Opinion: Mixed Feelings for the Middleweight Division

By Eric Stinton Dec 11, 2017

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Of all the memes that MMA has given us, none is more perpetually useful than Nate Diaz’ classic line after he defeated Conor McGregor: “I’m not surprised, mother [expletives].” This was the precise feeling I and no doubt many others had when it was announced that Georges St. Pierre had vacated the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title. At 33 days, his championship reign would rank as the sixth shortest celebrity marriage, a comparative metric far more fitting than other UFC title runs.

St. Pierre’s decision to vacate the title caps a strange 18 months for the middleweight belt. The top of the division has been on a meandering journey ever since Michael Bisping knocked out Luke Rockhold in June 2016. That was bizarre enough on its own. It included what has got to be cleanest single punch of Bisping’s UFC career, and it was on short notice against a man who had thoroughly demolished him before. At that time, the middleweight division was the best it had ever been, with contenders like Yoel Romero, Ronaldo Souza, Robert Whittaker, Gegard Mousasi and the deposed Rockhold champing at the bit for a shot at the new champion.

Of course, none of them would receive that shot, as Bisping’s first title defense was against Dan Henderson, at the time ranked No. 13. Henderson was 46 years old on fight night and boasted a 4-6 record in his previous 10 bouts. Half of those six losses were first-round knockouts, and he had only won a single fight -- against aging non-contender Hector Lombard -- prior to being awarded the title shot against Bisping.

Needless to say, Henderson didn’t deserve the fight. Still, there was a rationale to the matchup: It was a rematch of one of the biggest events and one of the most iconic knockouts in MMA history, when Henderson clocked Bisping silly at UFC 100 in 2009. Plus, Bisping had long toiled in the upper-middle class of the middleweight ranks, so for him to get a favorable grudge match for his first title defense was a continuation of his improbable, feel-good championship run. The assumption was that it would be impossible to avoid one of the half-dozen worthy contenders after the “Hendo” detour.

Yet as the saying goes: “When man plans, the UFC brass laughs.” In March, it was announced that Bisping would be fighting St. Pierre for his second defense. Not only had St. Pierre been inactive for four years, but he had never fought at middleweight before and actively avoided the division -- or at least Anderson Silva -- when he was the welterweight champion. Months of back-and-forth between St. Pierre and Bisping transpired. A date and ultimatum were set. The bout was cancelled. Bisping was slated to fight Romero, but then he got injured. Finally, the two star-crossed veterans fought each other. Meanwhile, Mousasi left the UFC for Bellator MMA, Whittaker beat top contenders “Jacare” Souza and Romero en route to earning the interim title and Rockhold put himself back in the win column. All of them -- Whittaker, Mousasi, Rockhold, Souza and Romero -- would have been solid betting favorites against either Bisping or St. Pierre. Alas, all of them still had to wait.

It’s understandable why fans and fighters alike took umbrage with the UFC’s middleweight matchmaking. The division had finally developed legitimate competitive parity, and here it was with an unlikely champion defending his title against two fighters who were not even in the top 10. Worse yet, everyone seemed to know St. Pierre would want no part of the middleweight elite: “Mystic Luke” predicted it. I certainly understand the frustration surrounding the middleweight title, how underserving contenders were greenlit while deserving ones were shelved. Still, I can’t bring myself to be mad at the situation.

Let’s start with Bisping’s win over Rockhold. That was not only the “Upset of the Year” but a great culmination of a long career. Bisping had been near the top so many times and had never quite gotten over the hump. He was notable for taking pivotal losses against opponents who were permitted to use testosterone in the short-lived yet significant testosterone replacement therapy era. Even if you’re not a Bisping fan, it was hard not to be happy for him in that moment; the Rockhold win will likely go down as his career-defining moment. The Henderson rematch was on the “Fight of the Year” shortlist. It was an exciting, back-and-forth brawl that nearly saw Bisping get KO’d twice. The fight against St. Pierre, too, was sensational. Say what you want about the legitimacy of those bouts, but there is no questioning how entertaining they were.

St. Pierre’s motivation to vacate the title was probably some mix of genteel and cowardly, but it was still the right decision. It officially ended the strange chapter of the middleweight championship. On top of that, we have a hell of a fight between Whittaker and Rockhold to look forward to now, MMA gods permitting. Pity the fate of Souza and Romero, who likely missed out on the life-changing opportunity to fight for a UFC title, but Whittaker made himself the undisputed champ by defeating them on his way up anyway. The middleweight division is still in tact despite its lengthy meandering off the path of meritocracy.

This is all a silver lining, and I do not look forward to the next time the UFC decides to take a similar route with another division. We’re looking at you, lightweight. The UFC took a risk with its middleweight matchmaking, but the gamble paid off. The last 18 months of the division were deliriously entertaining, and now we’re back to the pragmatic brilliance of elite fighters competing for the crown. What’s there to be upset about?

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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