Paul Craig: Future Middleweight Champion?

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Long-time UFC light heavyweight contender Paul Craig announced he will drop down a division to middleweight.

Craig Announces Middleweight Move

Craig has been part of the UFC since 2016, having fought his tenure for the promotion, and his entire twenty-three fight career, at light heavyweight. He made his debut in the UFC at 8-0 with all but one victory coming by submission in the first round. Craig built a patchy record since then, mostly trading wins and losses until he found a run of form in 2019. He climbed the rankings at 205-pounds with a six-fight undefeated streak, brutally stopping current champion Jamahal Hill in the process. 

Craig’s fan-favorite status hit a snag when he dropped a puzzling decision to Volkan Oezdemir, having opted to spend all three rounds attempting to pull guard. “The Bearjew” is about as well-rounded as one of his triangles, but the utilization of such a narrow-minded gameplan was still a surprising choice given his promise of excitement. His performance drew heavy criticism from fans, and required an emphatic showing in his next bout to keep title hopes alive. When the time came—Johnny Walker knocked him out almost immediately. 

The title picture at light heavyweight is messy. Jiri Prochazka‘s relinquishment of the belt means there is at least one man in the way at any given time. The recent stalemate between Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev allowed for both men to maintain their claim to the throne. The arrival of former middleweight champion Alex Pereira has thrown a left-hook in the works of the already-complicated situation. Craig, on a two-fight losing streak, would have an enormous task ahead of him to work his way to a shot at the belt.

Conversely, the middleweight division’s current hierarchy is as top-heavy as Paige Vanzant post-surgery. Despite the recent contention, Israel Adesanya is clearly the man to beat at 185 pounds. He is distantly followed by Robert Whittaker, whom all challengers thus far have been unable to overcome. If the rumors are true, we could see Dricus Du Plessis in a UFC title match.

Du Plessis in a UFC title match.

Dricus Du Plessis. In a UFC title match.

Paul Craig could be the middleweight champion.

Who’s Next?

As a middleweight, Craig now has an increased chance of being drawn against a fellow grappler. While the elite of the division still tend to lean on striking, top-15 talent like Derek Brunson could allow Craig to get wins against notable names whilst not facing the same risks he did against the powerhouses at 205-pounds. The wrestling threats posed by multiple potential opponents are unlikely to bother a man who does his best work getting beaten in bottom position. With a distinct height advantage, he will fancy his chances of hitting his signature move.

The strikers on the periphery of title contention at middleweight aren’t exactly puzzles. Main event magnet Sean Strickland talks a big game, but his style is slowly plodding forward with all the aggression of an old lady carrying her shopping home. His occasional jab and crossed-leg footwork leaves openings that a blind man could see. Du Plessis fights with the disciplined finesse of a monster truck driver experiencing road rage. The best gameplan against Du Plessis would be to wear red shorts and aim to counter when he charges at you in a straight line. 

The Scottish fighter is as one-dimensional as it gets in the UFC. He will relentlessly attempt to drag you to the ground and lure you into vulnerable positions. Fighters who primarily utilize jiu-jitsu above other arts, like Ryan Hall for example, have found success in the past using long-range kicks to keep the distance before finding their opening. Craig was already able to use his length on the feet at light heavyweight, and that classic BJJ-for-MMA style will be more effective against the slightly smaller men in the division below. 

Stylistic Relevance

The orc-like mentality shared by many of the middleweight ranks may fall victim to Craig’s lay-in-wait approach of blocking punches with his jaw until an opening presents itself. Marvin Vettori probably won’t be asking Jarvis to analyze his opponents fight patterns. Elite fighters like Nikita Krylov and Ankalaev, who showed a degree of adaptability in his last fight, were still lulled into a false sense of security in the cage with Craig. It’s not impossible that he could attain a fair standing at middleweight without really changing anything.

Craig is the mixed martial arts embodiment of “Call an ambulance, but not for me”. He attacks from his back while being punched, from a losing position. He is not an aggressive fighter, his track record in the UFC shows him to be somewhat of an opportunist. Perhaps being the bigger man with revitalized title hopes will cause Craig to be more open to leading the dance. While his strongest weapons may favor his current, passive approach, the blueprint to defeat him is widely known at this point. Moreover, it’s not winning over any judges should he survive until the final bell. 

There is a big difference between Du Plessis, and the wily champion Adesanya. It’s very difficult to imagine middleweight’s real elites like he and Whittaker being so unthinking as to even risk getting caught in the Venus flytrap that is Craig’s legs while they mindlessly beat him up from top position. If a fighter like Oezdemir can almost get the correct color on two sides, then Adesanya is Feliks Zemdegs.

At 35-years-old, Craig might not ever have a UFC belt on his waist—but we’re almost guaranteed some fun from his continued pursuit. 

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