Welcome back to “Rear Naked Notebook,” a bi-weekly (kind of) column that examines the ever-changing landscape of mixed martial arts.
In this issue, we’ll discuss the fallout from Saturday night’s UFC 221 in Perth, play matchmaker for the evening’s main card victors, look forward to a pair of marquee fights on the horizon, and more. Let’s dig in.
On Yoel Romero…
I don’t know what it is about the third round for Yoel Romero, but it’s where he thrives. And boy oh boy is he dangerous in it. How dangerous, you ask? So dangerous that six of Romero’s nine victories under the UFC banner have come within that five-minute window in the third round. An unusual stat, to say the least.
Last night, under the bright lights of the Perth Arena, Yoel Romero flattened Luke Rockhold with a devastating left hand that sent the former UFC middleweight kingpin into the shadow realm, or somewhere equally terrifying.
The destruction further confirmed two things we’ve known about Romero since his promotional debut a little under five years ago. First, the Cuban missile is as explosive as they come, and second, he’s nearly as unpredictable as he is explosive. What’s perhaps most mystifying about the way Romero fights is his unique ability to lull his opponents to sleep before exploding into a double leg or a barrage of punches seemingly out of nowhere. His explosiveness and raw, God-given power is a real and dangerous problem for anyone at 185 pounds, a certainty Rockhold learned the hard way.
If only he had made weight and was flying home with some shiny gold hardware. Welp.
Monday Morning Matchmaker
UFC 221, much like UFC 206 in Toronto, was a shining example of why you should never judge a card until it’s in the books. For a $65 price tag on pay-per-view, the card lacked the kind of household names casual fans are familiar with, but what transpired was a beautiful and tactical display of violence.
Five main card fights, five winners. Where do they go next?
1. Yoel Romero vs. Robert Whittaker
This one is easy. UFC president Dana White confirmed Romero would indeed next face reigning middleweight champion Robert Whittaker for the undisputed middleweight title, despite his troubles on the scale. It remains to be seen if Romero’s gas tank will be able to sustain the constant pressure Whittaker brings to the cage, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see how it plays out.
2. Curtis Blaydes vs. the winner of Derrick Lewis and Marcin Tybura
Heavyweight is a stale division full of old dogs desperate for young blood. That much isn’t up for debate. Blaydes needed a victory last night opposite the battle-tested Mark Hunt, and he got it. Next up for the young, athletic heavyweight should be a meeting with the winner of next month’s matchup between powerful brawler Derrick Lewis and Polish standout Marcin Tybura. It would serve as another stern test for the still relatively inexperienced Blaydes and either man would be a fresh face for the Chicago-born product.
3. Tai Tuivasa vs. the winner of Stefan Struve and Andrei Arlovski
Let’s not beat around the bush: Tai Tuivasa is just plain fun. Everything from his wild, brawling kickboxing, to his tremendous power, to his charismatic post-fight interviews is about as fun as enjoyable as it gets in mixed martial arts. That’s something the UFC can sell. Tuivasa is young and hungry, and while there’s no need to rush him up the ladder, he could no doubt benefit from that signature win over a name people know. Let that name be whoever comes out on top in Las Vegas next month. Struve, Arlovski, it doesn’t matter. Just draw up the contract.
4. Jake Matthews vs. Randy Brown
Matthews, like a number of guys mentioned already, is young, hungry, and seemingly still trying to figure out exactly what kind of a fighter he wants to be. Brown too is young, hungry, and still trying to figure out what kind of a fighter he wants to be. Let’s see who can figure it out first, and who’s the hungriest.
5. Tyson Pedro vs. the winner of Corey Anderson and Patrick Cummins
Pedro, much like his brother in law Tuivasa before him, is a whole lot of fun. He’s dynamic, aggressive, and while he still appears to be putting it all together, his victory Saturday night was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and an impressive one at that. The winner of Anderson and Cummins would represent a step up in competition for the Australian native, and one that would likely produce fireworks.
On the UFC 222 Shuffle…
It appears the MMA gods just do not want Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar to tangle.
After Edgar withdrew due to injury from a planned matchup with the Hawaiian champ at UFC 218 in Detroit, news broke last week that it’s now Holloway that has been forced to withdraw from the pair’s second booking planned for early March at UFC 222 in Las Vegas.
This left the promotion scrambling for a suitable main event. The consolation prize? UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg squaring off against reigning Invicta FC bantamweight champion Yana Kunitskaya. On paper? It’s a title fight. There will be a shiny gold belt up for grabs in Las Vegas. In reality? Goodnight, Kunitskaya. This is, by all accounts, a squash match, and little more than an opportunity for Cyborg to collect another paycheck and pad her record a little more.
It’s certainly no Holloway vs. Edgar, but on four weeks notice it will have to do. It’s also worth mentioning that Edgar will remain on the card opposite surging featherweight contender and submission specialist Brian Ortega, risking his rightful number one contender spot atop the pecking order.
What’s On Tap
UFC Fight Night: Cowboy vs. Medeiros
Sunday, February 18th from Austin, Texas
UFC Fight Night: Emmett vs. Stephens
Saturday, February 24th from Orlando, Florida
UFC 222: Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya
Saturday, March 3rd from Las Vegas, Nevada