The Middleweight Saga
Guest post by Ciro Crispino
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
We were so close my friends, so damn close. GSP relinquished the middleweight title and Whittaker was the undisputed champ, set to defend against Luke Rockhold at UFC 221. This was to take place in Australia no less, Whittaker’s home nation. The 185 madness was in the rear-view and the sun was beaming through the windscreen. Then a big grey cloud forms as Whittaker is forced to pull out due to injury, being replaced by Yoel Romero in ANOTHER. BLOODY. INTERIM. TITLE. FIGHT.
Before we continue, let’s go back a bit. Rockhold is the lineal champion, having beaten Chris Weidman for the championship at the tail end of 2015. Weidman, of course, had taken the strap from Anderson Silva in 2013, meaning the middleweight title had enjoyed stability for a long time; there had been no interim champions in the belt’s history. This all in a historically deep division.
Then we get to May 17th, 2016, Chris Weidman is forced to pull out of his scheduled rematch against Rockhold at UFC 199 due to injury. Fair enough, happens all the time. The first choice for replacement, Jacare Souza, then reveals he is injured. So we move to the second choice, “The Count” Michael Bisping.
This is a decent matchup, as Rockhold and Bisping have a history of bad blood, and Rockhold has a win over Bisping. On top of this, Bisping is still chasing his first UFC title. The Englishman was coming off a victory over the aforementioned Anderson Silva. But he was 37 at the time, and was a heavy underdog
against the younger, larger Rockhold.
On June 4th, 2016, Bisping pulled off the upset of the year against Rockhold, with a first-round knockout, becoming the first British UFC titleholder in history. As an Englishman, it was a wonderful moment, but even in spite of that, it was a great underdog victory. Everything is still fine.
Sometime later, news breaks that Bisping is going to defend against Dan Henderson at UFC 204. This is where things get a little complicated. Henderson is a living legend, but he had lost six of his last nine fights, and was forty-five years old. Now, the fight didn’t not make sense for Bisping, who had suffered one of the most brutal knockouts ever at the hands – the right hand specifically – of Henderson in 2009. He wanted to run that back, but, Henderson wasn’t even ranked. Nevertheless, the fight was on.
Bisping and Henderson went to war on October 8th, 2016 in an extremely competitive fight. With Bisping able to pull out the decision victory in front of a raucous Manchester crowd. Hendo then rode off into the sunset, as this was his last brawl inside the octagon. Now, back to business, right? Wrong.
Romero nearly decapitated Weidman with a stunning flying knee in November, then called out the champion – “I see you sum, boi!” This was the logical next fight, the only fight really. If we head back to June for a moment, Georges St-Pierre announces he is in the process of a return, without any specifics. Everyone is excited of course, and we all wondered who he would fight.
Months later, in February of 2017, the UFC announces that they had come to terms on a deal with the former welterweight champion for his return. Not long after, Dana White announced that GSP was set to fight Michael Bisping for his 185 strap sometime in 2017. Reactions are mixed, as people are looking forward to seeing one of the G.O.A.Ts return. But what about the middleweights? What about Yoel? Fingers start being pointed at Bisping. He’s ducking the top contenders and he just wants a payday. There’s a lot more to it though.
GSP’s BJJ coach John Danaher was on Joe Rogan’s podcast recently (a must-listen if you’re a grappling fan, by the way) and he spoke about St-Pierre’s mindset heading into a hypothetical return. They agreed that he should do something different, not just come back and carry on from where he left off. They concurred that a weight change was necessary, and GSP is not getting down to 155, so middleweight was settled on. This discussion apparently took place before Bisping even won the strap. Now, I’m sure Bisping sitting at the top of the division was a positive for GSP, as we all saw, it was a good style matchup for the Canadian takedown artist. But this was all in the works long before UFC 217.
And then from Bisping’s point of view, how could you say no? A main event title fight against maybe the greatest of all time. Someone who is coming off a four-year layoff and moving up fifteen pounds, in what is sure to be the biggest payday of your entire career. How anyone can begrudge Bisping that is beyond me. He toiled away in the UFC for over a decade and he deserved that big money fight.
The main problem with the GSP/Bisping fight is that it took so damn long to happen. With negotiations constantly stalling and dates being pushed back, the UFC made the decision to crown an interim champion. In hindsight, I find this questionable. Plenty of champions have defended their belt only once in a calendar year, and as a defense was planned as opposed to cancelled due to injury, an interim title was unnecessary. It was clearly UFC’s attempt to appease the hardcore fans and recognise a true contender with what is essentially a consolation prize.
And of course, there’s the spanner in the works that is the young Robert Whittaker. An uneven welterweight on an inexplicable run in the middleweight division. After putting together five wins, “The Reaper” went on to fight Jacare in April of 2017, stopping him in an upset and finding his way into the interim title fight.
Romero was the next big thing; a monstrous wrestler with terrifying agility. Remember, this is the man whom the incumbent champion was accused of running from. The Australian was able to corral the Cuban bull on his way to a unanimous decision victory, along with a shiny gold belt. This made seven in a row for Whittaker at middleweight. And we seemed to have finally found the next top guy.
November comes around and Madison Square Garden plays host to UFC 217. Bisping and GSP main event, and they have themselves a riveting back and forth ending with St-Pierre’s vascular forearms wrapped around the Brit’s neck in the third round. GSP is the new UFC middleweight champion, and MSG got to witness one of the greatest cards in the history of our beloved sport.
Despite it’s immediate success, UFC 217 must be considered a mixed bag. It was an amazing night, filled with drama and action. But the aftermath really showed the flaws in the new big money fight era we find ourselves in after the sale. A short-sighted approach that left several belts tied up. And UFC 219 without a card until several weeks before the event.
Afterwards, GSP would talk about his intention to defend the belt. But revelations about his atrocious weight gain program would curtail his alleged plans. If you even believed him in the first place, and no one did anyway. Dana White spoke at length about how he didn’t want to fight any of the top guys at middleweight. And not long after St-Pierre would vacate the title citing a serious bout of colitis as his impetus. I’m sure he does have colitis, but I don’t believe for a second that he planned to defend that belt regardless.
We can’t blame St-Pierre though; don’t hate the player hate the game. He got his big money fight at MSG, and took a second belt home to further cement his legacy. The UFC let this happen, and despite Dana’s assertions that he would be “super pissed” if Georges didn’t defend his title. He certainly didn’t do a lot to stop this from happening.
So GSP vacated and Whittaker is the undisputed champion set to defend his belt in his home country. Order is restored. What’s that? A staph infection inside him eating away at his organs. Oh, that won’t do. That won’t do at all. So now we have ourselves a second interim title fight within a seven-month period. Let’s look at the positives though: Rockhold vs Romero is a great fight. This is just as exciting a fight as Rockhold/Whittaker.
But it’s hard to ignore that big, grey 185-pound cloud hanging over it. Whittaker is young, and there’s no doubt he’ll be back to defend that belt. It’s a shame all this happened within a two-year period, but I think it’s important to enjoy the chaos sometimes, especially in a sport where people are trying to split each other’s brains open.
Images courtesy of heraldsun.com.au, bbc.co.uk & coachmag.co.uk