The post-fight scene in the octagon at UFC 213 turned from heartwarming to hokey in an instant.
Robert Whittaker had barely finished describing how he persevered past a hyperextended left knee to beat Yoel Romero by unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 48-47) and win the interim middleweight title when Michael Bisping intervened. Bisping, the lineal middleweight champion, had cozied up to the cage for the entire fight and lurked afterwards, clearly plotting to confront the winner for a cheap promotional tactic.
He succeeded, commandeering the microphone to tell Whittaker he should, “be ashamed,” of wearing what amounts to a secondary belt.
“Here, take that,” Bisping yelled without much conviction as he threw his own belt on the canvas. “Fight me for it. I’ll see you soon (expletive).”
Whittaker looked down but had virtually no other reaction, which didn’t help an episode that already felt inauthentic. Similar provocations have gone down in UFC lore over the years — think Georges St. Pierre telling Matt Hughes he was “not impressed” by his performance at UFC 63 or Rashad Evans ruining Jon Jones’ “special night” at UFC 135 — but they always felt more spontaneous with the crowds erupting in shocked cheers afterwards.
T-Mobile Arena, on the other hand, was filled with silence during Bisping's attempt Saturday night. Worse yet, the building was filled with dread.
The last-minute cancelation of the scheduled UFC 213 main event between Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko was a sobering reminder to never get too excited about a fight until both combatants are locked in the cage together. It’s a lesson of particular importance when it comes to the middleweight division, which hasn’t seen a legitimate title fight go off as planned since Luke Rockhold defeated Chris Weidman at UFC 194 in December 2015.
That’s with no disrespect to Whittaker or Bisping. Whittaker deserved special recognition for beating the only contender in the 185-pound division with a winning streak as impressive as his own, though an interim title always feels a bit underwhelming.
Additionally, Romero vs. Whittaker was the third choice for the middleweight title fight to be held at UFC 213. That's not unlike 13 months ago at UFC 199, where Bisping won the real belt off of Rockhold in a matchup that was a backup plan after Weidman pulled out of a scheduled rematch.
Bisping was then rushed into a bout with a legend who had gone 3-6 in his last nine fights, Dan Henderson, for his first defense not because he was the top contender but because it was the most commercially viable matchup.
All of this is to say it took a roundabout way to arrive at Bisping vs. Whittaker as middleweight’s essential pairing. Now armed with that knowledge, the sole priority needs to be getting those two in the octagon together to give the division a clarity it’s lacked going on two years.
“If you look at what happened tonight, the main event was awesome,” UFC President Dana White said. “(Bisping vs. Whittaker) is the fight that should happen. It absolutely is the fight that should happen, and it’s gonna.”
There are reasons for pessimism beyond the history of scrapped plans. Most notably, returning former welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre is still pining for a shot against Bisping that he was initially promised.
White targeted Bisping vs. St. Pierre for UFC 213, but had to move on when the Canadian superstar requested more time. He promised, “the GSP ship has sailed,” permanently after Whittaker’s win, but he’s changed his mind before — and the money such a superfight would command might make it tempting to do so again.
The possibility rightfully continues to make Whittaker uneasy.
“Everyone has a goal to be the best, to be the champion and it’s hard to do that when the champion is locked into a fight with someone not even in the division,” Whittaker said.
Even if the St. Pierre storm is weathered, both Bisping and Whittaker are dealing with injuries. Bisping said his knee would be fully recovered in time to fight in November, but Whittaker was less sure in the aftermath of the Romero fight.
He wanted to go back to his native Sydney to have the extent of his own knee injury determined. He only promised to be back as soon as possible, especially if it was for a unification bout with Bisping.
“I could lose my legs and one of my coaches could get me to train,” Whittaker said. “Trust me, I’ll be just fine.”
He could have convinced fans of that with his showing against Romero. Whittaker struggled to walk after Romero beat him up in the first two rounds, but at the urging of his corner, he ignored his knee and focused on his forte for stand-up fighting.
The 26-year-old rocked Romero in each of the final three rounds, putting on a striking exhibit despite limited mobility. He also stuffed several takedown attempts.
Crisp boxing and stout takedown defense is the same formula the 38-year-old Bisping has used to reach the top of the weight class, meaning their fight also holds considerable stylistic intrigue.
“At this point and time,” Whittaker said, “I think me and Bisping are fated to fight.”
While that statement wasn’t nearly as corny as Bisping’s call out, it sounded just as ominous. Fate has forged a reputation for not following through when it comes to the UFC middleweight class.
The thought of that trend continuing and preventing Bisping and Whittaker from fighting was enough to quiet an arena.