For nearly all of 2017, the UFC middleweight division was a weight class in limbo.
With Michael Bisping recovering from an injury and Georges St-Pierre angling for a surprise title shot, the conversation surrounding the 185-pound ranks was a maddening one for many of the division’s best fighters — some of whom, like ex-champion Luke Rockhold, publicly called for a matchmaking protest until the UFC offered clarity regarding the situation.
That much-needed clarity finally arrived in the second half of the year, when Robert Whittaker outpointed Yoel Romero to capture the interim middleweight title, then St-Pierre submitted Bisping to capture the division’s other belt. Within weeks of his victory, St-Pierre restored order to the weight class by vacating his middleweight strap, which allowed the UFC to quickly promote Whittaker as its new undisputed champion. But for the 27-year-old man they call “Bobby Knuckles,” the decision was nothing more than a formality.
After dispatching several of middleweight’s fiercest monsters like Romero and Ronaldo Souza on his path to the belt, Whittaker already knew he was the undisputed 185-pound king.
“I felt like the champion well before they came out and said it,” Whittaker said this week on The MMA Hour. “I think a lot of the middleweight division considered me the champion well before they came out and said it. The middleweight division was in a funny spot for a long time, with just the way things were panning out, who was fighting who, all these fighters that were coming out of left field. Like, there were matchups — they’re all funny, let’s just say they’re funny.
“And in my opinion, the rankings and the division, the way it should work is you have your champ, you have your No. 1, your No. 2, and the champ fights one, two fights one, three fights two, and you work your way up like that. And I just feel like, with Georges getting in there and proving to everyone the caliber of fighter he is, and that he can still get in there and do what he’s supposed to do, and the belt coming to me after I fought my way through some tough guys, the best in the division — I feel this is like a return to normalcy.”
That normalcy was, of course, short-lived. The interim middleweight strap returned in short order when Whittaker was forced to withdraw from his first title defense at UFC 221. Now, Rockhold and Romero are scheduled to vie for the interim belt on Feb. 11 in Perth, Australia.
But even the current situation is more sensible than the situation the division found itself dealing with for most of 2017, when, throughout the lead-up to St. Pierre vs. Bisping, UFC president Dana White swore up and down that St-Pierre — a lifelong welterweight — would defend his middleweight title against Whittaker if St-Pierre defeated Bisping.
That would’ve meant a blockbuster opportunity for Whittaker, as St-Pierre is one of the biggest draws in the history of the sport, but it never came to fruition. And speaking ahead of UFC 221, Whittaker admitted that he always had a feeling things would play out this way.
“I was split,” Whittaker said. “It was hard. I thought maybe if we fought in Montreal, we get a big pay-per-view, [St-Pierre] may want to fight me, because realistically, he doesn’t have too much to lose with that fight. But, yeah, there was always that part of me that thought, ‘No, there’s no way he’s going to take that fight with me.’ It’s a hard fight for anyone on any given day. And like he showed and he said, it’s not his division. He’s not built for the division the way that I am or other middleweights are, so it was hard for him to get up to the weight and to utilize that weight properly.
“I always knew there was a very big chance he was just going to take off and not fight,” Whittaker added. “I was just hoping he wouldn’t take another fight on the sidelines and just hold up the division once again.”
Just as Whittaker hoped, St-Pierre ultimately did the middleweight division a favor by making his decision to vacate the title so quickly.
And so it went that on a random day in December, far from the bright lights of the Octagon, Whittaker finally became the official UFC middleweight champion.
“We were driving up to like an altitude training sort of thing and I just got a phone call, manager goes, ‘Congratulations, you’re the champ now.’ And I was like, ‘…yeah!’” Whittaker said, laughing. “It was just pretty low-key and it is what it is.
“For celebrating, we went out and did about four sessions at altitude.”