Once upon a time, in a sport all-too-often muddled by interim and vacated belts, the UFC’s middleweight title scene was one of the staunchest in the land. From the time he obliterated Rich Franklin in 2006, Anderson Silva was the division’s undisputed king.
Fast forward to 2013, and Chris Weidman becomes the new ruler. Two years later, he loses that crown to Luke Rockhold. Six months later, Rockhold gets knocked out by Michael Bisping. Fluke? Overconfidence? Whatever the case, Bisping won the title fair and square.
After that? Well, in the year and change that Bisping held the strap, the rightful contenders circled around him while he busied himself with a title defense against the ancient Dan Henderson. Following that, he dealt with a knee injury before signing to fight the returning Georges St-Pierre. The former welterweight champ leapfrogged the rest of the queue in the process.
In a surprise twist, GSP ended up winning the belt. Though he hardly deserved the shot in the first place, he still beat the rightful champ. Great. And then...he vacated the belt. So much for that.
In his wake were the rightful contenders, left without a belt to fight for. The UFC looked to fix the mess fast and booked then-interim champ Robert Whittaker and Rockhold into a title fight at UFC 221 in Perth, Australia. Then Whittaker fell ill, and was replaced by Yoel Romero. The Rockhold–Romero fight, which Romero just won, was for the interim belt. Whittaker, meanwhile, holds the real belt while he heals up. Oh, but did we mention that Romero came into the fight overweight? So Romero didn’t actually win the interim belt against Rockhold, and it taints what should be a guaranteed title shot.
Yes, it would seem that we’re now nowhere near closer to settling this mess. To Romero’s credit, he executed his gameplan against Rockhold to a tee. The Cuban wrestler predicted Rockhold’s tendency to back straight up when pressured, and lulled him into fighting a slow rhythm. He attacked the body to distract Rockhold’s attention, before exploding over the top to finish matters in the third round.
So what now? Whittaker still has the strongest claim of the bunch for the top spot. Should he have a rematch against Romero to unify the belt? It’s a tough sell considering Romero missed weight for this fight. It's safe to guess that Romero and Rockhold will both face off against either Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza or Weidman (both of whom are coming off big wins against top contenders) for a shot at Whittaker.
It’s not ideal, considering it would mean more shelf time for Whittaker, but it could go a long way towards settling all of this. Take note, though, that Romero was carried out of the cage due to what looked like a leg injury, so he might be out for a while too. However, the UFC mentioned during the post-fight press conference that Romero missing weight shouldn’t play a factor in future matchmaking.
“Rockhold is a very good fighter, former UFC champion and Strikeforce champion, and I’m very happy that I fought the best in my division. I trained very hard for this fight. We worked very hard in sparring and on the power that Luke has,” Romero said after the fight.
Weidman, who was in Perth as a guest fighter, also chimed in on the title scene. “As far as who should fight Whittaker? I don’t know, I think I should,” the former champ said, arguing the strength of his recent finish of Gastelum. Weidman is also currently nursing an injury to his left thumb.
On the plus side, what was derided as a lackluster card turned out to be pretty entertaining during the main card. Local guys Tyson Pedro and Tai Tuivasa delivered impressive finishes, while Jake Matthews delivered a Fight of the Night-worthy performance. The crowd, which amounted to 12,437, was very much into the action.