Kelvin Gastelum punches at Robert Whittaker at UFC APEX in Nevada. | Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
Paulo Costa was supposed to fight Jared Cannonier for UFC APEX this weekend. He’s not, and the UFC doesn’t seem to care about its consequences. It wasn’t that long ago when Middleweight felt like one of the UFC’s premiere divisions. Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker were two exciting fighters representing the transition away from the post-Anderson Silva era. Before then, it wasn’t 185’s greatest moment. Chris Weidman took a seat on the the throne for 889 days until losing to Luke Rockhold. Then Michael Bisping took his seat. Then Georges St-Pierre. And so on.
None of that was all that flattering in fight terms. That isn’t to take away from any of the champs. But you’d be forgiven for thinking of these names like beer coasters. They feel like asterisks more than ascendancies. GSP? One of the greatest fighters ever. But his middleweight supremacy is like Brad Pitt in Deadpool 2: a cameo that steals the show, but is still just empty calories.
Rockhold and Bisping weren’t cameos, but they still felt like appendages more than the limbs of middleweight folklore. Am I being too hard on the middleweight division? Maybe. Or maybe Anderson Silva’s shadow looms too large. Silva owns the longest title reign in UFC history. How can anyone compete with that? You don’t, of course. Maybe somebody breaks his record one day. Maybe not. Breaking Silva’s record at middleweight might be impossible, but the struggle to get there should not.
That’s where middleweight feels like it’s losing its way. And it’s doing so based on the same machinations that marginalized the presence of Francis Ngannou. This weekend’s bout was supposed to be Paulo Costa vs. Jared Cannonier. Then Costa, like Ngannou, started talking about fighter pay. For Dana’s stans, the obvious rejoinder is ‘well why did Costa sign on the dotted line?’ According to Costa, he didn’t. When Dana was given Costa’s comments about not signing on to fight Cannonier, his response was surprisingly non-committal. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Dana is typically a ‘Pics or GTFO’ kind of guy. I don’t feel like extrapolating more than is necessary, but that kind of indeterminate language is uncharacteristic of White, which lends credence to what Costa said. Costa is an easy target for fans, and even his peers. To be mentioned in the same breath as Ngannous is silly business, right? Well, is it? Costa is not some also-ran. He’s the number two ranked middleweight in the world. His only loss is to the current middleweight champion. Sure, he has unserious opinions about pandemics, and clearly hallucinated his excuses about why he lost at UFC 253 — but if we’re supposed to Stick to Sports as the sports layman likes to say, why are these suddenly reasons not to take Costa seriously?
I know. His performance against Adesanya was lacking to say the absolutely least. But a lot went into Israel’s dominance: certainly more craft than what’s going on with why the UFC’s divisions keep losing their foundations. Retirement should be the natural conclusion of a career — not a negotiating tactic for an extended reign. This is not to disrespect Cannonier vs. Gastelum. Gastelum is 1-4 in his last five. He’s not a serious contender at this point in his career, but Cannonier very much is. However good Cannonier is, his middleweight resume isn’t anywhere near Costa’s.
The UFC’s treatment of Ngannou may attract plenty of warranted attention. But erasing the history of a middleweight contender with a wine-consumption issue everyone laughs at? That’s the easy stuff. And that’s unfortunate. Costa might not ever be a champion, but he’s a big part of what makes the middleweight belt a reflection of its validity. Cannonier might beat Gastelum, but beating someone higher ranked is a big part of what makes the middleweight hierarchy a reflection of his contendership. I know the UFC tried to book better fights. But something tells me they’re either not trying hard enough, or plenty satisfied with improvising lesser matchups.
I know this probably comes across as whiny. ‘What’s the big deal? Adesanya is still an elite middleweight champ. Cannonier could be better than Costa long term. And this is a good fight anyway. Cheer up brother!’ That’s probably fair. But it’s hard to avoid the overarching theme of my Bloody Elbow peers who’ve been talking about bringing back tournaments, the outlier that is Ciryl Gane, or the valid but uncomfortable booking philosophy of Sean O’Malley — as the hierarchy of divisions fade, so does the aura of what makes each champion a special reflection of pugilism history.