UFC 221: The Complexities of the Middleweight Title

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UFC 221 Luke Rockhold
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero battle for a piece of championship gold at UFC 221, but even this fight can’t completely clear up the confusing division.

This Saturday was supposed to determine the best middleweight in the world. Unfortunately, a litany of injuries to current champion Robert Whittaker means that the definitive answer to that question will have to wait. Until then, the standings will still gain clarity as Yoel Romero will fight Luke Rockhold for the interim middleweight championship in the UFC 221 headliner.

The first thing that should be remembered is that this bout could very well have taken place later this year regardless of whether or not Whittaker had remained. If Rockhold had defeated Whittaker, he would have likely been penciled in to face either Romero or Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza later in 2018. Even with a loss, one of the most obvious names he could have been paired against is “The Soldier or God.”

For Rockhold, there is a benefit to no longer having to face the local hero in Perth, Australia. It’s one of the few setbacks that might have worked to his favor. In 2016, he accepted a fight with Michael Bisping on two weeks notice in which he was on the losing end of one of the year’s biggest upsets. In less than five minutes in the cage, his time as a UFC champion was over. Furthermore, a persistent knee injury kept him out of action for more than a year until he defeated David Branch last October.

During that time, he has watched the middleweight division unfold. His rival Bisping boasted his status as the best in the weight class, and the division was held in flux as “The Count” refused any challenge other than St-Pierre. It was a bout that Rockhold was vocally very critical of.

When St-Pierre vacated the title, Whittaker went from interim to undisputed champion and Rockhold was pegged as his first challenger. For Whittaker, it was a chance to complete a sweep of the divisions elite. For Rockhold, it’s a chance to undo his last year of turmoil and return to the zenith of the MMA world as a UFC champion.

On a parallel path, Yoel Romero has his own chance to get right back into title contention in Whittaker’s absence. When “The Soldier of God” knocked out Chris Weidman in 2016, the only fight to make was between Romero and then champion Bisping. The two engaged in verbal warfare for months, but injuries and delays by the English champion put Romero on the back burner. As it became apparent Bisping would not return promptly, Romero accepted a fight with Whittaker for the interim title and what should have been a guaranteed fight for the undisputed title.

Whittaker would be the one who prevailed in the contest and Romero has been inactive since. He was briefly linked to a fight with David Branch, however, the injury to Whittaker has given Romero a great opportunity. After a loss to “The Reaper,” the Cuban contender had a long rebuild ahead of him. Instead, a victory over Rockhold would put him in a position to avenge his loss to Whittaker and arguably become the best middleweight in the world. The trifecta of Whittaker, Rockhold, and Romero have dispatched all of the UFCs elite at 185 between them. Of the three, the fighter who can dispatch the other two first would be the unquestioned best middleweight in the world.

Stylistically, the late replacement favors Rockhold in every category. The San Jose product has had weeks to prepare for a five-round championship match.  Romero has notoriously struggled with his cardio in the later rounds and was preparing for a much less dangerous fighter in Branch.

For Romero, the key is to get Rockhold against the fence where he will be able to do the most damage. Against Branch, Rockhold left several critical openings where he took big punches against the cage. The more explosive Romero should be able to exploit that position to even greater effect. Also, the fence will make it easier for him to drag Rockhold to the mat where he can use his Olympic caliber wrestling to keep the former champion on the defensive. Finally, keeping Rockhold against the fence takes away the space he needs to use his powerful kicks which are arguably his best weapon.

For Rockhold, the key will be to use his footwork to get in and out with punches. Romero is at his most dangerous in the first two rounds so it is imperative he avoids taking unnecessary risks in the early going. He should avoid leg kicks until the later rounds when Romero has slowed down and there is less threat of being taken down. Furthermore, he can use the clinch himself to hold Romero against the cage where the Cuban will tire faster as he carries the weight of the American.

The winner of the match will be in prime position for the undisputed crown, a fight that many are optimistic will happen. Recently, Whittaker went on the MMA Hour and said he was targeting a return in mid-2018 barring setbacks. In the event that Whittaker isn’t ready for action for an extended period of time, the winner could potentially face Jacare Souza. Both men have previous business with him as Rockhold previously fought Souza in 2011 and were scheduled for a rematch in 2016 that never materialized. In late 2015, Romero and Souza fought to a razor close split-decision after several attempts to put the fight together.

Regardless of the future, the middleweight title picture will be relieved of some tension after Romero and Rockhold collide at UFC 221. It will feature two of the best middleweights of the decade with the added bonus of gold on the line, a perfect bout for the debut in Perth, Australia.

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