Phil and David break down everything you need to know about UFC 221 in Australia, and everything you don’t about Staphylococcus.
(Editor’s note: This article was written up before Romero missed weight)
Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero headlines UFC 221 this February 11, 2018 (February 10th in North America) at the Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.
Record: Luke Rockhold 16-3 | Yoel Romero 12-2
Odds: Luke Rockhold -145 | Yoel Romero +135
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: Unpacking Rockhold’s UFC career up to this point reads like some sort of Robert Ludlum novel. He seemed like a quality candidate to take over middleweight in the post-Anderson Silva world. Then he got steamrolled against dinosaur jr. He came back, only to get steamrolled by Michael Bisping. One win later, and he’s back into title contention. There’s something about Rockhold’s UFC tenure that feels both earned and unearned all at once. Miraculously, his opponents are the ones getting hit by the injury bug instead of ‘ole cool hand Luke.
Phil: Luke Rockhold was on top of the world. One of the best athletes and most well-rounded fighters in the middleweight division, he was poised to rule it for a while. Then a featherfisted Brit knocked him out, sat on the belt for a while, and a whole bunch of other weird stuff happened. A combination of injuries and people not accepting matches kept Rockhold on the sidelines, until Dave Branch bravely decided to try his luck. It wasn’t exactly a smooth comeback, but it ended up with Rockhold pounding Branch out and trying his luck at the new middleweight champion, Robert Whittaker. The Staphylococcus bacteria had something to say about that.
David: I remember thinking Romero would just be a wrestling version of Jacare—excellent fighter with elite skills, but will never quite hit that last pugilism gear necessary to achieve greatness. Instead he’s an excellent fighter with elite skills whose never quite hit that last pugilism gear necessary to achieve greatness. Unlike Jacare, who simply has a ceiling against types of fighters, Romero can hulk smash his way through almost anything. This fight will help clarify the comparison. Is Romero closer to Jacare, or not-retired Anthony Johnson?
Phil: After he beat Jacare, Romero became the “why the hell hasn’t this guy fought for the title shot” front-runner, a position he cemented when he hit Chris Weidman with a flying knee that catapulted him right over the former champion’s head. His reward was to get an interim fight against the increasingly unstoppable-looking Whittaker. Romero fought courageously despite fading, and I really have come around on the guy. I used to think he was a bit random; someone cruising to victory on pure athleticism and unpredictability, but fights like the Weidman bout illuminated the method behind the madness. He plans and he thinks, but he does it in his own way.
What’s at stake?
Phil: A title shot against B-Knucks, naturally. It will probably have a bit more of a thrill to it if it’s Rockhold that comes out on top- a fresh fight, the deposed king coming back for his throne (and getting buzzsawed most likely), and all that jazz, but the Romero-Whittaker fight was also a hell of a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them run it back.
David: Everything you said, basically. I actually think a rematch with Romero is more interesting. Rockhold is still something of a loose fighter with uneven cage behavior, and I could absolutely see Whittaker just eating him for lunch like a meatball sub.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Rockhold is a powerfully evolved version of the kick-grappler archetype. It’s never been a style that I’m hugely in love with, but Rockhold makes it work with supercharged athleticism and devastating finishing threats in every phase. Stay at range and Rockhold runs the body kick, head kick (question mark kick?) and leg kick attritive game. Close in and he looks to land the check right hook. He’s absurdly powerful in the clinch, has perhaps the single most nightmarish top game in the UFC pound for pound. Taking him down in open space normally results in him clambering up on the opponent or flipping them over as they attack. He reminds me of TJ Dillashaw a bit in this way- enormous leg dexterity allows him to shift the center of gravity and ensure that he’s attacking guillotines and sweeps from a position of strength. His problems have been in his boxing. We’ve been harping on them since… the Machida fight? And it doesn’t look like they’re going away. Big, loping steps, a tendency to lean back over his own rear leg. As previously mentioned, I think this is designed to beat right hands or takedowns by feeding his lead leg, but it leaves him rather open to stepping out and left hands, or just punting the leg.
David: The thing that always made Rockhold intriguing as a potential throne-holder was his unique blend of well-roundedness minus the boring mechanics of well-roundedness. He’s one of the most fluid grapplers in the sport (period) thanks to his athleticism, knowledge, and understanding of tactics. His striking is unorthodox in a way that isn’t meant to be vague or derogatory; he’s good at gauging distance with a happy meal menu of kick carbs and punch proteins. He reminds me of Shinya Aoki minus the foot fetish, but plus high octane striking violence. During transitions, switches, and close quarter grappling, few fighters move so fluidly into position to dictate the pace. Most of his issues in recent years has been his tendency to get too comfortable at range. As great as is on the ground, and in the clinch, his pace is never urgent enough to keep him out of harm’s way and he’s not the kind of fighter who can blast the double from afar to eliminate predictable entries.
Phil: Yoel Romero is a case study in strategic energy preservation; like one of those anime heroes who can become five times more powerful and faster than anyone else, but only for very limited amounts of time. So a lot of his game is clever misdirection- shoving opponents to one side, faking them out into throwing into space, using 40% of his power just to snap down and skip away from shots. When he goes full-pelt, he needs to make sure that it counts. It’s often something esoteric, but you can be sure that he’s thought carefully about it. Much of his thought process seems to be focused on up-down movement and rhythm. If you think about how things like his trademark ankle pick which he carried through from his wrestling career, his jump knee and his double leg play together, you can see how he bobs and fakes and generally attacks on a vertical axis. His first love was boxing, and his brother is a cruiserweight champion, and he is a smart, nuanced boxer with a laser left straight and an increasingly effective right hook. He’s a good kicker as well, and damn near crippled Whittaker early. It’s simply that he can’t keep that kind of destructive power going for whole rounds at a time. But then again, I don’t think anyone could.
David: Built like a human tank (minus the human part, more or less), Romero succeeds by operating exactly like one. He kind of dozes forward, never feeling rushed to finish, but never pressured to worry about not finishing. He’s simply (too) good at resetting—nobody looks like they’re having fun inside the cage with him. If they try to pressure, he can slam them to the ground. If they try to gauge, he can lunge in with a heavy, brutal strike. In some ways, this is his great Achilles’ heel; he had has to fight this way, because without being a full fledged threat each round, he would either gas out, or get caught. He’s MMA’s version of a middle child, if you will. I’ve said before, but Romero is like a passage chord or note—he uses chunks of the fight as a kind of intermission, lulling his opponent into the rhythm he’s already established like some creepy marketing music meant to rewire your subconscious attitudes. That’s not some psychobabble either; of his 10 knockout wins, only 4 came within the first round (hilariously, all the rest occurred in the 3rd; he owns no 2nd round KO wins). Despite all the subtleties, he’s as bruising a fighter as there is.
Insight from past fights?
David: I’m still not wild about the way Rockhold casually treats the midrange game. He’s obviously brilliant enough at range to get away with these flaws, and it’s not like Romero can’t be exploited with Rockhold’s strategy. Still, Rockhold’s defense doesn’t jive with an elite counterattack the way his cage tone suggests. Rockhold can start slow, and his offense can balk in spots. If it were just one of these issues, I wouldn’t have a problem picking Rockhold, but I feel like the potential combination could make Romero more effective early.
Phil: I’m still not wild about the way Romero’s game plays against kicks. The Machida fight was relatively competitive until it wasn’t, and both the Weidman and Kennedy fights felt like they were closer than the final result showed. I think the primary difference between those fighters and Rockhold is that if he’s landing kicks, he won’t try and mix them up with kicks, or try and rush Romero. He’ll just keep throwing them.
David: If this fight gets cancelled, I’m throwing my computer across the room and hoping it will land on something explosive.
Phil: Romero’s coming in on relatively short notice. I’m not sure how much preparation he needs for fights, but given that he’s now 40 years old, and Rockhold is incredibly injury-prone, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either man coming in compromised.
Phil: I go back and forth. I think Romero is the smarter fighter, and the only middleweight who is a better athlete than Rockhold. He’s more durable, and I can see him landing similar shots to those that Machida or Bisping landed- Rockhold seeming increasingly like a southpaw who isn’t that fantastic against other southpaws. However, Rockhold’s pace and range seems like it’s tailor made to trouble Romero’s style. I just don’t think it’s advisable to hang out at range and try to brush his body kicks away, and that it will gradually wear the Cuban down. Luke Rockhold by TKO, round 4.
David: The difficult part about predicting this fight is that I think it will be decided by moments rather than patterns. Bisping gave Rockhold trouble because he was active. Vitor was taking Jurassic Park dino-roids (again, pro-steroids here), and Romero’s lack of activity is as much of a factor as his punching power. I guess I’m not convinced Rockhold is durable enough to stay out of a heated exchange whereas I can see Romero being neutralized and battered by Luke’s kicks but still throwing some sort of double pump flying knee for the KO. Yoel Romero by TKO, round 3.