Rearview Mirror: The Middleweight Plot Was the Worst - But It Wrote The Best Character Arc of 2017
It would have felt strange to write this halfway through the year but today it's a whole different story. The UFC Middleweight quagmire of 2017 wasn't all that bad.
It was a frustrating time for fans of the middle-est weight division (or slightly-right-of-middle-weight - how can there be a middle weight with eight division!?!?!). A traffic jam at the top led to many frustrating stop-and-start narratives, fights that never came to be, and the second most cynical match up of the year. To steal pro wrestling terminology, the division could not get over.
It all began the year before in 2016 when Michael Bisping captured the MW belt from Luke Rockhold. Lucky punch or not (not - Rockhold made a mistake and Bisping caught him. End of story), Bisping's reign was a controversial one. It felt like every day around his waist devalued the belt. Regardless of the obvious- that titles in this current landscape carry less meaning anyways and are more promotional playthings – the MW division certainly suffered. The fan base largely resisted any push by the UFC to hype a Bisping and Dan Henderson rematch. Casual fans were left unaffected, as well, with the grudge match of all time selling a mere 290,000 PPV buys. It felt like things couldn’t get worse. Then they did.
Early in 2017, Georges St. Pierre, the gentleman’s MMA fighter, announced his return to the game. What was supposed to be a triumphant return was marred by controversy. GSP - the respected, gentleman of MMA - dropped himself into the muck, choosing to leapfrog a handful of contenders for an immediate payd- er, title shot at Bisping. When the fight was announced, there was no contract signed. When the two fighters squared off in a press conference in March, there was no contract. By the beginning of the summer, the fight had fallen apart but by the end of the summer, like Humpty Dumpty, it had pieced itself back together again. All the while, contenders like Jacare Souza, Yoel Romero, Luke Rockhold, and Chris Weidman were forced to take other fights or sit on their hands. GSP firmly put the brakes on the division.
Fans were none-too-pleased. It felt like the UFC was chasing the money at the expense of competition. But the plot had a silver lining. All it took was one character on the periphery to change the vantage point. Surging up the ranks behind the obstruction that was GSP v. Bisping was the man who would enter the conversation not only as the best MW, but maybe pound-for-pound best fighter in the game: Robert Whitaker.
If there is anything MMA fans love, it’s the chase. Robert Whitaker’s chase for the MW strap was the most thrilling chase of 2017. In this age where belts seem to mean less and the road to get one are either a shortcut or a cross-country journey, the latter path has become increasingly more impressive.
Whitaker was four fights into his move to Middleweight - all superb wins - when Bisping captured the strap. He would shoot into the top ten with a win over Derek Brunson shortly after Bisping nearly lost (semantics) to Henderson. Despite that, that winter the conversation about who Bisping would tangle with next centred around Souza, Romero, and Rockhold. Whitaker was the dark horse, lurking silently in the shadows.
The irony is that Whitaker’s long haul wouldn’t have happened without the belt hanging in limbo. Like a crash at Talladega, the Middleweight fracas brought out the pace car and everyone was forced to slow down and slot into a neat order. This simply lined up the best fighters in the division for Whitaker to contend with, one after another.
With the dam at the top, the contenders had to take fights. Souza was the one who ultimately would give Whitaker his chance to break into the top five. Whitaker was considered by most the underdog but he performed like a purebred, showcasing superb takedown defense and stifling Souza’s vaunted grappling game, proving ultra-competent clinching against the cage. What’s more, he would put on an absolute clinic on the feet, piecing up Souza with his jab, changing up his rhythm with feints to the point it felt like a jazz jam session.
Suddenly, a situation that may have simply been Souza waiting for the winner of Bisping v. Romero/Rockhold became a vaulting-off point for Whitaker. And because Bisping and GSP seemingly conspired to ensure their cancelled matchup would become un-cancelled, Romero or Rockhold was now forced to touch gloves with Whitaker.
The former Olympian, Romero, would be that guy. Like Souza, he would be just another stepping stone. Whitaker would put on a masterful performance and take home the win. Most impressive was that Whitaker did it all on one leg, having aggravated a knee injury during the fight. Whitaker’s tactical adjustment to the injury was brilliant, slamming Romero with straight kicks over and over. It prevented Romero from closing the distance (and jamming up the knee more), as well as allow him to shift in behind his kicks to use his hands. What’s more, he would add a chapter to his growing reputation as one of the best anti-grapplers in the sport, masterfully stifling Romero’s wrestling game – just like he had Souza’s.
The Middleweight division a year and half ago when Michael Bisping won the belt is not that different than it is today. The top five is stacked, Bisping is still a lunch pail fighter, Romero defies his age, and Brunson runs into exchanges with his chin out. Anderson Silva is old, Uriah Hall can’t put it all together, and Kelvin Gastellum makes as many dopey choices as good ones. But the division is signficatly changed because of Whitaker.
The drama in 2017 bred the perfect conditions for Whitaker to ascend and make the division his own. Iron sharpens iron. but sometimes you need a jam to make it sweet.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster