Fight for top middleweight spot underway
July, 8, 2011
By Franklin McNeil
Ric Fogel for ESPN.com In arm's reach: Chris Leben is punching his way to the front of the title contender's line.With Yushin Okami set to take his chances against UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva on Aug. 27 in Brazil, the maneuvering has begun for top-contender status at 185 pounds.
The common belief is that Chael Sonnen is next in line if Silva exacts revenge on Okami. But that might be jumping the gun a bit.
Sonnen, who hasn’t fought since coming within an eyelash of upending Silva in August 2010, has agreed to face fast-rising Brian Stann in October. And it’s not hard to imagine Stann’s hand being raised at the conclusion of that bout.
A win over Sonnen would put Stann front and center of any title conversation. But Stann wants no part of that discussion.
“I’m not concerned about [getting a title shot] right now,” Stann told ESPN.com. “With the person the caliber of Chael Sonnen, I need to focus on one thing, one thing only, and that’s Chael Sonnen.”
While Stann prefers to stay away from thoughts of a title shot, other middleweights are scrambling to position themselves for the top spot.
Before Stann’s next fight was made public, Mark Munoz had his eye on the former WEC light heavyweight champion. But Stann isn’t the only high-profile middleweight Munoz would like to test his skills against.
Rod Mar/ESPN.comMark Munoz has more to gain in a fight with Chris Leben.
“At this point we’ve talked about a few people and Chris Leben’s name came up, coming off a big win,” Munoz’s manager Mike Roberts told ESPN.com. “That is definitely a fight Mark would be interested in.
“There are a lot of good fights for Mark at 185. But we would definitely be interested in Chris Leben.
“He’s not calling him out or anything. Mark just wants to fight the next guy who will get him closer to a title shot.”
Munoz wants a date with Leben, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Leben’s handlers just don’t view Munoz as attractive enough at this time.
“Let’s say Vitor Belfort beats [Yoshihiro] Akiyama, that fight [with Belfort] makes sense to me,” Leben’s manager Malki Kawa told ESPN.com. “Vitor is somebody near the top of the division.
“He’s a guy who has accomplished a little more than Mark at this point.
“Mark has everything to gain by beating Chris Leben or a Brian Stann at this point, but it’s not necessarily the same thing in the opposite way.”
Kawa refuses to completely slam the door on a possible Leben-Munoz showdown, but he’d like assurances from UFC officials that a title shot isn’t too far down the road if his guy wins.
“I’m looking for fights that will put Chris Leben in position to be the top contender,” Kawa said. “If that’s Mark Munoz, so be it.”