Welcome to the first instalment of The Breakdown for 2024!
The way this series works is pretty simple: whenever a division is going to be front-and-center in the UFC, we’ll take a Friday and do a deep dive on said weight class, giving you a detailed look at the key fighters and fights you need to pay attention to now and going forward.
Last month in Toronto, the middleweight title changed hands, bringing some uncertainty about how things will proceed to the top of the division, which, if I’m being honest, is a refreshing circumstance for a division that has often felt mired in sameness and stale pairings.
Now let’s break things down.
THE NEW CHAMP: DRICUS DU PLESSIS
Du Plessis edged out Sean Strickland in the main event of UFC 297 in January, claiming the middleweight title, much to the chagrin of right wingers that jumped on the Strickland bandwagon and suddenly became Internet experts in the field of mixed martial arts.
Regardless of how you scored the fight — and let me be clear: it was a close, competitive bout — the South African is now the champion, is now 7-0 in the UFC, and is only 30 years old, all of which is exciting.
“Stillknocks” is still more athlete than martial artist, and I don’t mean that in any kind of disparaging way; you can see it clearly in the way he moves in the Octagon and explodes into attacks. His conditioning can no longer be questioned after going 25 minutes in Toronto, and for a guy that has a herky-jerky style that doesn’t look like the most effective and economical way to move in the cage, du Plessis always finds a way to get the job done, usually inside the distance.
Now comes the hard part: defending his newly acquired throne.
THE FORMER CHAMP, PART I: SEAN STRICKLAND
Of all of Strickland’s appearances since returning to the Octagon following his two-year injury hiatus, his next one is the one I’m looking forward to the most, strange as that may sound to some.
His championship opportunity was unexpected and his win even more so, but his loss to du Plessis garnered more attention than any of his recent outings and it’ll be curious to see not only who he gets matched up with next. More importantly, I want to see how he performs because I have a pet theory that Strickland is at his best as a secondary figure — a guy that headlines events at the UFC APEX and rounds out pay-per-views rather than headlining them, and while he should go back to that role now that he doesn’t have the belt, he’s also never had more eyes on him than he does right now, and I’m fascinated to see how he responds.
Personally, I think it rattled him in Toronto and will continue to do so going forward, but only time will tell.
THE FORMER CHAMP, PART II: ISRAEL ADESANYA
What a weird 15 months it has been for “The Last Stylebender.”
In November 2022, he dropped the middleweight strap to Alex Pereira. Just under five months later, he won it back with an impressive second-round knockout win. Then in September of last year, he simply didn’t show up against Strickland, getting dropped in the first round and completely out-worked over five rounds to once again relinquish the title.
He said following that contest that he was taking an extended sabbatical, but he’s since rescinded that statement, and enters 2024 surrounded by question marks.
There is a real possibility that he’s the first to challenge du Plessis for the title as the two have tensions and Adesanya is a marquee name to have as the B-side against a new champion, but he’s dropped two of his last three, dealt with some issues outside the Octagon over the last several months, and has delivered more good, but not great performances in recent memory… except he also iced Pereira less than a year ago.
I have zero idea what to expect form Adesanya when he returns, and that makes me endless intrigued to see him back in the Octagon sooner rather than later.
THIS WEEKEND’S MAIN EVENT: ROMAN DOLIDZE VS. NASSOURDINE IMAVOV
A lot of people covering this sport will moan about this middleweight fixture being the main event of a solid, but unspectacular event at the APEX this weekend, but here’s the thing for me:
I want to see guys like Dolidze and Imavov garner five-round experience because you need it if you’re ever going to work into contention, and how they handle this assignment will help clarify if either of these two men are ever going to get there.
Dolidze stumbled in his lone appearance of 2023, dropping a decision to Marvin Vettori in March, while Imavov lost to Strickland in a short-notice pairing at the start of the year before a clash of heads halted his UFC 289 bout with Chris Curtis in June.
Imavov was on my Top UFC Prospects list for 2023 and while he took a step back and didn’t make the cut this year, I still believe in his upside and want to see how he performs against a durable, rugged opponent like Dolidze on Saturday.
NEXT WEEKEND’S MAIN EVENT: JACK HERMANSSON VS. JOE PYFER
The same people complaining about this week’s main event will continue whinging about next weekend’s main event too, but I’m even more interested in it than I am this weekend’s pairing.
Hermansson is the high-end gatekeeper in the middleweight division — the guy you have to beat to be a contender, given that he’s yet to fully get there on his own — and Pyfer is just three fights into his UFC tenure. It’s a classic “veteran vs. prospect” battle and it comes a lot sooner than most would have forecasted for the Dana White’s Contender Series graduate, but d’you know what?
I love it!
The UFC should do this far more often, as Pyfer is young enough and new enough that a loss to Hermansson has no real impact on his long-term potential in the division, but a win catapults him into the title mix and gives them a brand new rising star to thrust into the spotlight.
Conversely, if Hermansson comes out ahead, great — “The Joker” gets back in the win column, cements his standing in the division, and moves forward into a clash with someone in the same range as him in the rankings; no harm, no foul.
THE QUESTION MARK: KHAMZAT CHIMAEV
It feels like a millennia ago that Chimaev was the breakout fighter everyone was saying the UFC should hot shot into a Top 5 pairing in the welterweight division, but it was only 2020 and that tells you how much things have changed with the undefeated talent since that time.
While Chimaev has continued winning, he labored against Kamaru Usman at UFC 294, struggling to beat the former welterweight champ, who took the fight on incredibly short notice, and was pushed hard two fights prior to that by Gilbert Burns. The days of smashing everyone are a thing of the past, and Chimaev has competed just four times since registering three wins between July 16 and September 19, 2020 to begin his UFC tenure.
Injuries and visa issues have limited his availability, and now he seems to be stuck in the dreaded “I was promised a title shot” position, which could mean even more time on the shelf as he waits for an opportunity that might not materialize.
My suggestion: get healthy, get all the impediments to competing out of the way, and try and deliver a massive performance or two later this year to make yourself undeniable… but that’s just me.
THE STALWART: ROBERT WHITTAKER
Whittaker is in a comparable position to Adesanya, who, until last summer, was the only one to best him in the middleweight division.
The former champion had long been the unquestioned silver medalist at 185-pounds, and did better in his rematch with Adesanya than he did in their first encounter before following it up with another position-affirming win over Marvin Vettori.
But then he stepped in with du Plessis at UFC 290 and got smashed, and now it’s impossible to know what to expect from the man affectionately known as “Bobby Knuckles.”
He is scheduled to face off with Paulo Costa at UFC 298 (fingers crossed) and a win there would answer a lot of lingering questions about his standing and his future in the division. A loss, however, would ratchet up the scrutiny and uncertainty even further.
THE EMERGING CONTENDER: BRENDAN ALLEN
Allen is 11-2 in the UFC and currently riding a six-fight winning streak, with each of the last four wins coming by way of rear-naked choke. At 28 years of age, he’s just at the start of his athletic and physical prime, and his recent run of form suggests the Louisiana native is someone to keep close tabs on in the championship chase…
But there are a lot of people that likely won’t believe all that until Allen gets in there with a Top 5 opponent and gets his hand raised, and even then, they might still question him.
Allen is the MMA equivalent of a highly regarded baseball prospect that reached The Show, didn’t produce like an all-star right away, and was subsequently deemed a bust. Now that he’s clearly putting things together, folks are reticent to get back on the bandwagon because they remember getting burned earlier and keep looking for ways to pick apart his hot streak in order to not get burned again.
I get it, however there is a real possibility that Allen has tapped into the skills and upside that made him a can’t-miss prospect during his days on the regional scene, and if he keeps things rolling against Marvin Vettori in April, “All-In” will find himself in the title mix.
THE GUY WITH THE PEDIGREE: BO NICKAL
Nickal is in a curious position heading into his sophomore year in the UFC.
The three-time NCAA National champion wrestler went 2-0 with a pair of first-round finishes last year, flashing solid hands in his 38-second win over Val Woodburn at UFC 290, and clearly has a ton of promise. But he’s continuing to be slow-played promotionally, as he’s paired off with Cody Brundage at UFC 300 in a fight that feels like the slightest step up in competition possible for the burgeoning star.
Given that he has just five professional appearances to his name, it makes a lot of sense to not throw Nickal into the deep end just quite yet, but if he beats Brundage as anticipated, he needs to get the same kind of accelerated push Pyfer is getting, as the same “no harm, no foul” rationale holds true for Nickal as well.
He looks like the genuine article, but that’s easy to do against overmatched competition. We won’t know for sure until he starts getting in there with more seasoned foes.
OTHER NAMES TO KNOW
Ikram Aliskerov smashed Phil Hawes in his debut and seemed poised to get a massive push, with a bout against Paulo Costa briefly pencilled in for UFC 291. That fell apart, as did a date with Imavov at UFC 294, but he stopped Warlley Alves instead and remains one of the more intriguing fresh names on the outskirts of the Top 15 at the moment.
Caio Borralho is a perfect 5-0 in the Octagon and primed for a year where we find out just how far he can climb in the middleweight division. He’s proven himself to be better than the mid-pack set, and a win over Paul Craig in May would elevate him into assignments against Top 10 opponents in the back half of the year.
Anthony Hernandez and Roman Kopylov are scheduled to face one another later this month at UFC 298. Hernandez has won four straight (three stoppages) and has a suffocating style, while Kopylov, who is replacing Aliskerov, has similarly won four straight, with finishes in each of them. This is a perfectly made “find out which man moves forward” pairing and should be absolute flames in Anaheim in a couple weeks.
Shara “Bullet” Magomedov had a ton of Internet hype heading into his debut, where he out-worked Bruno Silva to move to 12-0 overall. It was a solid showing, but questions remain about his overall skill set, as Silva was able to wrestle him with some success, despite being more of a striker.