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During Anderson Silva’s dominant reign, middleweight became one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s marquee divisions. His title defenses against the likes of Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort not only showcased Silva’s dynamic skills but also drew some of the UFC’s largest pay-per-view audiences. When the fighter who is generally believed to be the pound-for-pound best holds a title, it gives that championship a special cache and aura.
After Silva dropped his belt to Chris Weidman, it retained its prestige. Weidman became a star in his own right and his title defenses all drew well on pay-per-view. It’s a testament to what the UFC thought of Weidman’s stature that he got top billing over Ronda Rousey twice. In addition, without Silva dominating the competition, the division added depth. A group of intriguing title challengers rose up in Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero, Ronaldo Souza and Gegard Mousasi. When Rockhold won the title from Weidman, the future of the division looked bright. Unfortunately, things quickly turned from there.
Michael Bisping upsetting Rockhold for the middleweight title at UFC 199 initially appeared to be a positive development all around for the 185-pound division. Bisping is a big name with a big personality, and there were plenty of exciting title defenses for him. It also made for a wonderful story. Bisping had worked so hard over the years for his elusive title shot, but after a series of critical setbacks, it appeared that he was never going to get it. When Bisping received the shot on short notice because of an injury to Weidman in a scheduled rematch with Rockhold, most counted him out. The heavy underdog coming through with a shocking knockout upset made the story even better.
When it came time for Bisping to make his first title defense, there were plenty of quality options. Romero, the Olympic silver medalist with scary knockout power, was by that point 7-0 in the UFC. Former champions Rockhold and Bisping both had claims to another shot at UFC gold. Instead, the UFC went off the board and gave Dan Henderson the first title shot. Henderson is a legend in the sport worthy of respect, but at 3-6 in his previous nine fights, the 46 years old wasn’t even a fringe title contender at the time. Bisping-Henderson 2 was little more than a marketing gimmick because of their famous first fight at UFC 100. It’s understandable why Bisping would like the fight, but the UFC cheapened the championship in making it.
The irony is that despite that bout being essentially an attempted cash grab by the UFC, the Bisping-Henderson rematch drew the lowest buy rate for a middleweight title defense since Rich Franklin-Nate Quarry 11 years before at UFC 56. The UFC advertised that the championship was basically just a prop, and fans picked up on that lesson. Real contenders were put on the backburner, and it didn’t even result in a short-term return.
With Bisping suffering from significant injuries, the top challengers had to wait even longer for their title shots after the Henderson fight. At that point, Georges St. Pierre made it clear he wanted to return to the UFC. Bisping wanted the fight with St. Pierre -- and fought for it -- because it would mean the biggest paycheck of his career by far. St. Pierre was dealing with an injury of his own, so the championship continued to be on hold for over a year.
St. Pierre returning to welterweight always made much more sense than a comeback at middleweight. St. Pierre is the greatest welterweight champion in the history of the sport, and he vacated that title. A return to fight for the title he never lost made for a better story, and it would have provided closure to the loose end created when he left without losing the title. Tyron Woodley would have made a natural adversary for St. Pierre, and there’s a good chance it would have drawn better than the Bisping fight, even if “The Count” is the bigger star.
Instead of returning at welterweight, St. Pierre took a title fight in a division for which he was too small because he specifically wanted Bisping. It was sold as a grudge fight, just like when St. Pierre lobbied for a title defense against Nick Diaz. In each instance, St. Pierre made it clear after the fights that in fact he liked his opponent. The UFC was skeptical he would defend the title if he won, and that proved true as St. Pierre never did defend it. The UFC got its big buy rate, while St. Pierre and Bisping got their paydays. It’s the fighters in the middleweight division who ended up the real losers.
It’s striking what low standards now exist for doing the right thing by one’s fellow fighters after Conor McGregor held multiple divisions hostage for years on end. St. Pierre was congratulated in some circles for his decision to vacate the title right after winning it. Apparently, moving into a division in which you’ve never competed before, jumping everyone in line for a title shot and then vacating that championship without ever defending it is a classy thing to do so long as you do it in a timely manner. That way, other fighters can compete more quickly for a severely diminished title that just lost its direct lineage to the great champions of the past.
The breaking of the title lineage is particularly notable in the middleweight division. Not only did St. Pierre break the lineage of the championship he just won, but he broke the lineage of arguably the greatest championship run in the history of the UFC. The UFC middleweight title no longer ties directly back to Silva, just like the UFC welterweight title doesn’t tie back directly to St. Pierre’s historic run. No one can fairly fault St. Pierre for giving up that crown after defending it proudly and impressively for over five years. This middleweight title situation is something else entirely.
More important than that lineage is the message this whole episode sent to casual UFC fans. For those of us who follow the sport religiously, it’s not nearly such a big deal. We know how good Rockhold and Robert Whittaker are at 185 pounds. The best are fighting the best, and the chaos of the past few years is over. Unfortunately, in the current environment, where the biggest UFC pay-per-views do over five times the business of the rank and file, recognition of greatness among hardcore fans doesn’t mean much when it comes to a fighter’s purse and a division’s credibility.
The fans who tuned in for UFC 217, far and away the biggest MMA event of the year, were provided quite the lesson about the middleweight title. How important can it be if the best fighters don’t get a shot at it for years on end and the biggest star to hit the division was content to give it up in a matter of weeks without defending it? The middleweight title was treated as a gimmick to sell a fight, and when the gimmick was used, the prop was tossed aside. That’s how boxers treat the alphabet soup titles in that sport, and now those titles are worthless.
UFC titles, once quite meaningful, have slowly and sadly traveled down that road through the handing of title shots to unworthy challengers, the frequent creation of interim titles as gimmicks and the proliferation of weight classes. The recent treatment of the middleweight division has been a microcosm of that broader trend. No matter how talented the elite of the middleweight division might be, it’s going to be a struggle for some time to convince casual fans of that, through no fault of their own. That’s a real shame.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.