Both Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero have been hanging around the top of the middleweight division over the past few years, managing to secure division title shots in separate appearances.
Rockhold won his, Romero did not.
The former then coughed up his belt to Michael Bisping, while the latter has yet to compete since coming up short against Robert Whittaker for the interim strap last summer. Regardless, a loss for either combatant is likely to spell doom for a second crack at the crown.
That’s what makes the UFC 221 pay-per-view (PPV) main event, which airs stateside this Sat. night (Feb. 10, 2018) inside Australia’s Perth Arena, so important (see the odds and betting lines here).
I wish I could say the same about the co-headliner between longtime heavyweight power puncher Mark Hunt and up-and-coming division bruiser Curtis Blaydes, but this feels more like “local hero moves tickets and might be good for a highlight-reel KO” than a bout with any sort of title implications.
As for the rest of the five-fight main card (break down the “Prelims” here and here), we’ll have to take those at face value, though I wasn’t particularly blown away by any of the names offered up “Down Under.”
Let’s see what we’re working with for this weekend’s UFC 221 bonanza.
185 lbs.: Luke Rockhold (16-3) vs. Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero (12-2)
Nostradumbass predicts: No. 1-ranked middleweight, Yoel Romero, won a silver medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics, so it would make sense to think I was referring to his wrestling when I labeled him a one-trick pony.
For all of his previous ground accolades, the Cuban’s cage wrestling is wholly unspectacular —Brad Tavares notwithstanding — to the point where he was taken down by both Ronny Markes and Derek Brunson in separate fights, and landed no takedowns of his own in return.
Not that it stopped him from winning those contests, along with eight others before he was tripped up by reigning middleweight kingpin Robert Whittaker. That doesn’t make him a world-class striker, but what he hits, he destroys.
That’s because Romero throws hard, fast strikes that usually finish his opponents before they even know they’re in trouble (see Weidman, Chris). There are variations of his bull-in-a-china-shop offense, in the same way Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had different looks to his cutter, but it’s all part of the same attack.
The goal is to get you out.
Being explosive works best inside the phone booth and former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold doesn’t like to answer the call. He’s a long, rangy fighter with punishing kicks and the kind of varied striking that will have Romero chasing his own tail.
Whittaker gave him the fits in similar fashion and Rockhold has a four-inch reach advantage on both combatants.
In addition, the 33 year-old Rockhold — one of the largest middleweights on the roster — is deft on the ground, so even if Romero is able to take things south for the winter, it’s going to heat up fairly quickly. The last thing “Soldier of God” wants to risk is getting reversed and ending up on bottom, a scenario that spelled doom for Weidman.
Still, it would be remiss to overlook the fact that Romero has 25 minutes to land the killing blow. That’s a heck of a lot of time and I’m not suggesting Rockhold has a glass chin, but if Michael Bisping can finish him with strikes, Romero will have him riding shotgun in Elon Musk’s outer space Tesla.
I know, I know, he took Bisping lightly and paid the price, but he also went down in flames to Vitor Belfort and some guy you never heard of about 10 years back, so it’s not like he’s remained upright throughout his career.
Point is, he’s in mortal danger every second of this fight and must employ a patient, intelligent gameplan. Anything hasty and he’ll be looking up at the lights. Romero turns 41 in April and against Whittaker, he was starting to look it.
Nothing lasts forever, not even God’s soldiers.
Final prediction: Rockhold def. Romero by unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Mark “Super Samoan” Hunt (13-11-1, 1 NC) vs. Curtis “Razor” Blaydes (8-1, 1 NC)
Nostradumbass predicts: One thing I can guarantee you in this (or just about any other) Mark Hunt fight, is that you aren't going to see anything that will surprise you. The former K-1 kickboxer, as expected, will lumber forward and throw brutal combinations.
When it lands, it’s effective.
Hunt used to have the kind of chin that would be right at home in a blacksmith’s shop, taking hammers day in and day out without fail. But he turns 44 next month and has now been finished in all 11 of his losses, five of which have come by way of knockout.
I don’t think the “Super Samoan” is in any danger of getting put away by Curtis Blaydes. In order for “Razor” to finish Hunt, he has to get close enough to throw hands. Forget about skill or experience, he simply doesn’t have the confidence to stand in the pocket and let ‘em fly with one of the most dangerous punchers in the heavyweight division.
Derrick Lewis tried that last June, and they still can’t find all of his teeth.
Blaydes was an exceptional high school wrestler, landing a full wrestling scholarship to Northern Illinois University, before transferring to Harper College, where he captured the NJCAA National Championship as a sophomore.
He eventually quit school to pursue MMA full time and to date, has produced an impressive record for just 26 years of age. Had he not flunked for marijuana, his thrashing of Adam Milstead would have him at 9-1. Then again, had Brock Lesnar not been fucking around with ... whatever it was he was taking, Hunt would have one decision loss.
That’s relevant here because I believe Blaydes is going to employ the same style of attack. He’s not the wrestler Lesnar is, but against Hunt, he doesn’t need to be. His size, agility, and youth will suffice. Hunt has greatly improved his takedown defense, but there is more to wrestling than just takedowns.
Look for a gun-shy Blaydes to close the distance and never let it open back up, even if it means wall-and-stall, mug-and-slug, dump-and-hump, and whatever other clever names you can drum up for a fight that will have the boo birds singing.
Final prediction: Blaydes def. Hunt by unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Cyril “Silverback” Asker (9-3) vs. Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa (6-0)
Nostradumbass predicts: Outside of the top 10, which is exactly what these two combatants are as they head into Perth, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in the 265-pound division. Cyril Asker is not a terribly large heavyweight, standing just six feet tall.
His bio tells you “The Silverback” is ranked as the second best fighter in France, which sounds impressive, until you realize it’s behind Cheick Kongo, who is 42 years-old and boring the pants off everyone in Bellator MMA.
Asker does his best work when his opponent affords him the space to wrestle. The success of that gameplan largely depends on the defensive prowess of Tai Tuivasa, the undefeated Aussie who made a sensational debut last November by way of flying-knee knockout.
There isn’t a ton of background available on “Bam Bam” but what I do know for certain, is that he’s never seen a second round and flat-out destroyed every foe he’s faced. You can argue that a majority of those wins did not come against UFC-caliber competition, but would you consider Asker to be UFC caliber?
“The Silverback” is 2-2 inside the Octagon with two knockout losses to the cream of the crap.
The jury is still out on whether or not Tuivasa can live up to the hype and at just 24 years of age, he’s still got a lot to prove. I don't think Asker is the one to prove it against, but I do expect the local product to shuck off a couple of takedowns and give the hometown fans the knockout they wanted from Hunt.
Final prediction: Tuivasa def. Asker by technical knockout
170 lbs.: Jingliang “The Leech” Li (14-4) vs. Jake “The Celtic Kid” Matthews (11-3)
Nostradumbass predicts: After an inconsistent start to his UFC career, to the tune of 2-2, Chinese import Li Jingliang found his groove and quietly amassed a four-fight win streak in the crowded welterweight division, one that includes three knockout finishes.
“The Leech” is more busy than potent when it comes to his striking and that’s not necessarily a knock on his offense, because you don’t secure 10 finishes in 14 wins by sticking and moving for three rounds. It should be noted that all of his submission wins came before his transition to the Octagon in May 2014.
At 29, he’s in his prime, so he needs a big performance tomorrow night in enemy territory.
I know a lot of pundits were disappointed after anointing Jake Matthews the next big thing at 170 pounds, not unreasonable after his electric 4-1 start (with four violent finishes), but I think the expectations were set a little too high based on his experience.
The 23 year-old “Celtic Kid” is just that, and for what he’s done at his age, there is no telling what he can do in five years in his prime. But before we start raising our expectations again we need to see Matthews turn away Li.
If he can avoid getting lured into a kickboxing match, I think his edge in wrestling and jiu-jitsu gets it done.
The loss to Kevin Lee was no doubt a tough pill to swallow and I thought his performance against Andrew Holbrook was uninspired, at best. He needed the win over Bojan Velickovic last November (at home) to get his confidence back and I expect to see a more mature, focused Aussie on fight night.
Final prediction: Matthews def. Li by submission
205 lbs.: Tyson Pedro (6-1) vs. Saparbek Safarov (8-1)
Nostradumbass predicts: Tyson Pedro and Saparbek Safarov are coming off respective losses to Ilir Latifi and Gian Villante. If you saw Latifi vs. Villante at UFC 196, you understand that what I just said is damning evidence of what lies ahead.
It may not be pretty.
To his credit, Pedro has finished all six of his wins and has a very dangerous submission game. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be canceled out by Safarov’s wrestling and combat sambo, two disciplines in which he excelled over in Russia.
Like his Perth opponent, Safarov is a prolific finisher and racks up stoppages from his dominant positions, something that Pedro will have to be weary of as he’s backed into the fence or forced to defend takedowns for a majority of this 15-minute affair.
Stylistically speaking, this may not be pretty. Both fighters want to get this to the ground, but only if they end up on top. How they accomplish that amid the occasional heavy leather and hurried shoots remains to be seen.
Final prediction: Pedro def. Saparov by split decision
There you have it.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 221 fight card on fight night (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.
For much more on this weekend’s UFC 221 PPV event click here.