Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero headlines UFC 225 this June 9, 2018 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
One sentence summary
David: The Soldier of God needs to stop skipping his last meals just to step on a scale — jesus f--k we’re gonna write another preview that can’t be published aren’t we?!?
Phil: Sir Robert Knuckles takes on the Soldier of God, who may have dipped into his holy rations a bit too much before trying to make weight.
Odds: Robert Whittaker -225 | Yoel Romero +185
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: I still don’t know how Whittaker got here. His career u-turn is as crazy as the movie itself. This man got taken to the limit by Court McGee, and then brutalized by Wonderboy. He hasn’t been beaten since, using a mix of blue collar work ethic, and general badassery at a weight he looks a little small for. His well-rounded game has gone largely unnoticed in favor of his boxing, but his boxing is what keeps him on top.
Phil: Robert Whittaker is an absolute gem, a wonderful surprise of the type that we often forget to be thankful for. Modern MMA might have given us dumb belts, mouthy and mendicant title holders, endless injuries, and pacing which would crush the will of a sloth, but it also gave us fighters like the young Aussie. He came to middleweight as a largely unheralded prospect considered too small for the division, and carved through it like a knife through goddamn butter. He’ll fight whoever, while being respectful, smart and an absolute blast to watch. Praise the MMA Gods for Bobby Knuckles, I say.
David: Romero is built like one of Joe Rogan’s hyperboles — “if your movie needed a Cuban villain, and your villain was a built like a literal killer, Yoel Romero is what that movie villain would look like!” To be fair, he’s got a point. You’ll get better insight into AI’s skynet scenario by learning Romero’s handshake than sticking Reddit in its algorithm. The difference between Romero and other super athletes is that he’s tougher than a Tardigrade, and smarter than an MIT nerd. At least during a fight.
Phil: I was a fan of Mr Knuckles since I first saw him trounce Colton Smith in a battle of TUF winners, but Yoel Romero took a while longer to grow on me. The refusal to use his wrestling, the tendency to have (ahem) odd stuff happen in his fights, which culminated in the stoolgate saga against Tim Kennedy, and the “no for gay / forget Jesus” thing. He seemed a weird person who was only semi-serious about MMA. I’ve done a 180 on him in the time since. He’s great! Primarily I just love how smart he is. There’s no more consistent third-round finisher in the sport, who hits such a consistent pattern of: read the opponent, start to put it into action, finish them off. It’s hard to write a play in three parts in an environment as volatile as modern MMA.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Well, not the championship. Yay 2018!
David: Seriously...I’m just thankful it wasn’t cancelled completely.
Where do they want it?
Phil: It feels fitting that Bisping briefly held the middeweight crown that Whittaker now holds, because Mr Knuckles sometimes feels like the ultimate evolution of Bisping. Take everything the Lancastrian did (the jab and hook guessing game, the snapping kicks, the pace) and just put more power, a better command of angles, vastly better command of rhythm, youth and superior defense behind it. I always felt like Bisping was a better natural wrestler than he was a striker, and this too seems somewhat true for Whittaker. He’s an absolutely phenomenal defensive wrestler. His angles make him hard to get an initial shot on, but when an opponent gets in he instinctively sprawls, hand-fights, sits out and sweeps until he’s out from under. His biggest weapon against Romero was his pace, and so he needs to spend this fight at jab range, slipping from the inside angle to back out again and playing with the range on his jab, hook, right hand and head kick.
David: We talk about Whittaker’s boxing for good reason. There’s a real grace to the way he strikes. His boxing reminds me of Alex Ovechkin (woot woot!) — or at least Ovechkin’s skating. As in, there’s a weightlessness to it. Just as some guys seem to build up speed with a brief stride, Whittaker chambers combinations effortlessly. I think his boxing is largely connected to his movement; not in a traditional way though. Some guys box well with movement by using direct angles, or resetting for position. Whittaker’s boxing is more ethereal. He’s able to release strong, accurate, heavy strikes without firmly planting his feet, or keeping good posture. He’s good at cutting off opponent space without being an overt walker. Whittaker will feint body movement for effective strikes to the body or head. And good luck trying to keep him down.
Phil: Romero has grown tremendously in his time in the sport, from a somewhat formless boxer and wrestler who simply relied on his phenomenal power and athleticism to one of the cleanest technicians around. As previously mentioned, it isn’t just the physicality but the smarts which makes him such a threat- he uses exactly the minimum amount of effort to shuck off and slide away from his opponents’ offense while steadily building up an image of how they look. Once he feels like he’s got a complete enough read, he simply whacks it as hard as he can with a flying knee, or a left hand. His footwork is excellent, and he showed in his last time out that he can even slip in and out of the effective range of a massive kicker like Luke Rockhold without issue. His main issue is his gas tank, and even then it’s not simply that he tends to run out, but that he has to be forced to lose control of how he parcels it out.
David: Romero is that guy that listens to you from your barcalounger when you say “if only that guy had good cardio.” Romero’s response is that guys like him are not supposed to have good cardio. Having figured it out, Romero is one of the most dangerous fighters on the planet. His strategy is the kind you’d get if Akuma needed to win a fight with a spatula — or a rolled up newspaper. He lets his low output dictate how much energy his opponent can or should use, and when he suspects they’re waning, just bludgeons people with the kill shot. His flying/jumping/step-in knee is almost as prevalent as his jab, or oblique kick. But you can’t move him back. You can’t reason him with. You can’t — well, you get the point. As I’ve said before, I consider Romero an intermission fighter. He’s as dangerous for what he isn’t doing as he is for what he does. That makes a unique threat in the MMA world. If only there was no such thing as weighing in...
Insight from past fights
Phil: In the last fight, Romero banged up Whittaker’s leg early, and the Aussie was still able to fight back out of every single Romero takedown. That has to be a bit demoralizing, but I think it also sends a lesson to Romero: he should largely forget about the takedown. Even if they’re temporarily successful, he simply afford to attrite his gas tank with chain wrestling attempts with the younger man. I suspect he thought that Whittaker was “just” a striker with decent takedown defense, like Brad Tavares. Perhaps Romero would be able to throw off his timing, and rest on top? As it turned out, no.
David: I thought both fighters made tactical errors in first fight. Romero seemed to ditch his leg kicks way too early in proportion to the damage they were doing. Meanwhile, Whittaker didn’t seem to catch on to Romero’s obvious gameplan to steal the rounds with a late takedown; the end result is that what could have been a slightly easier fight turned into something a little more difficult. Just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon, and I think Whittaker can improve on his punch entries. He caught Romero by going underneath with his punch entries, and never seemed to revisit that success. If he doesn’t identify what made the first fight a success, I wonder if Romero can’t just spam that leg kick, and late round takedown for a decision.
Phil: Got to be the weight cut. The tiny margin (0.2 lbs) indicates that this isn’t an Oliveira vs Brooks, or Lineker vs X cut, where the fighter clearly realized they were going to miss and just decided not to take the performance hit. Instead, it sounds like Romero did everything in his power to make the weight until he was stopped by officials. He was apparently being supported by his team and making audible sounds of distress. Yuck. Fuck weight cutting.
David: You said it all.
Phil: Whittaker won last time, on a busted leg no less. That’s one of the most impressive feats I’ve seen in MMA. Assuming Whittaker is healthy, Romero has a steep hill to climb. He might be able to make it easier by not blowing his tank on takedowns, but even then he has the fundamental issue that he simply does not know how to effectively conserve his energy against Whittaker’s tricky, consistent offense. He’s still incredibly tough, so I don’t think Whittaker finishes him, but I do think the fight follows approximately the same story as last time. Robert Whittaker by unanimous decision.
David: Whittaker’s leg didn’t get busted by accident. Romero is just that kind of bruiser. The only reason I gotta disagree with you here is that I think Romero still has so many tools to neutralize even the world’s best fighters. Yoel Romero by Decision.