Top contender Robert Whittaker responded to Luke Rockhold’s recent comments on the state of the UFC middleweight division.
Add Robert Whittaker to the list of top-ranked UFC middleweights who are not happy with the current state of their division. Yoel Romero, Gegard Mousasi, Anderson Silva, and most recently Luke Rockhold have all shared their dissatisfaction with the match-making practices that have resulted in 185lb champion Michael Bisping defending his title versus the returning former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre (at a time that remains TBD).
On Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, Rockhold aired his grievances regarding the stalled division (in which he is currently ranked 2nd).
“[The UFC is putting] these mega-fights together that don’t make sense,” charged Rockhold, who suggested the UFC were doing so to pay back debts incurred by WME | IMG when they purchased ZUFFA last July.
Incensed that Bisping was not slated to fight a ‘contender’ in the division, Rockhold claimed that he would sit out unless offered an opportunity to fight for an interim championship. The former champion also encouraged his fellow top contenders – including Whittaker – to do the same. “I think everyone should just stand their ground, and say, ‘F—k you. Put a title on the line or else – f—k – you don’t even have a division.’”
When asked by Bloody Elbow what his reaction was to Rockhold’s assessment of the 185lb weight-class, Whittaker stated: “He’s not far off.”
“Rockhold makes a lot of good points,” continued Whittaker, who elevated himself into title challenger status after routing perennial contender Ronaldo Souza at UFC Fight Night: Johnson vs. Reis last month. “The division is at a standstill. I want to be the middleweight champion of the world. Right now, where I stand, there’s no way to get there; especially in that top tier. There really isn’t anywhere to go. There’s no incentive to fight. There’s no direction.”
However, despite agreeing with Rockhold’s assessment of the division Whittaker stopped short of endorsing Rockhold’s plea for him to go on strike. After laughing at the idea, Whittaker said, “I think trying to get everyone to go on strike is a little far-fetched. I don’t think anyone is going to do that, but I do worry that the division is at a standstill, in the top five, even the top ten.”
Despite not entertaining the idea of going on strike, Whittaker revealed that he would be considering his fight options very carefully.
“I would love to fight Romero or Rockhold,” he said. “They are both great fights and hard fights, but the man who fights for no reason is a silly man. I want to move up in the rankings, I want to move closer to that belt. And at this present moment, if I fight Luke; whether I win or lose, where do I go from there? Or if I fight Yoel, I’m in the same position; I don’t make any gains. At this point, no one is going to get closer to that belt – no matter who they fight – unless you’re Michael Bisping or Georges St-Pierre.
“There’s no incentive to fight because there’s nowhere to go,” repeated Whittaker, who clarified that he would take a fight with a fellow top five fighter, but would prefer some kind of assurance that a win would – definitively – move him closer to a title fight. “Michael Bisping called me out,” added the Australian. “Now if I had the choice to pick Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero, or Michael Bisping for the belt, obviously I’m going to jump for that belt opportunity. But I have no intention in just sitting on the sidelines and hoping the belt falls in my lap.”
Whittaker’s latest comments represent a change of approach when it comes to publicly stating what he wants to happen, not only in his own career, but the UFC at large. On April 13th when he discussed Bisping vs. St-Pierre, he told Bloody Elbow, “I’m just going to focus on getting better as a fighter and the belt will fall into my lap.” But after soundly beating both Derek Brunson and Jacare, Whittaker feels he is now in a position to be more vocal – and detailed – about his goals.
“In the past, I’ve always had this stance that ‘Oh, I’ll fight whoever I need to fight and whatever is happening is happening,’ because I wasn’t in that bracket of the top five; the title fight wasn’t right there, it wasn’t one or two steps away from me,” said Whittaker. “So yeah, to be honest, I just had the mentality back then that I would just fight whoever, whether the top five was moving or not, whether the belt was moving or not. It didn’t matter to me, because I knew I had to fight X, Y, and Z to get to that position. And now I’m in that position, the state of the division and the movement of the belt becomes a big concern of mine.”
With newfound confidence in his authority to speak on the middleweight landscape, Whittaker laid out exactly what he’d like to see happen next. “This is just my opinion, it’s neither right nor wrong, but I think an interim belt would be perfect. Bisping’s a great fighter, I have a lot of respect for him. But he’s trying to fight dudes who aren’t in the top ten (or the top five) of the division. He fought Dan Henderson, who was not in the top tier and did not have to work his way up to get that belt, and now he’s fighting Georges who wasn’t even in the division.
“All props to him, he’s the champ, he can do what he wants, but I think an interim belt would be a great move for the division. It would remove that logjam and the cogs will start moving again, especially with the top five guys, who are going to want to fight each other again because they can actually see a belt. Whereas the state we’re in now, there’s just no incentive to fight each other.”
Whittaker also made it clear that his saying there was ‘no incentive’ to fight was not an indicator that he didn’t ‘want’ to fight.
“I love fighting,” he said. “I’ve heard a couple of people say I’m scared of so-and-so and I didn’t want to fight so-and-so. It’s like… I’m in this sport for good! I like fighting, I love getting in there and doing it. But my goal is to become the middleweight champion of the world. And the earliest a title fight could happen is next year, a year from now, and that’s crazy.”
Whittaker stated he hopes to fight around September or October in a fight that – hopefully – leads to a belt (interim or otherwise). Before then, he’ll spend around five months rehabbing his body – especially his hands – not only for his next fight, but for the, “longevity of [his] career as well.” Whittaker is also staying busy with activities outside of the Octagon. Along with peer-mentoring and coaching, he’s attempting to open his own Gracie-branded gym in Sydney.
But despite how busy he is, Whittaker – like Rockhold, Romero, and all of us – will be keeping an eye on the UFC to see if anything changes with regards to the Bisping-GSP ‘mega-fight’ the current state of the bottle-neck that is the 185lb division.