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During a week in which the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s sale moved closer to becoming a reality, there’s no need for a secondary hot-button topic; one of the biggest happenings in the sport’s history, especially dovetailing with Zuffa’s ongoing anti-media agenda, is more than enough to carry public discourse. Nonetheless, former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre announced he’s ready to come back to the Octagon and explicitly stated a desire to challenge newly crowned middleweight titlist Michael Bisping. It created a new conversation in and of itself while further prolonging discussion about whether or not soon-to-be 46-year-old Dan Henderson should get a championship rematch with rival Bisping.
It isn’t strange or crazy that the most accomplished fighter in MMA history announcing a potential comeback would get folks buzzing, especially when he’s angling for a fight with a current champion at a weight class in which he has never competed. The fact that Bisping-Henderson 2 remains a hot topic makes sense, too, as one of the standard and most provocative forms of MMA debate is the question of who deserves a title shot and why. What’s novel about the Bisping-Henderson-GSP drama is that in a moment of historical magnitude, the middleweight division remains a red-hot topic and a focal point. Middleweight is no longer the UFC’s bastard division.
With Bisping’s shocking ascent, the still-developing rivalry between Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold and memories of Anderson Silva’s unprecedented reign of nearly seven years not yet forgotten, maybe it strikes you as silly for me to characterize the 185-pound division this way. However, “middleweight excitement,” at least as the UFC is concerned, is a very recent concept. The division still has nowhere near the depth and quality of lightweight or welterweight, but people finally care about the long-neglected world between 170 and 205 pounds. It has taken nearly 15 years, but middleweight is now a bona fide marquee division for the UFC.
Again, I can hear your potential confusion and scoffing. Many still hail Silva as the greatest fighter ever and he certainly put together the best title reign in Octagon history, so how could this be the “bastard” division? The middleweight division is growing into a fertile, exciting landscape now, but when Silva showed up in the UFC, he was plowing and tilling a barren field, planting seeds for the future. It was only late into Silva’s run that any of this growth we now enjoy was even visible.
Before we talk specifically about Silva’s reign, consider the division’s history. When Zuffa bought the UFC in 2001, the Unified Rules were a brand new concept in the United States and completely foreign everywhere else. Pride Fighting Championships in Japan was the standard bearer for MMA quality and competition, and while the company did use occasional catchweights, its product was largely based around heavyweight and light heavyweight competition.
For the UFC, 200 pounds had emerged as its marquee division in the Semaphore Entertainment Group era, with Frank Shamrock becoming the promotion’s first great divisional champ in any class. He then gave way to poster boy Tito Ortiz. The welterweight division was already stocked with talent, largely American wrestlers, whose services weren’t sought after in Japan, allowing the UFC even in its leaner days to stockpile talent. When the 200-pound limit was bumped to 205 and the middleweight division was introduced, it was essentially a stepchild shoehorned into an established family dynamic.
The genesis of the UFC middleweight championship was an instructive harbinger, foretelling the division’s future struggles. Six months after the January 2001 purchase of the UFC, Zuffa brass went out to an International Fighting Championship event at Table Mountain Casino in Friant, California, to watch a main event between 22-year-old hot prospect Nate Marquardt and top Cesar Gracie pupil Gil Castillo. Though the bout was a welterweight contest, the winner would be offered a spot against Dave Menne at UFC 33 two months later to crown the first-ever UFC middleweight champion.
Marquardt had put together a 12-1-1 mark in MMA to that point and had just won and defended the Pancrase middleweight title. While Castillo was still undefeated in MMA, Marquardt was the guy the UFC wanted; Pancrase officials had even flown in from Japan to support Marquardt and do their own politicking on behalf of their representative, as well. After winning the first two rounds, “Nate the Great” suffered a back injury in the bout and wound up playing guard for most of the final 15 minutes, losing a unanimous decision to Castillo.
Two months later, Castillo and Menne authored one of the many awful title fights that made UFC 33 one of the biggest disasters in MMA history; and there he was, the inaugural UFC middleweight champion, the rugged-but-uninspiring Menne, who had been knocked out by Japanese pro wrestler Hiromitsu Kanehara, albeit controversially, just one bout prior. This cast the die for future years of middleweight suffering. Menne was knocked out in his first title defense by Murilo Bustamante, who was a criminally underrated fighter then and especially now. However, once Bustamante got the gold and defended against Matt Lindland -- twice in one night, actually, thanks to “Big” John McCarthy -- he used it as leverage to get a bigger deal from Pride and left the UFC high and dry in October 2002.
The division would have no champion for over two years. Zuffa went all-in on brash-talking, big-punching Phil Baroni as the division’s breakout star, only for “The New York Bad Ass” to be thwarted twice by the aforementioned Lindland. When the UFC put together a four-man tournament to crown a new champion, the company’s preferred pony in the race, Robbie Lawler -- he had just moved up to 185 pounds -- got tapped out in less than three minutes by Evan Tanner, who would go on to win the title by battering the skilled-but-flaky David Terrell at UFC 51.
Since Zuffa’s history of hand-picking potential champions had gone so swimmingly to date, from Baroni back to Pedro Rizzo, the UFC tried again. It took Rich Franklin, a good-sized 205-pounder who had competed ably as a heavyweight, and offered him a fat deal to be “the guy” at 185. Franklin brutally battered Tanner to take the title in June 2005. Though Franklin was the first vision of promotional stability the UFC had at 185 pounds, his reign would last just 16 months before Silva showed up and put his nose on upside down.
With that said, Franklin’s short run as champ is still emblematic of how miserable middleweight was at the time. Franklin’s first challenger, David Loiseau, was a dynamic but mercurial talent who earned a title shot after cutting open Tanner with his trademark elbows; Loiseau ended up suffering about 26 different injuries against Franklin and lost staggeringly wide 50-42, 50-43 and 50-43 scorecards. In his other successful defense, Franklin savagely clobbered Nate Quarry in a bout which is retroactively looked at as a farce, a way for Franklin to strut his stuff coming off of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 2. At the time, however, Quarry’s three-fight winning streak over Lodune Sincaid, Shonie Carter and Pete Sell -- consider those names for a second -- made him literally the only viable contender on any sort of winning streak at 185.
Quarry ended up becoming the option because there were no other real options. In August 2005, the UFC ran its first-ever Ultimate Fight Night on Spike TV and headlined with what was expected to be a de facto title eliminator between Ivan Salaverry, who had broken out with nifty wins over Tony Fryklund and Joe Riggs, and the finally signed Marquardt, who was erroneously and endlessly hyped as a “seven-time King of Pancrase.” Marquardt-Salaverry ended up being an absolute horror show of passivity, a main event so bad that it was literally edited out of re-airings of the event and replaced with Kenny Florian nearly cutting off Alex Karalexis’ nose. Oh, then Marquardt tested positive for steroids after he won. This is what the UFC middleweight division was all about, unfortunately.
The reign of “The Spider” would slowly change this, but I emphasize “slowly.” Even as Silva tore through his division with unprecedented dominance, he didn’t draw a dime for the company until he wound up with Chael Sonnen as a foil -- a career journeyman who had parlayed testosterone and recycled “Superstar” Billy Graham one-liners into surprising relevance. Thales Leites got a title shot because referee Herb Dean took away multiple points from Marquardt in their fight, while Patrick Cote lucked into a crack against Silva simply because Yushin Okami was injured. Speaking of Okami, remember when I said earlier that fans arguing about who deserves a title shot is one of the most time-tested, rousing forms of MMA conversation? During Silva’s run, the only sort of hot debate about who should get next dibs at the Brazilian was a dull roar of hardcore fans who wanted Okami to get a second chance at Silva. This went on for the better part of three years. Okami was a damn fine fighter, but diehards half-heartedly stumping for him is a far cry from “Is it going to be GSP? Is it going to be Henderson? What if they do Rockhold-Weidman 2 first?”
Keep in mind, this cruel UFC middleweight history was not for an overall lack of divisional depth. During Silva’s reign, Scott Coker’s Strikeforce put together an outstanding 185-pound division with the likes of Rockhold, Lawler, Ronaldo Souza, Tim Kennedy and even future contenders like Derek Brunson. In 2010, the year Silva pulled off his amazing fifth-round comeback triangle against Sonnen, it wasn’t even close to being the most thrilling middleweight outcome that year. In fact, it wasn’t even the most thrilling middleweight contest that month, as two weeks later, Kazuo Misaki and Jorge Santiago nearly killed one another for a second time in their Sengoku middleweight title rematch in one of the best MMA fights ever. If not for awful luck, the UFC middleweight division would have had none at all.
In the recent past, the UFC would have tried to push Uriah Hall further even faster or put Robert Whittaker or Thiago Santos in a title fight already. In that climate, a faded legend in his late 40s scoring an emotionally uplifting upset like Henderson did would make him the odds-on-favorite for the next title shot, even if he was 3-6 in his last nine fights. Worse, it probably wouldn’t have created any buzz, any dissention, any argument or any money.
Currently, the best trash talker the sport has ever had and the division’s biggest star is improbably the 185-pound king and he’s surrounded by a nucleus of Weidman, Rockhold, “Jacare,” Yoel Romero and others. There are legitimate arguments to be made for multiple elite contenders to get their day in court against “The Count,” and even the outlier, Henderson, has passionate backers for a title rematch. No one disputes Henderson is undeserving from a competitive perspective, but those who argue for Bisping-Henderson 2 do so on the grounds that it’s an engrossing story and the most lucrative of options. Five years ago, a “lucrative UFC middleweight title fight” was a fairy tale, never mind the idea of having a plurality of intriguing, viable challengers.
Now, GSP has thrown his hat into that hypothetical ring. Part of the middleweight division being such a hot topic in the wake of UFC 199 is of course the unique vulnerability of Bisping, who figures to be an underdog to almost all of his hypothetical challengers. GSP knows this, as does everybody else making their case for the first shot at the new champ. Regardless, Bisping’s ascent to the throne has drawn everyone out of the woodwork, be it fans to argue or middleweights to make their case for a title shot.
Deliberate or not, Bisping’s now-immortal left hook on Rockhold is still a lucky one. No, not blind luck, as if Bisping closed his eyes, threw a punch and somehow wound up king. Rather, it’s lucky that Weidman injured his neck in training while “Jacare” was injured and Romero was suspended, allowing Bisping to get a title shot no one ever believed he’d attain on short notice. It is luckier still that he one-shotted an elite fighter who had trounced him easily 18 months earlier, despite Bisping having zero history as a one-punch threat.
The UFC middleweight division has never been hotter. In fact, it has never really been hot before. Lady Luck is now smiling on the 185-pound division after 15 years of spitting in its face.
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