Time waits for no one, as the Rolling Stones once said, and UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping is currently in the process of proving the now-geriatric rockers right.
Since winning the belt from Luke Rockhold in a stunning upset last June, Bisping has defended his 185-pound title exactly once, in a split decision over the 46-year-old (no, that’s not a typo) Dan Henderson in October. Bisping has whiled away the nine months since then courting a never-officially-scheduled money fight with Georges St-Pierre and making B-movies.
But here’s the real question: Who gives a shit whether Bisping defends his title or not?
Whether Bisping is defending his title or making bad movies, there has never been a more talented, surging crop of 185-pound fighters in MMA history. Bisping could vacate his title and never fight again and the division would still have the capacity to put on epic fights.
None of this is a knock on Bisping. He’s 38 years old and an unlikely champion. His prime years are either nearly past or, more likely, well past. It’s hard to fault him for trying to squeeze the greatest value possible out of his unexpected time at the top.
Regardless, the middleweight division has marched right along in Bisping’s absence. Longtime contender Gegard Mousasi has run his winning streak to five in a row, the last four inside the distance. Cuban Olympian Yoel Romero made it eight consecutive wins inside the UFC when took former champion Chris Weidman’s head clean off with a flying knee last November. Australian Robert Whittaker has a seven-fight streak going, capping his run with a pair of devastating knockouts over Derek Brunson and Jacare Souza.
We’re getting one of those fantastic matchups at UFC 213 this Saturday as Romero takes on Whittaker for the interim middleweight title.
This is a dream fight.
Romero is a comic book character brought to life, a marvel of explosiveness and perhaps the greatest pure athlete to ever compete in the UFC.
The 40-year-old Cuban defector won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics in freestyle wrestling and took home the world championship the year before. In terms of his overall career achievements, he’s probably the most accomplished wrestler to ever compete in the UFC. As you’d expect, his wrestling skills are otherworldly, miles beyond those of UFC champions and mere NCAA competitors like Brock Lesnar, Chris Weidman, and Stipe Miocic. There is nothing like seeing him hit an effortless foot sweep.
Pure wrestling isn’t what makes Romero such a joy to watch, though; it’s his unreal finishing ability.
Patience is Romero’s defining characteristic as a fighter. He has five finishes in the third round in the UFC. That’s not an accident; it’s a pattern. He watches, he feints, and he taps away with occasional half-speed jabs and kicks to set a rhythm. All the while he gathers information. Once he’s found what he’s looking for, some barely noticeable tendency or habit, he simply seems to decide it’s time for the fight to be over, exploding into a stunning display of violence.
Chris Weidman tried to jab his way into a takedown three times against Romero last November. The first time, Weidman nearly got the takedown. The second, Romero saw it coming, and Weidman didn’t get close. When Weidman tried again, Romero timed Weidman’s level change and hit him with a flying knee as he ducked down, opening an disgusting gash along his scalp and ending the fight immediately.
Nobody else could play the kind of game Romero does, at least not at such a high level; it requires incredible patience to wait for the opening and the athleticism and reflexes to immediately pull the trigger once it appears.
Winning rounds isn’t Romero’s goal, and his approach to fighting isn’t built to do that: He’s there to finish the fight in shocking, violent fashion.
The Soldier of God is a strange, otherworldly figure. He’s 40 years old, but simultaneously manages to look both half and twice as old as he actually is. However many years he’s been around—he could easily be one of Connor MacLeod’s adversaries in a Highlander reboot —Romero still looks like he belongs in a Marvel comic and hasn’t lost an athletic step. His voice sounds like that of a two-pack-a-day smoker who swallows gravel for fun.
When Bisping teased a title defense against Romero and gave him the finger at UFC 205 last November, Romero responded with, “I love you, Mike. I’ll see you soon.” When it became clear that Bisping had zero plans to step into the Octagon with Romero—understandably, as one oddsmaker listed Romero as a 3-1 favorite—Romero set up a GoFundMe to pay Bisping’s medical bills after what was sure to be a violent, unmerciful fight.
That’s a potential champion I can get behind.
Whittaker, Romero’s opponent, was actually scheduled to face Bisping back in November 2015. At that point, Bisping might have been a slight favorite, but that certainly wouldn’t be the case today: The 26-year-old Australian is a gifted talent who has since evolved into one of the division’s most dangerous fighters.
Bobby Knuckles—he prefers “The Reaper”, for some unknown and obviously incorrect reason—is a former welterweight who realized he was killing himself trying to make 170 pounds and decided to make a go of it as a small middleweight instead. It’s hard to argue with the results: six wins in his new division, four of them by knockout.
In his last fight, Whittaker flattened longtime top middleweight Jacare Souza inside two rounds, stuffing the Brazilian’s takedowns and working him over with counters before a head kick put Souza on roller skates. Whittaker’s evolution into the division’s most complete and effective striker, one that had flown under the radar of most fans, was complete.
Whittaker is a smooth, explosive technician who fights like a much older and more experienced fighter. The nuances of timing, rhythm, and distance normally take a lifetime to master; at just 26, Whittaker already has a firm grasp on them. He bounces around at range, scoring with jabs and kicks, and then leaps into potent combinations or counters his opponent with a clean, vicious left hook. Finishing his opponent is a bonus; the underlying process that drives Whittaker’s game is sound enough to win rounds even if he doesn’t. Couple that with outstanding takedown defense and a cool head, and Whittaker generally gets the kind of fight he wants.
Romero and Whittaker are primed to make beautiful music together.
Whittaker does his best work when his opponent shows him timing and rhythm, which Whittaker can then anticipate and exploit. Think of a fastball pitcher in baseball: No matter how hard he throws, a savvy hitter can eventually figure out when to swing. Whittaker’s game is designed to do that, but despite his absurd athletic gifts, it’s wrong to think of Romero as a fastball pitcher. It’s impossible to tell whether he’ll throw his fastball—a ridiculously fast left hand or flying knee—or something light and off-speed. He manipulates rhythm like a master, which will make it difficult for Whittaker to figure out when and where he’ll attack.
Romero, on the other hand, is going to have a hard time keeping pace with an opponent like Whittaker, who will simply take what he’s given if the big shot isn’t there. Whittaker loves the home run, but he’s happy to hit singles or doubles if those are what’s available. He’ll tap away with jabs and kicks, leap in with a couple of punches if he can do it, and likely stuff most of Romero’s takedowns. Whittaker will try to push a pace that either wins rounds by virtue of effective offense or forces Romero into making mistakes that he can counter.
This is a complex dynamic befitting a title fight. What it will mean in practice is Whittaker peppering Romero with shots while trying to avoid eating a comical display of violence. If that’s not compelling, I don’t know what is.
I like Michael Bisping. He’s a heel, but one who knows what he’s doing: For years, he’s played that game right, trash-talking his way into getting the fans invested in even mediocre matchups with the likes of Jason Miller and Tim Kennedy. It’s impossible to say he hasn’t maximized his talent over the course of his long and productive career, and I hope he finds a way to cash in on this unlikely title run.
But let’s be honest: Whether it’s Romero or Whittaker who comes out of this victorious—I lean slightly toward Whittaker for his steady stream of offense—either man would be likely to reacquaint Bisping with a state of unconsciousness. I won’t mind watching that, either.