UFC 230 was always slated to be a spectacular night for the middleweight division.
On September 8, it was announced that a rematch between former champions Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold would take the cards co-main event slot. Also, rising stars Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa were also rumored to face middleweight powerhouses Derek Brunson and Yoel Romero respectively, and former WSOF champion David Branch was scheduled to face perennial contender Jacare Souza.
Fast forward Romero’s surgery and Costa’s refusal to accept a different fight, along with Rockhold’s injuries, and when the dust settled, the card still appeared intriguing, albeit slightly less so. Karl Roberson and Jack Marshman were promoted to the main card, while former light heavyweight Jared Cannonier moved down to middleweight to face Branch with Jacare stepping in to take on Weidman.
Now that it’s all said and done, what’s next for the middleweight fighters who competed at UFC 230?
Israel Adesanya’s coming out party
People forget how good Derek Brunson is. With wins over the likes of Lyoto Machida and Uriah Hall, Fight of the Night awards from fights against Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero, and the unfortunate decision against Anderson Silva, his frantic striking and outstanding grappling have allowed him to consistently compete against the best that middleweight division has had to offer for years.
In contrast, Adesanya only made his UFC debut in February this year, but his rise has been meteoric. With three dominant performances against tough competition, most recently a five-round decision win against Brad Tavares, his patient yet clinical striking has seen him amass fans and attention quickly. Indeed, this fight against Brunson was widely considered the kickboxing champion’s most significant test, and he passed this test with flying colors.
The first few minutes of the round involved Adesanya patiently waiting and stalking Brunson, defending against takedowns and slipping his strikes. With less than a minute left of the round, he caught the onrushing Brunson with a knee that signaled the beginning of the end. He avoided Brunson’s wild strikes and countered with powerful punches and knees until eventually, Herb Dean was forced to stop the fight.
For Brunson, this loss will have relatively little impact on his place in the division. He will continue to fight the rising stars of the middleweight division, perhaps Antonio Carlos Junior or Jared Cannonier next, but after suffering three brutal first-round knockouts in his last six fights, Brunson may be running out of time with the UFC.
In his post-fight interview, Adesanya stated that he should now be considered a “top five” middleweight. In this fight, he not only continued to show the outstanding striking, movement, and temperament he had shown in previous fights but also displayed solid wrestling and immaculate takedown defense.
While he is not ready for a shot at gold yet, he is not far away. Dana White has since praised Adesanya’s work inside and outside of the cage but shared he isn’t interested in pushing him too far up the division for now.
For now, Adesanya remains the UFC’s fastest rising star and has not yet provided any reason to doubt claims that he is next in line for the middleweight’s throne.
Karl Roberson wins by unanimous decision
While this fight wasn’t as highly anticipated as the other middleweight bouts on the main card, it was always going to be interesting to see how Karl Roberson would handle Jack Marshman, who has competed against other solid middleweight fighters including Thiago Santos and Carlos Junior.
Roberson, following his loss to Cezar Ferreira in May, needed to perform on this stage and he definitely showed he had made the necessary improvements in his wrestling to compete at a high level. His striking was polished, landing numerous left hooks and countering anything Marshman threw, while he also showed development in his wrestling with a beautiful double-leg takedown in the second round.
This is certainly just the start for Roberson, and he is far from being the finished product, but it was a start nonetheless. He is clearly an excellent striker, and on the feet he can cause a lot of middleweight’s problems.
Further, he no longer seems massively disadvantaged on the ground and against Marshman looked fairly comfortable – while more challenging opponents will test him in the future, Roberson is certainly one to keep an eye on.
Jared Cannonier stunned David Branch
Since he joined the UFC in 2015, Cannonier’s record has been patchy, and every time he has met quality opposition, he has been beaten.
However, it turns out that a move down to middleweight was just what Cannonier needed in the UFC.
Former WSOF double-champion David Branch has had a solid beginning to his UFC career. With a loss to Luke Rockhold sandwiched between wins over Krzysztof Jotko and Thiago Santos, Branch’s well-rounded game makes him an incredibly difficult opponent to take on short notice, and I certainly expected him to take this fight comfortably.
However, MMA is about as unpredictable as a sport can be and on his middleweight debut, Cannonier, just 29 seconds into the second round stopped a takedown from Branch and caught him with an overhand right that sent “The Executive” to the canvas. Just like that, Cannonier had gone from a good-but-not-great light heavyweight to defeating the #7 middleweight in the UFC, becoming the first fighter to finish Branch via strikes and earning a Performance of the Night bonus.
As with Brunson, this loss will hurt Branch’s stock too much. With a track record of competing with the best in the world, a loss to an up-and-comer – on short notice – should not hurt his standing in the division too much. While he may drop in the rankings, I am sure we will continue to see Branch battle with the best for a few years to come.
In contrast, this performance will do wonders for Cannonier’s standing. Defeating a top-ten fighter in his division debut could be enough to catapult Cannonier right up there in the UFC’s official rankings.
Critics will argue that this performance was simply luck and Cannonier will be unable to replicate it, but he looked very impressive against Branch, and there may be plenty more to come.
Ronaldo Souza finished Chris Weidman
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Chris Weidman have been two of middleweight’s best fighters for years yet had somehow never crossed paths.
This was the case until an injury to Weidman’s scheduled opponent, Luke Rockhold, created this fascinating match-up as UFC 230’s co-main event.
Weidman started the fight well, rocking the Brazillian early with a right hand; for the first two rounds he landed the majority of strikes and the only takedown of the fight in the second round. Indeed, at the end of the second round, he found himself up 20-18 on two judges’ scorecards.
However, Jacare’s early investment to the body paid off, and in the third round he was able to push the pressure, walk Weidman down and begin finding a home for his punches and knees. In the end, it was a right hand of his own that finished the fight and Souza had come from behind to be victorious in a battle that earned both men Fight of the Night.
After this loss, Weidman is now 1-4 in his last five fights. While it is clear that he is not the fighter he once was, he is down-and-out quite yet. In fights against Yoel Romero and Gegard Mousasi he had his moments and was winning rounds; even last night he was beating Jacare on the cards.
Weidman’s UFC stock is perhaps at its lowest point right now, and his next fight is likely a must-win if he is to remain in the title conversation. However, with all this said, we would do well to remember that with some of his past performances against UFC greats, you can never count Chris Weidman out.
It was suggested before this fight that the winner would be the next to challenge champion, Robert Whittaker, should he successfully defend his belt against Kelvin Gastelum, and I think this will likely be the case. Whittaker has already beaten Jacare, but after his performance last night, I would argue he is currently in pole position to challenge for his first UFC title. Perhaps he may need one more win to cement his place as number one contender, but I would argue no fighter is as deserving of a title shot as Jacare.
The UFC’s most exciting division?
After such a great night for the middleweight division, one question remains – what’s next for the 185-pound division.
Robert Whittaker has proven himself against a murderers’ row and looks ready to take on this next wave of middleweight stars. I would argue that should he defend against this batch of contenders, he may find himself in the greatest-of-all-time discussion, but that’s a topic for another day.
With elite prospects in Adesanya and Paulo Costa beginning to take over, seasoned contenders Jacare and Rockhold making one last run at the top, and up-and-comers such as Cannonier and Antonio Carlos Junior finding their feet in the division, middleweight is in an incredibly exciting division right now.