dethroned by Adesanya in October, he had won nine in a row, with two of those victories coming against the ferocious Romero. Whittaker could get lost in the crowd of contenders, but if the Aussie gets back on a run, he will be hard to stop and hard to overlook.