Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
Now that UFC 58 is over and Rich “Ace” Franklin has firmly established that he is the real deal and legitimate Undisputed UFC Middleweight Champion, the question now arises, who is next for him? There’s no denying the 185lb division is full of talent, but there seems to be a logjam of fighters jockeying for position without one clear-cut contender standing above the rest.

As far as veteran presence in the 185lb division goes, you have fighters like Nathan Marquardt, Jeremy Horn, Trevor Prangley, and Evan Tanner. All three have been in the UFC for some time now, but none of them has managed to pull of the kind of winning streak often needed to validate a championship shot.

UFC 59 in April could fix that. Horn and Tanner are slated to lock horns in what could very well be a loser leaves the UFC style of match. Horn is on the last fight of a three-fight deal and Tanner has lost two in a row and with no guaranteed contracts, a third loss could send him out of the company.

Should Horn win, he’d have two in the division and has always been seen as a legitimate contender wherever he goes, but he looked bad in his title shot against 205lb Champ Chuck Liddell and many felt he shouldn’t have beaten Trevor Prangley last year. Also factor in that Horn is part of Monte Cox’s management roster, as is Franklin and that fight may not materialize.

Tanner on the other hand is a former champion and until he lost his last two, had been on an impressive run. Refocused and rededicated, Tanner is a very dangerous fighter, but it’s going to take more than one win to justify getting a third fight with Franklin. In the eyes of many Evan was beating David Loiseau in their bout before a cut ended the fight in David’s favor. So if he puts on a 2-3 fight winning streak he may have a legitimate argument for a title shot, but he has to win and put 2005 far behind him.

Trevor Prangley is possibly the x-factor among the veteran fighters in the division. Much of the community feels he did not lose the decision to Horn and if he can get past Chael Sonnen in April, he would have put together a good argument for a title shot should he win one more fight. It’s always said that styles make fights, and with his size and strong all-around game, Prangley could provide a solid test for Franklin, which would be a huge plus for everyone, including the fans.

As for young talent, the UFC is not short on this either. Nathan Marquardt, Mike Swick, Chris Leben, Joe Riggs and David Terrell all possess interesting storylines and are capable of putting together the kind of winning streak against solid opposition that could catch the eye of the public enough to warrant a title match.

Marquardt in particular seems to be in the best position of all the aforementioned talent to get a shot sooner than later. He’s won two in a row against solid veteran fighters and is a long-time Champion in another promotion, Pancrase. Like Prangley, Nathan has the size to match Franklin and can take the fight anywhere, plus the Champion VS Champion angle is always good to help sell tickets. The question is, is two in a row enough to justify a title shot, or would Nathan have to win a third to earn his chance?

Despite their undeniable talent and winning streaks, Swick and Leben may be stigmatized by the fact they are coming off The Ultimate Fighter reality series. Many felt that Nate Quarry was rushed in his shot against Rich last year, and he paid for it. Even though both have won more in a row than any others in the division, both Mike and Chris may have to wait until next year or perhaps until they fight each other and settle their own score to be seen as legitimate contenders.

Riggs and Terrell fall into a different category, both are tough fighters who have beaten veteran fighters and both have had title shots before, but unlike Swick and Leben, neither has put together the multi-fight winning streak often needed to get a title shot. Both are young and have a lot of marketing potential, so for their sakes they can get a few wins in a row and maybe even face off against each other, a heated prospect that has been boiling for a couple years, before getting a title shot against Franklin.

Currently the 185lb division in the UFC is as deep as it has ever been. There’s no shortage of veteran or young talent ready to step up and face the only fighter in the company’s history to have successfully defended the title more than once. However baring the return of Matt Lindland or the importing of a veteran contender from overseas such as Anderson Silva, there may be a temporary problem in justifying exactly who should be next to challenge Franklin.

One thing is for sure though, with his win over David Loiseau at UFC 58, Rich Franklin proved he is the real deal. After his hand heals up and he’s ready to fight again it’s going to take possibly the best fight any challenger has ever put together in order to take the belt away. Franklin is that dialed in right now and that’s a scary prospect for anyone that dares step into the octagon with him.