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Divisional Dissection: UFC Middleweights

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The man in the middleweight division: UFC champion Anderson "The Spider" Silva.
The man in the middleweight division: UFC champion Anderson "The Spider" Silva.

Throughout the week, MMA For Real will take a look at each of the UFC's classic five divisions while discussing the hierarchy in each division in regards to fighters are championship contention or could one day be. Today, we continue with the UFC's middleweight division. See things differently? Want to give your thoughts on which track the division should go? Express yourself in the comments section!

Top dog:

Anderson Silva: Undefeated inside the Octagon, Silva finally looked human against Chael Sonnen in August at UFC 117. Was it a styles clash, the rib injury or is Silva slowing down? We'll find out a lot when Silva fights Vitor Belfort at UFC 126 in early February. Silva has mostly rolled to a 12-0 record in the UFC, running former champion Rich Franklin out of the division, stopping both Nate Marquardt and Dan Henderson and racking up a 2-0 record at light-heavyweight with knockouts of James Irvin and Forrest Griffin. Silva's performances lately have been tainted by erratic fighting tactics against Thales Leites (UFC 97) and Demian Maia (UFC 112). A deadly striker with a solid ground game, Silva has the tools to give anybody fits (and he most certainly has). Silva's length has poses major problems for his opponents both standing and on the ground. He is the undisputed best middleweight in the world by leaps and bounds.

Top contenders:

Vitor Belfort: Despite not owning a victory at middleweight in the UFC, Vitor Belfort will receive a long-awaited title match with Silva in February. Belfort is 2-0 at 185 pounds, besting both Terry Martin and Matt Lindland by knockout in Affliction. Belfort was supposed to receive his title shot in April at UFC 112 but had to pull out due to injury. He was scheduled to fight Yushin Okami last month at UFC 122 but got advanced up the ladder when Sonnen was pulled from his rematch with Silva due to a positive drug test. On the feet, Belfort will be Silva's stiffest test to date, no doubt. If Silva has indeed slowed a step, Belfort has the speed to make Silva pay. It makes for an extremely interesting fight. If the "old Vitor" shows up, we could have a new champion. Ring rust, though, could be a factor for Belfort. When he steps into the cage in February, it will have been nearly a year-and-a-half since he roasted Franklin at UFC 103 in September 2009.

Yushin Okami: A long-time UFC standout, Yushin Okami has finally earned his title shot by besting Marquardt by decision at UFC 122. At 10-2 in the organization, Okami has most certainly earned it despite the protests of those who do not like his plodding style. It will be interesting to see if the UFC does indeed follow up on an Okami title shot, especially if Silva loses to Belfort. If anybody deserves an immediate rematch on the basis of having the title for song long, it's Silva. Time will tell.

Chael Sonnen: This is probably a tough day to be posting this. We'll find out Sonnen's fate later when he goes in front of the California State Athletic Commission to appeal his drug test failure. Still, Sonnen was up four rounds to none on Silva before succumbing to a triangle choke in the fifth round. He had an immediate rematch scheduled but that was scrapped by the failure. There's no doubt he deserves another shot at Silva at some point, whether that be down the line or when his suspension ends. I'd pencil him in for a shot at the title in late 2011 if he wins his first post-suspension fight.

Stay with us after the jump for "In the mix," "On the path" and "Prospect watch."

In the mix:

Michael Bisping: Because of his popularity in England, it seems like Michael Bisping is always on the cusp of being talked about seriously for a title shot, but he's never quite gotten there. Bisping has won two in a row, besting Dan Miller and Yoshihiro Akiyama and has a chance to make it three when he meets Jorge Rivera at UFC 127 in late February. A win against Rivera and another against a top contender likely would put Bisping in line for a shot at the gold.

Chris Leben: All it took was two wins in two weeks and Chris Leben was once against relevant in the UFC. After losses to Bisping and Jake Rosholt put Leben on the cutting board, he's rebounded to win three in a row in 2010. He fights Brian Stann on Jan. 1 at UFC 125. A win continues his climb.

Wanderlei Silva: This is an interesting one here. I feel obliged to include Silva on this list despite the fact that he's only 1-0 at 185 pounds and does not have another fight scheduled. Because of his age and amount of damage he's taken throughout his long career, if the UFC wanted to capitalize on a Silva title opportunity, they'd have to do it quickly. It remains to be seen if Silva can a) win enough fights to earn a shot and b) fight often enough to earn a shot. Still, his win over Bisping in February is a nice notch for when he does return.

Alan Belcher: This is another one that is uncertain because Belcher has been out fighting a detached retina. He has won two in a row, beating Wilson Gouveia and Patrick Cote. Despite having 11 fights in the UFC, Belcher has never won more than two in a row. He's going to need to snap out of that streak if he ever wants to earn a title opportunity. Still, he has the skills to consistently be "in the mix."

On the path:

Nate Marquardt: Marquardt blew his opportunity at a title shot by losing to Okami via decision at UFC 122. Now he's left in a bit of a holding pattern. Marquardt had his chance at Silva at UFC 73 and lost in the first round. Marquardt is a skilled fighter, no doubt, but he has a lot of work to do as he has now lost two of his last three fights.

Demian Maia: Because of the way Silva handled him at UFC 112, it's hard to see Maia getting a title shot against Silva unless he goes on an incredible run. Obviously, Maia needs to keep winning fights and that continues this weekend against Kendall Grove at "The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale." Because of his excellence in submissions, Maia should be able to keep winning fights but it's tough to see him getting another title shot before mid-2012.

Prospect watch:

Yes, this is blank. With Gerald Harris being released, there really aren't too many names to put on this list. Please, by all means, suggest someone if you think I've omitted someone here.