Luke Rockhold was scheduled to defend his shiny new UFC middleweight belt for the first time in a rematch with Chris Weidman at UFC 199 in June 2016.
An injury to Weidman changed everything. Michael Bisping stepped in, put Rockhold on his back and sent the middleweight division into a chaos it has yet to recover from.
As Rockhold prepares to step into the cage for the first time since that loss, facing David Branch at UFC Fight Night 116 on Saturday in Pittsburgh, the state of the 185-pound division troubles him.
“It’s sad to see the path the UFC has went down making the matchups and straying away from what built this company,” Rockhold said. “The best fight the best. I’m tired of talking about it, I really am, that’s why I’m here, I’m here to fix this [expletive] and come in and clean this [expletive] up.”
Once held by longtime champions Anderson Silva and Weidman, the middleweight belt has become a point of contention ever since Bisping won it. His first title defense came against then-46-year-old Dan Henderson, who was ranked No. 13 in the world. Bisping picked up a close decision win at UFC 204 in his hometown of Manchester, England, but has yet to fight since despite a long line of middleweights ready to take him on.
“I would’ve made Bisping fight Yoel Romero, which he was supposed to, which he made excuses in the first place,” Rockhold said. “They could’ve had him fight anybody, but they had him fight 13th-ranked Dan Henderson, somehow. Dan’s a good friend of mine, but he didn’t have any business in that title fight. It was a gift for Bisping, and I think that fight was given to him as a local favor. Robert Whittaker’s made a name for himself, Jacare [Souza] was out there at the time, too. There were countless contenders he could’ve fought and he hasn’t fought a damn soul in the top 10.”
Whittaker now holds an interim belt after beating Romero and should be next up for Bisping, but a knee injury has him out for the foreseeable future. Now Bisping is slated to face Georges St-Pierre at UFC 217 on Nov. 4 at Madison Square Garden. GSP is an MMA legend and the former welterweight champion but hasn’t fought since 2013 and never has competed at middleweight. Rockhold plans to be ready for the MSG card in case St-Pierre backs out.
“I just don’t have a lot of confidence in GSP making it to this fight,” Rockhold said. “He’s obviously had issues with his head, questioning himself. As hard as it was to come in and get a fight, I think it would be easy enough for him to pull out.”
However things work out between Bisping and St-Pierre, Rockhold believes he’ll be next in line with a win over Branch this weekend.
“I don’t see what the other options are,” Rockhold said. “I’m the last guy to beat Bisping, I’ve beaten everybody else in my path, so I’m going to go fight my fight and let it speak for itself.”
As for the man he’s fought once and was scheduled to defend his title against, Rockhold said Long Island’s Weidman is well off his radar at this point in his career.
“Right now, he’s not on my calendar, he’s not in my focus,” Rockhold said of his former foe.
Things got testy between the pair in the build-up to UFC 194, where Rockhold stopped Weidman in the fourth round. Since, Weidman suffered two additional losses, both by knockout, before rebounding with a submission victory over Kelvin Gastelum at Nassau Coliseum in July.
“He had a nice win, he looked good for himself. I’m happy for him and his family, doing his thing. But I just don’t think he’s in my sights right now. I’m going to take this New Yorker [Branch] down and then I’m going to focus on what’s ahead of me, not what’s behind me,” Rockhold said. “I think Weidman proved himself, he’s definitely an elite middleweight. So we’ll see what’s to come with him. He’s got some work to do since he lost three in a row, and not in good fashion. So he had a nice comeback, but he’s still got some work to do.”