Luke Rockhold makes his return to the octagon this Saturday, where a win signifies not only his return to form but the return of the middleweight division as a whole.
When Luke Rockhold fights David Branch at UFC Pittsburgh, he fights for more than just a win. He fights to bring the middleweight division one step back towards normalcy.
Rockhold has not fought in well over a year. The weight class he was once tearing through has seen a dramatic change since, and not necessarily for the better. Ever since he was knocked out it seems as if the middleweight division, too, was knocked out of orbit.
Back when Rockhold ruled the middleweight division, it was a division that looked as healthy and competitive as any. Right beneath Rockhold sat middleweight Titans, Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Romero undefeated in the UFC at the time and Jacare 6-1, his only loss a controversial decision to Romero.
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The depth of the division did not end there however, resurgent Michael Bisping and Gegard Mousasi quickly positioned themselves as title contenders, and up and coming prospects, Robert Whittaker and Derek Brunson, shot up the ranks, knocking out their opponents with regularity.
Finally, there was former middleweight title holder, Chris Weidman. He was only one loss removed from a three-fight title reign and was set to face Rockhold again in an attempt to reclaim his crown.
The division had contenders upon contenders upon contenders. It was an embarrassment of riches that the division had never experienced before. Then, the caprice of the MMA gods struck, turning the division upside-down. Weidman injured himself, Bisping stepped in on short notice, defied all odds, and knocked Rockhold out.
It was an example of what makes the sport so enthralling, but when the dust settled, disarray followed. Bisping’s title reign became one that stood in stark contrast to the meritocracy that had defined his career, as he defended his belt against an unworthy challenger in Dan Henderson. Then, further reinforced this narrative by being scheduled to fight welterweight great, Georges St-Pierre, only for the fight to be delayed by many months due to both competitors suffering from injury.
In the meantime, the middleweight division cannibalized itself. The UFC, rather than giving their middleweight champion worthy contenders, matched those contenders up against each other, picking off title challengers one by one.
Weidman suffered devastating loss after loss, Jacare was knocked out, Brunson saw himself suffer back-to-back losses, Mousasi departed the UFC after being unhappy with the new contract he was offered, Rockhold saw injury and other opportunities keep him away from the octagon, and Romero lost a decision to Whittaker in an interim title fight.
All is not lost, however. Now, as Rockhold finally returns, the division stands at the precipice of recovery. Weidman and Brunson have managed to stop their slumps with a win each. Kelvin Gastelum has proven himself to be a contender in the division. Lyoto Machida is returning to the octagon. Whittaker has shown himself to be an incredible force in the division, holding the interim belt. Romero and Jacare are licking their wounds, readying themselves for another assault on the division. There is plenty of hope that the division is finding itself again.
Rockhold needs an impressive win to remind the division that he was once its king. And that the division is still amongst the best in the UFC. The UFC, perhaps recognizing its past wrongs, has given the division the framework to right itself. Matchups are scheduled and an interim belt is in place so that once the Bisping-GSP fight is over, the division can go back to business as usual.
As the middleweight division waits for the Bisping-GSP (pseudo?) super fight to come and go, it tries to regather itself and become the force it was not too long ago. With a dominant win on Saturday, its former king will lead that charge.