Was the assumption that Georges St-Pierre would successfully defend his UFC welterweight title last weekend ever really in doubt?
Sure, Carlos Condit theoretically possesses the tools to knock the champ from his throne, but few people outside of Albuquerque probably thought he stood a realistic chance of walking out of the cage with GSP’s belt.
Following St-Pierre’s seemingly inevitable victory, the talk among many naturally turned to his next fight. This talk was not focused on other UFC welterweight contenders, though. Rather, the discussion surrounding GSP’s next opponent centered on middleweight champion and pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva.
Ever since about 2010, when St-Pierre fought Dan Hardy for the welterweight belt after no other worthy contenders could be found, there has been talk of a Silva/GSP superfight. Both fighters have established themselves as the clear champions in their division (with Silva having successfully defended his title 10 times and St-Pierre eight) and have been regarded as two of the top three best fighters, pound-for-pound, for more than five years. They are separated by only one weight class and are unquestionably the two biggest stars in the sport. It’s likely only a matter of time, therefore, before this fight is made—UFC President Dana White has even thrown around the idea of having it in Cowboys Stadium for the UFC’s first American stadium show.
As lucrative and attention-grabbing as Silva/GSP could be for the UFC, the one major argument against it is that such a fight could potentially throw a wrench in the UFC’s welterweight and middleweight title plans. This is especially true in the case of Silva, who has already expressed a certain amount of disinterest in his own weight class. Silva has said he’d like to take an extended leave of absence from the UFC after having defeated Stephan Bonnar in a light heavyweight fight in October, so if his first fight upon returning is not for the middleweight title, where does that put the belt, and the many fighters vying to possess it?
Even if the UFC is able to put Silva/GSP together, it would probably take place sometime in mid to late 2013, which would already put the middleweight belt in limbo for a year or more. After that fight, Silva would likely want at least six months off before potentially defending his title again, so that’s perhaps 18 months or more before MMA fans actually see the middleweight crown up for grabs.
This isn’t quite the same situation as the UFC has encountered with Georges St-Pierre, who recently went nearly 19 months without defending his title, or featherweight champion Dominick Cruz, who is currently in his 13th month of inactivity. Those two fighters were hobbled by injuries, and implicit in their absences were the promise of a return as soon as they’re healthy. They haven’t stayed out of the cage for nearly two years because they had more interesting pursuits to explore; their bodies have literally been incapable of performing on a championship level.
Silva’s potential title-defense hiatus would instead be caused by non-injury reasons—namely, the GSP superfight and the extended vacation that may precede and/or follow it. If this situation plays out to its hypothetical and somewhat likely conclusion, then the UFC has a few options when it comes to its 185-pound championship.
First, it could preemptively strip Silva of the middleweight title, thereby freeing up the division for a new champion. Of course, the UFC wouldn’t frame the event as a punishment for Silva, but rather a recognition of Silva’s legendary status in MMA that transcends any single weight class.
The promotion would instead award Silva some sort of special belt (kind of like the UFC’s original Superfight Championship, except Silva wouldn’t ever put it up for grabs) and declare that he will only compete in blockbuster fights with the other UFC elites. Silva would take on GSP and then maybe Jon Jones before probably hanging up the gloves for good. He is 37 years old, after all. (Though, selfishly, the possibilities for additional Silva superfight opponents if he were freed from the middleweight division—Alistair Overeem and Nick Diaz to name a couple—would certainly leave many MMA fans wanting if he were to retire sooner than later.)
At that point, the UFC could put together the top four remaining middleweights in the division (likely some combination of Chris Weidman, Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, Tim Boetsch, Alan Belcher and possibly Chael Sonnen after his doomed experiment at light heavyweight) for a tournament similar to the one held for the flyweight title.
Sure, this move could raise doubts about the legitimacy of the middleweight championship while Silva is still fighting, but it would certainly make the 185-pound division more interesting from a competitive standpoint. As fun as it is to repeatedly watch Silva turn incredible mixed martial artists into shells of their true selves, it certainly hasn’t made for a lot of drama atop the middleweight pack.
Second, the UFC could establish an interim title during Silva’s absence. This would similarly free up the middleweight division without requiring the UFC to go through the whole title-transition ordeal. One of the aforementioned middleweights would capture the interim belt (perhaps after a similar four-man tournament), and defend it until Silva is again available to do so, at which point the interim titleholder would fight “The Spider.” If, on the other hand, Silva retires before returning to middleweight, the UFC would already be set up with a middleweight champion to take up the mantle.
Of course, this would be yet another in a long line of interim championships, which are understandably looked upon with less esteem than the actual titles. The establishment of an interim title is typically reserved for times when a champion is on the shelf due to injury, and while it is probably the easiest solution for the UFC, it’s also kind of a cop-out. When the UFC puts an interim championship around the waist of a fighter, the promotion is saying that it doesn’t want to strip the actual titlist, even though there has apparently been enough time between defenses to establish an alternate title.
Have you ever had friends who were in kind of a bad relationship, but rather than break up with their sub-standard partners, they start seeing someone else on the side until their partners either start acting right or end the relationship themselves? That’s basically what an interim championship is—an acknowledgement of inadequacy without a decisive move to truly alter the situation. It might be an easy solution for a little while, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.
Finally, the UFC could simply do nothing. Anderson Silva can fight Georges St-Pierre sometime in 2013 and maybe just not defend his title for the foreseeable future. It’s not like the middleweight division is rife with contenders that fans are clamoring to see take on Silva. Each of the fighters mentioned earlier could use a win or two more against one another before getting a shot at the king. Weidman is still a relative MMA neophyte, Boetsch has only had four middleweight fights, Bisping took a loss to Sonnen, Rockhold has never fought in the UFC and is dealing with an ongoing wrist injury, and Belcher has only had two fights since coming back from a devastating eye injury.
Needless to say, the 185-pound division could use a little organization before a true No. 1 contender can be established once again. And even if one does emerge from the pack, what are the chances he’ll actually defeat Anderson Silva?
With Silva unquestionably in his last years in the Octagon, the UFC is going to try to capitalize as much as possible on his remaining time in the sport. A fight with Georges St-Pierre could probably sell out Cowboys Stadium and would certainly have the potential to be the promotion’s most-watched pay-per-view event. The same could not be said for a Silva title fight, regardless of his opponent. Expect the UFC to move forward with this superfight, before Silva decides to make his vacation a permanent one.
Where that leaves the middleweight title is anyone’s guess.
Photo: Anderson Silva (L) at UFC 148 open workouts (James Law/Heavy MMA)