At UFC 221, Luke Rockhold took a terrible risk.
He had been supposed to fight middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, meaning another chance at the title Rockhold himself had lost nearly two years before. This matchup was a considerable risk in its own right. Whittaker hasn’t lost since 2014, and among the eight names in his current winning streak are those of four top-ten middleweights. Whittaker was favored slightly by oddsmakers, but as a former welterweight, it was to be expected that Rockhold’s gargantuan frame, at the very least, would pose a challenge to the champ.
Then Whittaker pulled out of the fight, less than four weeks before the date, with a grisly staph infection. Up to the plate stepped Yoel Romero, already in the midst of a training camp, and certainly eager to earn another shot at Whittaker, his own name being the most recent addition to Whittaker’s list.
Here was Rockhold’s dilemma. To pull out of the fight would have brought on hatred and derision from fans, to be sure. In all likelihood, it would have also meant the cancellation of a card that, being held in Whittaker’s corner of the globe, was already on shaky legs. One suspects that Dana White and the rest of the UFC brass would not have taken kindly to a withdrawal either; White, at least, has never hesitated to throw one of his fighters under the bus. Taking the fight, on the other hand, meant Rockhold putting his guaranteed title shot on the line against an opponent who could not be more different than Whittaker, though arguably even more dangerous.
Wise or not, Rockhold accepted the short-notice replacement, and resumed training for the fight. When Romero missed weight by three pounds the day before the event, Rockhold once again passed on the chance to retain his shot at the belt, accepting the matchup a second time, in addition to 30 percent of Romero’s purse. Some $100,000 of additional compensation belongs in the pro column, too, making Rockhold’s final decision understandable, if not advisable.
With this backdrop of promotional drama, Rockhold and Romero squared off on February 11th, 2018. What followed was a fascinating story of gradual improvement, brilliant strategy, and shocking violence.
Rockhold’s Improved Boxing
When the fight began, the very first thing that jumped out was Rockhold’s boxing—namely, that it existed, whereas in previous fights it had not. Of course, Rockhold has always managed to throw at least a few punches per fight (often with great effect), but many of the subtleties of footwork, combination punching, and fistic strategy were unknown to him. His erratic movements would have been corrected by a trainer from just about any respected striking discipline.
In fact, they were. UFC 221 marked Rockhold’s second fight under the tutelage of Henri Hooft, and while his previous tilt with David Branch didn’t inspire much confidence, Luke seemed eager to show off his new tools this time out.
1. Romero (gray trunks) stalks toward Rockhold (black trunks).
2. Creeping into range, Romero checks Rockhold’s jab with his own right hand.
3. As Romero shifts his weight back for another forward step, Rockhold spots his opening.
4. A stiff jab splits Romero’s guard. Rockhold steps into the punch, his lead foot penetrating Romero’s stance...
5. ...before his left leg swings around and he resumes his stance at a new angle.
6. This angle invites another jab, and Rockhold delivers it. Romero parries the punch...
7. ...but throws himself out of position in the process.
8. Allowing Rockhold to step in again to deliver a backhand jab that forces Romero to retreat.
9. Romero deflects Luke’s follow-up cross with his guard...
10. ...but it is Romero who has to withdraw from the pocket.
On the surface, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this maneuver. Triple jabs may not be as common a sight in the Octagon as they are in the boxing ring, but the idea behind the technique is hardly revolutionary. Stepping into the jab on an angle allows for an easy pivot, and doubling or tripling it up helps to crack open the defenses of a fighter who has already gotten a read on the single jab. The technique enables forward movement on the part of the attacker, and discourages it from the opponent. Nothing says “get the hell away from me” like a triple jab.
For Rockhold, the introduction of such a fundamental tactic was revolutionary.
After he was knocked out by Michael Bisping, the upset that saw him lose his title, Rockhold appraised his mistakes. “[I] underestimated and over-committed with my jab,” he told Megan Olivi. Underestimation was certainly part of the problem—the bout looked like Lennox Lewis vs Hasim Rahman I on fast-forward—but that over-committed jab was the symptom that spelled the end of Luke’s championship reign. He stepped in hard, turning his whole body into the shot, and though Rockhold could feel that he was exposed, he only knew how to retreat in a straight line as Bisping followed him with a perfect left hook to the chin.
Far from an outlier, that risky jab was a standard part of Rockhold’s repertoire. Whether jabbing, kicking, or winging his customary counter hook, Rockhold was always willing to overcommit, trusting in his length and physicality to get the job done. Bisping’s smug mug may have encouraged more frequent errors, but the errors were always there. All it took was a sharp striker with the wherewithal to overlook Rockhold’s frame and focus on the gaping holes in his striking defense.
If you are reading this, then you already know that Rockhold’s defensive flaws are hardly a thing of the past. Romero knocked him out savagely in the third round. Still, it took some serious work on the Cuban’s part. Simple techniques like this sharp, repeating jab allowed Rockhold to work from boxing range like never before, giving an aggressive puncher like Romero something to worry about as he came forward.
Before we move on, take note of two aspects of our first example. First, Rockhold stood his ground until Romero was in range. We will explore the errors he made when he was forced to retreat in a few moments, but it is noteworthy that Rockhold was not eager to retreat as Romero came forward, as he has been in so many other fights. Second, this sequence ends with Romero, not Rockhold, taking several steps backward. That may not seem like much, but in backing Romero off with the triple jab, Rockhold forced Romero to act counter to his overall strategy. With more improvement, moments like those could be expanded, freeing Rockhold to display the full breadth of his skills.
Romero’s Defensive Strategy
As Rockhold worked diligently to back Romero off, Romero did everything in his power to ensure the opposite result.
Pressure may have been Romero’s strategy from the start. Given Rockhold’s defensive shortcomings, it would have made sense. Pressure is not Yoel’s usual mode, however, and he did start the bout with more of an even-keeled approach, circling Rockhold in open space and patiently testing his reactions. Whatever the intent, a pair of low kicks from Rockhold in the opening minute gave Romero some incentive to assert himself, in the form of an early injury. Yoel believed his leg to be broken, and though it turned out to be nothing worse than a bone bruise, the pain was enough that he collapsed to the ground after the fight, and remained there through his post-fight interview.
Fighting on the outside, where Rockhold’s long, dextrous legs gave him the advantage, was out of the question. Whenever Romero withdrew on the end of Rockhold’s jab, the ex-champ’s left leg followed him, and punished him for giving ground.
So, Romero stopped giving ground.
1. Both men square off in center cage.
2. Rockhold raises his right knee, making as if to kick...
3. ...Romero bites on the feint, but does not retreat as Rockhold lines up his true attack.
4. Romero stops Rockhold’s right hook with a long block...
5. ...and deflects the uppercut that follows with a sweeping parry.
6. Rockhold disengages, readying his next attack.
7. But, as Rockhold steps forward...
8. ...Romero gives him a feint, pretending to jab to the body.
9. Rockhold leaps out of range.
There are downsides to a block-based defense, but Romero’s approach was strategically brilliant. As the fight wore on, he spent more and more time in Rockhold’s boxing range, specifically looking to avoid his more dangerous kicking range. This allowed Yoel to close the gap by degrees, getting a hair closer to Luke with each passing minute. The tone of Rockhold’s strikes transformed as the pattern of the fight developed, from comfortably exchanging pot-shots in open space, to anxiously jabbing off the back foot; from proactive to reactive.
Many people online have highlighted Romero’s use of a cross-armed guard in this bout. In form, the move had as much in common with Daniel Cormier’s trademark flailing as it did the famous “lock” of Archie Moor. For one, Yoel repeatedly threw his arms so high that he left his body completely exposed. A better boxer—or simply a more experienced one—would have chased the openings in Romero’s defense wherever they appeared. In function, however, this crossed guard worked much like that of latter-day George Foreman, a one-size-fits-all shell that eschewed the need for evasive footwork. Against a tall opponent who threw lots of punches straight down the pipe, targeting the body but rarely, it actually worked pretty damn well.
Tall Man’s Panic
Romero’s adjustments left Rockhold in a precarious position. Many have wondered why the ex-champ spent so much time boxing with Romero, rather than retreating to a range where his kicks would have been more effective. To do so, however, would have only invited more pressure from the Cuban, and Rockhold is and always has been particularly susceptible to pressure.
We already saw a hint of it in our last example, but let’s take a moment to focus on Rockhold’s defensive footwork.
1. Probing with his lead hand, Romero inches forward.
2. Timing Rockhold’s feet, Romero explodes into a jab of his own as Luke draws near.
3. Sensing the strike, Rockhold begins to retreat. He starts by pulling his weight backward.
4. Then begins to move the lead foot, while the left foot stays in place.
5. Here is where Rockhold’s left foot begins to move. Note the close proximity of his feet.
In boxing, there is a piece of footwork called the hop-step (some call it a shuffle, or a glide) that defies convention. A typical step or slide requires that the fighter move his advancing foot first. If he is moving to the right, his right foot will move first; if he is moving forward, his front foot will move first—and so on. The idea is to prevent the feet from ever drawing near one another. Indeed, this is one of the fundamental rules of boxing, as narrowing a stance destroys its integrity. You can test this concept out easily enough: compare how difficult it is to resist a shove to the chest when your feet are together, as opposed to staggered. Close feet mean poor balance, and poor balance means no ability to withstand a punch, or respond in kind.
The hop-step breaks this rule by moving the trailing foot first. Done correctly, however, the risk is minimized. The steps should be small, so that the distance between the feet is never reduced by more than six inches. As the front foot settles, the back foot is already making up the difference, moving exactly the same distance, so that the integrity of the stance is maintained. A good hop-step is more like a slide: quick, subtle, and balanced, so that the fighter is never put in a compromised position for more than a split-second.
Luke Rockhold’s hop-step is not a good hop-step. One more look at the final frame of our last example tells you everything you need to know. Rockhold’s feet are close together, and yet neither one is actually set. He is high in the air, having leapt rather than slid backward. He is susceptible to a punch, yes, but also totally incapable of throwing anything in return without first having to reset his feet.
More troubling than the technique are the circumstances surrounding it. In this example, Rockhold is responding to a jab. A powerful jab, yes, but nothing that would require such a dramatic movement. What really compelled Rockhold’s retreat was the threat of what might come after the jab. That he leapt out of range before any such threat could materialize speaks to a profound lack of confidence, but the fact that he immediately abandoned his own position in his rush to get away was nothing if not an invitation to Romero’s pressure.
At the start of the second round, Romero did exactly what Luke had unknowingly been asking him to do: he exploded toward Rockhold, throwing wild punches with both hands as he barreled straight forward—and it worked.
1. Rockhold advances to center cage.
2. Romero hits and explosive stutter step, and Rockhold, anticipating an attack but unsure what it will look like, immediately begins to retreat.
3. As Romero shifts forward, Rockhold’s feet are totally out of position.
4. Rockhold manages to catch this left hand, but Romero has already regained the space created by his sloppy hop-step.
5. Romero shifts again, barely missing on another left hand.
6. Finally, Rockhold gathers the will to set his feet, adopting a wide stance...
7. ...and winding up on his usual counter hook.
8. Wild improvisation is no match for constant aggression. Luke absorbs a straight right to the chin.
Of the eight frames in this example, only two show Rockhold in anything resembling a fighting stance.
The ease with which Rockhold can be forced out of position stems, in part, from his build. At 6’3”, Rockhold is among the tallest fighters on the UFC middleweight roster—only Anthony Smith is taller. He has the reach to match, and a runner’s build, with legs that seem to start at his chest. Unsurprisingly, Rockhold spent the early days of his MMA career getting quite used to fighting at his range. To opponents lacking his athleticism and skill, Luke’s length was a tremendous obstacle. See how Paul Bradley flinched his way across the gap in 2010, for example, and you will start to understand how profoundly a significant reach difference can impact the smaller fighter’s sense of distance. Even as his level of opposition improved, Rockhold rarely ran into fighters with the right combination of attributes to break through that barrier.
The result is a fighter so reliant on his reach that he panics when it is taken away from him. Luke Rockhold is hardly the first tall fighter to suffer from this fear. Go back to 1919, when Jack Dempsey beat the six-foot-six Jess Willard so brutally that people still debate whether he was holding a railroad spike in his fist, and you will see Rockhold’s frantic body language mimicked to a T. Or, watch Wladimir Klitschko breaking down under the ceaseless pressure of Ross Puritty, and enjoy much the same viewing experience.
Tall men throughout fighting history have struggled with the double-edged sword that is reach. Long arms become a sort of security blanket, bolstering confidence when the smaller man is kept at bay, but shattering resolve when the advantage is ripped away.
We can point out that Rockhold always retreats in a straight line, but the greater problem is that, as soon as he is forced to retreat, he does so in a manner which makes it impossible for him to adjust his momentum. A fighter cannot sidestep or pivot if he is fully committed to a series of backward leaps, and Rockhold jumps out of range the same way, whether he is faced with a jab feint or a mad rush of combination punches. The footwork can be corrected in the gym, but the mindset behind it will always be a hurdle in the cage.
By investing in his boxing fundamentals, Rockhold has begun to build layers into his game. Against Romero, he was more adaptable than ever. Already Henri Hooft has imbued Rockhold’s game with a tactical flexibility that it always lacked. But old habits die hard, and Rockhold has enjoyed the advantages of his reach for too long to erase the consequences in a year.
By the start of the third round, Rockhold’s confidence was shaken. Another early rush from Romero reminded him why, and Romero proceeded to pressure like he had never pressured before.
Rhythm has always been one of Romero’s key weapons. Perhaps it is his Cuban heritage, or his relationship with half-brother Yoan Pablo Hernandez (an elite pro boxer), or perhaps it’s just the salsa dancing, but Yoel Romero knows how to move in tempo.
Most fighters move with a rhythm, consciously or not. However, Romero is an expert at using his rhythm against the opponent. The goal is to let the foe feel the tempo. Give him a steady beat he can latch onto, and just when he is about to start snapping his fingers in time—change the tune. Romero has a reputation as a profoundly unpredictable fighter, and it is his ability to seem predictable which makes his explosions so shocking.
Romero’s pressure in the third round was heavily rhythmic. He did not stalk forward. Rather, he swayed. Walking Rockhold down, he moved his head in time with his feet, rocking back and forth like a pendulum, inviting Rockhold to time his cadence.
1. Wading forward, Romero slips to his right as his right foot accepts his weight.
2. When the left leg comes forward, Yoel slips back to his left.
3. The cycle repeats, establishing a clear rhythm.
4. Keying in on that tempo, Rockhold feints...
5. ...before throwing the jab. But Romero breaks tempo, slipping inside the jab as he steps forward...
6. ...and sending a left hand over the top in the process.
7. Again, Rockhold frantically bounds out of range.
Once this pattern was established, Rockhold was lost. Walking forward without leading, Romero simply waited on Luke to throw, and fired hard, same-time counters whenever he did. Despite repeatedly throwing the first strike of an exchange, he was always reacting to whatever Romero showed him, rather than creating openings of his own. With pressure, Romero forced his tempo on Rockhold, and so he was never surprised when an attack was launched. Lulled into Romero’s rhythm, Rockhold fell into Romero’s fight.
And then Romero knocked him out.
1. Moving inexorably forward, Romero backs Rockhold toward the fence.
2. A quick jab obscures Luke’s vision, but Romero has to lean in to make any contact.
3. Romero uses a hop-step of his own to cover ground as his jab withdraws...
4. ...and his second jab passes completely over Rockhold’s eyes as Romero slides into mid-range.
5. Rockhold winds up his right hook, but Romero is suddenly closer than he realized...
6. ...and Romero’s thunderbolt of a left hand gets there first.
7. Rockhold collapses in a heap...
8. ...and Romero has no need of any rhythm change or setup for this coffin nail.
Romero’s manipulation of rhythm gave him the edge down to the final exchange. With Rockhold’s back nearing the fence, Romero knew that there was nowhere his shoddy footwork could take him. Working his way in with a double jab, Romero set an easy tempo. Those two half-hearted jabs (positively gentle by Romero standards) gave Rockhold the impression that he could sneak a counter in between the beats. But when the left hand came, it was a half-beat too soon, and so lightning quick, the jabs which preceded it might as well have come from a different fighter.
Luke Rockhold took a risk at UFC 221, and the consequences of that decision are yet unclear. Now looks like the right time for Rockhold to take his imposing frame to light heavyweight, but he has six months of medical suspension to think on it. As for Yoel Romero, whose resume is as full of big names as it is third-round knockouts, this fight was nothing if not a celebration of his intelligence. He navigates a fight like a shark navigates the waves, creating the exchanges he wants, shutting down the ones that don’t suit him, and always, always managing to surprise us.
That intellect carries him outside the cage, as well. In stepping up on short-notice, Romero secured himself the title shot that should have been Luke’s.