Since it gained mainstream popularity, the UFC has stuck close to a formula of rankings over ratings when it comes to putting fights together.
They were never completely consistent – there were a few fights through the years that materialized because of fan interest, rather than competitors working their way up the division by beating top contenders.
But things really changed in the past couple years since the UFC came under new ownership. WME-IMG helped the promotion make its debut in NY and got some more publicity for the sport. However, MMA has become more well-known for interim titles, divisions in disarray, and unclear futures for the top fighters.
When Georges St.-Pierre returned after a four-year hiatus to face Michael Bisping for the middleweight championship at UFC 217, there were already problems in the division. Bisping’s lack of defenses against top competition warranted the creation of an interim title, which Robert Whittaker won after defeating Yoel Romero.
After GSP’s big win, there were plenty of questions about who he would fight next. Some wondered if the somewhat-undersized fighter would stick around at 185, especially since his camp stated he’s battling ulcerative colitis.
GSP announced he was vacating the title, much to the delight of many fighters in the division. Robert Whittaker, who was promoted to undisputed champion when the news broke, stated that it was good to finally have closure about what his next move would be.
Whittaker will face former champion Luke Rockhold at UFC 221. Rockhold was vocal about wanting GSP to vacate the title, so the division wouldn’t be held up. He stated that he’s always considered Whittaker to be the true champion, and that he was excited to face him and have a chance to regain the gold.
When Rockhold was defeated by Bisping in a major upset, it was the beginning of confusion in the division. Rockhold was also critical of Bisping’s reign – save for a close and controversial win over Dan Henderson, Bisping never defended his belt successfully. Whittaker defeated high-ranking Ronaldo Souza before besting Romero for the title, making his claim as the true champion hard to dispute.
Another fighter weighed in on GSP’s act of civility. Chael Sonnen noted that many other fighters would’ve chosen to hold up the division. The problem with this, according to Sonnen, is that such a move involved holding up other fighters who have worked hard for a chance at the championship. By stepping down while he recovers from his illness, GSP has opened the door for many exciting fights and some much-needed clarity in the 185-pound class.
Interim titles have been created at featherweight, lightweight, and light-heavyweight in recent years. Between multi-division champ Conor McGregor’s penchant for super fights and former light-heavyweight king Jon Jones’s suspensions, these divisions have not had a clear, consistent landscape for months.
UFC 221 will take place in Perth, Australia. Also on the card, heavyweight Mark Hunt will return to face Curtis Blaydes.