The Complete Guide to UFC 221: Rockhold vs. Romero
UFC 221 goes down Saturday from Perth, Australia. Unfortunately, the company marches into town without its biggest Australian star.
UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was set to compete on the card, but a staph infection prevented him from doing so. Last year, Whittaker was rumored to face Georges St-Pierre in a title unification bout, but St-Pierre's ulcerative colitis scuttled that dream matchup.
As seems to be the case more and more often of late, UFC brass is forced to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers, with its breakneck event schedule ensuring no card has the depth to absorb a major loss and that few top fighters are unbooked on short notice. C'est la vie.
But enough about that. There is still a good fight card here. In the main event, former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold takes on Yoel Romero, an Olympic-level wrestler many others have been scared to face. With Whittaker on the shelf, they'll be tangling for the interim middleweight title.
All is not lost for Oceania, either. New Zealander Mark Hunt brings his knockout thunder to the co-main event, where he tangles with American Curtis Blaydes.
There's plenty to see on the 12-fight card. Here's your complete guide to all the action.
Fight Pass Prelims
Luke Jumeau (12-4) vs Daichi Abe (6-0)
Let's not pretend like we're all super familiar with these two guys or that this fight holds implications it does not hold. It's the third UFC fight for Jumeau and the second for Abe. Both men can crack, especially Abe, and neither man is very good on the ground (Jumeau is especially deficient). Abe wins a fun curtain-jerker.
Abe, TKO, Rd. 2
Teruto Ishihara (10-4-2) vs Jose Alberto Quinonez (6-2)
Team Alpha member and general skirt-chaser Ishihara is a fearsome knockout artist, but his skills don't run deep. He just cocks his left hand and jumps into the breach, and he can finish from close, off his back foot or just about any other way. There was plenty of hype behind him until Artem Lobov and Gray Maynard handled him in succession. He recovered with a close victory over Rolando Dy.
Quinonez has power and aggressiveness, too, but he puts it together with grappling and an effervescent submission game. Unless or until Ishihara adds dimensions to his game, he'll be more of a dog-and-pony show than a legitimate force in the bantamweight division.
Quinonez, unanimous decision
Ross Pearson (19-14) vs Mizuto Hirota (18-8-2)
This is a fun matchup. Look at those records! If Pearson (age 33) and Hirota (age 36) somehow collided hard enough to permanently join themselves together, they'd be the greatest two-headed journeyman this humble globe has ever seen.
As serious fans know, Hirota enjoyed great success in his native Japan but only earned his first UFC victory on his fourth try (his overall UFC record is 1-3-1). His game is all journeyman, too. He is the consummate leather-skinned power grinder.
Pearson is on an awful losing streak, with four straight defeats and five losses in his last six. He can box and he can knock people out, but that's about it. This is not a good matchup for him, as Hirota can weather the storm and tie him up.
I would say this is do-or-die for Pearson, but the Englishman's charm and high-octane style will probably keep him around. He's a slight favorite here, but it won't pan out that way. Sound the (mild) upset alarms.
Hirota, unanimous decision
Fox Sports 1 Prelims
Jussier Formiga (20-5) vs Ben Nguyen (16-6)
Jussier Formiga was a favorite of the hardcore set when he first walked into the UFC. The jiu-jitsu great has enjoyed some success but hasn't dominated like some expected.
Nguyen is in our consciousness because of his knockouts, but he has ground acumen, too. He's the better athlete here and he's more talented. He'll knock Formiga down before cruising to the win.
Nguyen, unanimous decision
Jeremy Kennedy (11-0) vs Alexander Volkanovski (16-1)
Kennedy is a wrestler through and through. Volkanovski is mainly known as a banger, but his wrestling's not bad and he is a good athlete.
This one could be a snoozer, but here's guessing Volkanovski catches Kennedy with a big shot as the underdog shoots for a takedown and removes the drama early.
Volkanovski, TKO, Rd. 1
Rob Wilkinson (11-1) vs Israel Adesanya (11-0)
This is a fun fight. What you want to do here is, you want to batten down the hatches. You want a Fight of the Night sleeper pick; here you go.
Adesanya is a brilliant kickboxer and one of the best strikers on the planet. The Style Bender is making his UFC debut, but each and every one of his previous 11 pro MMA contests ended in a knockout. He's never seen a third round.
He's favored to keep it rolling against Wilkinson, a tough-as-nails Aussie with regional championships on his resume. Wilkinson will put up a game effort but ultimately won't be able to stand up to Adesanya's pace and output.
Adesanya, TKO, Rd. 2
Damien Brown (17-11) vs Dong Hyun Kim (15-8-3)
This is the "Maestro" Dong Hyun Kim, as opposed to "Stun Gun" Dong Hyun Kim. Just an FYI. Whereas Stun Gun is a judo player with some creative striking thrown in for good measure, the Maestro is sort of the opposite: a straight flamethrower who can fall back on grappling as needed.
Brown, an Aussie, just dropped a terrific fight to Frank Camacho. He showed poise in the midst of a crazy battle. With a delirious crowd urging him on, Brown should draw Kim into a slugfest and take a stirring victory. Perfect setup for the pay-per-view.
Brown, TKO, Rd. 2
Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov
Tyson Pedro (6-1) vs Saparbek Safarov (8-1)
These days, when you see a light heavyweight matchup on the docket, you almost wince. Pedro is a fine fighter, with a boxing and jiu-jitsu skill base that can carry him to victories, even if he's not exactly a worldbeater.
He could look downright Jon Jonesian against Safarov, a bull-rusher who hasn't yet proved he belongs at this level. You have to imagine UFC matchmakers are well aware of that and are hoping the camera-ready 26-year-old Aussie gets an exciting win.
Pedro -265, Safarov +225
Safarov has a sambo background, but Pedro has established himself as a dangerous ground fighter in an MMA context. Sooner or later he'll land a takedown (or a knockdown), work for the back and lock on a rear-naked choke.
Pedro, submission, Rd. 2
Jake Matthews vs. Li Jingliang
Jake Matthews (11-3) vs Li Jingliang (14-4)
This is a great test for the evolution of Matthews. As with Pedro, the UFC brass wants to make a star out of this Aussie. So far, though, Matthews hasn't really cooperated. His wrestling skill is unassailable, but every other part of his game is a blank space or a blinking yellow light.
Li is an underrated competitor. He has the power and toughness to seek and land knockout shots. His ground game isn't bad but it's not the jewel of his toolbox. At 57 percent, according to FightMetric, Li's takedown defense is not stellar—and that could be a problem against Matthews, who lands 2.5 takedowns on average per 15 minutes.
Li is also large for a welterweight, standing 6'0" to Matthews' 5'9" (both have a 72" reach, however).
Li -185, Matthews +160
We have two possible fights here. Li could bully Matthews in the cage, punching him out of his comfort zone. Or we could see Matthews settle in, hit his takedowns and work his control game or hunt for a choke. It feels like a taller order for Li to keep up his path to victory compared with Matthews. Barring a flash knockout, we're going to see an upset here.
Matthews, unanimous decision
Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker
Tai Tuivasa (6-0) vs Cyril Asker (9-3)
It is sad that Whittaker is not involved, but Australian fight fans still have plenty to cheer about on this card. In this bout, they get to watch a native son headhunt a French veteran.
Tuivasa is in the classic Australian heavyweight mold. He wants to put your lights out. The 24-year-old is only six fights into his career, but each fight has ended in a first-round knockout. He's a scary dude.
Asker knows not to stand and trade with Tuivasa. He has other options: stay on his toes, stick and move from the perimeter, tie up Tuivasa along the fence, maybe try a takedown. With a kickboxing background, the longer-range tactics would seem to be the most likely options, but it's hard to know if he can keep it up for 15 minutes.
Tuivasa -192, Asker +135
Asker is a fine fighter. That's it. He's not good enough at any one thing that could or would slow down the big guy. Expect a knockout.
Tuivasa, KO, Rd. 2
Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes
Mark Hunt (13-11-1) vs Curtis Blaydes (8-1)
The oddsmakers have Blaydes as the favorite here. How dare they? This is Mark Hunt we're talking about. In Australia! He's 4-1-1 here, with the only loss coming to champion Stipe Miocic. The last time he competed Down Under, he knocked out Derrick Lewis.
OK, OK. It's true his skills are fading. His chin used to be akin to the hull of Revolutionary War ship. It's not anymore. At 43 years old, his punching power is still there, but more or less, everything else is gone.
Blaydes, on the other hand, is on his way up. His only loss in five UFC contests was to Francis Ngannou. He has a massive size advantage (6'4" and an 80" reach, compared with 5'10" and 74" for Hunt) and has the wrestling to keep Hunt under wraps.
Blaydes -170, Hunt +145
Blaydes is a good fighter but he won't beat Hunt in Hunt's backyard. Hunt doesn't have many more opportunities like this, especially given his very public worry over the condition of his own body and brain. But don't count him out just yet.
Hunt, TKO, Rd. 1
Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero
Middleweight (for interim UFC middleweight championship)
Luke Rockhold (12-2) vs Yoel Romero (16-3)
This is a terrific fight and one that's difficult to predict. Each man has a unique blend of skills and athletic gifts that make them both true individuals in the game.
Along with Whittaker, these are the best middleweights in MMA right now and it's not particularly close.
It's easy to focus on Romero's action-movie build and his Olympic wrestling background, but that overlooks his speed and quickness. He combines it all into these eruptions of movement that invariably end in something beautiful and terrifying. His attacks are creative and exotic, and they are just as likely to include a suplex or a flying knee as a takedown or an overhand left.
Rockhold is the more methodical of the two, but don't read that as implying he isn't dangerous. The former champ uses kicks as his primary stand-up weapon and is a demon in the clinch. On the ground, he usually has a wide advantage. His jiu-jitsu is flowing and aggressive, and so fun to watch. It will be interesting to see what he can do against Romero and his obvious wrestling talents. Top control may be a tall order, but you can't rule anything out.
Rockhold -140, Romero +120
As noted, this is difficult to pick. It should be a back-and-forth affair with significant action in every phase. Rockhold should be able to use his kicks indefinitely; Romero will eventually catch one and convert it into a takedown. Rockhold will look for the clinch and have success there, but Romero will score with counter shots. Romero should do something spectacular once or twice, and that will sway the judges in a fight that's technically superior but not a slobberknocker.
Romero, unanimous decision