Amongst the UFC’s elite, top talent often far exceeds the top 5 per division. In some UFC weight classes it’s commonly agreed that with the right matchups and on the right night, any fighter skilled enough to break the top 10 could be champion given the circumstances.
While champion and former champion Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker battle it out for gold at UFC 271, a number of other promising middleweights and potential challengers will be watching patiently and analyzing their potential next task. Fans can watch Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2 and the full UFC 271 fight card only on ESPN+ in the United States this Saturday night.
Here are my top five middleweights currently in the UFC.
Champion – Israel Adesanya
This should be no surprise. Having taken out every challenge at middleweight put in front of him en route to his championship, how could Adesanya not sit atop the best middleweights in the world right now. With likely the most educated striking game in MMA today, few can rival him in the stand up game and as he constantly improves he is proving to be talented wherever the fight goes. That being said, the chances that you can dictate where you end up fighting is scarce, those who have been able to take him down at middleweight have not been able to hold him there long.
Looking at his most recent run, although it’s difficult to justify a title shot off of an Anderson Silva who was already declining through the ranks at the time, rising to the occasion and beating Kelvin Gastelum for the interim belt while he was on the cusp of a title shot cemented Adesanya as a deserving title challenger. Not to mention as of now he holds wins over four of the top five ranked middleweights by the UFC.
#1 – Robert Whittaker
In any world where Israel Adesanya did not fight Robert Whittaker at UFC 243, it’s not just possible but extremely likely that he would still be extending his championship reign today. He has an elusive and calculated style built upon his background as a karateka but with KO power to boot. His ability to mix in takedowns when it matters and defend against the best grapplers in the UFC, including Yoel Romero, while nursing an injured leg makes him a well-rounded scary prospect for any challenger looking his way.
Although Yoel Romero, the man he beat to get to the belt, is no longer in the UFC, many of Whittaker’s older victories have aged well. Both Brad Tavares and Uriah Hall, whom Whittaker beat early on in his bid at middleweight, hold top 15 and top 10 rankings. His win over Derek Brunson is especially important as he is one of the rearing challengers underneath Whittaker within the top 5. Furthermore, as the number 1 contender, and only rank to lose, Whittaker since losing the belt has constantly battled back rising prospects, beating #8 Darren Till, #3 Jared Cannonier, and #12 Kelvin Gastelum in succession to cement his place as the prince of the division as of now. Currently, Whittaker holds wins over two of the UFC’s ranked top 5 middleweights.
#2 – Derek Brunson
This is where my list begins to stray from the official UFC rankings. Derek Brunson sits at #4 officially, likely due to his impressive 5 fight win streak. Once thought to be a gatekeeper in the division, Brunson proved doubters wrong by reinventing himself. Rather than giving into the addiction of being a knockout artist who underutilized his wrestling, Brunson went back to his base and reinvented himself as one of the division’s most dominating grapplers. Although Adesanya was able to knock him out years ago, another fight would be a far cry from the first with Brunson’s newfound veteran mentality and growing fight IQ.
He currently holds wins over three of the top 15, including a win over Uriah Hall more early in their UFC careers. However, since rebounding from the loss to Adesanya in 2018, Brunson has added the names of Kevin Holland and Darren Till to his resume, as well as unranked but promising future prospects Edmund Shabazyan and Ian Heinisch.
#3 – Marvin Vettori
Officially, Marvin Vettori sits at number 3 in the official rankings. The reason I have him lower on my list is that while his latest victory over Paulo Costa is impressive and changes things relative to the Brazilian, it wasn’t actually at middleweight officially. This leaves Vettori coming off a loss to the champion at 185lbs, with fewer top 10 victories than Brunson. However, that doesn’t mean he doesnt have skills equal to Brunson. Vettori has a terrifying pressure style, in which he closes space to strike with little hesitation, he bullies his opponents and looks to mix in his wrestling to dominate his opponents when needed. Largely it is pace and relentlessness that get him the victory and a fighting mentality that can only be described as willing to take punishment because he is there to win by all means necessary.
Currently, Vettori holds wins over Kevin Holland and Jack Hermansson at 185lbs, the latter of which is ranked #6 in the world at the time of this article’s writing. He also holds a win over the #5 ranked middleweight in Paulo Costa, although due to an error in Costa’s preparation eventually took place closer to light heavyweight.
#4 – Sean Strickland
The only addition to this list that isn’t actually amongst the top 5 rankings in the UFC yet. This may change soon due to his recent victory over Hermansson but it remains to be seen. A fighter’s record is only as good as it is relevant at times and rankings is largely one of them. While Paulo Costa deserves an argument for this spot as well, his time off and botched weight cut leaves him with only one win inside the top 10 and leaves room for rising prospects like Sean Strickland to enter. For lack of a better term, the controversial North Carolinian has had his fair share of discussion around his name for more unsavory reasons but don’t let that distract you from his calculated and clean fighting style. Primarily a boxer, Strickland utilizes a unique guard and straight posture when he fights, allowing him to lean out of range and return with his sharp jab and long right crosses. He is elusive as he is relentless and makes for a frustrating opponent whomever he stands across from.
As of now, he enjoys a six-fight win streak, including top 10 fighters Jack Hermansson and Uriah Hall. Prior to this wins over fighters just shy of a world ranking in Krzysztof Jotko and Brendan Allen also lend themselves as proof to the skill of Strickland.
You can order the UFC 271 PPV on ESPN+ here to watch Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2 and the entire fight card live this Saturday, January 12 in the United States.