Middleweight madness: How a 16-fighter tournament would play out


The NCAA tournament has taken over the sports world, as it tends to do every spring. It’s hard to open an internet browser or social media app without immediately getting hit by an image of a bracket.

You can’t fight it, so just embrace it. Historically, mixed martial arts rarely does brackets, although Bellator and PFL have both utilized the tournament format at times. But really, this is combat sports and there is hardly ever a direct line to a championship. There are usually a few zigs and zags composed of things like timing, marketing, injuries and style points.

But in the spirit of March, we decided to build a bracket of the top middleweights in the world and predict who would come out on top in a traditional tournament format. Why middleweights? Well, there have been four title changes over the last two years. It’s a division full of parity at the top. Since Israel Adesanya’s run of five title defenses from 2020 to 2022, no champ has been able to defend the UFC’s middleweight crown.

We used a combination of Brett Okamoto’s divisional rankings, which rank the Top 10 of each division, and then pulled six more of the best from every major promotion, including UFC, PFL and Bellator MMA. The ESPN MMA team filled out their individual brackets, and here are the collective results and how our expert team of Jeff Wagenheim, Ian Parker, Dre Waters and Eddie Maisonet believe the fights might look. Did any Cinderellas emerge, or did favorites prevail? Check out the results below.



Sweet 16

(1) Dricus Du Plessis def. (16) Gegard Mousasi: Although Mousasi is a former two-time Bellator middleweight champ, he remains a threat. But he enters this tournament riding a two-fight losing streak, and he’s taking on the No. 1 seeded UFC champion. Not ideal. Du Plessis, on the other hand, hasn’t lost since 2018. His raw power, unorthodox style and consistent high pace have given fits to each of his UFC opponents. It’s hard to see Mousasi being the first to figure out Du Plessis. The UFC champ finishes Mousasi via KO/TKO to move on to the Elite 8. — Waters

(2) Israel Adesanya def. (15) Impa Kasanganay: Kasanganay has looked like a different fighter from the one who went 2-2 in a 2020-21 UFC run that was distinguished by one of the most spectacular knockouts ever — of which he was on the receiving end. He found his way to the PFL last year via the Challengers Series in a higher weight class, and not only did Kasanganay earn a spot in the season, he won the championship. Then he gave Johnny Eblen trouble in a PFL vs. Bellator matchup last month. But Adesanya presents a whole new set of problems — mainly with diverse, creative striking — that Kasanganay would just not be capable of solving. — Wagenheim

(3) Robert Whittaker def. (14) Anthony Hernandez: As good as Hernandez has been, he has never faced anyone in the top five, let alone a former champion. Hernandez will have to find a way to put Whittaker down and hold him there, which few, if any, have been able to do. Whittaker has never had an issue with cardio or keeping up with anyone’s pace, so as long as he can do so with Hernandez, I expect him to keep the fight standing and get the win on the feet. — Parker

(13) Nassourdine Imavov def. (4) Jared Cannonier: At just 29, Imavov sports just two losses in his UFC career, one of them being a decision loss to former champion Sean Strickland at a 205-pound catchweight bout. Even at 40, Cannonier is still a very strong fighter, but Imavov’s mobility, volume striking and wrestling ability make for a tough matchup. Fortune favors the brave, and Imavov’s willingness to throw punches in bunches, along with age in his favor, leans the fight his way… via split decision. — Maisonet

(5) Sean Strickland def. (12) Roman Dolidze: After watching how Strickland fought against Adesanya and Du Plessis, he clearly belongs at the top of the division. Dolidze has serious power and a solid leg lock, but if he doesn’t land that knockout shot or grab a leg, what else does he have? When Dolidze fought Imavov, a good striker with good takedown defense, he got lost and struggled. Strickland is a miserable matchup for Dolidze and should cruise past him in this round. — Parker

(6) Marvin Vettori def. (11) Paulo Costa: The biggest question surrounding this matchup: Which Costa will show up? When these two met in 2021, Vettori won a unanimous decision, but that was only the final chapter in a winding drama. Because Costa arrived during fight week too heavy to make the middleweight limit, the weight class for the bout was switched twice, eventually landing at light heavyweight. This fired up the volatile Vettori, and the fight was vicious. Costa had a point deducted for an eye poke, but it didn’t affect the outcome, as Vettori was already ahead on all three scorecards. Since then, neither man has provided evidence suggesting a rematch would go differently. — Wagenheim

(7) Johnny Eblen def. (10) Jack Hermansson: Hermansson gained momentum in his last fight, before the tournament — pulling off an upset win over skilled boxer Joe Pyfer. But Hermansson is 4-4 in his last eight fights, and that inconsistency won’t cut it against the reigning Bellator champion. Hermansson is a skilled wrestler, but the problem is that Eblen has proven to be even better. Eblen is also the more skilled striker. Eblen showcases his well-rounded skillset, picking up a clear unanimous decision win to advance to the next round. — Waters

(8) Khamzat Chimaev def. (9) Brendan Allen: Chimaev has become almost a mythological figure, one that, from his press clippings, might be expected to knock out Superman. He earned that hype with a dominant start to his UFC run, but he’s competed only twice in nearly two years. And while Chimaev remains undefeated, he’s not had it easy against a higher level of opposition. Allen would be no pushover, as a winner of six in a row, five of those victories coming by submission. But Chimaev isn’t getting subbed, and by keeping the fight standing, he will make it his night. — Wagenheim


Elite 8

(1) Dricus Du Plessis def. (8) Khamzat Chimaev: This might be the most exciting tournament matchup. We have now seen in two fights (Burns, Usman) that showed if Chimaev can’t dominate on the mat or get a finish in Round 1, he turns into a normal human in Rounds 2 and 3. I believe DDP has the better gas tank and physical attributes to overcome the Round 1 onslaught and win the fight by decision. — Parker

(2) Israel Adesanya def. (7) Johnny Eblen: This one carries the most unknown variables of all the matchups in this round. How would Adesanya look after suffering the most frustrating loss of his career against Strickland? How would Eblen look against the stiffest competition of his career? Eblen’s arguably the most well-rounded middleweight in all of MMA, but this would be the biggest stage he’s ever fought on. Adesanya’s ability to stuff takedowns, connect from range and play into the spectacle will be the difference in what would be the fight of the tournament. — Maisonet

(3) Robert Whittaker def. (6) Marvin Vettori: When these two met in 2022, Whittaker was a step ahead the whole way. He landed the cleaner shots and way more of them, especially as the fight continued. In Round 3, when Vettori needed to play catchup, Whittaker built a 27-9 edge in significant strikes. Would a rematch be as one-sided? You never know with a fighter as aggressive and powerful as Vettori, but considering how Whittaker avoided damage in the first fight, it stands to reason that he could do it again. — Wagenheim

(5) Sean Strickland def. (13) Nassourine Imavov: Strickland took their first fight on short notice and dominated Imavov throughout the five rounds. I don’t see why this fight would be any different. Look for Strickland to keep the fight standing and push the pace to earn another decision win. — Parker


Final Four

(1) Dricus Du Plessis def. (5) Sean Strickland: The Final Four starts with a rematch of the last UFC middleweight title fight. In the first bout, Du Plessis edged out a razor-thin split decision win to claim the title. But this time, the champ wins more decisively — benefiting from the experience of going the distance in a five-round fight against Strickland. Du Plessis learns from his previous mistakes and capitalizes on his openings to land the big shot that puts Strickland away. Du Plessis wins by KO to advance to the tournament final. — Waters

(2) Israel Adesanya def. (3) Robert Whittaker: They have met twice before, and Adesanya got the better of Whittaker in both, the first time by knockout. Whittaker did close the gap in the second meeting, but there’s little reason to expect him to turn the tide fully his way. Familiarity will unleash the creativity of “The Last Stylebender” as a striker and embolden him to diversify his attacks. And while Whittaker should be able to push his old foe and hang until the final horn, this is Adesanya’s fight. — Wagenheim


Championship

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Du Plessis: Adesanya and I have different values

UFC Middleweight Champion Dricus Du Plessis tells ESPN in an exclusive interview that he and Israel Adesanya don’t share similar values in the fight game.

(2) Israel Adesanya def. (1) Dricus Du Plessis: The tension will be thick. The trash talk will be abundant. The fight will come down to volume and big shots. Unless Du Plessis is willing to be methodical, shell up and stand in the pocket as Strickland did, it’s tough to see the current champ not getting caught in an exchange with one of the best counterpunchers in the division’s history. The possibility of Du Plessis taking one or two to get one or two is possible, as Adesanya’s chin has proven not to be granite. Still, with Stylebender’s precision striking, this one ends in a TKO. — Maisonet



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