The UFC 221 main event between former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and No. 1-ranked Yoel Romero is one of the great 185-pound matchups the UFC has to offer.
Current king Robert Whittaker is out of action after a serious bout of staph infection in his stomach that forced him out of his first official title defense in his home country of Australia. With "Bobby Knuckles" unable to fight, insert Romero in his place vs. Rockhold for the interim strap in a fight that's been anticipated for years.
When this article was published, Rockhold was sitting as the -155 favorite against Romero. So we decided to have our staff riff on this huge main event to get down to the bottom of the matchup to see who is going to be the big winner in Perth. We're calling it - "The Great Debate."
THOMAS GERBASI: I’m going to let Luke Rockhold start this one off.
The question was, what’s the secret to being one of the best finishers of this era. His response: “I'm just that good. It's the truth. People don't understand how good I am in every realm. The longer fights go, the more holes I'm gonna open up. I'm gonna find a way to expose you and I'm gonna break you and beat you down. There's no one that can compete with me if you go the full length.
"I've got too many avenues to succeed and to expose you. I can wrestle, I can do jiu-jitsu better than everybody, I can strike and I'll never be outworked. Every element of the game, I have covered, and the later this fight goes, the worse it's gonna get for any motherf**ker who steps in the cage with me.”
Bold words, but I tend to believe him. Yeah, he got knocked out by Bisping, he’s in with a beast in Romero this weekend and Robert Whittaker is still the champ, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I still think Rockhold is the best middleweight in the world. Any dissenters?
DAMON MARTIN: Offensively, Rockhold is absolutely correct with his ability to finish opponents from anywhere and do so from the first minute of the opening round until seconds are remaining in the final round. That being said, Rockhold's problem in this fight isn't about offense. It's his defense that may come back to haunt him against someone as powerful and explosive as Romero.
Rockhold absorbs more significant strikes per minute than Romero and defensively he's only stopping 56 percent of the shots on his feet. That came back to haunt him against Vitor Belfort and the same could be said about his upset loss to Michael Bisping. Romero not only throws hard but he might be the most powerful middleweight in the division and he uncorks some wild strikes, with everything from spinning back fists to flying knees. Add to that, Romero isn't known for being a conditioning machine, but he got better with every passing minute in his fight against former champion Chris Weidman and he just went five hard rounds with Robert Whittaker last July.
If Rockhold focuses too much on his offense rather than playing defense at the right times, Romero will make him pay for it.
GERBASI: Sometimes in this game, you just have to go with your gut, and yes, everything you said makes sense, and you had to throw in numbers to prove it. We throwing numbers, now? And even more telling, Rockhold did get rocked early in the Branch fight and if he sits against the cage and lets Romero throw bombs, everybody gets an early night. But four-ounce gloves can do that to anyone.
Rockhold should know that if he loses this one, it’s a long road back, while Romero, I get the impression he is just enjoying the ride. If the belt comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, the sun still rises the next day. Rockhold? I sense the urgency for him to get the job done, and if gets out of the first round, then it’s a fight.
MATT PARRINO: Nine fights in the UFC have yielded world championship-level results for Yoel Romero. Whittaker made easy work of division boogeyman Jacare Souza in April last year, but Romero took the champ the distance in a summer blockbuster at UFC213.
But here is the biggest challenge facing Romero against Rockhold: the length. He’ll be dealing with a four-inch reach disadvantage and 45 inches of leg reach that Rockhold capitalizes on better than almost anybody in the game.
Romero is likely going to be at the end of Rockhold’s reach early and if he gets tagged a few times and decides to get aggressive I can see him walking into some big shots from the former champ. Romero’s output and accomplishments at such an advanced age have been outstanding but you also must wonder when his age is truly going to start to show. I’m also interested to see the evolution of Rockhold’s striking now in his second full camp with renowned kickboxing coach Henri Hooft.
GERBASI: I can’t believe me and Parrino are agreeing on something. This may be a sign to pick Romero. But he’s right (did I just write that?). If Rockhold frustrates Romero early, Romero will either get reckless or go into a shell. Either way, bad news for the Cuban.
E. SPENCER KYTE: I agree with “The Godfather” when he says Rockhold is the best middleweight in the sport and know that Rockhold has always thought that as well and not just in the way every fighter thinks they’re the best in the world because they have to believe that all the time. The part that really jumped out at me from his pre-fight comments is when he talked about learning to be professional and what it takes to not just be an elite fighter, but remain at the top of the division.
Rockhold has always struck me as the guy who could be great at whatever athletic pursuit he chased and I think for some time, he was able to coast by on that as a fighter. It’s not that he didn’t work hard or isn’t skilled, but when you’re a natural athlete with elite talents, sometimes you're not as worried about the guy you beat once before and don’t think you need to push as hard as some of the more maniacal guys in the room. I think losing to Bisping changed all that for Rockhold and while he caught some shots against Branch, I think we can all agree he still looked fabulous for someone who was off for well over a year.
Romero is a wild card because he has such explosive power, but Whittaker did a great job of minimizing the impact of his takedowns early, avoided the spaces where Romero could potentially land something fight-changing and then methodically took advantage of his superior conditioning down the stretch to complete a terrific performance. I think Rockhold has all the skills to do the same thing here, plus he’s also far more comfortable being on the ground than the current champion, so if Romero does happen to take him down, it’s not the end of the world.
With all that being said - and all of us seemingly siding with Rockhold - is it possible that we’re overlooking Romero here? I mean, the guy is 8-1 in the UFC and a freakish athlete in his own right.
GERBASI: Well I guess we do have to listen to Damon (a little bit) since he did pick Stipe Miocic over Francis Ngannou, but the way I see it, this is Rockhold’s fight to lose, and if he does, it’s going to be something off the wall that does it. Of course, Romero specializes in off the wall, but I just don’t know if he wants this as much as Rockhold does.
Spencer, you talked to Romero this week – let us know if he is as amped up for this as Rockhold is, and I might climb onto the fence. But now, I’ve got to stick with the former champ.
KYTE: In speaking with Romero, I can say with confidence that he has been gearing up for this fight - or a fight like this - since losing to Whittaker. I think the experience from that bout last summer will be beneficial to him here. As he said, that was the first time he’s gone five rounds and you do learn something in those moments. Additionally, he’s still an athletic specimen and capable of beating anyone in the division on any given night.
That said, I do think there is something to what TG was saying about the difference in attitude between these two guys. Romero has always been pretty laid back and “go with the flow” about all this and I wonder how much better he would be if there were more edge to him? Given his exceptional abilities and the results he’s collected, how good would this guy be if he had a little bit of that intensity and passion Rockhold is showing heading into this fight or that DC puts into every fight or Stipe carries with him throughout each training camp and in-cage contest?
For me, Rockhold seems to have flipped the switch and found that last missing piece, while Romero is still Romero, which is really good, but maybe not quite good enough here.
GERBASI: So the question is...in a division that includes Whittaker, Romero, Weidman and Souza, just to name a few, is Rockhold the best, even without a belt?
MARTIN: There's also a question to me in this fight about how much Rockhold has evolved while training under Hooft while spending the majority of his camp in Florida rather than in San Jose at American Kickboxing Academy. Hooft is an amazing coach but it can take time for the trainer/athlete relationship to really flourish, especially in a situation like Rockhold where he's only known two voices for basically his entire career with Javier Mendez and Bob Cook. Is Rockhold better off now than he was two years ago when he was at his peak, winning the title and being recognized as the best middleweight in the world?
Perhaps he is but I think the true test will be Saturday night.
Meanwhile, Romero has consistently worked with his same coaches and training partners at American Top Team, which is a constant breeding ground for the best fighters in the world. That consistency, especially ahead of a big fight, can pay big dividends in a matchup like this one. Romero will have to be at his very best to beat Rockhold and considering his record in the UFC, we probably shouldn't expect anything less.
KYTE: Even though this is his first camp as a Florida resident, Rockhold has been getting reps with Hooft for a bit and given his talent and the level of coaching around him - AKA guys are still with him this week, plus the Hard Knocks crew - I don't think there will be any real growing pains.
Additionally, I know Romero flies the ATT flag, but he trains mostly in Miami with his own crew, rather than being in Coconut Creek with that all-star cast. I'd like his chances more if he spent the entire camp (and all his camps, really) at ATT HQ with Brown and Din and Conan and everyone else.
PARRINO: Someone must be the one to close this thing down, right? Let me have the honors. Romero ended up having a tough weight cut but Rockhold didn't necessarily look like his cut was painless. What this fight is going to come down to is Rockhold’s ability to defend the takedown and impose his physical advantages like height and reach in the striking exchanges.
Romero suggested that Rockhold seemed timid in their face off earlier in the week, but this is no new stage for the former king. Romero is coming off a loss that highlighted the blueprint to his demise. Rockhold has the cardio to take Romero into deep water and it’s there that the California native has proven to be most comfortable over the years.
Romero is ranked ahead of Rockhold even though he’s never hoisted the strap. His 8-1 mark is outstanding and has wins over former champs and gatekeepers of a historically tough division. Now it’s about who wants it more. I think both want it, but at UFC 221 we don’t have to guess. Rockhold or Romero will answer that question themselves.