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UFC 221 card: Luke Rockhold vs Yoel Romero full fight preview

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Pittsburgh Rockhold vs Branch Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight elites Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero will clash TONIGHT (Feb. 10, 2018) at UFC 221 inside Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.

Rockhold recovered from his title loss and subsequent layoff a few months back with a quality victory over David Branch. It wasn’t a perfect win, but it was enough to get the former champion back in title contention. While Robert Whittaker’s injury cost Rockhold a chance to compete for the undisputed belt, the newly created vacuum gave Romero a chance to leap back into the mix as well. Romero suffered his first Octagon loss to the Aussie his last time out, but this opportunity will allow him a chance to both capture a strap and earn a shot at revenge.

Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for both athletes:

Luke Rockhold
Record: 16-3
Key Wins: Chris Weidman (UFC 194), Ronaldo Souza (Strikeforce: Barnett vs Kharitonov), Lyoto Machida (UFC on FOX 15), Tim Kennedy (Strikeforce: Rockhold vs Kennedy), Dave Branch (UFC Fight Night 116)
Key Losses: Michael Bisping (UFC 199), Vitor Belfort (UFC on FX 8)
Keys to Victory: Rockhold is one of the most dangerous and well-rounded fighters in the world. A pressure kickboxer with a mean right hook, Rockhold excels at forcing his opponent to take bad shots and then capitalizing with perhaps the nastiest top game in combat sports.

Much of Rockhold’s game takes advantage of the Southpaw-Orthodox relationship, which allows Rockhold to punt the liver with impunity. Meanwhile, Romero’s habit of shooting his left hand through the open guard as well as stomping on the lead leg with side kicks are also important factors of his game that will be partially nullified by facing another Southpaw.

Both men will be forced to adjust, and the better adjustments will decide the victor.

For Rockhold, the easiest and likely most effective adjustment is to target the leg rather than body. In particular, Rockhold targeted Branch’s calf last time out. Backing Romero into the fence and then slamming his calf would be a wise choice, as it would force Romero to work and cut into his athleticism a bit.

In addition, Rockhold showed a willingness to switch to Orthodox. So long as he’s careful, Rockhold could briefly go Orthodox — recreating that Southpaw-Orthodox situation — and target the body/head from there. Romero backs himself into the fence willingly enough, so if Rockhold can kick effectively from that position, he should prove quite effective.

VS.

Yoel Romero
Record: 13-2
Key Wins: Chris Weidman (UFC 205), Ronaldo Souza (UFC 194), Lyoto Machida (UFC Fight Night 70), Tim Kennedy (UFC 178)
Key Losses: Robert Whittaker (UFC 213).Rafael Cavalcante (Strikeforce: “Barnett vs Kharitonov”)
Keys to Victory: It may be a bit tiresome to hear constantly about how athletic Yoel Romero is, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Romero is so naturally explosive and smooth that his open workouts are jaw-dropping, let alone when the Olympic silver medalist is actually tossing foes into the air or jumping into knees.

Romero is going to be pressured in this bout, and Romero generally reacts to pressure by jamming the lead leg, dropping levels for a takedown, or firing his left hand. Of those three responses, the left hand is perhaps his best bet — Rockhold’s boxing defense is shaky, whereas his counter wrestling is elite, and as mentioned the Southpaw vs. Southpaw match up largely eliminates that stomp kick to the knee.

However, landing the left will be a riskier task considering Rockhold’s waiting right hook. Opposite the counter puncher, Romero’s best bet is to feint actively. If he can convince Rockhold to throw his right hook early, the Californian often leaves himself vulnerable to follow up shots.

Bottom Line: Both men have the skill sets of a champion, but only one will leave with a “sort of” belt.

Rockhold already captured the UFC title once, and he seemed primed to defend his strap just like in Strikeforce. Bisping’s miraculous upset — a result of both poor defense and over-confidence — threw a complete wrench into that plan, but this Rockhold’s moment to get back on track. Romero is a seriously bad dude, and beating him for a title (interim or not) is a big deal.

The situation is similar for Romero, who saw his seven-fight win streak evaporate at the hands and feet of Whittaker last July. Like his opponent, this is a chance to score such a high-level win that it might as well be for the official title; it’s a huge accomplishment. Plus, there’s the extra bonus for Romero in that a victory will earn him a chance to avenge his sole UFC loss and capture the official title.

Defeat for either man is a huge setback. For Rockhold, it’s especially bitter, as this fight was supposed to be against a different opponent for the undisputed crown. The situation isn’t much better for Romero, who is likely nearing the end of his insanely long athletic prime.

TONIGHT at UFC 221, Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero will battle for the interim strap. Which man will leave the cage with a new belt?