mma / Columns

UFC’s Middleweight Division Finally Returns to Normalcy

February 12, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Michael Bisping

You could say that the UFC middleweight division’s extended hangover began when Michael Bisping shocked Luke Rockhold with a left hook in June 2016. That moment had an enormous impact on the division and immediately thrust it into a state of flux, but it is not quite the beginning of the story.

On the night of December 12, 2015, just ten of minutes before Luke Rockhold would bludgeon Chris Weidman to take the middleweight championship, the next challenger for the title was to be decided in a bout between Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.

Romero nearly finished Souza in the first round, but the fight went on and Souza surged as Romero faded. After fifteen minutes, most unofficial observers had scored the fight for Souza, as did Lester Griffin, one of the bouts three official judges. The other two judges that mattered, Glenn Trowbridge and Tony Weeks, each scored the key second round for Romero, thereby giving him the win on their scorecards.

Exactly one month later, the United States Anti-Doping Association informed Romero of a potential anti-doping violation from an out-of-competition test. At that time, the UFC had yet to decide whether Romero would get the first crack at Rockhold, or if Weidman would receive an immediate rematch. However, there is a strong chance the opportunity would have gone to Romero, who later accepted a six-month suspension for ingesting a tainted supplement, keeping him out of commission until July 12, 2016.

Because two judges favored Yoel Romero on December 12, 2015, by January 13, 2016, the UFC’s best option to challenge Luke Rockhold was Chris Weidman. (Jacare Souza kept busy by defeating Vitor Belfort in May, one month before Rockhold and Weidman were to rematch.) Eighteen days before the rematch, Weidman withdrew from the fight with an injury. With Souza recuperating from an injury suffered in his May bout, in stepped Michael Bisping, the unlikely champion who veered the division off course.

And so it is only fitting that twenty months after Bisping sent the middleweights on the oddest of divisional journeys, it was Romero, after a strange set of circumstances, that returned the UFC middleweight division to normalcy.

Romero knocked out Luke Rockhold in the main event of UFC 221 Sunday afternoon in Australia to end the madness. Just as the UFC upgraded Robert Whittaker from interim to undisputed middleweight champion, he fell to an injury and withdrew from his bout with Rockhold. Romero stepped in, and because the UFC believes they need to headline every pay-per-view card with a title fight (unless it features a major superstar), they created another interim belt for Romero and Rockhold to battle over.

The day before the fight, Romero came in overweight, making it a half-title fight: only Rockhold could win the belt the UFC made up a month earlier.

After two close rounds, Romero crushed Rockhold with two left hands. Now there is only one middleweight champion—Whittaker—with one established top contender—Romero.

Bisping’s championship win twenty months ago didn’t have to set the division so far off course. Rather than booking the top contender (Romero) to challenge Bisping in October 2016, the UFC selected Dan Henderson. Although Henderson far from deserved the shot—he was outside the top ten of UFC’s own rankings, and hadn’t won consecutive bouts in five years—it had some sense to the selection. It was a fun fight with an excellent story: Henderson, then 46 and entering the final fight of his career, had never won a UFC championship, but had handed Bisping the most devastating defeat of his career.

The UFC didn’t expect a knee injury to keep Bisping out of competition for more than a year. Early in 2017, the promotion announced that Bisping would defend his championship against returning former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. When it became clear the fight wouldn’t take place as soon as they hoped, the UFC backtracked and cancelled plans for the fight.

In July 2017, the UFC introduced an interim middleweight championship for top contenders Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero to fight over. Whittaker won, but by the end of the month, the UFC had its sights set on Bisping vs. St-Pierre again. The fight was too lucrative to pass up, and both fighters pushed for the fight.

In November, St-Pierre bested Bisping. The following month, he relinquished the title, citing an uncertain future due to ulcerative colitis. The UFC immediately promoted Whittaker to undisputed champion.

It took twenty months for the UFC middleweight division to return to form. It will likely take longer for fans to view the championship in the same light.

Although it is borderline indefensible to place anyone in the division above Whittaker, he was never afforded the opportunity of challenging Bisping or St-Pierre’s claim to the title. This is not to say Whittaker is an invalid champion, but rather he was never able to showcase his abilities against one of two big stars. Instead, he showcased his abilities on a low-purchased pay-per-view against Romero. This has invariably hurt Whittaker’s star power, which will have a ripple effect at the top of the middleweight division for the near future.

When viewed in isolation, Bisping vs. Henderson and Bisping vs. St-Pierre were the correct choices for the UFC to make. However, perhaps when we see reports of returns for the next few middleweight championship bouts, we will conclude that there were alternative solutions at those times that would have benefitted the UFC in the short-term without handicapping the near future of the middleweight championship.

For now, the division appears back to normal, but there is still some healing to be done.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.