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When Strikeforce dissolved in January 2013, no division in the Ultimate Fighting Championship benefitted more than middleweight. Anderson Silva was, unbeknownst to anyone, at the peak of his career and in such desperate need of challengers that he was moving up 20 pounds to find them. Meanwhile, Strikeforce had a legitimate claim to boasting the better overall middleweight roster, meaning its champion had a legitimate claim to being the best middleweight in the world, if only because he never had to fight “The Spider.” Yet in a slew of new challengers, the final two Strikeforce champions -- Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo Souza -- were by far the most intriguing.
Then the unexpected happened, and instead of a new import taking Silva’s throne, someone from within the UFC ranks did it first. Chris Weidman was young and undefeated, an in-his-prime specimen who forcibly removed the torch from the previous generation with four consecutive championship wins, none of which were close. Along with Rockhold and Souza, the future had arrived, from outside and within. The expectation was for prolonged championship rivalries to go down, enough to delineate its own post-Silva era. Instead, Rockhold, Souza and Weidman all started to spiral downward in eerily similar ways.
Rockhold won the title from Weidman, then lost his first title defense in a shocking upset to nemesis Michael Bisping on short notice. Bisping then took the belt on a bizarre ride away from deserving contenders and ultimately into the arms of Georges St. Pierre. After his gold-crusted divisional debut, “Rush” saw the writing on the wall in the penmanship of Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero and wisely vacated the title. Rockhold bounced back from the Bisping loss to score an eyebrow-raising technical knockout over David Branch before suffering a hair-raising knockout loss to Romero with an interim belt on the line.
Weidman never recovered from the Rockhold loss. He got kneed into unconsciousness by Romero and Gegard Mousasi in two consecutive fights, picked up a quality win against Kelvin Gastelum and then got knocked out again by “Jacare.” Souza never quite got over the hump in his new promotion. Despite a 7-1 start to his UFC career, he got thoroughly handled in a title eliminator against Whittaker, which kicked off a loss-win-loss-win-loss skid.
By the time they cleared out the old guard and started fighting each other, all three were already nearing championship obsolescence. Their combined reign atop the division was as much of a middleweight era as the 2010s were a geological epoch. Having tasted repetitive adversity for the first time in their careers, they all made the same decision to move up in weight. Now they are all 0-1 as light heavyweights.
The supposed benefits of moving up in weight stemmed from a smaller weight cut. Allegedly, this meant more energy, better cardio and a sturdier chin. In reality, Rockhold and Weidman got viciously knocked out, and “Jacare” faded down the stretch and dropped the final two rounds in route to losing a close decision to Jan Blachowicz in the UFC Fight Night 164 headliner on Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Whatever benefits a smaller weight cut may provide, they clearly weren’t enough.
Again, the impetus for moving up in weight was that they no longer felt competitive with the middleweight division’s best fighters. This seems simple and obvious, but it’s necessary to understand why it didn’t work; it was a solution for problems that weren’t there. Yes, Rockhold and Weidman have been chinny since their fight, and perhaps the additional water in their bodies during fight week could have helped with that. However, their problem is not having a bad chin, per se. Their problem is they get hit a lot. Their specific technical flaws followed them to 205 pounds. Light heavyweight Souza still can’t complete a takedown and still strikes with insultingly low volume; light heavyweight Weidman still plods forward in slow motion; and light heavyweight Rockhold still utterly detests keeping his hands up, moving his head off the center line, moving in any direction other than back and forth and generally playing to his strengths.
For each of them, their deficiencies are a combination of technical and tactical, not physical; none of their issues are changed much by carrying 20 more pounds into the Octagon. The underlying issue, broadly, is that they are still not competitive with the best fighters, regardless of weight class. Going up or down in weight is tempting, as all quick fixes are, but it can also be a Band-Aid on a broken bone.
Going down in weight can be successful when it yields a size and power advantage, and moving up in weight can work when it aids speed, quickness and pace. Other than that, however, a successful division change requires either a substantially less talented weight class or a favorable matchup in a single important bout, like St. Pierre-Bisping. The top of any division will always be tough. If you can’t hang with one division’s elite, you probably won’t be able to hang with another’s.
That isn’t to say none of them can win at 205 pounds, though they could each also pick up some pretty good wins at 185, like Weidman did against Gastelum not that long ago. All three are still good enough to compete, but it’s increasingly unlikely they’ll be able to catch Jon Jones or Israel Adesanya. Those two are trending upward, while Souza, Rockhold and Weidman are all trending downward. You can never count them out fully until they retire -- resurgences happen -- but a career rebound for any of them will demand fundamental changes, not cosmetic ones.
The former future stars of the middleweight division rose to the top and rapidly fell from it alongside each other. Now they’re in the same predicament with each other again, just older and heavier. The future ain’t what it used to be.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.