A Golden Opportunity

UFC Fight Night: Hermansson v Gastelum
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It says something about the UFC middleweight division that the promotion was forced to use “Plan C” and still ended up with a well-matched, potentially entertaining, and extremely relevant main event for this Saturday. The division isn’t just deep; it’s sustainably deep, boasting a well-proportioned assortment of grizzled veterans, mid-prime contenders, and promising young up-and-comers.

It’s also wide open at the moment.

Main-eventers Jack Hermansson and Marvin Vettori are ranked 4th and 13th, respectively, but there’s very little standing between the winner and a title shot. A look at the UFC’s official rankings reveals that the majority of the other contenders have effectively cannibalized one another’s momentum, leaving the two in a very Steven Bradbury-esque position.

  1. Robert Whittaker is on a strong two-fight streak, but recently lost to champion Israel Adesanya.
  2. Paulo Costa is coming off a brutally one-sided loss to Adesanya.
  3. Jared Cannonier, who usurped Hermansson’s place in the queue with a brutal knockout last year, lost to Whittaker not two months ago.

5. Yoel Romero has dropped three straight, including a March stinker against Adesanya.

6. Darren Till is out with injury and coming off a loss to Whittaker.

7. Derek Brunson is on a three-fight tear, but the only ranked opponent was Edmen Shahbazyan.

8. Kelvin Gastelum has dropped three straight, most recently to Hermansson.

9. Uriah Hall has won three straight over unranked opponents, following a comeback knockout of Bevon Lewis and controversial decision over Antonio Carlos Junior with a TKO finish of Anderson Silva.

10. Chris Weidman is 2-5 in his last seven and looked awful in his August win over Omari Akhmedov.

11. Edmen Shahbazyan was thoroughly dismantled by Brunson in their aforementioned fight.

12. Omari Akhmedov lost to Weidman.

So what about the men in the spotlight?

Hermansson, who’d washed out of Bellator before going on a rampage through Cage Warriors’ Middleweight division, took a little while to find his footing in the UFC. A submission loss to Cezar “Mutante” undid the progress he made in a strong debut against Scott Askham, after which a two-fight streak stopped dead at the hands of Thiago Santos.

Then “The Joker” figured things out.

Three consecutive stoppage wins, one of them an all-time-great comeback over Thales Leites, led to a main event slot opposite “Jacare” Souza, which saw Hermansson survive five grueling rounds to upset the Brazilian legend by decision. He was seemingly inches from a title shot, only for Jared Cannonier to step in and ruin everything with some horrific punches.

Still, Hermansson is no stranger to adversity, and he needed just 78 seconds to twist Kelvin Gastelum’s foot the wrong way earlier this year.

Vettori’s Octagon career hasn’t been quite as perilous a ride. His early run definitely had his rough patches, as he went 2-2-1 with losses to Carlos Junior and Adesanya, but he was competitive throughout, taking a round each from “Shoeface” and “The Last Stylebender.” He enters the cage this Saturday having dominated “Mutante,” Andrew Sanchez, and Karl Roberson in successive efforts.

Whoever wins this fight will have a better claim at a 185-pound title shot than anyone but Whittaker, and he won’t have a recent loss to the champion weighing him down.

There is, however, one major complication: Adesanya is moving up to 205 pounds to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the Light Heavyweight title next year. This window could very easily close by then; at the very least, there’s no way to effectively argue against this Saturday’s winner facing Whittaker in the meantime. They’ll have to hope the UFC is willing to slap an interim title onto that matchup.

Still, even if it might not take them all the way to the summit, this is a perfect opportunity to jump the line, adding further intrigue to what’s already a great matchup.

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