MMA Review: #632: UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold

-Another weekend, another maligned UFC card, then. This one was the first UFC show in Perth, but despite being a PPV it was largely a Fight Night-level card with a better main event in Middleweight champ Robert Whittaker defending against Luke Rockhold. Which of course went down the drain when Whittaker had to withdraw with a bad staph infection. He was replaced by Yoel Romero, making almost as good a fight, but just with less interest for Aussie fans. Boo! On the plus side it looked like a show full of squash matches, which was a welcome change given the lack of good finishes thus far in 2018.

UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold

Perth, Western Australia

-Your hosts are Jon Anik and for the first time since joining the UFC from Bellator, Jimmy Smith! I always liked Smith on Bellator and the feeling is that the UFC might have their long-term replacement for Joe Rogan now. Quite why Bellator let the guy go I don’t know as he’s fantastic. Even better than Paul Felder!

Light-Heavyweight Fight: Tyson Pedro vs Saparbek Safarov

This one looked like a showcase for the young Aussie prospect Pedro – coming off his first loss to Ilir Latifi – as Safarov hadn’t fought since a sloppy 2016 loss to Gian Villante and just didn’t seem in the same league athletically to Pedro.

Round One begins and they throw some feeler strikes with Pedro landing a hard low kick. Takedown from Safarov counters it and he moves into half-guard, but Pedro quickly scoots to the fence and looks to work his way back up. Pedro stands and then separates, then comes in with a jab and a nice knee to the head. Front kick to the body is caught by Safarov but he can’t get Pedro down. Big right hand lands for Pedro and they trade off before Safarov shoots. Pedro defends and lands with a knee to separate, then follows with a right and a high kick. Lunging right misses for Pedro and Safarov lands a decent straight left. Right hand and a knee answer for Pedro and then Safarov shoots again, forcing the Aussie into the cage. Pedro locks up a front headlock to defend, but Safarov slams him down and takes the back, landing a couple of clearly illegal punches to the back of the head that the ref misses. Pedro turns into him and looks for a switch, then changes it up and locks up a kimura, using it to sweep to top position! Nice! Safarov’s in trouble and Pedro swings his leg over the head and tightens it for the tapout.

Really great grappling from Pedro to get that finish, not that often you see that kind of kimura from a sweep – it was similar to Frank Mir’s on Rodrigo Nogueira albeit without the snapping arm. Beautiful stuff to watch. Pedro looked a bit sloppy on the feet at times here but that finish was awesome. Dude shows a lot of charisma on the mic post-fight too – he’s a guy the UFC should be pushing as a star for sure.

Welterweight Fight: Jake Matthews vs Li Jingliang

Matthews – still only 23 years old – was hoping to pick up his second win at 170lbs here after beating Bojan Velickovic in November, but this was a far tougher test for him as Jingliang had been on a hot streak, winning 4 in a row with 3 knockouts. Despite Matthews showing great potential at times I felt the Leech would have a strength advantage, and picked him to win a tight decision.

Round One begins and it’s pretty clear that visually at least, Matthews has packed on a LOT of muscle since his last appearance. They circle and throw out some feints, before Matthews tags Jingliang with a right hand. Left hand follows over the top for the Aussie. Low kick is caught by Matthews and he cuffs Jingliang with a hard right hand. His striking looks much improved. Jingliang keeps pushing forward, but Matthews is throwing with some POWER here and both men get hit before Matthews drops Jingliang with a left hand! He pounces in an attempt to finish and lands some hammer fists, but Jingliang manages to tie him up before finding himself mounted. Matthews lands some shots as Jingliang clings on, then gives his back. Two hooks in for Matthews and Jingliang’s in trouble. Matthews lands some shots to soften him up, but can’t sink the choke – apparently because Jingliang’s illegally grabbing his gloves. Boo! Round ends though with Matthews in firm control. 10-9 Matthews.

Round Two and Jingliang comes out pressuring Matthews, forcing him back a bit and landing with a nice uppercut. Matthews looks stunned, but goes for a takedown and in the scramble he locks up a guillotine and it looks TIGHT! He rolls and winds up in guard, and it looks like it could be over….but Jingliang uses a BLATANT EYE GOUGE to defend, even causing Matthews’ eye to bleed. Holy shit. Ref Mark Simpson somehow decides to LET IT CONTINUE which is FUCKING STUPID to say the least. Should’ve been a DQ, not even a point deduction! Jingliang ends up on top landing some punches, and then begins to bomb on the head as Matthews works to scramble to his feet. He looks badly hurt though. Lot of blood coming from the right eye which is shameful. Jingliang keeps on swinging, but Matthews catches him with an overhand right in answer. Jingliang continues to push forward as Matthews tries to avoid the punches, and does so for the most part. Exchange continues with Matthews beginning to get back into it now. Wild exchange follows with seconds to go, and Matthews TAGS Jingliang with some big shots before yelling at him to bring it on. Gotta love that! Crowd are buzzing. Round ends there. Probably 10-9 Matthews but it was close; I can’t give a round to someone who did that eye gouge though.

Round Three and both men again come out swinging, as both announcers seem to agree that Jingliang should’ve been DQ’d. Takedown from Matthews but Li gets his back to the fence, only to eat a bunch of punches as he stands. Good knee from Matthews as they exchange in the clinch before breaking. Nice one-two from Matthews. Jingliang keeps on pushing forward as both men are beginning to look slightly fatigued. BIG RIGHT HAND suddenly drops Jingliang HARD, but somehow he recovers and ends up taking Matthews’ back in a scramble! Amazing chin as he looked out there. Matthews ends up rolling into guard, before he kicks Jingliang away. Scramble follows and Matthews looks for the takedown, but Jingliang defends well. They break off with a minute to go and both men miss with some punches before Matthews tags him again. Flying knee glances for Matthews but he eats a left hand counter too. Takedown from Matthews follows but Jingliang gets to his feet as the round ends. 10-9 Matthews, and I’d go 30-27 overall but I’d accept a 29-28 for Matthews too.

Judges have it 29-28, 30-26 and 30-26 for Jake Matthews in a well-fought win. This was probably his best UFC performance to date actually as his striking looked better than ever and he really seems to have settled into his frame at 170lbs, too. Jingliang’s eye gouge was pretty disgusting though and really left a black cloud hanging over the fight overall – perhaps you can blame it on instinct but there’s no excuse for the referee not doing anything about it. Hopefully we never see him officiating in the UFC again. Outside of the foul though this was a very fun fight.

Heavyweight Fight: Tai Tuivasa vs Cyril Asker

Similarly to the Tyson Pedro fight earlier, this looked like a probable squash in favour of the Aussie prospect, in this case Tuivasa – Pedro’s brother-in-law coincidentally. He’d looked great in knocking out Rashad Coulter in November and despite his flabby physique, appeared to be a seriously good athlete for a Heavyweight. Opponent Asker had won his last fight but was small for a HW and hadn’t looked good at all in his two UFC losses, so he looked like a tailor-made opponent for Tuivasa to probably knock out.

We get started and holy shit Asker’s head is HUGE, even for a Heavyweight. Tuivasa looks to be in embarrassing shape again too. They throw some feints before Tuivasa lands a couple of big right hands pretty quickly. He looks far quicker than Asker despite his size. Big right leads to a clinch for Tuivasa and they jockey for position before breaking off. More punches have Asker wobbled, and Tuivasa comes in with some HUGE ELBOWS as well as more punches that have the Frenchman badly hurt. Tuivasa smartly NAILS the body when Asker covers up too. More shots connect for Tuivasa and Asker looks out on his feet. He continues to eat nasty elbows and punches and finally Tuivasa just THROWS HIM DOWN FACE FIRST and the ref has to call it off there.

Totally one-sided beatdown as was expected but boy was it entertaining. Asker didn’t offer much offense at all but Tuivasa’s striking looked excellent, at least in terms of his variation with the elbows and body shots even if he didn’t have to defend well, anything at all. The UFC needs to build this guy slowly as he’s still raw and in bad shape, but man is he fun to watch and he’s clearly got a TON of natural talent. Like a young Mark Hunt as many have pointed out. Post-fight he also cuts a fun promo – gotta love these young Aussies. This was great fun to watch.

Heavyweight Fight: Mark Hunt vs Curtis Blaydes

With Francis Ngannou losing to Stipe Miocic in January, Blaydes was looking to show that he was now the top Heavyweight prospect by beating veteran contender Hunt here, in what was clearly the trickiest test of his UFC career thus far. Despite being sidelined for a while following a dodgy interview in which he basically admitted to having CTE symptoms, Hunt had looked good in his previous fight with Derrick Lewis and seemed to be in top shape coming into this one. I was taking Blaydes though, feeling like he could use the same gameplan that Brock Lesnar had done to stifle Hunt for a decision.

Round One begins and they circle with Blaydes throwing some strikes from the outside early on. Couple of decent ones glance for him including a solid left hook. Hunt looks really chilled though. Takedown attempt from Blaydes and he gets Hunt down, but the Aussie does an excellent job of reversing to his feet. Blaydes pushes forward, but walks into a short right from Hunt and he’s wobbled! Another right hand sends him sprawling, and Hunt closes in to look for the finish. Right lands again and Blaydes goes DOWN, but somehow he pops up and then hits a big double leg to put Hunt down. Wow, Blaydes has an insane chin. He moves almost to full mount, then takes the back as Hunt tries to crawl his way out. Hunt works to his feet, but Blaydes stays on him and manages to drag him down, landing in half-guard this time. Crowd are literally horrified by the takedown. Big punches land for Blaydes from the half-guard and Hunt looks to be bleeding. Full mount from Blaydes and then he takes the back, but the round ends before he can capitalise. 10-9 Hunt for the big knockdown despite Blaydes being in control at the end.

Round Two and Hunt looks like he’s breathing a bit heavily. Takedown attempt from Blaydes comes right away and he transitions to a rear waistlock, then forces Hunt into the cage. Hunt stays upright and breaks with a right hand, then glances on a big left hook/uppercut. Blaydes throws some punches that largely miss, and Hunt manages to shrug off another takedown, but with half the round remaining Blaydes ducks under some punches to hit a takedown to half-guard. Crowd boo loudly but Blaydes is clearly being active with elbows from the top. Hunt doesn’t appear to have anything from his back. Blaydes continues to land on him with some heavy shots, then moves into side mount to end the round. 10-9 Blaydes.

Round Three and Blaydes comes right out and hits a HUGE double leg. Hunt manages to get back up, but Blaydes PICKS HIM UP AND SLAMS HIM DOWN. Holy shit that’s some strength. Full mount now for Blaydes and he looks to trap the arm to deliver some shots. Hunt is busted up. Americana attempt from Blaydes doesn’t work so he goes back to dropping punches and elbows instead. Hunt gets back to half-guard, but he can’t seem to shake Blaydes off at all. He manages to turn his back and crawl towards the fence, but Blaydes continues to land punches from behind and when Hunt stands, Blaydes hits a German suplex to put him back down. Hunt again muscles to his feet, but Blaydes has hold of his arm and he uses it to drag Hunt down where he continues to punish him. One minute to go and Hunt again reverses to his feet, this time breaking free, but Blaydes tackles him right back down to the horror of the crowd. Again Blaydes lands with punches until Hunt escapes up, but Blaydes suplexes him again and then ends the fight working from full mount. 10-8 round for Blaydes and I’d call it 29-27 overall.

Judges have it 30-26, 30-26 and 29-27 all for Curtis Blaydes. This was an excellent performance from him as not only did he display some serious power to be able to ragdoll Hunt like that, but he also showed a phenomenal chin to survive a barrage in the first round that would’ve put a lot of Heavyweights out. Crowd didn’t like it but it wasn’t at all boring, it was more that they were just upset about Hunt losing. Blaydes though is clearly the best prospect in the division right now – personally I’d give him the Struve/Arlovski winner next to build him slowly but who knows with the UFC right now. Enjoyable Heavyweight fight at any rate.

UFC Interim Middleweight Title: Yoel Romero vs Luke Rockhold

So yeah, initially this would’ve been Rockhold challenging Robert Whittaker for the Middleweight title, but when Whittaker had to drop with a serious staph infection, Romero stepped in to take the fight and create ANOTHER Interim title. I didn’t agree with it given Whittaker was saying he’d be back later in 2018, but I guess the UFC can’t do a PPV without a title fight. Anyhow, it turned out to be only half a title fight in the end anyway as Romero only made 187.5lbs, meaning only Rockhold was eligible to win the title – basically like the Holloway/Pettis situation at UFC 206. My pick for the record was Romero as I just felt Rockhold’s striking defence was too porous and would allow Romero to catch him with something nasty.

First round begins and Rockhold opens with a low kick. Couple more low kicks and some glancing punches land for Rockhold as Romero just seems to be studying him more than firing back. Nice left hand gets through for Rockhold. This is a super-low output round for Romero. Another good leg kick connects for Rockhold. Wild overhand left misses for Romero. Rockhold is just going to the leg kick over and over. Leg kick lands for Romero as does an overhand left, but Rockhold seems fine. Few more kicks connect for Rockhold. Round peters out on the feet. 10-9 Rockhold I guess as Romero did so little.

Second round and Romero comes rushing out with a BIG FLURRY that has Rockhold hurt! He tries to grab a plum to fire back with knees, but he gets hurt again with some more punches and has to backpedal pretty swiftly. Romero slows down from there though and allows Rockhold to circle away. Right hand lands cleanly for Romero and he’s pushing forward a little more again. Couple of high kicks are blocked by Romero and then Rockhold fires off with a couple of hooks too that don’t land cleanly. Romero seems to be pacing himself. Wild flurry again hurts Rockhold, with Romero landing a left hand, but Rockhold manages to circle free again. Just over a minute to go and Rockhold begins to chip away at the Cuban with low kicks and some jabs. Few really nice punches get through for Rockhold in the waning seconds and that’s the round. 10-9 Romero largely for that flurry, but it was a tight – and relatively low output – round.

Third round and Rockhold again pumps the jab out, circling on the outside as Romero seems to be studying him again. Good leg kick lands for Rockhold. More jabs connect too as Romero begins to stalk forward a little more. Rockhold continues to jab, but Romero suddenly catches him with a BIG LEFT HOOK and down he goes, and a SICK LEFT on the ground TURNS OUT THE LIGHTS!~!

Unbelievable knockout from Yoel Romero – even for a walking highlight reel like him this one was special, as he just waited and waited patiently and seemed to be studying Rockhold’s timing and how he reacted to that second round flurry, and then bam, it was over. Rockhold was looking good prior to the end but his boxing defense remains his weakest point and it caught up with him again.

Post-fight Romero can’t stand up and he reveals Rockhold injured his leg pretty badly with the kicks in the first round, which makes a third round knockout even MORE crazy. I don’t care about the weight issue, it’s time for Romero vs. Whittaker II for sure. He’s clearly the top contender even if Whittaker only beat him last year. Even though it was only February I think we’ll probably be seeing this knockout at the end of the year on highlight reels as it was so good.

Middleweight Fight: Israel Adesanya vs Rob Wilkinson

And wow, it’s PRELIM TIME as we’ve got time left on the show. Haven’t seen that in ages. In this case it was the fight between debuting kickboxer Israel Adesanya – who’d been compared to both Michael Page and Jon Jones – against Aussie Rob Wilkinson who’d lost his UFC debut to Siyar Bahadurzada back in September.

Round One and they circle with Adesanya throwing out a lot of feints. Clinch from Wilkinson and he looks to get the newcomer to the ground, but Adesanya shows some decent defense and remains standing. He uses a whizzer to avoid going down and then works free of a standing guillotine too, but Wilkinson keeps him against the fence. Nice trip from Wilkinson puts him down, but again Adesanya reverses to his feet. Wilkinson keeps trying but he can’t seem to secure a grip on Adesanya despite being able to take him down a couple more times. Just under two minutes to go and Adesanya breaks free, landing a kick to the body. Combination and a front kick to the body land but Wilkinson catches the leg and gets a takedown, only for Adesanya to roll right through and escape to his feet. Wilkinson stays on him in the clinch, but again he can’t get Adesanya down and the round ends shortly after. 10-9 Wilkinson for the control I guess.

Round Two and Adesanya looks more comfortable right away as he snipes at Wilkinson from the outside. Clinch from Wilkinson is avoided this time and Adesanya is stalking now. Beautiful jab snaps Wilkinson’s head back. Big combo hurts him and he’s going to the body now too. Takedown attempt is avoided by Adesanya and he lands a head kick and a knee. Takedown attempt from Wilkinson gets him down, but he reverses right back up and manages to escape. Adesanya taunts him now and lands with a combo and Wilkinson looks tired. More punches follow and Wilkinson’s bleeding badly now. Looks like a busted nose. More shots from Adesanya and Wilkinson is on the verge. He takes some more punches and knees and Adesanya SPITS BLOOD AT HIM before continuing to pour it on. Wilkinson just keeps on buckling and finally the ref has to stop it as he wilts under the violence.

Pretty impressive debut for Adesanya – a one-shot knockout would’ve wowed people more but he showed solid takedown and clinch defense here and then picked his shots to put Wilkinson away. Smart stuff and it bodes well for his future. Post-fight he shows a TON of charisma too, so the UFC need to treat him carefully as he could end up as a STAR.

-And with that we recap on the Romero fight and then hit the highlight reel.

Final Thoughts….

Considering I wasn’t expecting a lot going in, I thought this show over-delivered really. Every fight was exciting, we got three pretty sick finishes from Pedro, Tuivasa and Romero, and a hell of a brawl between Matthews and Jingliang despite a horrible foul. Won’t go down as a classic show or anything but UFC 221 definitely gets the thumbs up from me.

Best Fight: Matthews vs. Jingliang
Worst Fight: None

Overall Rating: ****

Until next time,

Scott Newman: