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Hindsight - UFC 221: Romero vs. Rockhold in retrospect

Peer deep into the in’s and out’s of every match from UFC 221, from Luke Jumeau’s opening comeback victory to Yoel Romero decimating Luke Rockhold to stake his claim as the #1 contender for Robert Whittaker’s belt.

Though UFC 221 was one of the most underwhelming PPV’s on paper in recent memory, it turned out to be a fun card for the few that decided to tune into it. For the first time since UFC 183, nobody walked out of a numbered UFC event holding gold after Yoel Romero was ruled ineligible to take away the interim middleweight belt after he missed weight. Some of you may point out UFC 202, but Conor McGregor walked in and out of that event holding featherweight gold, even if it wasn’t on the line.

Regardless of fun facts that no one cares about, there were some fun takeaways from UFC 221. A number of prospects made impactful statements about their future prospects, leaving those who watched the event feeling much better about the future prospects of the sport. Now if only the UFC can give these youngsters the visibility they need to realize their potential financially….

Here’s my thoughts on the UFC 221, with every fight and fighter involved broken down. The format is simple. The first bullet covers what was expected to happen and an attempt at a brief summary of what did happen. The next two bullets cover my thoughts on each fighter, how they did, and where they might be headed from here with the winner being covered first.

Luke Jumeau defeated Daichi Abe via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: While we knew what to expect out of Jumeau – he’s unlikely to make any major strides at this point in his career – Abe is still so young in his career that he’s difficult to gauge where he is at or how high he’ll climb. Abe’s performance was reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as his first round was brilliant, piecing up Jumeau and hurting him on multiple occasions. The problem is he blew his wad – I see you Joe Rogan – and had very little left to offer. Outside of a legal punch in the third round that created a stop in the action – it should have been a TKO stoppage – Abe had next to nothing left to offer. Jumeau ended up taking the final two rounds and the victory.
  • Jumeau: Even though Jumeau walked out the winner, I’m less impressed with his performance. Even after Abe was exhausted, Jumeau either refused to put together combinations or couldn’t do it. He continued to load up on punch after punch, hoping to finish Abe immediately. He did look a bit more comfortable leading in this contest than he had against Shinsho Anzai, but not by much. Jumeau doesn’t appear likely to grow much more. Don’t expect him to be anything more than a low-level gatekeeper.
  • Abe: Even though Abe didn’t fight very intelligently and ended up losing, I’m still encouraged by his future more than I was heading into this contest. He put together some nice combinations in the first round and had Jumeau hurt. However, he went crazy trying to finish him off and couldn’t do so, leaving Abe gassed for the remaining of the fight. He did try to counter intelligently the rest of the contest which is when he landed that shot in Jumeau’s eye in the third, but he didn’t get the finish he properly deserved. Abe is still growing. This loss should be a good learning experience.

Jose Quinones defeated Teruto Ishihara via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: Making the drop to bantamweight, it was unknown how cutting the additional weight would affect Ishihara. Most picked Quinones as his wrestling advantage and deeper gas tank were expected to make the difference. The wrestling made a big difference, but Ishihara’s gas tank never waned. Both threw a bevy of leg kicks, though Quinones also looked for the takedowns. He got them in the first round, controlling Ishihara for all but the last 30 seconds when the Team Alpha Male representative scored a flurry of punches to hurt Quinones. The second and third rounds were very close aside from Ishihara dropping Quinones near the end of the middle frame. Strong performance from both men, with Quinones emerging the victor.
  • Quinones: Quinones didn’t rely as heavily on his boxing as he did in his last contest, but he fought intelligently by keeping Ishihara at a distance with his barrage of kicks. Plus, his early takedowns proved to be the difference in the fight as Ishihara found his range after that. I do worry about his confidence if he was unwilling to box with Ishihara in the pocket. Ishihara has never been a combination or pocket striker. Admittedly, Quinones has grown significantly since his entry to the UFC, but I fear he may be reaching his ceiling very soon.
  • Ishihara: While Ishihara didn’t show any improvement in his boxing, he did pick his spots to attack much more intelligently in addition to doing a far better job of managing his stamina. It appears his drop to bantamweight encouraged better conditioning for him. I wasn’t sure if I was in favor of the cut going into the contest, but it certainly appears to be the right move now. There are still things Ishihara needs to make progress on, but he’s made some serious progress in this contest after minimal improvements in his last few contests.

Ross Pearson defeated Mizuto Hirota via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: A difficult contest to predict due to the physical decline of both combatants, I went with Pearson in part because he fell from a higher level. The fight was fought at a consistent pace with Hirota throwing a high volume of low kicks the whole time. Pearson concentrated more on his boxing, leading the judges to favor him when it came time to judge each round despite Hirota landing more volume overall as Pearson’s punches appeared to have more oomph behind them. Close contest that could have gone either way.
  • Pearson: Pearson appeared to acknowledge his declining durability in this contest – he did get wobbled at the end of the second -- as he didn’t allow himself to get caught up in a firefight as he has been prone to do in recent contests. He showed some improved ability to lead too, but it was hardly a significant jump. Nonetheless, Pearson appeared to hear the criticism that was being leveled at him and tried to do something about it, leading to this victory. He is only delaying his decline – as all aging fighters do – so it’s fair to expect him to remain in the UFC for only a very short time moving forward.
  • Hirota: Hirota showed more than I expected. He continues to remain stupidly durable – though Pearson didn’t appear to land any face-melting shots – marching forward to land his offense. However, he lacks the speed or athletic ability to effectively take the fight where he wants to, which was one of the keys to Pearson doing enough in the eyes of the judges. Hirota did better in the brief periods the fight was in the clinch, but couldn’t keep it there for an extended period, nor could he get the fight to the ground. This could end up being his final UFC contest. He just doesn’t have what it takes to win at the highest levels, even when putting together a strong performance.

Jussier Formiga defeated Ben Nguyen via submission at 1:41 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: Formiga has long been a gatekeeper to those who hope to challenge Demetrious Johnson, with every opponent he has lost to in the UFC going on to face the champion immediately after disposing of Formiga. Given the drama with the champ and TJ Dillashaw, that wasn’t a guarantee this time around, but it would be a nice launching pad for Nguyen. Unfortunately for the American who now calls Australia home, he couldn’t get his standup game going as he’d rush forward and clinch up… not someplace you want to be with Formiga given his trips and grappling ability. Formiga had flashed some spinning techniques in the second round, but finally connected cleanly with a spinning back fist in the third that knocked Nguyen silly. When the referee didn’t stop the action, Formiga opted to take the back and choke him out win for the most impressive finish of Formiga’s career.
  • Formiga: It’s a bit of a bummer Formiga didn’t get the stoppage when the spinning back fist connected as he still doesn’t have a KO/TKO finish for his career. Nonetheless, it’s impressive to see him continuing to improve at age 32 in a career that spans almost 13 years. In terms of those actively competing in the flyweight division, no one has a stronger claim to a title shot than Formiga at this point. A lot of that has to do with Johnson having already defeating those with superior resumes, but Formiga can’t control that. Despite that, he’s likely going to need to stay busy in the interim while the UFC looks to make a superfight for DJ. Stay tuned.
  • Nguyen: Tough break for Nguyen who had been showing improved fight IQ heading into this contest. He would have been better served staying in the pocket for longer periods of time – ironically which is where Formiga initiated the finishing sequence – but he never looked completely comfortable letting his fists fly outside of when he was pressing forward. Nguyen is still only 29, so he should be able to have an opportunity to work his way back up the ladder. Here’s hoping the tentativeness he displayed here disappears as he didn’t look himself in this contest.

Alexander Volkanovski defeated Jeremy Kennedy via TKO at 4:57 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: Both Volkanovski and Kennedy had made some waves as prospects, leading many to question why the UFC would throw together two rising featherweights together at this point in their careers. Nonetheless, they did so with Volkanovski receiving the bulk of the picks. It didn’t take long for him to prove why he was the favorite, stuffing Kennedy’s opening shot and reversing to score a takedown of his own. He proceeded to brutalize Kennedy on the ground from there, leaving many in shock the referee didn’t stop the contest in the opening frame. The second ensued the same way: Kennedy with early pressure, takedown from Volkanovski, brutal ground-and-pound follows. This time, the referee showed mercy to Kennedy and stopped the contest, though it still felt it should have been stopped sooner.
  • Volkanovski: Volkanovski’s previous UFC wins were impressive, but no one was screaming that he was a scary dude to mess with as he was beating up people he was supposed to beat up, their combined UFC record amounting to 1-7-1 by the end of this event. Kennedy was someone many were excited about and Volkanovski looked at his best against the best competition he had yet to face. His ground-and-pound has always been his strongest suit, but he found a way to increase the level of violence, leaving Kennedy completely helpless as Volkanovski rained punch after punch on the Canadian. There are still questions about Volkanovski’s standup, but it’s only proper to overlook those questions given how dominant he looked here.
  • Kennedy: I desperately hope this loss doesn’t permanently derail Kennedy. A young, hotshot prospect who had walked through all his previous opponents with little hassle generally finds themselves very shaken when confronted with such a jarring loss. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the youngster take a decent amount of time off to rebuild himself mentally as there was basically nothing positive to take out of this contest. However, fighters tend to rush themselves back into the cage to erase such a loss from their memory. That rarely proves to be a smart strategy.

Israel Adesanya defeated Rob Wilkinson via TKO at 3:37 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: The MMA media has been buzzing about the debut of Adesanya from the moment this contest was announced as many believe he could vie for the title someday. Knowing this, Wilkinson sought to take the fight to Adesanya and take away any space for the striker to operate. It worked for the first round, Adesanya struggling to establish a rhythm as Wilkinson attempted takedown after takedown. Though Wilkinson only finished a few of those attempts, Adesanya couldn’t get rolling. In the second, Adesanya adjusted and shook off Wilkinson and found a home for his punches and knees. Wilkinson found himself stuck against the fence, eventually slumping to the floor unable to take any more damage.
  • Adesanya: It was known Adesanya would have an aversion to grappling and wrestling, so his struggles in those fields weren’t necessarily surprising. Once he adjusted, he began to display the striking and defensive skills that had so many people excited about his debut. Adesanya’s fluid movement, creativity, and accuracy draws memories of Anderson Silva in his prime. If Adesanya can come anywhere close to that, he’ll fulfill all the expectations that have been heaped upon him. Here’s hoping the UFC doesn’t try to rush him as they have had a habit of doing.
  • Wilkinson: I had stated in my preview that Wilkinson is better than some of the other Australian prospects to make their way to the UFC and I believe this performance backs that up. He arguably won the first round as Adesanya couldn’t get rolling thanks to Wilkinson’s pressure. Nonetheless, this performance also shows he probably doesn’t have the physical talents to remain in the UFC. Wilkinson’s striking was largely ineffective, struggling to make effective use of his long reach. Even worse, he couldn’t do anything with Adesanya once he got him to the ground. I don’t know if Wilkinson will get another opportunity in the UFC, but I won’t be upset if he doesn’t.

Dong Hyun Kim defeated Damien Brown via split decision

  • Expectations/Result: Both Kim and Brown had developed reputations as brawlers, willing to stand in the pocket and sacrifice brain cells to entertain the audience. Naturally, it was expected they would do that when positioned opposite of one another. Well… it didn’t quite work out that way. Both opted to fight at a measured pace, trying to outmaneuver each other. Given neither are special athletes nor master technicians, it didn’t make for the most endearing of contests. Kim’s edge in volume gave him the victory in a fight that ended up getting lost in the shuffle on this card.
  • Kim: This wasn’t a horrible performance from Kim. In fact, it was probably the most intelligent striking performance of his UFC career. But it wasn’t what people wanted and it could have been better from the technical standpoint. For instance, Kim never bothered to check any of Brown’s kicks, even after Brown swept him off his feet at one point. Shouldn’t fighters want to neutralize what is working for their opponent? I was also disappointed Kim didn’t bother trying to mix in some wrestling. He showed he can use it effectively in his bout with Brendan O’Reilly. So why not use it to at least mix things up against Brown? Kim is improving, but he still has a lot he could work on.
  • Brown: As one of the worst athletes in the division, Brown NEEDS to do everything he can to make a fight dirty. Thus, I was surprised he didn’t try to push a faster pace against Kim. It isn’t like Kim is a defensive dynamo, nor does he have a granite jaw. Instead, Brown contented with point fighting with Kim. I’ll admit his leg kicks were the best he’s ever shown, but it wasn’t enough. Given he has now dropped three fights in a row, it’s questionable whether Brown is brought back. Is it just me, or was this possibility another reason Brown should have gone balls out…?

Tyson Pedro defeated Saperbek Safarov via submission at 3:54 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Even though he was coming off a one-sided decision loss to Ilir Latifi, it was still expected Pedro would roll over the athletically limited Safarov with relative ease. Pedro put his athleticism on display on the feet, smashing Safarov with kicks and knees while avoiding Safarov’s return fire. Thus, the Russian decided to pursue takedowns. On the second takedown Safarov completed, Pedro switched gears as Safarov tried delivering some damage, hitting a kimura sweep before stepping over Safarov’s head to finish the submission.
  • Pedro: It wasn’t the cleanest performance from the Aussie, but it certainly displayed why the UFC is excited about the youngster’s potential. He was easily winning the striking battle, mixing up his arsenal to great effect. However, he also didn’t seem to be taking Safarov as serious as perhaps he should have. Yes, I know he didn’t get hurt and disposed of Safarov with ease – that kimura really was a thing of beauty – but I expected a bit more of a disciplined approach following his loss to Latifi. Regardless, Pedro’s future is bright and he should only be getting better.
  • Safarov: I didn’t mind the UFC plugging in Safarov against Gian Villante in his UFC debut as Safarov was an injury replacement. But on a PPV main card against Pedro? As tough as Safarov is and despite his doggedness, he didn’t deserve this spot on the card and his performance proved it. I realize he got Pedro to the ground a couple of times, but no one has ever accused Pedro of having the greatest takedown defense. Besides, it was Pedro’s kimura that ended the contest, proving Safarov didn’t necessarily have an advantage on the ground. Then again, where did he have the advantage? Expect him to get one more opportunity. They wouldn’t immediately release someone who was on a PPV main card right away… would they?

Jake Matthews defeated Li Jingliang via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: Though Matthews is no doubt athletically superior to Jingliang, his inability to add anything new to his arsenal or make adjustments has been holding him back. Thus, most were picking Jingliang to leave Australia with a win. Instead, Matthews put together the most complete performance of his career. Overwhelming Jingliang at various points with his boxing, he knocked down the Chinese representative in the first and third round. Matthews also had a DEEP guillotine in the second that Jingliang only survived when he gouged the crap out of Matthew’s eyes in one of the most egregious fouls perpetrated in a UFC cage. Somehow, there was no foul called. Fortunately, Matthews still walked out with a well-deserved win.
  • Matthews: Though Matthews looked great, I fear much of that was due to Jingliang walking into everything Matthews threw at him. Would Matthews’ striking look so good against someone who is actually trying to avoid his return fire? I’d imagine not. Regardless, Matthews deserves credit for taking what Jingliang gives him. Where Matthews truly deserves credit is his smooth guard passing and near submissions. Sure, he’s had three other submission wins before, but none of those wins came over fighters with as much accomplishment on the ground as Jingliang. Plus, overcoming the eye gouging… Matthews has some serious toughness.
  • Jingliang: Avoiding the eye gouging for a moment, Jingliang lived up to his reputation as a brawler type. The exchanges of the second round and Jingliang’s ability to recover from being dropped is spectacular. It’s reasons like that he’s been able to develop a nice cult following. However, his status amongst hardcore fans – which make up most of his cult following – took a hit with the blatant eye gouge. Sure, fans understand doing what you can to win. But to potentially maim your opponent in the effort? No one is cool with that. Though what is done is done, Jingliang would be wise to at least make a public apology whether he’s actually sorry about it or not.

Tai Tuivasa defeated Cyril Asker via TKO at 2:18 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Much like the Pedro-Saparbek contest, this was designed to be a squash match for Tuivasa to emerge looking like a million bucks. Aside from an early punch from Asker, the Frenchman didn’t land any significant offense. Tuivasa unloaded on him, backing him into the fence and unleashing a barrage of elbows and punches. Though the fight didn’t last very long, that Asker remained standing as long as he did was a minor miracle, the fight being called when he finally faceplanted from the onslaught.
  • Tuivasa: Two first round stoppages for Tuivasa is indicative of a rising star at heavyweight, a division that has been starved for fresh blood. Sure, Asker and Rashad Coulter aren’t great wins, but Cain Velasquez’s first two UFC wins came over Brad Morris and Jake O’Brien. You’ve got to start somewhere. Tuivasa is a far better athlete than his doughy frame would suggest, which has been very beneficial for him thus far. His carefree attitude could prove troublesome. Sure, his drinking beer from a shoe after the fight is something that will attract attention and help pick him up some fans, but I can’t help but question his commitment to the sport. It may be a while before his attitude costs him, but I’m sure it will happen.
  • Asker: Well… Asker was expected to be fodder. He sure as hell was. Asker has some power and some wrestling ability, but he’s a poor athlete with a head built to absorb damage. He can separate the wheat from the chaff in the UFC, but he’s not ever going to move very far up the heavyweight ladder. Expect his role to remain what it has been: fodder for rising prospects and a low-level gatekeeper.

Curtis Blaydes defeated Mark Hunt via unanimous decision

  • Expectations/Result: While everyone expected Blaydes to emerge as a contender someday, the question was whether the day had arrived. Many were still picking the heavy hitter to piece up the youngster and Hunt did just that in the first round. Blaydes was rocked pretty good by the longtime veteran… only for Blaydes to recover and take the Australian behemoth to the ground when it looked like Hunt was about to finish him. The rest of the fight consisted of Blaydes taking down Hunt time and again. Though many of Blaydes’ takedowns were impressive as hell, the crowd booed as Blaydes’ wrestle-heavy approach not only wasn’t the slugfest they were hoping for, it also led to the defeat of their countryman.
  • Blaydes: Some had their expectations of Blaydes tempered following his performance against Daniel Omielanczuk. However, Blaydes is still very young in his career and hiccups are to be expected. He’s made great strides in the seven months since that contest took place as this victory showed. Rather than going to the well for the same takedown time and again as he did against Omielanczuk, Blaydes mixed up his variety of takedowns and got Hunt down pretty much whenever Blaydes wanted. There wasn’t any real growth in Blaydes’ boxing that was noticeable, but he can’t be blamed for not wanting to stand with Hunt. Many have stated Blaydes has arrived with this win, but I want to hold off on that proclamation as Hunt has been inconsistent. Regardless, Blaydes looked very good.
  • Hunt: It’s hard to say if Hunt has declined now that he’s 43 as his durability has waned in recent years. He’s also struggled against wrestlers since… well, forever. Think about his contests with Stipe Miocic and Brock Lesnar. Hunt did unequivocally prove he still has enough power to end fights when he rocked Blaydes in the first, so he’s still amongst the most dangerous heavyweights on the roster. However, Hunt has also declared he’s going to fight out his contract and then leave the UFC. Given he’s unlikely to work his way into a title fight in the two fights remaining on his contract, will Hunt have the motivation to be the best fighter he can be? I have some serious doubts.

Yoel Romero defeated Luke Rockhold via KO at 1:48 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: Given Romero looked terribly dehydrated about 24 hours prior to the contest, Rockhold was becoming a late favorite as many who had picked Romero were switching their pick. There appeared to be a lot of truth to that sentiment early as Rockhold picked apart a largely immobile Romero apart with kicks to all levels. Romero came to life in the second, scoring with several flurries of major offense, though Rockhold was still there after those flurries, scoring with jabs to close the round. Rockhold picked up where he left off in the next round before Romero exploded with another flurry, knocking Rockhold to the ground this time. A single punch from Romero put Rockhold out cold and awarded Romero the win… but not the interim belt as the Cuban missed weight.
  • Romero: It came out after the fight that Romero badly hurt his leg in the first round, which greatly contributed to his lack of mobility. Regardless, his victory is that much more impressive after the injury in addition to how badly dehydrated the physical marvel was about 24 hours prior to the contest. Given the disarray the top of the middleweight division, Romero is probably the favorite to line up against Robert Whittaker despite not only missing weight, but also having lost to Whittaker last summer. I know Uncle Dana has already said Romero is getting the next shot… but he says a lot of things. Perhaps the biggest mystery we have no answer for is when Romero will begin to decline. He is already 40-years old, but shows zero signs of slowing down. Has there ever been a greater freak of nature in the sport? Randy Couture may have been successful well into his 40’s, but he was getting by on guile, technique, and strategy. Romero’s physical gifts exceed that of most fighters currently in their physical prime.
  • Rockhold: Rockhold didn’t look bad. His kicks were accurate and his jab was spot on. It’s just that Romero is as durable as they come in addition to his inexplicable physical abilities. But nobody is going to take away from this contest how sharp Rockhold’s striking. No, the talk will center on Rockhold’s chin progressively getting worse. His chin was never truly tested during his five-fight win streak that culminated with his claiming of the title. Since then though, he’s been KO’d twice and rocked by David Branch, a dude best known for his grappling prowess. Given the talk of how much more difficult Rockhold’s weight cut has gotten as he’s gotten older, perhaps him dehydrating himself is the biggest reason for the deterioration of his chin. Coming off this loss, it’s unlikely to pick up a middleweight title shot any time soon. Perhaps it’s time he moves up to 205 where the lack of contenders has driven Daniel Cormier to test his mettle at heavyweight. Rockhold would be an immediate contender should he make the move.

Well, those are my thoughts. Until next time….

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