UFC 221 was situated amid a long run of lackluster fight cards. The idea that the UFC’s product has become watered down is not new by any means, but the point has never felt as salient as it does today. With a genuinely fascinating main event between two elite fighters – Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero and Luke Rockhold – and little else on the main card to justify the $60 price tag, UFC 221 did nothing to buck the over-saturation trend.
Though it seems to be increasingly difficult to sustain interest throughout an entire card, fighters like Romero and Rockhold are the reason we keep coming back. Both men have long been staples in the middleweight top five. Rockhold recently picked up a win over a streaking Dave Branch after dropping the middleweight title. Romero picked up wins over most of the contenders in the division before losing his shot at the interim title – which would later become the real title – to Robert Whittaker.
Ever since Rockhold lost his title to Michael Bisping, entropy has taken its toll on the middleweight division, plunging it into chaos. Bisping proceeded to take an inconsequential fight with an aged Dan Henderson before losing the title to Georges St. Pierre, who went on an illness-induced hiatus shortly after taking the belt. Just when it looked like the belt was exactly where it belonged, safe and sound in the hands of Whittaker, a staph infection forced the creation of yet another interim belt. To complicate matters all the more, Romero missed weight, and with it his eligibility to obtain the interim title on a win over Rockhold.
Because MMA often strives to provide its audience with the most hilarious possible outcome, Romero knocked Rockhold out cold at UFC 221, winning the fight, but not the interim belt. But because Romero is the obvious number one contender – having just brutally finished the only man capable of contesting his position – he may as well be called the interim champion, as a rematch with Whittaker for the championship seems inevitable. Anyways, let’s move on to the fight itself:
The Kicking Game
A significant part of Rockhold’s offense on the feet is built around kicking the open side. Rockhold uses his kicks to puncture the gas tank of his opponents and rack up points at long range, forcing them to commit to attacking and open themselves up to his check hook.
When facing another southpaw like Romero, the soft, squishy parts of the stomach are less accessible, hidden behind the back and shoulders. Kicking the open side in a closed-guard (same stance) matchup requires using the lead leg, which can be clunkier as the necessary switch leaves openings for counters or takedowns.
Although an open-guard matchup closes the rear leg’s route to the body, it opens up the outside leg kick. Rockhold used these to great effect early.
The outside kick to the calf has exploded in popularity recently. Not only do they make catching more difficult, as they won’t ride up the thigh, but checking becomes more difficult too. If an opponent merely lifts their leg, hoping to create a shin-on-shin collision, the kick will often catch the calf and knock it aside anyway.
After eating a couple of calf kicks and deciding he didn’t like them, Romero began checking. Instead of lifting his lead leg straight up and eating it on the calf anyway, he would keep the leg on the floor and turn it outward so Rockhold was forced to kick into the hard, bony surface of Romero’s shin with his instep. Romero even managed to wobble Rockhold off a hard collision between shin and instep, though his own leg didn’t make it out unscathed either.
When Romero started returning leg kicks, a contrast in their ability to take them became clear. Romero’s square stance allowed him to maintain stability even when he took the full impact of the kick. Because of Rockhold’s bladed stance and his tendency to further blade his stance on retreat when Romero showed him something, Romero’s leg kicks would catch the back of his knee and punt him out of stance.
Rockhold repeatedly showed a lead-leg front kick to exploit the open side, but they were largely ineffectual. The lead-leg front kick is difficult to throw from a wide stance, as it requires the rear leg close to the lead leg in order to give the hip room to drive through. Rockhold attempted to narrow his stance by stepping his rear leg in or hopping forward on the kick, but they still came out having more of a knee-snap than the driving of the hip which gives the kicks real power.
Most MMA fighters who excel with the lead-leg front kicks tend to set them up by marching forward. Squaring the stance presents a dual threat with the front kicks, as opponents are left guessing which leg comes up, and stepping through with the rear leg affords the kick gut-piercing power.
Rockhold’s Boxing Woes
Rockhold has received heavy criticism for his boxing in the wake of his last couple fights, especially after getting pasted by Michael Bisping, popping his head out of his defensive shell and straight onto a left hook. Against Romero, he took great measures toward justifying most of that criticism.
In the early portion of the fight, Rockhold’s offensive boxing consisted mostly of one-off jabs and jab-straight combinations. There’s a lot of depth that can be expressed in just those simple attacks, but Rockhold displayed little of that subtlety. He threw in a consistent pattern, repeating the same jab-straight combination over again with no variation in timing or rhythm. Whenever Rockhold stepped in deep with the jab, Romero knew to cover up and back away from the straight.
Romero, on the other hand, possesses a deep understanding of rhythm. Part of what makes Romero so unpredictable is his ability to manipulate his rhythm in order to throw off his opponent’s reactions. He’ll stalk about lazily, lulling opponents to sleep, before breaking the pattern with an explosive burst.
Compare this to Rockhold’s attack above. Romero lazily probes with his lead hand, before hopping forward and sending out a quicker, more urgent jab feint. As he shows the lead hand, he’s already changing levels to explode into a straight to the body.
Rockhold’s footwork left much to be desired as well. Romero would periodically break into a full-on sprint toward Rockhold, and the latter would skip back in a straight line until his back hit the cage.
We’ve spoken at length previously about the importance of maintaining a strong stance, and Rockhold’s panicked backtracking killed his ability to counter Romero’s blitzes. It’s especially concerning to see someone who relies on distance back straight up to the cage like this, as anyone who can get him to the cage can avoid his most dangerous weapons.
At one point, Rockhold was able to recover his stance enough amid his back-skipping to fire off a check hook, but Romero just pushed through it and hammered him. Rockhold’s check hook is his primary (and pretty much exclusive) tool to keep opponents from getting in his face. Now that his check hook has been bypassed easily by both Branch and Romero, it will be interesting to see if future opponents are able to exploit his reluctance to pivot off and break the line of attack.
Though up to this point we’ve been thoroughly ragging on Rockhold’s boxing, there are reasons to be optimistic about the development of his hands. After having his jab shut down early, he began doubling and tripling up on it later, landing his best punches of the fight off the repeated jab.
When Rockhold stepped in with one-off jabs early in the fight, he would enter on a straight line, and Romero would easily parry the jab. Later on, Rockhold started pivoting inside of Romero’s stance while doubling and tripling up on the jab.
By pivoting inside, Rockhold squares Romero’s stance, putting his lead shoulder in between Romero’s shoulders. This presents a direct threat to Romero’s center line and makes it much more difficult for Romero to effectively parry the jab. Note how Romero comfortably parries the first jab in the clips above, only to eat the follow-ups after Rockhold pivots.
Rockhold was even able to land the leg kick he had mostly abandoned after using a triple jab to get Romero’s weight over his rear foot.
Yoel the Old Mongoose
Romero’s defense looked sharper than ever in this bout, and he showed some interesting new looks.
Romero was able to shut down Rockhold’s jab in the early part of the fight by parrying whenever Rockhold flicked it out. Note also how he folds his lead elbow over his head in anticipation of a straight following the jab.
Romero was playing around with the cross-armed guard, termed “the lock” by its most iconic practitioner, Archie Moore. Traditionally the rear forearm folds across the chin, while the lead arm hangs low to defend the body. Romero held his lead hand up higher across his forehead, potentially worried about the threat of a head kick.
When Romero broke into the cross-armed guard, Rockhold became noticeably hesitant to open up with punches. Romero left big openings to the body, but that isn’t much of a concern against an opponent who hardly ever throws body punches.
Romero would use his lead forearm as a barrier, holding it across his face and getting his shoulder up by his ear to cover against Rockhold’s right hand. Rockhold’s punching form did him no favors here; his right hand came out with too much elbow flare and arc to sneak up the middle between Romero’s shoulders, but wasn’t thrown with intention as an overhand either, with may have allowed him to sneak in outside Romero’s forearm.
Rockhold attempted to capitalize on the opening in the center of Romero’s guard with lead uppercuts or up-jabs, but they were so telegraphed that Romero had no trouble parrying or pulling his head back to avoid them.
Since Romero was denying the jab with exaggerated parries that took his rear hand away from his chin, yet relied on having his forearm up near his face to cover against the lead hook, it would have been nice to see Rockhold attempt to hook off the jab. When the parry comes out to deny the jab, the hook snaps around it before the hand can return to the head. Jabbing and hooking in combination creates a double attack that leaves an opponent wondering where their hand should be at any flick of the lead shoulder.
Rockhold threw few lead hooks in this fight, but when he did he usually paired it with a knee-raise to feint a front kick. This pairing lacks the same double-effect that the jab/lead hook has. Romero would attempt to defend the front kick by bringing his lead arm down to parry it across, but the lead hook attacks the rear side in a closed-stance matchup, and no threat existed to force Romero to move his rear hand out of position.
This clip perfectly demonstrates the opening for the lead hook created by Romero’s response to the jab. Rockhold steps in with the jab, drawing an exaggerated parry from Romero that leaves his rear hand down at his chest. Rockhold pivots inside of Romero’s stance and follows up with another jab that grazes his face, but look at Romero’s positioning right before Rockhold throws his second jab. Romero has his rear hand down by his waist, his stance is squared up, and his weight is on his rear foot, leaning right into Rockhold’s lead hand. A lead hook would have been the perfect tool to capitalize on the opening.
Rockhold was having more success with his boxing in the latter half of the fight, but Romero quickly adjusted to Rockhold’s success. Around a minute into the third round, there was a palpable shift in Romero’s cadence. Previously he had been content to largely sit back and let Rockhold jab at him, picking the punches off with parries and getting behind his forearms to defend, but he suddenly became aggressive.
Romero’s temperament turned on a dime, almost as if he decided it was finally time to put away the top-5 middleweight in front of him. He began marching forward, attempting to counter almost every strike Rockhold threw at him, landing leaning left hands when Rockhold jabbed and sliding in his own jab as he slipped Rockhold’s. Almost exactly a minute after that shift occurred, Rockhold was lying on the canvas getting his face uppercut-ed off his body.
The combination Romero used to put Rockhold away was a work of art, combining his incredible power and explosiveness with a deep understanding of rhythm and cadence.
Romero takes a step forward and shoots a long jab into Rockhold’s face, blinding Rockhold while he takes a deep hop-step in to close distance. As soon as his feet touch down, Romero throws up a shorter, quick jab to distract Rockhold and follows immediately on a half-beat with a crushing straight. Luke begins loading up his check hook on the second jab, but his wind-up takes too long and the straight blows through him.
If you were to hit a drum as Romero throws his punches, you would hear a full beat after the first jab, while the last two notes come on in rapid succession. The change in rhythm marks the difference between Romero potentially eating the check hook and landing before it can arrive.
What Happens Next?
For Luke Rockhold, this fight represented a chance to force himself right back into the immediate title picture. That did not happen, and he’ll have to take some time to regroup before challenging for the title again. A step down in competition against a Derek Brunson or Krzysztof Jotko would give him a chance to regain some confidence and put on a highlight-reel performance, or a fight with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza could potentially hoist him back into contention with a win.
As for the victor, there exists perhaps no better image to encapsulate the enigma that is Yoel Romero better than the scene that transpired shortly after the main event of UFC 221. After dropping Rockhold with a brutal straight and smashing his face in with a savage bus-driver uppercut, the Cuban Olympian sauntered up to his vanquished foe before placing a chaste kiss on Rockhold’s disoriented cheek.
And that’s the kind of guy Romero is in a nutshell. He may beat you into a ruined husk of your former self, but he’ll make sure you know that he beat you into a ruined husk of your former self with love. Romero is nothing if not affectionate, whether he demonstrates that affection through proclaiming his love to potential victims like Michael Bisping, or through getting handsy with Rockhold after knocking him out.
Although he failed to capture the interim championship, it seems inevitable that Romero will receive a shot at the real belt in a rematch with Robert Whittaker. The current champion even tweeted his support for Romero after Romero’s impressive performance:
@YoelRomeroMMA Felicitaciones. Una gran pelea. Merecido triunfo. Abrazos
— Robert Whittaker (@robwhittakermma) February 11, 2018
Whittaker congratulated Romero on his victory in Spanish. Ever the gentleman, Whittaker ended his tweet with “abrazos,” or “hugs.”
Now that the rematch seems destined to happen, I can’t tell what part of it has me more excited: the promise of unmitigated violence and elite talent, or the promise of cuddles and smooches.
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