It all seemed so cut and dried just a few short months ago.
The UFC’s middleweight division had a distinct hierarchy, one which seemed likely to carry it through 2017 and into 2018.
Champion Michael Bisping had deftly worked his way around a deep pack of challengers, first defending his belt against Dan Henderson, then maneuvering into a bout with returning former welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre at a date to be determined.
Waiting impatiently for that scenario to play out were a pack of killers in former champion Luke Rockhold; former Strikeforce champs Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Gegard Mousasi; and Yoel Romero, who was on a long winning streak.
On the periphery were New Zealander Robert Whittaker, a nice enough fellow who no one seemed to be taking seriously enough, and former champion Chris Weidman, who was all but written off after three straight losses via finish.
Midway through the year, though, that divisional picture is as dated as a Tapout shirt.
Bisping vs. GSP is off; Whittaker is interim champion; Mousasi is out of the UFC entirely; Romero and Souza are coming off injuries; and Rockhold finally has a fight announced after a 14-month absence.
Weidman, meanwhile, is back from the dead after surviving a near-knockout at the end of the first round in his UFC on FOX 25 main event with Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday night before winning via submission in the third round. While that doesn’t exactly make him the top contender, it puts him higher in the mix than you’d think for a fighter who is 1-3 in his past four bouts, given the division’s rapidly shifting sands.
What should this all mean for the key players? A breakdown:
Whittaker: The UFC has issued so many interim titles in recent years, they almost seem like cheap props. But Whittaker’s gold represents the rare case where the fighter with the “interim” tag is the one most consider the division’s best fighter. Whittaker has won eight straight bouts, taking out Souza and Romero in his past two. In the latter, in one of the year’s best fights at UFC 213, Whittaker overcame a left leg injury and rallied over the final three rounds to edge Romero via decision and win the interim belt. Whittaker will be out awhile healing that leg injury, but a title unification match seems the logical option when he returns.
Rockhold: It’s been a rough stretch for Rockhold since his upset title loss to Bisping at UFC 199. Rockhold had to pull out of a scheduled November bout with Souza due to an undisclosed injury. He at one point called for fellow middleweights to go on strike until the UFC made Bisping defend the belt against a top contender, a notion which fizzled in a hurry. He’s finally signed to meet former World Series of Fighting champ David Branch in Pittsburgh in September, a bout for which no one clamored, but given how long he’s been out, at this point, it’s just as well.
Romero: At 40 years old, the former Olympic wrestling silver medalist from Cuba may have had his best shot slip by in the loss to Romero. Whittaker showed if you can defend his wrestling and withstand his striking assault, both of which are easier said than done, you can defeat him. Still, while the clock is ticking, it would be way too soon to write Romero off.
Souza: The world-class jiu-jitsu practitioner picked the worst time possible to have a terrible showing, as he put in a bad showing in getting finished by Whittaker in April, right after forgoing free agency and re-signing with the UFC. The 38-year-old has indicated he’d like to fight again before the year is out.
Mousasi: The decision to let Mousasi walk to Bellator was one that makes you wonder if the suits at WME really understand the product they purchased last summer. Mousasi has a worldwide following and was either the main event or co-feature in 11 of his 12 UFC fights. No, he wasn’t a Conor McGregor-level draw, but Mousasi was a top-shelf competitor with tremendous credibility among people who truly understand the sport. One gets the feeling the decision to let him walk was made by a WME accountant who wouldn’t have known an Americana from arugula.
This brings us back to Weidman and Bisping, whose futures may be more intertwined than they first appear. Weidman immediately made a beeline for Bisping after finishing Gastelum on Saturday night.
“I’m the champ,” Weidman said at the UFC on FOX 25 post-fight news conference. “I’m the best guy in the world, and I think people know that. And if Bisping grows some balls, that fight will happen. I know Whittaker just did a great job winning the interim belt, but I think he’s hurt, he’s got knee surgery. I’m available, I’m ready to go. We’ll see what happens.”
Under normal circumstances, someone who claimed to be the real champ after going 1-3 in his past four fights would be laughed out of town.
But these are no ordinary times. The UFC is casting around for sellable fights, to the point rumors of Ronda Rousey-Miesha Tate 3 (not happening) or a Brock Lesnar return (premature at best) popped up over the past couple weeks.
Bisping, who is currently mending a knee injury, is in the odd position of being a strong draw with the right opponent, and also one viewed as easy pickings by the contenders under him.
So fighters like Weidman have taken to baiting the combustable Bisping. Sunday, Bisping and Weidman went back-and-forth on Twitter in a string that got far too profane to link here.
Bisping vs. Weidman? It sounds crazy. But given that everything we thought we knew about the middleweight division six months ago went out the window, we shouldn’t be too quick to rule anything out.