Next month at Houston’s Toyota Center, Israel Adesanya defends his middleweight title against former champion Robert Whittaker in the main event of UFC 271.
After coming up short in his bid to become a two-division champion at the outset of last year, Adesanya returned to the lands he’s ruled independently since toppling Whittaker in their first meeting to secure his third successful title defense, turning back “The Italian Dream” Marvin Vettori. Meanwhile, the former champion cemented his standing as the top contender by securing his third consecutive victory, turning back Kelvin Gastelum in convincing fashion in April.
With that highly anticipated clash on the horizon and having already looked at the top memorable moments to transpire inside next month’s host venue, why not comb through the archives once again to compile a list of the best middleweight title fights in UFC history in advance of what has the potential to be an immediate addition to future installments of this collection?
This is The 10 — Top UFC Middleweight Title Fights.
Rich Franklin vs. Nate Quarry (UFC 56)
You mention this fight to anyone that has seen it — or anyone that has seen the highlight package that plays in the arena ahead of every UFC main card — and they instantly remember how this one ended.
Franklin had taken the middleweight title five months earlier, claiming the strap with a fourth-round stoppage win over Evan Tanner at UFC 53 in Atlantic City, while Quarry, a cast member on the pioneering first season of The Ultimate Fighter, entered on a four-fight winning streak, having earned first-round finishes in each of his first three UFC appearances.
The champion was the aggressor, the more active and fluid of the two inside the Octagon, initiating most of the exchanges and looking comfortable taking the fight to Quarry in the early stages of the opening round. Franklin stung the challenger roughly 90 seconds into the contest, backing him up against the fence, unloading, trying to get him out of there early, but Quarry weathered the storm.
Franklin continued to take the fight to him, dropping him only seconds later, with referee John McCarthy very nearly stopping the fight. At one point, with Quarry turtled up and Franklin in a position to unload, he asks the referee if he was halting the action, and when McCarthy told him to continue, “Ace” did just that, continuing to unload on the dazed and defensive Quarry. The challenger made it to his feet and pressed forward, offering offense that Franklin dealt with easily, circling out and resetting in the center of the cage.
As Quarry pawed from the outside, Franklin stepped forward into a straight left hand that landed on the button, causing Quarry’s body to go rigid as he crashed to the canvas in a catatonic heap.
In terms of first successful title defenses go, this one was pretty spectacular.
Rich Franklin vs. Anderson Silva (UFC 64)
After successfully defending his title for a second time in March 2006 against David Loiseau (in another excellent fight), Franklin faced off with top contender Anderson Silva, who had decimated Chris Leben in 49 seconds less than four months earlier in his promotional debut. The Brazilian was seen as a formidable opponent for the American champion, but no one could envision what was about to begin when these two fought on October 14, 2006.
For the first minute of the fight, the two traded blows — exchanging sporadic punches and mixing in chopping kicks to the lead leg; neither landing anything too serious, each man simply looking to establish their range and get a feel for the other.
Silva grabbed the Thai clinch about 90 seconds into the opening round and started attacking with arcing knees to the midsection, maintaining the hold as Franklin looked to counter, dragging the champion to the fence. Once there, the challenger continued securing the clinch once more, guiding Franklin to the other side of the cage and unloading with further knees to the body before finally sending one towards the champion’s chin.
Franklin was hurt and Silva was unrelenting, grasping the Thai clinch once more and continuing to attack with a torrent of knees, going upstairs with one that instantly caused Franklin’s nose to drip blood. From there, “The Spider” pounced, sealing the victory with one more knee to the head.
Less than five months into his UFC run, Silva had claimed the middleweight title. He wouldn’t relinquish it for a very long time.
Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen (UFC 117)
Nearly four years into his championship reign, Silva had established himself as a dominant force, successfully defending the middleweight title on six occasions and venturing up to light heavyweight twice to secure eye-popping victories over James Irvin and former champ Forrest Griffin.
Following a unanimous decision win over former title challenger Nate Marquardt, Sonnen had established himself as the top contender, but the blue-collar wrestler was largely viewed as just another guy… and then he started talking.
Sonnen dipped into the world of professional wrestling and started cutting promos on Silva, his teammates, and the country of Brazil as a whole in an effort to spur more interest in what was expected to be another one-sided fight for the unstoppable champion. He was mesmerizing on the microphone, walking right up to the line and edging across it from time-to-time to fire salvo-after-salvo at Silva, promising to dethrone the long-reigning titleholder.
No one expected it to happen, so when Sonnen dominated the opening round with his wrestling, everyone was surprised.
And then he did the same thing in the second, building up a 2-0 lead on the scorecards. When the third round ended, the challenger had won all three frames, putting Silva in a position where he needed a finish or else he was going to lose his title. After the fourth, it felt like a fait accompli — Sonnen’s wrestling allowed him to control the first four rounds, leaving him five minutes away from pulling off a massive upset and proving himself to be a pugilistic prophet.
Midway through the final round, Sonnen was again in top position, punching away at Silva from inside the champion’s closed guard. He was two-and-a-half minutes away from victory, and seemed unbothered by the fact that Silva had grabbed ahold of his right wrist. As Sonnen threw tired punches with the clock ticking closer to two minutes remaining in the round, Silva opened his guard and quickly threw up a triangle choke — using his control of Sonnen’s right wrist to create the room needed to feed his left leg over the back of the challenger’s neck.
Silva tightened the hold and extended Sonnen’s left arm for good measure, drawing a tap from the wrestler from West Linn, Oregon, earning the miraculous come-from-behind victory.
Sonnen tried to fight on and suggest that he didn’t tap, but it was clear that he did. The challenger was gracious in defeat, but eventually started jockeying for an opportunity to run it back with the champion, ultimately earning a second fight with Silva two years later that produced the same final result — And Still.
Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort (UFC 126)
This was the fight that made Silva a massive star, both in his native Brazil and throughout the mixed martial arts world.
That seems strange to say now, given his standing as one of the all-time greats, but despite being the long-reigning UFC middleweight titleholder and having pulled off a comeback for the ages against Sonnen, many still viewed Silva as a mercurial enigma. Belfort, meanwhile, was a gigantic star at home — an early UFC standout and former champion who had married a well-known model and sports presenter, and made a successful return to the Octagon at UFC 103, running through former champion Rich Franklin.
There was tension between the countrymen and it carried over to their face-off at the ceremonial weigh-ins, where Silva would don the kind of white mask made popular by The Jabbawockeez dance crew and get right in Belfort’s face.
Electricity coursed throughout the Mandalay Bay as they circled each other in the opening seconds of the bout, neither man wanting to pull the trigger too quickly or give the other a chance to attack.
The first minute passed without either man throwing a strike. Belfort landed the first blow — a low, outside leg kick — 29 seconds later. Silva attempted an oblique stomp soon after, but really did nothing other than feint, circle, and move on the outside of Belfort’s range for the first two minutes. He rushed forward, but didn’t throw anything, and Belfort countered with another outside low kick; the fans in attendance beginning to grow restless and voice their support for the challenger.
While he got a little more active just ahead of the two-minute mark, Silva largely went three minutes in a championship fight without initiating much offense and not landing anything of substance. The duo started opening up a little more with under two minutes remaining and then it happened.
Standing in the center of the Octagon, just outside of each other’s punching range, Silva snapped out a front kick that landed square on Belfort’s chin, dropping the challenger to the canvas in a dazed state. The champion followed him to the ground and finished the fight with two additional punches; the tepid affair turned into a “Where were you when…” moment with a single kick.
The image of Silva’s foot connecting with Belfort’s jaw, best captured by photographer James Law, remains one of the most iconic images in the history of the sport.
Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman I (UFC 162)
In the summer of 2013, Silva was 16-0 in the UFC, having successfully defended his title 10 times. The previous fall, he’d ventured to Brazil and dispatched Stephan Bonnar for his third victory at light heavyweight and his fifth consecutive finish.
He seemed unstoppable.
Weidman had entered the UFC on short notice as an unbeaten emerging talent, and over his first 16 months, he’d earn five victories, pushing his record to 9-0 and establishing himself as the No. 1 contender in the middleweight division, setting up a showdown with Silva.
The challenger was unfazed by the champion’s mystique and invincible aura, maintaining all along that he was simply going to stick to the game plan, fight his fight, and shock the world. After the opening round, it was clear that Weidman was game, as he got the better of the exchanges with the somewhat disinterested Silva, who spent as much time motioning to the challenger and putting on a show for the crowd as he did engaging and attacking.
Early in the second, Weidman pawed at Silva with a left hand that grazed the champion, prompting him to pantomime being stunned. But Weidman kept attacking and clipped Silva with a left hand that landed flush, sending the Brazilian crashing to the canvas. Weidman chased him to the deck, pounded out the finish, and dethroned the longest reigning champion in UFC history, making good on his promise to shock the world.
Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold (UFC 194)
A month after Weidman earned a second victory over Silva in their rematch at UFC 168, Rockhold got back into the win column with a first-round stoppage victory over Costa Philippou, and from that point forward, it seemed like the two likeable, talented, competitive middleweights were on a collision course.
They would finally meet at UFC 194 — Weidman entering with an unblemished 13-0 record, having most recently turned back the challenge of Belfort; Rockhold arriving on the strength of four consecutive finishes. The pair were playfully competitive in the build to the fight, joking and making their assertions like close friends convinced they were the superior athlete of the two.
Weidman started well, relying on his grappling and working out of the clinch, but Rockhold turned things around late in the first, showing he could grapple with the champion and be effective in space. The challenger stung Weidman out of the gate to start the second, and controlled the frame with his kicks at range, with the champion rallying to win the opening half of the third.
But late in the round, Weidman inexplicably went for a spinning wheel kick — not the kind of move he was known for throwing — and when he missed badly, Rockhold capitalized, using the miss to drag Weidman to the canvas and climb onto his back. The challenger quickly transitioned into mount and started unloading on the champion, leaving him busted up and battered after 60 seconds of unanswered punishment that somehow didn’t bring the fight to a close.
While Weidman came forward to start the fourth, Rockhold quickly pressed forward and started putting it on the champion again, taking him down along the fence. The first blow the challenger threw caused Weidman to bleed once again and the former Strikeforce standout never let him recover. Rockhold climbed into mount and pounded out the finish, completing his climb to the top of the UFC middleweight division.
Luke Rockhold vs. Michael Bisping (UFC 199)
Rockhold and Weidman were supposed to run it back in the summer of 2016 in Los Angeles, but a couple weeks before the fight, Weidman was forced to withdraw. The UFC tapped veteran Michael Bisping, who was coming off a memorable victory over Silva in London earlier in the year, to replace him.
The duo had met before, with Rockhold submitting the British stalwart less than two years earlier as part of his four-fight run to earning his bout with Weidman. Where the original pair had always shown each other respect and had a friendly rivalry, the new main event duo straight up didn’t like each other. The champion was dismissive the challenger’s chances, forecasting that history would repeat itself, while Bisping did what he always did — he made things personal, yapping at Rockhold every time he could in an attempt to throw the titleholder off his game.
Rockhold came out of the corner to start the fight with a half-smirk on his face; the type of look you get when someone isn’t really sure why they’ve been forced to turn up to an event they see as pointless and unnecessary. He felt like Bisping had no business being in the cage with him, and fought like it — snapping out punches and kicks with sharpness while also looking dismissive of everything “The Count” offered in return.
The champion controlled the first half of the round, but the challenger was game, taking the best Rockhold had to offer and responding when he could. Just as Rockhold looked to be turning up the pressure and intensity, he lazily exited an exchange with his hands down, and Bisping caught him, connecting with a reaching left hand that put the champion on the mat. A second left after he got back to his feet put Rockhold on the canvas again, and three shots later, a new champion had emerged.
After years of failing to clear the final hurdle standing in the way of a championship opportunity, Bisping did the unthinkable — turning a short-notice opportunity into his title-winning moment, knocking out Rockhold in less than five minutes.
Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero (UFC 213)
In the song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Kanye West asks, “When you talk about classics, do my name get brought up?” Whittaker could do the same in regards to this performance when people are discussing the best championship efforts inside the Octagon.
Romero is a different type of athlete — a mass of muscle and explosive power; an Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling who entered this fight with a perfect 8-0 record in the UFC, including stoppage wins over former champions Lyoto Machida and Chris Weidman.
Whittaker had won seven straight, the last six coming following his move up from welterweight. Shifting to the 185-pound ranks allowed the technical striker the opportunity to make greater use of his speed and tactical approach, which yielded back-to-back stoppage wins over Derek Brunson and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
With Bisping on the sidelines waiting for a November engagement with Georges St-Pierre, Whittaker and Romero met for the interim middleweight title at UFC 213, and after falling behind 0-2 to start the fight, the man affectionately known as Bobby Knuckles orchestrated one of the best come-from-behind championship victories in UFC history.
Despite dealing with a knee injury, Whittaker took the fight to Romero to begin the third, working behind long kicks up the middle and sharp boxing. His movement was excellent and he sprawled well the few times Romero looked to wrestle, with the muscular Cuban looking tired when he returned to the corner at the end of the round.
The fourth opened with Whittaker fending off Romero in a grappling exchange, avoiding any real damage despite Romero controlling him for the opening 90 seconds. In the second half of the round, the Australian pushed the pace, defended well, and dominated the striking exchanges, drawing level heading into the final frame.
Romero was more active and effective in the fifth, stinging Whittaker early in the round, but once again, “The Reaper” adjusted and went on the offensive, picking at Romero every time he came forward, sniping with short, sharp blows before closing out the frame by driving home elbows from top position.
Through the first two rounds, it was all Romero, but the rest of the way, Whittaker was the better man, earning the unanimous decision with scores of 48-47 across the board.
Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum (UFC 236)
Less than six months after winning the interim title against Romero, Whittaker was promoted to being the undisputed champion, and retained his belt with a narrow split decision victory over the Cuban in a rematch at UFC 225. But before he could defend his title again, the Australian ran into injury issues that forced him to the sidelines and prompted the UFC to once again dust off the interim title.
Gastelum had been scheduled to face Whittaker for the strap before the champion fell ill, and he was paired off with Adesanya, the unbeaten rising star from New Zealand, by way of Nigeria, to see who would eventually face Whittaker in a “Champion vs. Champion” clash.
What followed was the best fight of 2019.
For 25 minutes, Adesanya and Gastelum beat the hell out of each other; no quarter asked, and none given. Each time one appeared to be grabbing control of the contest, the other rallied back, both exhibiting more heart, toughness, and resolve than they had been forced to show in the past.
Deadlocked heading into the final five minutes, Gastelum came out quick to start, looking to take the fight to Adesanya, landing combinations. But Adesanya responded, prompting Gastelum to wrestle, only for the vaunted kickboxer to chase a triangle choke off his back that he nearly competed. With three minutes remaining in the fight, “The Last Stylebender” started taking over, connecting with a clean combination that stung Gastelum, doing the same twice more in the next minute.
While Gastelum refused to back down, the accuracy of Adesanya was too much, as he fired off counters and clean right hands that repeatedly found a home, leading to a knockdown with a little more than a minute remaining, and another with 30 seconds left on the clock. Gastelum survived to the final horn despite being dropped once more, but the damage was done and the verdict was no longer in doubt.
Just 14 months after making his promotional debut, Adesanya put on 10-8 scores across the board in the final stanza to claim the interim title and set up a showdown with Whittaker.
Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker (UFC 243)
A shade under six months after dispatching Gastelum to claim the interim title and push his record to 17-0 overall, Adesanya competed his rampage to the top of the UFC middleweight division, establishing himself as the top man in the 185-pound weight class less than two years after first setting foot inside the Octagon.
Where his bout with Gastelum was an all-out war that forced him to dig deep, Adesanya crafted a masterpiece while getting Whittaker out of there in less than two rounds.
While Whittaker connected a few times early, he looked rushed and hurried; forcing things in spots where he’d traditionally remained patient, calm, and technical. Adesanya was content to counter, evading as many attacks as he could, and sticking Whittaker with return fire when the opportunities presented themselves.
After running near level for much of the opening round, Adesanya connected with a sharp right hand at the close of the round, putting Whittaker on the canvas. The knockdown bolstered the interim champion’s already high confidence, as he continued to pick at Whittaker with short, clean shots whenever “The Reaper” rushed forward looking to land.
He again hurt Whittaker with a short hook in tight, and a blocked head kick seconds later still managed to knock Whittaker off balance. Adesanya saw it and started moving forward, attacking the body with combinations, and sliding his head away when the return fire came towards him.
Whittaker continued to press and the two exchanged shots in the center of the Octagon, but at the tail end of one sequence where both landed, Adesanya connected with one more in tight that rocked Whittaker, sending him tumbling backwards to the canvas. Adesanya chased him down and referee Marc Goddard quickly stepped in to halt the action.
“The Last Stylebender” has ascended to the throne, a position he still holds to this day, and will look to maintain when he runs it back with Whittaker at UFC 271.