Middleweight: What Does GSP’s Return Mean?
UFC 217 looked like the best MMA event of the year on paper. The promotions second time visiting Madison Square Garden following the monumental UFC 205 in late 2016 with three title fights that seemed even better than last year’s trio. In practice it was even better. For the first time in UFC history three belts changed hands but even leading up to the trifecta of championship bouts there wasn’t a bad fight in the preliminary bunch. Even in the two fights that ended in some controversy there were moments of excitement. We had two contenders for knock out of the year between Ricardo Ramos’ spinning elbow that left Aiemann Zahabi unconscious and late replacement Ovince St. Preux’s perfectly placed head kick that had similar repercussions for Corey Anderson. Stephen Thompson rebounded from his pit stop into Tyron Woodley’s anti-entertainment vortex to put on a great performance against Jorge Masvidal. Prospects Paulo Costa, James Vick, and Randy Brown each got important victories in their march towards legitimacy.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Before we got to see the glorious return of all-time great Georges St. Pierre there were two belts on the line between clear top contenders, a novel concept. Joanna Jedrzejczyk was attempting to tie Ronda Rousey’s record of title defenses for women in the UFC and I thought she was going to repeat what shes done to everyone else against Rose Namajunas. But no, she did not dominate her on the feet for five rounds en route to a clear unanimous decision. Instead ‘Thug Rose’ put her down with strikes twice, the second time jumping on top of her and laying on some vicious ground and pound forcing Joanna ‘No Longer’ Champion to tap to strikes. It was an incredible upset, perhaps up there with Matt Serra knocking out GSP. I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave Jedrzejczyk an immediate rematch given how dominant a champion she has been but at the same time this outcome was decisive. Rose deserves to make the decision on what she does next.
In the blood feud that has been in the making for longer than I can remember we had Cody Garbrandt finally taking on former teammate and opposing coach on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ TJ Dillashaw. The last time either of these guys fought was at UFC 207, late last December. Dillashaw broke John Lineker’s jaw in a dominant performance, calling out Dominick Cruz who he lost his belt to in a razor close decision after the fight. That turned out to be for naught after Garbrandt made Cruz look like he wasn’t by far the best bantamweight fighter the sport has ever seen. They were supposed to settle their differences over the summer but injuries delayed one of my most anticipated matches of the year. It turned out to be worth the wait despite it only lasting two rounds. It was action packed from the start with each fighter’s speed and power on full display. Dillashaw was saved by the bell at the end of the first after eating a few of Cody’s best shots. But in the second round a head kick, a flush right hand, and relentless ground and pound put a shocking end to Garbrant’s night. Even so the two got in each other’s face immediately afterwards. ‘No Love’ indeed. Both guys are young and at the top of their game so I fully expect to see these two fight another time or two. I’m looking forward to it.
Finally the middleweight championship was being put on the line. A division that was derailed after Michael Bisping knocked out Luke Rockhold on short notice last summer. He followed that up by defending the belt against a 46 year old Dan Henderson who was barely ranked if at all. At the time it felt wrong that the UFC was allowing that rematch to derail a thriving division with so many defenders but fine, give Bisping one fight that hes wanted for a long time. That was followed by a long injury layoff and the announcement that he would next fight Georges St. Pierre, the former welterweight champion who has never fought at 185 pounds and hasn’t fought in four years, despite there being an interim champion waiting, deserving and ready. The question was what does GSP have to offer with all the time off and moving up a weight class? The answer was “a lot”. The legend looked great as he mostly won the striking exchanges and got the bigger man to the canvas a couple of times before catching him with a left hook and sinking in a deep rear naked choke to become only the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold a belt in two different weight classes.
It was an impressive feat and most likely cemented his status as the greatest of all time. It was his first finish in almost eight years and it actually looked like he wasn’t kidding when he said he’s added some new tricks to his arsenal in the lead up to the fight. His jab looked as strong as ever but he was throwing his right hand harder than I can remember and he had a great kick game going. He ate a few shots from ‘The Count’ but never looked hurt and he was even able to work through some obvious exhaustion assumingly having to do with putting on the extra weight and the time away from the sport. But despite how great his performance was and how exciting it is to have him back in the mix, hes still a natural welterweight and is swimming in a pool of sharks up at 185 pounds. Hes talked about and the UFC has paid lip service to his next fight being a title unification bout with interim champ Robert Whittaker but I can’t help but feel that fight will never happen and if it does it won’t be pretty. Whittaker is a tremendous striker and has proven to have some of the best takedown defense in the promotion after his last two wins against Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza. GSP could surprise me and try to go on a real run at middleweight but my guess is he eventually gives up the belt in order to go back down to 170 pounds and try to reclaim what he never lost from Tyron Woodley.
Either way we should finally be able to get things back to normal in the division with deserving title shots and top contenders. Even though he was champion I have Bisping ranked as the seventh best middleweight following his loss to GSP. I expected him to retire following a loss but it looks like hes going to go out there a couple more times for some money fights. I doubt he ever fights for the belt again but there are some grudge matches that makes sense for him, particularly Yoel Romero. Romero is coming off a loss to Whittaker in the interim title bout so the match would make sense. Jacare hasn’t fought since his loss to Whittaker either, which was only his second UFC loss after a close decision against Romero didn’t go his way. A fight with former champion Chris Weidman makes sense for him after he rebounded from a three fight losing streak to beat Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum is still a prospect but also probably fits better back at welterweight if he can make the weight. He fights Anderson Silva later this month. Derek Brunson just knocked out a returning Lyoto Machida to get himself back in the mix.
But if GSP does vacate the belt and allow Whittaker’s title to become official the clear top contender is Luke Rockhold. He got knocked out by Bisping to lose his belt but it does feel like that was a bit of a fluke. Don’t get me wrong, Bisping won fair and square but Rockhold came across so cocky in that fight like he thought it was a foregone conclusion since he had previously demolished ‘The Count’ and he was a late injury replacement for Weidman. The former Strikeforce champion rebounded in September defeating WSOF two division champion David Branch. His only losses in the UFC are the Bisping knockout and a spinning leg kick knockout delivered by a roided out Vitor Belfort in Brazil. He has wins over Bisping, Weidman, Machida, Jacare, and Tim Kennedy. I think a fight between him and Whittaker would be a toss up. If it stayed standing I would give the edge to ‘Bobby Knuckles’ but in a scramble or if Rockhold found a way to get it on the ground I think he would have a real chance to finish the fight. If GSP does stay at 185 and fight Whittaker himself I think Rockhold would fight one of Romero, Weidman, or Jacare to determine who gets the next title shot. Really, its just such a relief to get meaningful fights back in the middleweight division.
My Middleweight Rankings
Georges St. Pierre
HM – Derek Brunson