It all seemed so simple.
Less than two years ago, the UFC middleweight title sure looked like it was going to stay around the waist of Luke Rockhold for a long time to come, with Chris Weidman serving as a transitional champ from one longtime titleholder in Anderson Silva to the next.
From there, well, you know what happened. Michael Bisping knocked out Rockhold in a staggering upset on a bizarre night in Inglewood, Calif., in June 2016.
Before the summer was out, the UFC would be sold by longtime owners Zuffa to WME/Endeavor. And since then, no division has exemplified the new era’s turbulence like middleweight, one which had it’s latest twists and turns at UFC 221 in Perth, where Yoel Romero missed weight, then delivered Rockhold his second brutal knockout in less than two years.
Let’s review, shall we? After winning the title, Bisping successfully campaigned to have his next defense against the then-46-year old Dan Henderson, who wasn’t on anyone’s short list for a title shot, and Bisping very nearly lost the title. Bisping next campaigned for a fight with Georges St-Pierre, then, when the fight didn’t come off after first being announced, decided it would be a good time for knee surgery.
That led to the creation of an interim middleweight belt, which Robert Whittaker won last July in a compelling fight with Romero. Then Bisping-GSP was made after all, and St-Pierre, coming up from welterweight after four years off, choked out Bisping to win the belt, then vacated it just as soon as he won it, leading Whittaker to be promoted to the full championship.
That’s just the very top of the division. Consider some of the other things that went down at 185 pounds during this time frame just one step below the title picture: Jacare Souza signed a new UFC deal after winning 10 of 11 fights and promptly got run over by Whittaker; Weidman ran his losing streak to three before righting the ship against Kelvin Gastelum; Gegard Mousasi was inexplicably allowed to walk to Bellator; and Silva seems hellbent on destroying his legacy with one embarrassment after another.
Rarely have we seen such a mess made out of such a certifiably deep and talent-rich class of athletes. So what went down in Perth, at first glance, appeared just the latest in the chain of events. Whittaker went through what sounded like a nasty string of illnesses. There’s no doubt he’s not pulling out of a title defense in Australia unless he absolutely had to. That led to the UFC leaning on their interim-title crutch again in making Romero-Rockhold, until Romero missed weight by 2.7 pounds and became ineligible to win the belt.
From champs ducking contenders to “money fights” to interim belts handed out like Halloween candy to USADA failures to leading contenders cut loose, the middleweight division has been a microcosm of the UFC’s struggles.
But there’s at least a light at the end of this tunnel. This time, the bedlam somehow led to the right fight.
If you can forgive Romero for missing weight on short-notice for the first time in his career, a rematch with Whittaker is one of the most compelling fights you can make in any division. Their UFC 213 fight was a slow-burner of a thriller, with Romero starting fast and Whittaker taking the final three rounds. Romero’s performance on Saturday, in which he conserved his energy and attacked like a mother lion protecting her cubs in the third, shows that he’s learned the right lessons from the loss, his only one in his past 10 fights.
After all the histrionics, we’re back at No. 1 vs. No. 2 for the championship. And if we can still land there in this era, maybe there’s still hope for this sport after all.
UFC 221 quotes
“Yes, I think in the first round I took two kicks and I’m pretty sure that it broke my leg.” -- Romero. It was later discovered Romero did not break his leg and should be ready to fight Whittaker by the summer.
“Respect to Yoel that man is made of steel.” -- Rockhold, via Twitter
Down: Luke Rockhold When Rockhold’s on, there are few more magnificent fighters in this sport. When he’s off, which isn’t often, the results have been ugly. Saturday night marked the second time in less than two years that Rockhold didn’t quite look himself from the jump, and the second time he was on the wrong end of an absolutely vicious knockout. Rockhold didn’t seem to gain much humility after losing the middleweight belt to Michael Bisping. An attitude adjustment seems absolutely necessary if he’s going to stop this from becoming a pattern.
Up: Israel Adesanya The kickboxing phenom from New Zealand, by way of Nigeria, made quite a splash in his UFC debut. Adesanya, who has 50 kickboxing wins under his belt, picked apart Rob Wilkinson with a second-round TKO to up his MMA record to 12-0, then called out the UFC middleweight division in an A+ postfight interview. The WME-era UFC has shown a tendency to throw promising newcomers to the wolves. Let’s hope they get this one right: Slowly increase his level of competition against an array of different styles, build him up on the card, get him out in front of the media, and put him in a big fight when the time is right.
Down: Mark Hunt Look, Hunt has his mind made up, and he’s going to fight as long as he gets paid. That’s his choice to make. But Hunt is going to turn 44 next month, and age quite simply showed in his loss to Curtis Blaydes. Blaydes rolled with things and kept his composure during the sort of flurry in which a younger Hunt would usually finish someone off. At this stage, with as many knockout losses between MMA and kickboxing, it’s not going to get better. One gets the feeling a few years down the road we’re going to see him either as the next generation of Bellator legends fighters or on New Year’s Eve in Japan. In the meantime, if he stays on the UFC roster, it’s time to stop matching him against real contenders and find a fun fight or two instead.
Up: Curtis Blaydes All that said about Hunt, let’s not take away from a workmanlike performance from a fighter who should no longer be under the radar. Since losing his UFC debut to Francis Ngannou, the Elevation competitor is 4-0 with a no-contest (a win overturned due to retrograde marijuana rules). The one-sided win over Hunt was a smart fight, even if it didn’t please the crowd in Perth. The Chicago native is looking for a step up in competition and it’s a jump that he’s earned.
Up: Jussier Formiga This was the performance we’ve long waited to see out of the 32-year-old Brazilian, who has been in the UFC since 2012 and always seemed to be one step short of real flyweight title contention. Formiga dropped Ben Nguyen with a spinning backfist in the third round of their fight, then put him out with a rear-naked choke. That earned Formiga a Performance of the Night bonus. It also gave him two straight submission wins and three victories in his last four outings. With the division all but begging for a fresh challenger to Demetrious Johnson, perhaps this will be the year Formiga finally breaks through.
We’ve rarely seen a more flagrant foul in a fight than the move Li Jingliang used on Jake Matthews in their welterweight matchup. Matthews had a guillotine choke on Jingliang, and the latter used a blatant eye gouge to open a deep cut on the corner of his eye and break the hold. The move could have been grounds for a disqualification, and at the very least should have been a point deduction. But referee Mark Smith simply brushed Jingliang’s hand out of the way and warned him.
Continuing with the weirdness, the UFC then decided to awarded Matthews-Jingliang Fight of the Night, which means the Beijing native takes home an extra $50,000. The message this sends is that not only will the referees let you get away with an egregious, dangerous foul, but the company will reward you for it. That’s a terrible precedent. The UFC should have scrapped Fight of the Night, given all Performance of the Night awards, handed one to Matthews, and slotted another for someone who didn’t try to rip someone’s eye out.
If you didn’t see round-by-round scores from Saturday night’s fights, it’s for a reason: The Western Australia Combat Sports Commission doesn’t release either the names of their judges nor round scoring, simply announcing the full fight scores. If the UFC ever returns to WA, this needs to be addressed. Fighters -- and the public -- deserve full clarity on how the bouts are scored. And judges need to be accountable for the scores they attach to fights. It’s amazing this is something that needs to be explained in 2018.
Fight I’d like to see next: Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero
Did Romero miss weight? Yes, he did. He’s also won nine of his past 10 fights, and the only loss in that span was in a close and exciting five-round bout with Whittaker last year.
Considering the state of the rest of the division: Rockhold suffering a bad knockout, and a slew of fighters from Jacare Souza to Kelvin Gastelum to Chris Weidman all seeming to need at least one more win, Romero’s got the best case for a title shot right now. He’s never missed weight before this bout, and did we mention the first Whittaker-Romero fight was pretty great?
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