On Saturday morning Perth, Australia time—Friday night in the U.S.—the UFC 221 main event and the middleweight division fell into even more chaos when No. 1 contender Yoel Romero failed to make weight for a hastily thrown together interim title match. This was after Romero took the fight on short notice following the withdrawal of middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who was only promoted to lineal champ after Georges St-Pierre won the belt and handed it back like a hot potato.
Yes, we have ourselves a mess going on, which may be compounded further depending on the result of the fight between Romero and No. 2 contender Luke Rockhold. If Rockhold wins, he unequivocally becomes the next in line to fight Whittaker, but if Romero wins, then what? After missing weight, he is ineligible for the interim belt, but hell, it’s a “belt” in name only. “Interim” means whatever the UFC wants it to.
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Drama aside, Romero vs. Rockhold is still an excellent stylistic bout between two dynamic fighters who wield danger from opening horn to closing bell. By virtue of his No. 1 ranking, let’s start with Romero (12-2), who was installed as a slight favorite in the bout, only to see the odds tilt recently toward his opponent. The two-time Cuban wrestling Olympian is nearing his 41st birthday, and though he still looks like an updated version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, time is a key factor in everything about his career going forward. It is a factor in his championship desires, in the months between bouts, in the length of main events, and apparently, in the time necessary to cut down to 185 pounds. Even in the way he fights, Romero seems to express feelings of timing and tempo. He is patient, and is intent on keeping his own laborious pace, punctuated by sudden, explosive bursts designed to maim and mangle. This extreme stop-and-start style is often hypnotic for opponents who must account for the danger waiting around some unforeseen corner.
Whittaker, who was Romero’s last opponent in July 2017, was one of the first to actively and consistently attempt to mitigate that risk by continually leading, particularly with a front kick that had Romero backpedaling and served as an effective deterrent against Romero’s favored jump knee.
Romero’s boxing game isn’t particularly amazing but he has powerful hands and his left hand has gotten straighter and sharper with time and practice. Really, it’s his legs and knees that bring the danger. Even though he lost to Whittaker, Romero essentially battered him into a one-legged fighter with low kicks early. His flying knee is the stuff of nightmares, as both Chris Weidman and Clifford Starks can attest to.
His one-shot knockout power is one of the factors that often holds back aggression from opponents; the other is his wrestling ability.
Statistically, Romero is actually a below-average MMA takedown artist. During his UFC career, he’s completed a staggeringly low 32 percent of his takedown attempts, per FightMetric. Against Whittaker, for example, he was successful on just four of his 18 tries, and that was against an opponent compromised by injury.
The stat is somewhat misleading however; Romero is so experienced that he seems to feel out the moment and know when to explode into the takedown and when to pull back and reroute his energy into a fence-grind. That’s partly because Romero doesn’t always need a takedown to make his effort worthwhile. Remember, his style is to fights in bursts. So he’s not opposed to trying a takedown, and if he fails, alternating to plan B: pushing his opponent against the fence, putting his weight on him, helping along the onset of fatigue. Alternately, when he feels low resistance, he also can overwhelm opponents in the clinch.
While Romero has five third-round finishes, proving he’s dangerous all the way through a fight, it is his propensity to find rest spots during the action that makes him susceptible against more active opponents.
Rockhold (16-3) fits that profile. Historically, he lands 4.34 strikes per minute compared to 2.99 for Romero. The Californian centers nearly all of his offense off of two techniques: the left wheel kick and the right hook.
The rangy, 6-foot-4 southpaw is adept at using his reach advantage. He likes to walk opponents down, leading with kicks, then back-step into a counter hook when his opponent attempts to step into a strike. This is his best technique but also among his riskiest. Rockhold often overcommits to the check hook and if he misses, ends out of position and in line for a counter. That’s exactly the sequence that preceded his first knockdown at the hands of Michael Bisping in his shocking title loss. David Branch also took advantage of the issue in Rockhold’s most recent fight. In some ways, the southpaw vs. southpaw matchup against Romero helps safeguard Rockhold from that situation because if he overcommits to the hook and misses, he falls off to Romero’s weaker right-hand side. Still, against an improvisational striker, it’s a danger spot.
Rockhold’s takedown defense will no doubt be tested. For his career, he’s successfully stopped 68 percent of attempts against him. That’s a solid number, and it will have to hold up to give him his best chance. When he is taken down though, he is adept at well-walking to his feet. Training with smother wrestlers like Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez has certainly played dividends there.
It also wouldn’t be shocking to see Rockhold attempt to put Romero on his back. Rockhold may have the best top-game in the division, with slicing passes and an anchor-like mount that leads to striking and submission opportunities. His abilities there are rivaled only by Brazilian jiu jitsu phenom Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
His hellacious kicks to the body are one of his main weapons but he may be forced to adopt a different tactic here as again, the matchup of southpaws takes away one of his favored targets. Against an orthodox fighter, Rockhold would have an open line to the body, but against Romero his left leg will have a beeline to his back and shoulders. In addressing that change, Rockhold may resort to switching stances as he occasionally does, or he may spend more time attacking Romero’s legs with his own.
In assessing the bout, the current moneyline seems right. Romero fights in bursts, and while it often results in brilliant individual moments—some of which end in knockouts—it also by nature minimizes his chances of winning a long slog. He has survived this in the past with late finishes, but those don’t always come against truly elite competition. Any doubt in his late-fight energy stores is only exacerbated by yesterday’s failure to make weight. He is almost certainly more physically depleted than normal. Against Whittaker, he lost all of the last three rounds. Now he’s nearing 41 and drained, and that does not sound like a winning combination.
Rockhold is younger and more active, and has the length and firepower to frustrate Romero’s bursts. As Romero slows down, Rockhold catches him and finishes him with a fourth-round submission.