The middleweight division has consistently been one of the UFC’s most competitive weight classes. With strong champions, worthy contenders and promising prospects, the depth of its roster has always been impressive. The current set at 185lbs is no different.
At the top of the food chain is Israel Adesanya. His only MMA blemish came last month in a light heavyweight title super fight with Jan Blachowicz. At middleweight he’s looked unstoppable. Some of the most intimidating names in the division have tried to challenge that statement; they’ve failed.
A Fight of the Year with Kelvin Gastelum and a win over Anderson Silva earned “The Last Stylebender” a shot at Robert Whittaker’s title. A convincing knockout victory left Adesanya leaving the Octagon with gold around his waist. A defense against Yoel Romero and a totally dominant display versus Paulo Costa has left the MMA community wondering who can dethrone the 31-year-old.
Since its inception in the UFC, we’ve seen some top names reach the peak of the middleweight division. Featuring the likes of Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Michael Bisping, Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, the group of 185lbs champs is an elite one.
With that said, here are five names that could be in line to join that list in the future.
#5 Edmen Shahbazyan
Edmen Shahbazyan is about as exciting a prospect as the UFC has ever had. He’s managed by Ronda Rousey’s One Fight Management and has established his name at the age of just 23. He boasts nine knockouts in 12 bouts, four victories in his first four walks to the Octagon, and he’s already main evented a UFC card.
Being chosen to headline a Fight Night showed how highly regarded Shahbazyan is. He main-evented UFC Vegas 5 last August against Derek Brunson in what was a challenging step-up in competition. The part-Armenian middleweight fell to Brunson in the third round. Nevertheless, the Glendale-born fighter was tipped to be a future champion before the loss, and he remains tipped as one after the loss.
"The Golden Boy" will look to rebound this year and establish himself as a contender at 185lbs. He's set to face former top-five Jack Hermansson at UFC 262 in May. It's the kind of matchup we'd have expected Shahbazyan to move onto should he beat Brunson. To be matched up against someone with Hermansson's quality after his last fight could be a blessing or a curse.
Shahbazyan’s potential is frightening. His striking is more than impressive and incredibly powerful. Highlight reel KO’s have come naturally to him so far in the UFC. From the vicious elbows he delivered to Charles Byrd, to the swift and accurate left-kick to Brad Tavares, the 23-year-old is already up there with the division’s striking elite.
Improvements to his groundwork and conditioning are needed moving forward, but it’s difficult to see how someone as young and impressive as Shahbazyan wouldn’t become champion sooner or later.
#4 Darren Till
Outside of the Octagon, Darren Till is as entertaining as they come. Inside of it, he’s as skilled and promising as they come. It’s difficult to remember Till is just 28-years-old. With so many years left at the top of his game, it stands to reason we’ll see “The Gorilla” with gold around his waist in the future.
After debuting in the UFC in 2015, the Liverpudlian went on to defeat the likes of Donald Cerrone and Stephen Thompson at Welterweight, amassing a 17-0-1 unbeaten record. His first MMA defeat against a then dominant champion in Tyron Woodley began his downfall at 170lbs. Six months later, Till was brutally knocked out by Jorge Masvidal, in what was the start of the 36-year-old’s rise to stardom.
Since moving up a division to reinvigorate his career, Till has looked close to his best. A victory over Kelvin Gastelum at Madison Square Garden re-railed him to the contender tracks, and a defeat to one of the best at middleweight in Robert Whittaker did nothing to harm his appeal as a future champion.
It's unbelievably frustrating to know we were set to see Darren Till face Marvin Vettori at UFC on ABC 2 just a few days ago. A broken collarbone forced the Englishman to withdraw, and he's now set for a spell on the sidelines. Hopefully, his return will mark the beginning of his rise to the top.
#3 Paulo Costa
Paulo Costa is a specimen. Not many words fit a person as well as that. His combination of size, muscle and speed is an incredible toolbox for a middleweight. Non-MMA fans would be forgiven for assuming the Brazilian fought at 205lbs or above. “Borrachinha” is without a doubt a future champion.
Before his first opportunity at the middleweight belt last year, Costa was an unbeaten behemoth. With two Performance of the Night bonuses and one Fight of the Night, the 29-year-old has defeated the likes of Johnny Hendricks, Uriah Hall and Yoel Romero.
His performance against Adesanya was a strange one. It wasn’t what you’d expect from an undefeated fighter in their first championship fight. There was a lot of misplaced showmanship and even post-fight claims of drunkenness from the man himself:
“I was a little drunk when I fought. Maybe I had a little hangover,” he admitted on his own YouTube Channel. "It was my fault and I don't blame anyone else for it. It was something I chose myself, but I had to sleep because I hadn't done it in the last 24 hours. I drank wine. Lots of wine. A whole bottle of wine to fall asleep."
Despite the disappointing showing at UFC 253, it's clear Costa remains one of the top middleweight contenders and will more than likely become a champion in the future.
#2 Marvin Vettori
Italy has never had a better chance at a UFC champion than Marvin Vettori. The 27-year-old has had a rapid rise from prospect to contender since a split decision loss to current champion Israel Adesanya back in 2018. Whilst “The Last Stylebender” has stolen the headlines and surged to the top of the middleweight ladder, Vettori has worked his way up a few steps behind.
Decision wins over Cezar Ferreira and Andrew Sanchez set “The Italian Dream” up for some bigger matchups. A dominant co-main performance against Karl Roberson showed Vettori was deserving of a big name. A convincing victory over Jack Hermansson has left him within touching distance of a top-five ranking.
Having already put in one of the better performances we’ve seen against Adesanya, a rematch between the two seems inevitable in the coming years. Given his age and potential, it stands to reason Vettori will bring a UFC championship back to Italy during his career.
#1 Robert Whittaker
Robert Whittaker's return to the top spot seems inevitable. He's simply too good. At the age of 30, the Australian has already become champion. He’s also beaten one of the scariest men the UFC has ever had in Yoel Romero not once but twice.
After defeats to Stephen Thompson and Court McGee left the “Reaper” 2-2 in the UFC, Whittaker found the winning formula. He won nine fights in a row leading up to his title defense against Israel Adesanya. A second-round knockout took him off the throne and some time away was needed.
Since making his return on UFC Fight Island last summer, he’s looked spectacular. A masterclass in technical striking across five-rounds against Darren Till reminded the division of his capabilities. A win in October against Jared Cannonier has put a rematch with Adesanya on the table.
Whittaker seems to be a step clear of every other contender, and even with the conclusion of their first fight, the 30-year-old arguably has the best chance at beating Adesanya. If he's at his best, that rematch will be a special one. I have no doubt in my mind that "Bobby Knuckles" has what it takes to become a two-time UFC middleweight champion.