The fallout of Anderson Silva’s two recent dull middleweight title defenses – with the UFC feeling the need to "challenge" him with Forrest Griffin, a former light heavyweight champion with a reputation for exciting fights – has left a slew of viable challengers spinning their wheels.
Right now there are five viable middleweight title contenders, although that number will likely be whittled to three at the end of the summer. With Silva fighting Griffin on Aug. 8, whomever emerges is likely to get a title shot in the fall or winter.
The two biggest names are former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson (24-7), and his coaching rival on the current season of The Ultimate Fighter, Michael Bisping (17-1) of the U.K.
The others on the list include the last fighter with a win over Silva, the snake-bit Yushin Okami (23-4), past Silva victim Nate Marquardt (28-8-2), and standout submission expert Demian Maia (10-0).
Henderson will face Bisping on July 11 in Las Vegas, eliminating one contender. Marquardt vs. Maia has been reported for Aug. 29 in Portland, Ore., at UFC 102, although Marquardt noted the fight is not yet official and contracts haven’t been signed.
Okami, the youngest of the pack of challengers at 27, was scheduled to face Dan Miller on May 23 in Las Vegas, but suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee this week, and is now on the sidelines until at least September.
Okami beat Silva on a controversial disqualification call when he couldn’t continue after an illegal kick on January 20, 2006, in Honolulu. Silva rolls his eyes whenever he's asked about the match, believing Okami wasn’t hurt that badly but knew if he couldn’t continue from the foul he’d be awarded the win.
But Okami has also gone 7-1 in UFC competition and his lone loss, to Rich Franklin, was a close decision in a fight where little happened in the first two rounds, and Okami clearly won round three.
Okami was scheduled for a title shot last year, but suffered a broken hand. With this latest injury, he finds himself submerged in a deeper pack of contenders, with this injury likely leaving him in third place for the next title shot behind the winners of the two summer fights.
Before Silva’s win over Thales Leitis on April 19 in Montreal, Maia, with five straight submission wins in UFC competition, was being talked of behind the scenes in the UFC offices as the next challenger.
More than anyone else, Maia ended up the victim of the fallout of the Silva-Leites five-round decision. The dull fight saw the crowd turn to obscenity-based chants, as the challenger gave up trying to win, and the champion was content to take the decision.
Given that Maia, like Leitis, is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert, not known for his stand-up, there became two question. First, could UFC sell such a fight to the public after the Leities fight? People could think twice about plucking down $44.95 if they thought they may get a repeat of the last title fight.
The second was, what if it was a similar fight?
"It doesn’t matter what country you are from or your style, everyone is different," said Maia, 31, who felt Leitis lost his confidence during the fight which caused it to turn out as it did. "My style is totally different than his. If I fight Anderson, it won’t be the same fight." "His (Silva) fight with Patrick Cote wasn’t exciting at all," noted Maia. "And that’s with a Canadian striker. It doesn’t matter your style or your country when it comes to having an exciting fight. My personality is to be more aggressive than those two."
Silva’s jiu-jitsu, which is at black belt level, has been strong enough to neutralize those who are considered better on the ground, and there is nobody in UFC who has been able to even test him on the stand-up.
Maia, in particular, is questionable when it comes to stand-up, largely because his fights have been fought on the ground, where he’s looked spectacular. In his Feb. 21 win over Chael Sonnen in London, he got a belly-to-belly takedown on the former All-American wrestler, and faster than you can say submission of the night, he’d already earned it with a triangle choke.
Maia made it clear he’s got nothing bad to say about Silva, and said Silva has made negative remarks about him in their home country that he feels were spurred on by the Brazilian press.
"I don’t care if I fight him," said Maia. "I just want to fight for the belt. I have nothing against Anderson. I just want a shot at the title."
Marquardt, 30, who lost a title match to Silva on July 7, 2007, in Sacramento, Calif., has been trying to avenge that memory, but also feels Silva got a bum rap in the wake of Montreal.
"He (Silva) showed up to fight," said Marquardt. "A lot of the blame should be on Thales. Anderson had a game plan and it was working."
Marquardt feels he’s a different fighter from two years ago, more experienced, and tougher because of constantly being pushed by the best training partners in the world, including Keith Jardine, Georges St. Pierre, Shane Carwin and Rashad Evans.
"First of all, I won’t run away from a stand-up fight," he said. "I don’t care where the fight goes. I’m going to take my openings. If there’s an opening standing, I’ll take it. If there’s an opening for ground-and-pound, I’ll go for it. If a submission opens up, I’ll go for it. I feel I have a lot of different options."
Marquardt felt he was winning the fight with Silva at UFC 73 until he got caught at 4:50 of the first round. He also noted that Leites got the title shot based on beating him in a fight where Marquardt lost two points because of accidental fouls, including a very controversial call for an elbow behind the head.
To this day, different commissions have had different interpretations of what constitutes the back of the head. There is the "Mohawk" interpretation (a line down the center of the back and any blow within one inch in either direction is illegal) or the "Headphones" interpretation (put on headphones and any below behind that line would be illegal). Marquardt’s elbow behind the ears he thought was legal based on what he believed the rule was.
Regardless, the Henderson-Bisping winner will come out of the fight as the highest profile-challenger because to the general public, between the buildup on Spike TV, and its place on UFC 100, which will be seen by considerably more viewers than the proposed Marquardt vs. Maia battle. Both were already bigger names coming in, as Henderson has headlined three UFC events, including a fight with Quinton Jackson before its largest U.S. mixed martial arts TV audience ever, and held championships in two weight classes in PRIDE.
The 38-year old Henderson is the most proven commodity of the five, and if there were any questions where he stands today because of age, he beat Franklin via decision on Jan. 17, which could have been considered a No. 1-contenders caliber match, except it was fought at light heavyweight.
Henderson also been looking for a rematch with Silva, who beat him on March 1, 2008, in a fight in which Henderson won the first round. Henderson blamed his second-round TKO loss on incorrect training.
Bisping, 30, is one of the company’s most popular fighters, but has only fought three times in the division after dropping from light heavyweight.
He’s also the most untested against top competition. But a win over Henderson, which would be considered an upset, would answer all criticism.
"He’s got good stand-up," said Maia. "He’s aggressive. His ground is I think is so-so. I want to see him fight Henderson. I’m curious." From a business standpoint, if Bisping was to score the upset, Silva vs. Bisping would be the choice.
Those in the company’s U.K. office say if a Silva-Bisping match materialized, they would want to hold it at one of the big soccer stadiums in the country and predicted drawing a UFC record crowd.
But Maia strongly feels he’s the deserving contender if he wins his next fight, which he expects to be Marquardt, who he called the most complete fighter of the different contenders.
"If I win against Marquardt, I think it’s my chance," he said. "If I win, I’m 6-0 in UFC and I’ll have beaten top contenders."