Navigating the UFC middleweight logjam

UFC middleweight logjam

When Michael Bisping and Georges St. Pierre meet in the Octagon at UFC 217, at the iconic Madison Square Garden, it will mark a nearly two year period since a legitimate number one contender will have fought for the UFC middleweight championship.

The last time this occurred was in December 2015 at UFC 194. On that night challenger Luke Rockhold (T)KO’d then-champion Chris Weidman in the fourth round. An immediate rematch was slated for UFC 199 six months later, but fate intervened.

Weidman was forced to withdraw with a neck injury, and Bisping–a perennial contender who never quite did enough to warrant a title shot–filled his spot. On that night he earned a stunning first round KO victory, and threw one of the promotion’s centerpiece divisions into chaos.

The UFC has squandered the talent-rich middleweight division.

Since then, Bisping has managed to defend his belt only once, besting the ageing Dan Henderson–who had won only three of his last nine fights, and had been finished in four of the six losses–in an exciting and albeit controversial decision at UFC 204. Over the ensuing eight months, no less than four championship fights involving Bisping have been announced. First against then number one contender Yoel Romero after he KO’d Chris Weidman at UFC 205. Then former welterweight champion St. Pierre, who announced his return to competition in March. After that it was current middleweight interim champion Robert Whittaker, who defeated Romero at UFC 213, and now back to GSP.

In a sport notorious for its unpredictability inside the cage, the UFC’s matchmaking has served as an additional source of angst for the middleweight elite. Number six ranked Gegard Moussasi, fresh off of stoppage victories over former champions Vitor Belfort and Weidman, voted with his feet in July. Signing with rival promotion Bellator, and lobbing criticisms at the UFC’s Reebok sponsorship deal and its entertainment-centric approach to matchmaking on his way out.

Former champions Rockhold and Weidman have struck a similarly derisory tone. When questioned about the UFC’s matchmaking, the former going as far as to suggest the middleweight division should go on strike to protest the promotion’s disregard for the meritocracy.

Navigating the UFC middleweight logjam

It is easy to understand their anger. The biggest pay checks in this sport are those cashed by titleholders, and although there are exceptions to the rule, for the vast majority of fighters a championship is synonymous with a degree of financial security that eludes even the most persistent of contenders.

In the 14 months that Bisping has held the title, rightful challengers such as Jacare Souzza and Romero have seen their opportunity to fight for the undisputed championship dissipate by taking risky fights (both being felled by Whittaker). And even if the winner of GSP/Bisping emerges without serious injury, we’re still likely waiting until February or March 2018 for a unification bout. If Bisping wins, there’s also a very high chance (50-50 in the champ’s own words) that he retires with the belt. Making his 18-month reign even more anomalous and frustrating.

UFC middleweight logjam

In the meantime, the UFC may find it a hard sell to get other members of the top-five into the octagon. Although Rockhold reasserted his relevance in the division over the weekend, by stopping former World Series of Fighting middleweight and light heavyweight champion David Branch, he lost the first stanza and at one point it looked as though Branch might score the upset. In light of his palpable animosity towards the UFC, and his obsession with usurping GSP’s spot in November, its entirely possible he sits out and waits until a title shot, or an airtight title eliminator fight, is offered to him.

If Bisping wins, there’s also a very high chance that he retires with the belt.

That leaves Weidman (32 years old), Romero (40) and Jacare (37) left to bring some clarity to the weight class. Assuming none of the men retire, Jacare-Weidman is the most appealing match-up of the three men–since Romero has fought and beaten both men before, and recently has been floated by Jacare’s manager. But Weidman has been non-committal about staying at middleweight since his submission victory over Kelvin Gastelum in July, and may move up to 205 pounds if a clear path to the title doesn’t present itself.

In light of the shallowness afflicting many of the UFC’s other divisions, its apparent indifference to the health and integrity of the talent-rich 185 pound weight-class is reflective of a worrying trend in MMA’s premier promotion. And more evidence that the UFC’s long-game perspective on matchmaking departed the promotion when the Fertita’s did.

Whereas the heavyweight, light heavyweight, welterweight and women’s bantamweight divisions are starved of fresh or intriguing championship matches, the UFC has actively suppressed marketable contenders on legitimate winning streaks at middleweight for the solitary purpose of selling a few hundred thousand more PPVs at UFC 217.

The UFC has actively suppressed marketable contenders for the solitary purpose of selling a few hundred thousand more PPVs

It’s plausible that we’ll look back on this era as a short-lived experiment. The product of short-sited, McGregor-inspired profiteering that was corrected after fan backlash. It’s also possible that this is the new norm. With financial gains relegating champion belts to the status of marketing props.

Either way, the UFC have squandered what would have been the most exciting era in the history of the middleweight division. And no matter what happens between GSP and Bisping at UFC 217, that fact doesn’t change.

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