The bad news Saturday afternoon sent a shock to the hearts of MMA fans everywhere when it reported UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was forced to pull out of the main event of UFC 234. The Aussie was supposed to defend his belt against Kelvin Gastelum, but instead had to have emergency hernia surgery, and he’s expected to be on the sidelines recovering for 4-8 weeks, depending on who you ask. With Whittaker injured, the UFC pulled Gastelum from the card and elevated Anderson Silva and Israel Adesanya to the main event, while the UFC middleweight title failed to be defended once again.
The natural question to ask is what’s next for the UFC middleweight division. UFC president Dana White was asked what’s going to happen next, and he said he wasn’t sure, though he did say the UFC was not planning on stripping Whittaker. Though the middleweight champ hasn’t fought since last June against Yoel Romero, it’s not his fault he got hurt, and the UFC doesn’t plan on holding it against him. It’s possible an interim title could be introduced, but based on what White said, it seems like the UFC is content on waiting for Whittaker to heal and defend the undisputed title whenever he is healthy enough to return.
Who he will fight when he comes back, though, is the big question mark.
When asked if Gastelum was still next in line for the title shot, White said he wasn’t sure, and reading between the lines it appears as though Gastelum has lost his potential title shot to Adesanya, who beat Silva in a “Fight of the Night” performance. The UFC and White in particular love Adesanya, and view him as a future star and money chip for the promotion. With the UFC 234 pay-per-view apparently doing really well at the box office according to White, the UFC likely has the internal metrics to back up its assessment that Adesanya would be better suited to co-headline a PPV rather than Gastelum, even if the former TUF winner has done nothing wrong and doesn’t deserve to lose his title shot.
It’s possible the UFC could opt to still do the Whittaker vs. Gastelum fight in a couple months, and then have Adesanya fight the winner (he himself suggested this as the post-fight press conference), but I have a feeling the UFC is going to try and give Adesanya the title shot next. It just makes more sense for the promotion to do that, even if Gastelum gets screwed in the process. Adesanya has superstar potential, and the UFC won’t want to drop the ball on his ascendance into superstardom. The promotion likely would rather have Adesanya as the middleweight champion than Whittaker, but he’ll need to beat him to take the title. If I had to guess, you’ll see Whittaker vs. Adesanya in June or July for the middleweight title, and Gastelum will have to fight someone else in the meantime. It’s not fair to do things that way, but that’s MMA for you, a sport where a title shot is not guaranteed. Just ask Colby Covington about that.