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Trading Shots: Untangling the middleweight title mess after Robert Whittaker’s UFC 234 withdrawal

What’s to become of the UFC’s middleweight division now that the champ is in the hospital and every other possible contender is trying to jump into his place? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: Help me out here, Danny. How’s it go, that phrase about the best-laid plans of mice and men? Because I’m sitting here the morning after UFC 234 and it sure seems like the best-laid plans of the middleweight division might have just turned to crap before our very eyes.

It was supposed to be so simple. Robert Whittaker would defend his UFC middleweight title against Kelvin Gastelum in the main event, while Israel Adesanya would face Anderson Silva in the co-main event. Then you take the winner of one fight and match him up against the winner of the other, and boom, you’ve got a tidy little title procession going.

Of course, that was before the phrase “collapsed bowel” entered our lexicon.

Now you’ve got “Bobby Knuckles” laid up in the hospital while Gastelum walks around with a title belt of unknown origin and Adesanya declares himself the No. 1 contender. What gives, man? And what do you make of the champ coming down with such an ailment so close to fight time? Is this the scourge of weight-cutting, now wreaking its havoc on people’s bowels?

Downes: I can’t believe it took this long for me to ponder the effects of a collapsed bowel. While I may not be the medical expert that Matt Damon is, I assume it’s not much fun.

There’s a tendency to blame anything that happens this close to the fight on weight-cutting, but that seems like an oversimplification to me. I’m sure Whittaker was in a weakened state from the cut, but I can’t think of any reason why the cut would directly cause the hernia. But these things happen in MMA. Tony Ferguson lost a title shot tripping over an extension cord. Collapsed bowel doesn’t even enter the top 10 of strangest injuries in MMA.

As for what to do with the division, I say we stick with the original plan. Have Whittaker defend against Gastelum and the winner faces Israel Adesanya. Outpointing Anderson Silva shouldn’t let you skip the line. If Colby Covington is any example, though, there’s no way of telling how the UFC determines who earns a title shot.

The situation is certainly less than ideal, but I wouldn’t call it a disaster. Worst-case scenario, you have a guy sit on the shelf an extra few months. The UFC loves to throw belts around, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an interim middleweight champ in the near future. Would that be so bad? I don’t know what lessons we can learn other than definitely don’t buy a UFC pay per view a couple days in advance.

Fowlkes: See, here’s the rare situation where I actually think an interim title might be a reasonable choice. The champ is out of action due to bizarre health problems that really left him no other choice. The division now has at least two credible contenders, but neither one of them seems like he absolutely must be next in line, like he’s been denied for too long and it’s simply unconscionable to make him wait any longer.

You’re not going to strip the champion just because his bowels are collapsed. And whatever dreams you might have of him being ready to go again in six weeks seem … fanciful. The man was rushed into surgery. His guts are all ruptured and what not. Let him have as much time as he needs before we encourage anyone to kick him in the stomach. So what do you do with the division in the meantime?

If the answer turns out to be yanking a belt out of the supply closet and letting Gastelum and Adesanya bludgeon each other for it, I wouldn’t hate that idea. Which, honestly, I feel weird about admitting. Because normally I’d tell you the proliferation of meaningless interim titles was a problem. Or, actually, is it only a problem because it makes them harder to take seriously in situations like this, where they might really be warranted?

Downes: I still don’t understand the interim title thing. Aren’t they all essentially worthless? They have value in terms of selling pay-per-view units or getting fighters some extra money, but I’m talking about them conceptually.

Ferguson is technically a former (interim) lightweight champion, but do you really view him as a former champ? Let’s say Khabib Nurmagomedov loses his next fight. His short reign would still feel more “real” than Ferguson’s.

You’re probably not going to get Adesanya or Gastelum to sign on the dotted line for a no. 1 contender fight unless an interim title is up for grabs. So while I understand the necessity of using one, it still doesn’t mean much to me.

The excessive use of interim titles the last few years has certainly hastened the decline of their importance, but I think it would have happened eventually any way. An interim title is worth as much as the replica belt Gastelum was walking around with yesterday.

If you’re not going to strip Whittaker (and I don’t think the UFC should), it doesn’t make sense to have a second middleweight champ walking around. We don’t know the timetable for “Bobby Knuckle’s” return, but it doesn’t seem like a Dominick Cruz situation where he’ll be out for an entire year. It’s also not a Conor McGregor situation where the champ is holding up a division to try his hand at boxing.

A division’s champ should be be like The Highlander – there can only be one. Right now, that man is Whittaker. Until he loses that belt in a fight, I’m not going to recognize anyone else.

Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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