It was less than two weeks ago when UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker pulled out of UFC 234 the day of his scheduled title defense against Kelvin Gastelum due to emergency hernia surgery. The UFC scrambled to save the card, elevating Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva to the main event while Gastelum was removed from the card. Whittaker, meanwhile, had his surgery and is expected to need up to two months time to recover from it.
At first, it appeared UFC president Dana White wanted to wait until Whittaker was healthy enough to return and book him against either Adesanya or Gastelum with the middleweight title on the line. However, it appears as though Whittaker is going to be out longer than expected, and the UFC couldn’t keep waiting for him. Instead of waiting a few months and keeping the middleweight division in a long holding pattern once again, the UFC has decided to create an interim title, and Adesanya and Gastelum will fight each other for it this April in the main event of UFC 236.
I’m not a huge fan of interim titles, just because I find them to be meaningless and believe the UFC uses them as a promotional tactic, but in this situation the world’s leading MMA promotion absolutely made the right call by creating one. Although Whittaker is on an eight-fight win streak and has proven he’s the best middleweight on the planet, there’s also a lot not to like about his title reign. Mainly, the lack of title defenses.
After initially winning the interim title against Yoel Romero at UFC 213 in July 2017, Whittaker has defended his belt a grand total of zero times. Of course, that’s not all his fault, as he would have had a successful title defense on his record had Romero not missed weight in the pair’s rematch last June at UFC 225. But you also can’t ignore the fact Whittaker pulled out of scheduled title defenses against both Luke Rockhold and Gastelum in the last two years. He’s a great fighter, but clearly not reliable, and the UFC couldn’t trust him to be healthy, leading to the creation of this interim belt.
For the sake of Adesanya and Gastelum, let’s hope this interim title means more to the UFC than it did for Colby Covington and Tony Ferguson, who each won interim belts before being stripped of them when the UFC found more profitable matchups to make. At the very least, though, Adesanya and Gastelum will be paid more for their upcoming fight at UFC 236 because a belt is going to be on the line. In the short term, therefore, it’s a move that benefits these two fighters, and of course in theory the creation of an interim belt is a move that will benefit the other top contenders in the division as the new title means the rest of the division should keep on moving.
Ultimately, the UFC needed a main event for UFC 236, Adesanya and Gastelum deserved to fight for a title, and the fans wanted to see a middleweight title fight. It’s unfortunate for Whittaker that he got hurt and is now clinging onto his belt for dear life as the UFC may eventually strip him of it, but that’s part of the game of MMA. The sport can’t wait around for anyone, not even a great fighter on a long win streak like Whittaker. It was time to have a champion in this division again, someone who fights more than once a year, and the decision to have Adesanya and Gastelum fight for the new interim middleweight title was a no-brainer.