UFC 213 saw a new No. 1 contender rise to the top in the middleweight division as Robert Whittaker claimed the interim belt with a unanimous-decision win over Yoel Romero in the surprise main event from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday.
MMAjunkie tweeted out the judges' scorecards:
The first round served as a preview for why this was a tantalizing matchup. Both fighters attacked in bursts, with Whittaker landing quick combinations with his hands. Romero attacked with vicious kicks to the legs and body, connecting on a front kick to Whittaker's left knee that appeared to have an impact on his movement.
The Cuban landed a takedown, but Whittaker bounced back up. MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani scored the round for Romero but was impressed by the Australian's defense:
Romero would once again put Bobby Knuckles' takedown defense to the test in Round 2. He scored an early takedown and spent the opening minutes of the round wearing down Whittaker with ground-and-pound.
Even when Whittaker worked his way to the feet, Romero was quick to smother him in the clinch. Shaheen Al-Shatti of MMA Fighting gave Whittaker credit for hanging tough despite an apparent leg injury through the first two rounds:
Hanging tough would pay dividends for Whittaker in the third. As Romero slowed, Bobby Knuckles found a rhythm and made his mark on the fight with pressure of his own. The UFC tweeted out some of the highlights from the round:
UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping also took the round break to tear up a Cuban flag and throw it in Romero's direction:
Whittaker's defensive wrestling and striking once again carried the day as he stunned Romero more than once in the round and fended off the takedowns to provide a winner-take-all round in the fifth frame:
The final round featured a bloody, exhausted barroom brawl in which both fighters heaved what they had left. However, an ill-fated punch that caused Romero to slip was the death knell. Whittaker pounced on top of the Cuban to win the round and the fight.
UFC 213's main event was supposed to be a women's bantamweight title bout between Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko, but Nunes pulled out of the fight hours before the card started for undisclosed medical reasons, per Brett Okamoto of ESPN.
A bout that now has the ability to spark the middleweight division back into relevancy wasn't a bad replacement main event.
The Bisping era has left the 185-pound division forgotten recently. The 38-year-old champion has taken his time between defenses and dealt with a knee injury that has put the entire division on hold.
The wait for a unification fight shouldn't be much longer, though. Bisping has been holding out for a potential date with UFC legend Georges St-Pierre, but it's looking like he'll have to settle for the winner of Saturday's bout.
Bobby Knuckles has what it takes to revitalize a division that has been lying dormant. The 26-year-old has been on an absolute tear of late. Romero joins a list of opponents that counts Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Derek Brunson among those who couldn't withstand the new interim champion's hands.
At this point, with the interim title around Whittaker's waist and an eight-fight win streak to the challenger's name, even Bisping acknowledges he can't wait around for GSP anymore.
"Georges, you've got until Saturday," Bisping told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour (via FanSided's Mike Heck). "Because on Saturday, I'm going to be on the FS1 post-fight show and one of those two, tune in, Whittaker or Romero will be joining me at the desk, so you know that will have fireworks. If I can't say I'm fighting GSP by then, then I have to say that I'm fighting Whittaker or Romero."
Now that the fight has taken place, Bisping has his answer.
The next man up is Whittaker, and after taming Romero, the Australian looks like he'll add Bisping to his list of victims and become the next UFC champion.