Robert Whittaker Forced Out Of UFC 221, Replaced by Yoel Romero

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Photo: Kyle Terada for USA TODAY Sports

The first high-profile bout to be bitten by the injury bug in 2018 is here.

News arrived from ESPN early this morning that UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker has been forced out of his first scheduled title defense against former champion Luke Rockhold in the main event of February 10’s UFC 221 from Perth, Australia.

Rockhold will now face top-ranked contender Yoel Romero, whom Whittaker initially beat for the interim title in the main event of last July’s UFC 213, for a new interim title. Whittaker just became the official champion after former champ Georges St-Pierre vacated the title following his third-round submission win over former champ Michael Bisping in the main event of November 4’s UFC 217.

It’s an especially devastating hit for an already lacking pay-per-view, which features Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes in the co-main but not much else that would justify calling it a true pay-per-view-worthy event.

Regardless, Rockhold will continue his climb back towards the title by facing Romero, who was scheduled to take on David Branch on February 24, for the interim title. The former Strikeforce and UFC champ only recently returned to action following a lengthy layoff after his loss to Bisping at UFC 199, defeating former WSOF champ Branch last September. Romero has been out of action since his loss to Whittaker.

Many thought that, following roughly a year-and-a-half of uncertainty during Bisping’s chaotic reign, the division was finally set for some clarity and progression towards the norm with the champion facing a rightful number one contender, and indeed the decision to have Whittaker headline UFC 221 was an obvious one considering his ties to Australia.

That will have to wait, however, as it’s unknown what Whittaker’s timeline to return is, leaving yet another UFC title on the shelf. The understandably devastated champion issued a brief statement addressing his disappointment at being declared unfit to compete:

“I’m beyond disappointed that I’m unable to defend the title in my home country of Australia. I hope the fans enjoy what should be a great night of fights at UFC 221 and I look forward to a recovery as soon as possible that will have me back in the Octagon to face the winner of the main event.”

The turn of events is also a blow to the UFC’s seeming attempts to get some of their most talented divisions back on track in some sense by using the old style of having champions fight top contenders, but as the past has repeatedly shown, nothing is guaranteed in the cutthroat world of the fight game – especially high-profile title fights.

UFC 221 will feature a title fight, but at what point will fans stop caring about interim titles, if they haven’t already?