A new interim middleweight champion will be crowned at UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, as Luke Rockhold takes on Yoel Romero in a clash between the two top contenders at 185 pounds.
Rockhold was originally scheduled to meet middleweight champion Robert Whittaker this weekend, but an injury knocked the champ out of the fight and gave Romero the opportunity to step into this main event.
Romero is widely considered one of the toughest matchups in the division but Rockhold is a former champion with a long list of top ranked opponents on his resume.
Also on the card, heavyweight knockout artist Mark Hunt returns to action against fast rising challenger Curtis Blaydes, while top-notch prospect Tai Tuivasa makes his second appearance in the UFC as he faces off with Cyril Asker.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these fights and several more to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset at UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold.
These are the fights that are just too close to call, but a few minor differences between favorite and underdog could lead one fighter to victory and the other to defeat.
Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero
Both Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero have faced the best of the best in the middleweight division throughout the years, but this will be the first time they will clash inside the Octagon.
Rockhold is coming off a win over David Branch in his most recent fight, as he looks to regain the middleweight title after losing the belt in 2016. At his best, Rockhold might just be the most well rounded fighter in the division, with nasty striking on the feet and a world-class grappling game on the mat.
Rockhold will not shy away from a fight on the feet or on the ground, but it's likely in this matchup that he'll try to force Romero to exert a lot of energy early so he'll have less in the gas tank by the time this matchup makes it to the third round and beyond. Rockhold will enjoy a comfortable three and a half-inch reach advantage over Romero and he'll need to use that length to keep the former Olympic silver medalist from getting inside and unleashing his devastating power.
Rockhold certainly has the ability to knock out anyone as well, but he doesn't carry that same kind of explosive, one shot power that Romero displays regularly. Instead, Rockhold will likely look to pepper away at Romero, considering that he lands over five strikes per minute with 61 percent accuracy. That kind of volume can do a lot of damage over the course of a fight.
As for Romero, he's likely one of the most dangerous matchups for anybody in the UFC during those first two rounds, but he showed in his battle with Robert Whittaker last year that he can certainly last during a 25-minute battle. Romero is arguably one of the greatest wrestlers to ever step foot inside the Octagon, but he rarely uses his wrestling if his striking is already getting the job done.
Romero isn't a volume striker but he actually has solid averages on the feet for both shots landed and accuracy. That being said, Romero is at his best when he can explode forward and fire away at an opponent with a huge combination that has put down more than a few fighters over the years. Romero will also get creative, as he's shown in past fights when he threw a spinning back fist that floored Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza or the flying knee that put away former champion Chris Weidman in 2016.
Romero is very good at springing surprises on his opponents and that has hurt Rockhold in the past. He got caught in an exchange with Michael Bisping that cost him the title and the same thing happened when he was blasted with a head kick from nowhere when he fought Vitor Belfort. If Romero can use that element of surprise against Rockhold by bullying him early and then launching one of those crazy offensive attacks, he might just leave Australia with a win on his record and an interim title belt around his waist.
Jake Matthews vs. Li Jingliang
Australian Jake Matthews will look to get his second win in a row this weekend, but he faces a very tough challenge from Li Jingliang, who has looked incredible lately while putting together an impressive four-fight win streak.
Matthews has remained one of the top young prospects on the roster after first debuting by way of The Ultimate Fighter Nations, but he's also endured quite a few ups and downs since arriving on the UFC roster. A move up to welterweight helped Matthews get back on track in his last fight, where he was no longer a victim of a tough weight cut but instead looked more energetic, with better explosiveness and conditioning throughout. Now Matthews has shown very well rounded skills throughout his UFC career, but this time around he may want to rely on his grappling a little bit more. Matthews actually averages two and a half takedowns per fight and that might be his best weapon to ground the offensive outbursts that Liunleashes in his fights.
Li has shown incredible knockout power in recent fights, where he's landing over four significant strikes per minute with very good accuracy as well. Li loves to put pressure on his opponents with an aggressive game plan where he comes forward until trapping a fighter against the cage and unleashing his devastating power. Li is very good at overwhelming his opposition, and that's why Matthews would be smart to stall that strategy by taking him to the ground.
Li hasn't shown great takedown defense in the past, stopping just 57 percent of the attempts against him, probably in large part because he's so aggressive that it leaves him open to a quality wrestling counter attack. Now if Li can stop those takedowns or just put so much pressure on Matthews that the Aussie gets desperate, this could be another swarming attack that ends with a fourth TKO victory in his past five fights.
Li has showed marked improvement recently and if he can really turn up the heat on Matthews early, he might just leave Australia with his fifth win in a row.
Prediction: Li Jingliang by TKO, Round 2
Jussier Formiga vs. Ben Nguyen
In a pivotal matchup at 125 pounds, perennial contender Jussier Formiga will look to get another high profile win as he takes on one of the most exciting fighters in the division in Ben Nguyen.
Nguyen is best known for his devastating power on the feet, but he’s wrapped up more than his fair share of victories on the mat as well. Nguyen is currently riding a two-fight win streak that includes a shocking first-round submission over former title contender Tim Elliott in his most recent performance. Nguyen has suffered only one setback in his UFC career against Louis Smolka but outside of that lone loss he's won four fights with only one of those going to decision.
Nguyen is highly creative on the feet, where he unleashes combinations with blinding speed, and he's always on target as well. That striking attack will be key against Formiga, who will undoubtedly look to take this fight to the ground to slow down his speedy opponent.
Formiga is a world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist who feasts on his opposition during the scramble. Formiga may not have the best wrestling in the division, but he has an uncanny knack for capitalizing on the smallest mistake from his opponents and that will likely be the game plan once again in this matchup.
The style that has given Formiga trouble in the past is when he faces high-level wrestlers who he can't seem to grapple with during those scrambles. He won't be facing another wrestler this weekend and that's why Formiga can put Nguyen out of his comfort zone by forcing him to the ground and then applying his top-notch grappling game. Formiga is relentless when he gets an opponent on the mat, and it's likely Nguyen will be fending off a lot of submissions if this fight goes to the ground.
Whether or not Formiga gets the finish, it will be tough to say, but if he can force Nguyen into a grappling battle, he should be able to eke out a decision victory over three rounds.
Prediction: Jussier Formiga by unanimous decision
These are the fights that appear to be a little more one-sided, but remember that this is MMA, where anything can - and usually does - happen.
Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker
Following an impressive UFC debut, Tai Tuivasa will get the chance to entertain a home crowd once again as he takes on four-fight Octagon veteran Cyril Asker this weekend.
Asker has gone 2-2 thus far in his UFC campaign and he's coming off a submission victory over Yaozong Hu in his last fight. Asker is a slick grappler who will undoubtedly try to negate Tuivasa's power on the feet by taking this fight to the ground, and he is very good in the clinch and could give Tuivasa a lot of headaches if this fight goes to the mat early and often.
That being said, Tuivasa is being groomed as the next big thing at heavyweight with his undefeated record and devastating style where he's finished all of his opponents by knockout in the first round. Now that obviously brings into question how Tuivasa will do if this fight or any fight goes into the second round or beyond, but this may not be the time he'll be asked to prove it.
Asker has struggled against the two biggest power punchers he's faced in the UFC, with losses to both Walt Harris and Jared Cannonier, and he's about to take on another one this weekend. Tuivasa hits hard and he's extremely dangerous when he unleashes an offensive flurry. As he showcased in his debut, Tuivasa is not only a powerful heavyweight, but he's also willing to launch creative strikes to get the job done as well.
Look for Tuivasa to get aggressive early before gunning for another first-round knockout to add to his resume.
Prediction: Tai Tuivasa by knockout, Round 1
Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov
Tyson Pedro will attempt to bounce back from the first loss of his career when he takes on Saparbek Safarov in this light heavyweight matchup on the main card.
Pedro looked incredible through his first two fights in the UFC, but unfortunately, he ran into a bit of a brick wall in his last bout against Ilir Latifi. Now Pedro will look to get back on track while facing a challenge from Safarov, who fell by TKO in his only appearance thus far inside the Octagon.
One thing Safarov showed in his lone fight in the UFC against Gian Villante is incredible durability and toughness. Safarov took a lot of punishment, absorbing over seven significant strikes per minute, but he still kept coming after Villante. Of course, there's always an inherent danger in playing that game because eventually the damage done becomes too much to take and that's what happened to Safarov the last time out and it may happen again this time.
Pedro is a very well rounded mixed martial artist who is dangerous on the feet and on the ground. His quickest path to victory may be putting Safarov on the ground and looking for a finish with strikes from there. Pedro has no fear of striking with Safarov either, but the Russian still hits hard and doesn't mind biting down on his mouthpiece and just winging shots in a wild exchange.
If Pedro avoids those crazy punches, he should be able to showcase all of his skills on the feet or on the mat before finishing Safarov in this fight.
Prediction: Tyson Pedro by TKO, Round 2
Israel Adesanya vs. Rob Wilkinson
This weekend will see the debut of top rated prospect Israel Adesanya, who is regarded as one of the most dynamic strikers to join the UFC roster since perhaps Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson joined the promotion several years ago. Adesanya is a Muay Thai wrecking machine with some of the best kickboxing you'll witness in the UFC. He hits hard and hits fast without taking much damage in return. Perhaps the scariest thing about a guy like Adesanya is that he's just as good at distance as he is in the clinch thanks to his extensive Muay Thai background. Adesanya will launch head kicks from the outside or look to batter an opponent on the inside with knees and elbows.
Wilkinson is a veteran fighter with a lot of experience under his belt who has pulled off several victories by submission throughout his career. Wilkinson has a very slick guillotine choke, so if he can catch Adesanya slipping on the feet, he might be able to latch on to that submission before falling to the ground to get the tap.
That being said, Wilkinson's last fight in the UFC came against a high output striker in Siyar Bahadurzada and he ultimately lost by TKO. The same fate could be awaiting him by facing another dynamic striker in Adesanya as this newcomer is one rookie worth watching in 2018 because he could be poised for stardom.
Prediction: Israel Adesanya by KO, Round 1
Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes
Mark Hunt may be higher ranked than his opponent going into Saturday night but the odds makers have instilled Curtis Blaydes as the favorite to win at UFC 221.
Blaydes does present a stylistic problem for Hunt as a big, physically strong wrestler who could take this fight to the ground to negate the power game coming from his opponent.
Blaydes averages over six takedowns per fight, which goes to show his strategy to outwrestle Hunt is already set up. Blaydes will also enjoy a whopping eight-inch reach advantage, so he can set up his takedowns with strikes before looking to plant Hunt on the ground round after round.
It can't be ignored that Hunt struggled mightily against two of the better wrestlers he's faced in his career, including a lopsided loss to heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. Plus, Blaydes is a frequent training partner with Miocic, so he may have received a few tips on how to approach this fight with Hunt.
That being said, Hunt still packs a serious punch and it only takes one mistake from Blaydes and he'll pay dearly. Hunt has shown better takedown defense in recent years while still possessing unbelievable one punch knockout power. Hunt has a deadly uppercut that works wonders against wrestlers willing to dive at his legs, and he's also one of the most durable fighters on the roster, one who is still dangerous whether he's swinging for the fences in the first round or the last.
The key for Hunt will be stopping those takedown attempts from Blaydes, which then gives him the chance to really swing the momentum in his favor. If Blaydes can't get Hunt to the ground, it could force him into a striking contest and that's going to favor the New Zealand native over the course of three rounds.
Look for Hunt to bide his time early to wait and see if Blaydes will be diving for double leg takedowns while preparing to unleash his counter shot. It only takes one glancing blow from Hunt to end the fight and his experience in these kinds of high-profile moments could carry him through to victory.
Prediction: Mark Hunt by TKO, Round 3