So there you have it. After one solitary month, Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder Georges St. Pierre is no more, relinquishing the belt he won at UFC 217 and elevating interim titlist Robert Whittaker to the position of undisputed champion. GSP now holds records for the second longest title reign ever (2,064 days), which he achieved at welterweight from 2008 to 2013, and the shortest ever title reign, with 33 days at middleweight.
Surprised? UFC President Dana White isn’t. For all the BS White spewed about Whittaker being “next in line” for GSP should he emerge with the title, he admitted last week that he “expected” St. Pierre to vacate rather than defend his belt against the murderer’s row of contenders at 185 pounds.
What does that mean? Effectively, that the 185-pound weight class was put on hold for 18 months for no other reason than for the UFC to make a boatload of cash in GSP’s return bout. Never mind that the logjam drove at least one top-five middleweight to another organization; or that it devalued the middleweight belt to the point where it was little more than a stage prop rather than a symbol demarcating its holder as the undisputed best fighter of the weight class; or that it completely screwed over one of the most promising stars of the WME-era in Australia’s “Bobby Knuckles.”
Let’s start with the most basic, irrefutable point: Whittaker missed out on the opportunity to fight for the lineal middleweight title, which he earned by defeating the No. 1 contender in July. Regardless of whether many hardcore fans and much of the UFC’s roster regarded him as the “true champion” after that, the reality is that just like Union Cane in “Rocky V,” Whitaker was awarded the middleweight title without having to fight the incumbent champion. The majority of the casual fans that tuned in to UFC 217 likely didn’t know or care about Whittaker’s upgrade, and in a sport where notoriety is every bit as important as one’s in-cage performance, that will hurt his earning potential and legacy going forward.
Whittaker’s paper champ status would be more forgivable if the UFC didn’t make him fight through the cream of the crop at middleweight and then promise him a unification bout on live TV, only to pull the carpet out from under him in favor of GSP. Although White would later claim the Bisping-St. Pierre fight was only possible because Whittaker injured his knee at UFC 213, the Sydney-based fighter would contradict that line time and again, asserting he was never offered the fight and if he had been, he probably could have made it to Madison Square Garden in November.
GSP, a career welterweight who never once competed at 185 pounds, got to have the undisputed middleweight crown wrapped around his waist in one of sport’s most iconic arenas. Meanwhile, Whittaker, the company man who fought all the contenders that Bisping assiduously avoided, was promoted to champion via a press release. The UFC knowingly robbed him of his moment to gain that title legitimately and of Australia’s moment to celebrate its first UFC champion.
That’s where this whole ordeal becomes all the more infuriating and illogical. Australia is a relatively promising market for the UFC, and Whittaker is one of the sport’s most promising athletes, ironically possessing many of the traits that propelled GSP into superstardom. With a soft-spoken demeanor, consummate professionalism and a devastating standup game, he has all the potential to court casual fans and rejuvenate Australia’s regional MMA scene. It would have made economic sense for the UFC to play the long game with the 26-year-old Whittaker. Instead, the UFC put its eggs in the basket of an aging superstar who will quite possibly never compete in the Octagon again, all for a single payday that will become irrelevant when WME’s next financial quarter rolls around.
For a promotion that recently flirted with giving fringe lightweight contender Nate Diaz a title shot against welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, none of this should necessarily come as a surprise. Merit has never meant less in 2017’s UFC, and until WME puts a dent in the astronomical debt it acquired when purchasing the promotion, it is likely that decisions will continue to be dictated solely by short-term financial returns.
Make no mistake, there is a tax to be paid for continually misleading the MMA fan base and its fighters and undermining the competitive architectures that made this company so successful. Proverbial “money fights” like Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor and GSP-Bisping may attract high buyrates, but these proceeds are eclipsed by the long-term damage they’ve inflicted on the UFC’s lightweight and middleweight divisions and do little to build interest in the sport more generally. Tellingly, over the same period as both these contests, the UFC’s ratings for its smaller shows have steadily declined, and reports indicate the company is struggling to find a new television partner to succeed Fox Sports.
Let’s hope these realities are enough to convince the UFC to reconsider its current approach before it’s too late. The Robert Whittakers of this sport don’t grow on trees, and it’s only a matter of time before they realize they deserve better.
Jacob is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been a mixed martial arts fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and Boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.