Promotion officials ultimately settled on Michael Bisping as a replacement to fight Rockhold, though the British veteran wasn't the UFC's first choice. That honor went to Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, a top-ranked middleweight contender who turned down the opportunity after learning that a meniscus injury sustained during his UFC 198 win over Vitor Belfort was worse than initially believed.
However title shots can be an elusive commodity in the UFC -- this is Bisping's first chance at gold after a decade spent in the promotion -- and retired UFC contender Chael Sonnen isn't sure if Souza made the right decision by passing his chance at the belt to the next man in line.
"I don't like it," Sonnen said Monday on The MMA Hour. "Man, I don't like it. Everybody says they want these opportunities.
"[Souza] is great. I would never make believe that he's not. But the bottom line is, the word is ‘yes.' If you want an opportunity in America, when one comes, you need to know one word and that is ‘yes.' The difference between Michael Bisping and everybody else is one word: ‘yes.' When the opportunity came, that's what he said. ‘Jacare' is hurt? Look, fine, I'm sure he is hurt after that long, drawn-out war he just had with Vitor. You think Michael Bisping isn't hurt? Of course he's hurt. Whether he advertising it or not, he goes in and fights men everyday. There's no way to not be hurt. Who gives a damn if you're hurt, man? You're either a tough guy or you aren't."
Souza was the UFC's assumed No. 1 middleweight contender after dispatching Belfort inside a round with a flawless performance on May 14 at UFC 198. The quick victory pushed Souza's combined Strikeforce/UFC record to a spectacular 13-2, but left the Brazilian more damaged than initially expected.
Souza ended up undergoing surgery to repair his torn meniscus, while Bisping lobbied vigorously on social media for the shot at Rockhold, even with the knowledge that he would be underprepared and undertrained for a five-round fight.
"That's what this is really about," Sonnen said. "We're not worried about who the best fighter is. There's no way to know. It's too speculative. All we're trying to find out is who is the toughest guy in the world, at this weight class, in this set of rules, on this specific day. If you come forward and you go, ‘I can't even make the walk, I'm not even tough enough to make the walk,' fair enough, but you're now out of the conversation. They should take you out of the rankings.
"You can't hold the No. 3 spot in the world when you're openly telling everybody, ‘man, I'm not even tough enough to walk out there and try.' Fair enough. People get hurt, I get it. But you're now not that guy. If you were a true tough guy, you shut your mouth and you make the freaking walk, and it's as simple as that. The chips fall where the chips fall. But Michael Bisping, for nothing else, is a tough guy and he said yes."
Bisping has already been installed as an overwhelming underdog at UFC 199 by Las Vegas oddsmakers, though the fight carries its own unique threads of interest.
Bisping and Rockhold met once before, back in 2014, in a contest that Bisping loss via second-round submission after sustaining a nasty cut from a headbutt in the opening round. Bisping has lamented the outcome of that fight ever since, and now rides into the June 4 rematch carrying the momentum of the best win of his career -- a career-defining victory over Anderson Silva.
After everything Bisping has gone through in his up-and-down UFC journey, stunning the world one more time against Rockhold would make for the type of storybook ending that only a few years ago looked impossible.
"Man, I would love to see it," Sonnen said. "Here's the thing, let me tell you this though, because this is true and this is relevant. If you go watch their first match, Rockhold and Bisping, I get it, Rockhold finished him. He had the choke. I get it. But if you go back and you watch that fight, until that last sequence, it was very competitive. I'm not one of them, but some people even thought that Bisping won the first round. I don't agree, but some people thought that. Bisping never makes excuses. He is a legitimate tough guy. For nothing else, he is a legitimate tough guy. Bisping quietly did say, look, that fight, he headbutted me and that fight changed.
"Even Bisping's demeanor after that fight wasn't the same. It was as though he had a concussion or something. Everything got weird. Go back and watch the tape -- there was a headbutt, it was brutal, and it changed the fight, and Rockhold said as much too. So I think there is some interest there and there's also something to be said for momentum. Bisping coming back and dealing with the adversity and beating Anderson, particularly the way he did, getting knocked out and coming back -- I was very impressed by that."