LAS VEGAS – Shortly after the co-main event, when Alistair Overeem was announced as the winner over Fabricio Werdum in a heavyweight match that Werdum seemed to have won, T-Mobile Arena was filled with angry boos.
The crowd, many of whom bought tickets which had “Cody Garbrandt versus T.J. Dillashaw for the bantamweight title,” on the front, didn’t get what they came to see.
The UFC put together a sensational, potentially incredible, card for UFC 213. Systematically, as happens in combat sports, it fell apart. Garbrandt was out with a back injury, and the fight with Dillashaw was scrapped. Donald Cerrone was out with a variety of ailments, and his bout with ex-welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, was moved pushed three weeks later.
And on Saturday morning, women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes was sick and didn’t feel she could fight. Her title bout with No. 1 contender Valentina Shevchenko was scrapped. White said he didn’t consider stripping Nunes because she has no history of pulling out of fights. The plan is for their fight to be rescheduled in September at UFC 215 in Edmonton. The UFC paid Shevchenko $70,000, but didn’t pay Nunes.
Women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk offered to fill in hoping to save the show, but the Nevada Athletic Commission said no, primarily because Jedrzejczyk hadn’t taken a pregnancy test and they take three days to complete.
The biggest cheer of the night came in between the main and co-main events, when the UFC played a promo in the arena that featured former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and chronicled all of his troubles. It was a chilling three minutes, a remarkable cut that might have been the best the company has ever done.
But then the interim middleweight title fight between took some of the edge off their anger. Robert Whittaker, overcoming an early knee injury, won a five-round decision, capping an improbable journey to the top of the sport.
All three judges scored it 48-47 for Whittaker. Yahoo Sports had it 48-47 for Whittaker, giving him the final three rounds.
Whittaker injured his knee in the first after a kick from Romero in the first, and fell behind early as Romero, a 2000 silver medalist for Cuba in the Sydney Olympics, took him down several times and worked him over from the top.
Whittaker, though, used a combination of solid kicks, particularly a front kick that kept backing Romero up, and strikes that seemed to land more consistently as the fight moved on.
It was a back-and-forth bout in which each man had his moments, but Whittaker gutted it out and did what he had to do to win.
“Fabulous,” Whittaker said not long after UFC president Dana White wrapped the belt around his waist.
White was effusive, praising Whittaker’s grit in overcoming the injury, the corner for a good plan and guiding him through and Whittaker for his perseverance in continuing to improve year after year.
“His performance was incredible,” White said. “He looked unbelievable. You look at him and he’s 26 and you see, ‘What will that guy look like when he’s 29. Plus, he’s [got a] very good team around him.”
Whittaker didn’t have long to celebrate as the injured champion, Michael Bisping, entered the cage and turned full heel once again.
Looking at Whittaker’s belt, Bisping sneered and said, “That makes me sick. You should be ashamed of yourself.” He then slammed his own belt to the canvas, encouraged Whittaker to try to take it and then stormed out of the cage.
Whittaker was more bemused than angry. For a guy who after winning TUF: Smashes in 2012 went on a two-fight losing streak that made him reevaluate everything about his game, it was a stunning and inspirational reversal.
And so when Bisping pulled his stunt, Whittaker didn’t get upset. He’d done too much and come a long way in too short of a time.
“He’s the champion for a reason,” Whittaker said. “He’s been in the sport for a hell of a long time.”
Whittaker proved in besting Romero that he can deal with any style. He routed Jacare Souza his last time out, overcoming Souza’s dominant jiu jitsu. He handled an Olympic medal-winning wrestler on Saturday, and though he was taken down a few times, he basically neutralized Romero’s greatest skill.
He’s beaten strikers like Uriah Hall and soon will get a chance at Bisping.
His win Saturday was the culmination of a lifetime of work.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a moment I’ve always dreamed of. My knee was definitely hurt. I injured it in camp and Romero’s kick set it back weeks. I know that Romero will capitalize on any weakness he sees, so I had to play it off. That’s just what champions are made of. I’m ready to fight Bisping next. I believe it was destiny for us to meet and I am looking forward to it.”
Romero said the fight “was dead even” when Whittaker took him down.
“The game is not finished,” he said. “We’ve got a second part coming. To be continued.”
But Whittaker is clearly a young fighter on the rise, and he’s off, at least for now, to bigger and better things.
“People were still thinking I was a sleeper,” Whittaker said. “People were underrating me a bit. That’s fine. I get it [but] I can only be me. I think I fly under the radar a bit.”
After that performance Saturday, though, flying under the radar is, finally, a thing of the past.