When it was announced that Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold were fighting for an interim title at UFC 221, the MMA world heaved a collective sigh. Yet another hotly anticipated title match would be demoted to interim status after an injury.
But this offers us a rare opportunity to witness the final clash between two members of a legendary trio. A few years ago when Chris Weidman was still trouncing the middleweight division, a trio of extraordinary contenders emerged. I dubbed the brutal trifecta of Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza the “three-headed monster”. But which head reigns supreme?
Rockhold and Romero have both conquered Jacare in close fights, now they will determine who’s the best.
The Ageless Wonder
Absurdly muscled and broad as a barn door, Romero has got to be kidding when he says he’s 40 years old.
A silver-medalist at the 2000 Olympic games as a wrestler, Romero is the most frightening takedown artist in the division. The descriptor “ragdoll” gets thrown around a lot, but grown men look like toys in Romero’s hands. He’ll lift fighters who weigh close to 200 lbs by fight night and spike them into the ground like a football. His top game is terrifying enough that opponents tailor their entire strategy around staying on the feet. But like many grapplers in today’s UFC, he uses that to his advantage to throw strikes with reckless abandon.
After all, Romero’s biggest wins have come on the back of his striking.
His scrap with Jacare Souza was a back and forth affair and he squeaked by with a surprise back fist. He and Chris Weidman had split the first two rounds until he flattened the ex-champ with a massive flying knee. It’s a pattern that’s served power grapplers like Khabib Nurmagomedov so well, and it’s no wonder that Romero’s only lost one fight in the octagon.
The Uncrowned King
Even after he lost to Vitor Belfort, I argued that Rockhold was the deadliest head of the 3-headed monster. He was an underrated freak of an athlete and a terrible match up for Weidman. I was laughed out of the room until Rockhold pounded out the champion as I expected. Had Michael Bisping not channeled the spirit of Rocky, he’d probably still be the champion.
Rockhold is a human cheat code; he’s tall, long and a southpaw with a fantastic body kick. This lets him target the opponent’s liver from the next county over. Combined with a gazelle-like stride and a nasty check hook, Rockhold is the best out-fighter at middleweight. It is literally impossible to engage him at distance so opponents must try and close in.
Which is a problem because Rockhold isn’t half the striker that he is a grappler.
Few people remember that Rockhold beat Jacare for the Strikeforce belt, but fewer still have actually seen the fight. It was a war, but what was surprising was that Jacare couldn’t keep Rockhold down. I’ve written before about how having Jacare on top is a virtual death sentence, yet Rockhold’s active guard and scrambles got him back to the feet multiple times. On top, Rockhold uses his length to ensnare his opponents as he drops bombs on them. He needed only one round and a glancing shot to concuss the mighty Lyoto Machida.
The Sledgehammer and the Sniper
The question is whether Romero beat Rockhold within 3 rounds before the mounting damage from body kicks and cardio issues slow him down. It’s debatable whether he could finish Rockhold on the ground, but he does have the explosiveness to close in and land a haymaker. But that’s easier said than done, with Bisping being the only man to manage it in the UFC.
The fight will likely go the opposite of Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee and Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Edson Barboza; the grappler can’t pile on damage fast enough and the striker with better cardio prevails.