This morning, just weeks after Georges St-Pierre vacated the UFC middleweight title he ripped from Michael Bisping at UFC 217 and Robert Whittaker was promoted from interim titlist to true champion, the promotion has revealed that it will toss yet another interim belt into the 185-pound mix at UFC 221 in Perth, Western Australia next month.
The UFC made the decision to do so after Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the event, at which he was supposed to defend his recently upgraded strap against Luke Rockhold, due to an undisclosed injury. As a result, Rockhold will instead face Yoel Romero for an interim title fight at the Perth Arena on February 10th.
According to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, who broke the news of Whittaker’s withdrawal and the subsequent reshake, Whittaker wanted to compete in spite of his injury woes but was declared medically unfit to do so.
Romero last competed in July of 2017, when he lost a unanimous decision to Whittaker over five rounds in the main event of UFC 213. Their meeting had been declared an interim title fight due to a lack of championship activity in the division and amidst confusion surrounding Bisping’s on again, off again match-up with St-Pierre. The loss was Romero’s first since he was KO’d by Rafael Calvacante in a light-heavyweight bout at a Strikeforce event in September of 2011 and his first ever in the UFC.
Prior to being drafted in to replace Whittaker, Romero had been scheduled to face former two-weight WSOF champion David Branch at UFC on Fox 28 in Orlando, Florida on February 24th – exactly two weeks after the Perth event.
It remains to be seen if Branch will remain on that card.
Former champion Rockhold returned to action at UFC Fight Night 116 in September of 2017, ending the fifteen-month hiatus that followed his first-round stoppage defeat to Bisping at UFC 199 and the loss of his middleweight crown. He beat the aforementioned Branch in his comeback, forcing the veteran to submit to strikes in the second round despite making a shaky start.
While Rockhold vs. Romero is a high-quality replacement for Whittaker vs. Rockhold, it is likely to disappoint fans in Perth and those who had planned to travel from other parts of Australia. The New-Zealand born, Australia bred Whittaker was certainly the star of the show locally.
Taking to social media shortly after the news broke, Whittaker issued an apology to the fans.
“I would like to apologize to all my supporters and fans of MMA for not being able to put on the show you deserve,” he wrote on Instagram. “I’ve been ruled medically unable to compete and wont be able to defend on home soil. This card meant so much to me and I’m devastated for not being able to fight. All I can do is focus on getting healthy to come back better than ever. All the best to Yoel and Luke for their fight and ill be waiting…”
I would like to apologize to all my supporters and fans of MMA for not being able to put on the show you deserve. I’ve been ruled medically unable to compete and wont be able to defend on home soil. This card meant so much to me and I’m devastated for not being able to fight. All I can do is focus on getting healthy to come back better than ever. All the best to Yoel and Luke for their fight and ill be waiting…
Still on the card, however, is southern-hemisphere heavyweight hero Mark Hunt, his fellow Kiwi Luke Jumeau, and Australians Tai Tuivasa, Tyson Pedro, Jake Matthews, Damien Brown, Alexander Volkanovski, and Rob Wilkinson.