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UFC 213: Nunes vs. Shevchenko - Yoel Romero vs Robert Whittaker Toe to Toe Preview

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Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Romero vs. Whittaker at UFC 213, and everything you don’t about Bisping’s milk carton photoshoot.

UFC 205: Weidman v Romero Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Yoel Romero vs. Robert Whittaker take the spotlight this July 8, 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.

One sentence summary:

Phil: It's the real middleweight championship, and everyone knows it.

David: Romero and Whittaker battle it out for the pride to make up for Michael Bisping’s prejudice.

Stats:

Record: Yoel Romero 13-1 Robert Whittaker 18-4

Odds: Yoel Romero -105 Robert Whittaker -115

History / Introduction to Both Fighters

Phil: It was difficult to know what to make of Yoel Romero when he first came the world of big-ticket MMA in Strikeforce. A freak athlete, yep. Incredible wrestling background, check. Had trained boxing alongside alongside his brother, a Cuban world champion, sure, fine, yes, that is a good thing for being good at MMA. But he was old, and he got knocked out by Feijao Cavalcante, and it became apparent that he simply wouldn't have the time to master the sport before his body gave out on him.

Except that it didn't, because he is some kind of terrifying immortal.

David: More terrifying than his immortality might be his abnormally small tongue. But that’s neither here nor there. Romero has become a linchpin of middleweight violence. He’s the guy everyone assumed Hector Lombard would be, but more motivated, more indignant, and obviously more religious. Despite his success, it still feels like we’re looking at a small sample size. It wasn’t until recently that we really saw him against elite middleweight competition, and Chris Weidman is on the toughest skid in his career. I’m not skeptical. Just wondering where it’s all headed.

Phil: Bobby Knuckles started off his UFC career winning TUF: The Smashes, defeating luminaries like Xavier Lucas, and Luke Newman. He's one of the best prospects to come out of Australia, some people said. That does not mean a whole lot, a few other people responded, rather rudely, I thought. Whatever your expectations of how well he'd perform, it's safe to say that he has... well, smashed them.

David: In general, losses can, and are often overcome. Fighters lose early on in their careers, improve, and life goes on without much reflection. But a truly bad loss is like a tattoo. How can Michael Johnson ever become champ if he lost to Reza Madadi? And so forth. Because of Whittaker’s loss to Court McGee, I could never take Bobby Knuckles seriously as a legit contender. But how wrong I was. Aside from wasting 15 minutes of everyone’s time with Rafael Natal, Whittaker has performed well above expectations, and right into title contention. Granted, Bisping took his ball and left, so a title shot might have come sooner, so here we are to witness a better fight instead. That says something about middleweight itself. None of them good.

What's at stake?

MMA: UFC 204-Bisping vs Henderson Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Phil: Winner gets to fight Bisping! Or the Bisping-GSP winner! Or something. Basically, whoever wins gets to be regarded as the best middleweight on the planet, then go into a juicy, high-profile money fight in which they're going to be heavily favoured.

David: The stakes depend entirely on Bisping. I’m not too confident that GSP can beat Bisping, but I am confident that if you talk enough shit. Even if it’s ironic, playful, or good natured - that Bisping will grow angry enough to take the fight, no matter who you are. If Wesley Snipes threw down the gauntlet, MMA could get its own Mayweather vs. McGregor.

Where do they want it?

Phil: Yoel Romero has a rep as a random, chaotic fighter. The more he fights, the more I become convinced that this is not true. He is without structure, but not without process.

He uses rhythm and feints to draw out his opponent and define how their game looks in real time. In this phase of the fight he doesn't commit to a whole lot, and will essentially deflect what comes his way, whether striking or grappling. Opponents find themselves trying to pressure him with wrestling or blitzes, and he simply pushes it away and slides off with as little effort as humanly possible. He wants to have as complete a view of the structure of the opponent's game as possible, and figure out where a weak point is. Then he simply whacks that weak point as hard as he possibly can, with something which his opponents can't see coming.

There are those that consider him to be weirdness incarnate... but it's hard to think of a more high-percentage approach for a fighter with his particular freakish physical gifts, and it's something which has led to shockingly consistent results.

David: Romero is more convulsion than conduct. He’s the third round of punctuated equilibrium. The tooth and claw of natural oppression. With his hulking physique, he’s able to roam around the cage like a dinosaur with thermal camouflage. Like a fortress with legs, fighting him is more like strategizing for a siege than attempting an attack.

Romero isn’t a classic slow starter. But he’s at his best during the fight ‘passage’ - growing comfortable as the fight progresses, developing a rhythm before the epilogue. It’s no surprise that his struggles occurred when opponents came straight at him, like Derek Brunson and Feijao. But even then, he has good timing on his punches, even better timing on that knee, and he’s a grizzly bear in the clinch. Just pure Zangief. And nobody has an FADC ultra like him.

Phil: Bobby Knuckles represents one of the next generation of strikers in the style pioneered by fighters like John Makdessi, and later adopted by Johnny-Come-Latelys like McGregor and Holloway. It emphasizes movement, high-pace boxing, and quick, snapping kicks which lean more on the TKD than the Muay Thai side. Footspeed allows the fighter to pivot off and snuff takedowns from wrestlers, and the volume allows them to drown Muay Thai leg kick stylists. It's a good style!

Whittaker has simply beautiful takedown defense and is very hard to hit to the head, but has been a bit easier to hit to the legs and body. However, in general his pace has meant that those who try to commit there normally find themselves dealing with his leaping hook and a blizzard of combination punches.

The questions of the fight are essentially clear: can Whittaker pressure Romero enough to hurt him or wear him down before Romero's Limit Break is charged up? Can Whittaker survive the Limit Break if Romero manages to get it off?

David: The difference between Whittaker and Holloway, McGregor, or Makdessi is that Whittaker has a stronger appreciation for boxing’s catalogue in MMA. His mechanics are crisp, almost effortless. He throws with just the right amount of power and speed, and all of his assets are strengthened by his movement. He has a strong understanding of angles, and positioning, which makes his shot selection elite. His 42 percent significant strike accuracy isn’t subject to regression anytime soon. His ability to setup combinations off his jab, and his kicks set him up to be one of the best midrange fighters in the sport, cutting off distance (usually to pressure) with economy.

Insight from past fights?

MMA: UFC 194-Souza vs Romero Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Phil: Both men have great defense to the head, both men have been a lot easier to hit to the legs and body. Take Weidman/Romero, for example. Weidman blew his tank and eventually gave Romero the reads necessary to hit a brutal flying knee by going for takedowns, but the majority of his effective offense was in snap and round kicks to the body. The same is true of Kennedy against Romero. On the other hand, Whittaker was able to effectively pressure Hall and Natal, but he took a decent amount of damage from kicks on the way in. Thus, I think a big key to the fight may be about who gets their kick game rolling early, whether it's Romero's calf kick and southpaw liver strike, or that snapping high which Whittaker can use as double duty to shelve Romero's cross.

David: Brunson is nothing like Whittaker stylistically. But they are similar philosophically. Romero is not a guy you can bullrush, but he is a guy who is weaker fighting backwards (even if it’s not some sort of essential flaw). If Whittaker can pressure and select aggressively, he can neutralize Romero long enough to build the advantage on the scorecard.

X-Factors

Phil: Yoel's age seemed like it might be something to bring up, but after looking at the open workouts his physical well-being seems like a slightly pointless thing to question.

David: The grappling will be the x-factor. Whittaker has enough movement to make it difficult for Romero to close the distance. He doesn’t, however, have the strength. So if Whittaker can make it hard on Romero, that will pay dividends even if 3rd round Yoel is historically devastating.

Prognostication

Phil: This is one of the best fights in the sport at the moment, an absolutely fascinating clash between two men at the top of their games. I keep going back and forth. Screw it. Give me pace and durability to make the difference over sudden, shocking strikes from heaven. Robert Whittaker by TKO, round 4.

David: You just convinced me. Strikes from heaven beat pace and durability. Every time. Yoel Romero by TKO, round 3.