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Yoel Romero went to Australia and buried Luke Rockhold in the Outback.
The UFC 221 main event was a fight for the interim middleweight championship, a sham belt constructed out of thin air because the UFC has this new thing where they believe a pay-per-view must be headlined by a title fight. So we had Romero, who lost his last shot at the interim middleweight title last summer when he was beaten by Robert Whittaker. Whittaker was promoted to undisputed middleweight champion when the real undisputed champion, Georges St-Pierre, decided his foray to middleweight would be a brief one and, in a rare display of grace, vacated the championship, which meant Whittaker got a promotion.
And then, as if the middleweight title picture couldn’t get any more convoluted, Romero missed weight for the UFC 221 main event, which meant he couldn’t win the belt even if he beat Rockhold.
And boy, did he beat Rockhold.
Romero is an enigmatic character. He has a reputation for being a serial cheater that stems from incidents such as staying on his stool too long or failing tests for performance-enhancing drugs. But he also just has a strange vibe that extends to his fighting style.
But the thing is, Romero is a terrifying opponent.
In fact, outside of Francis Ngannou, Romero is probably the scariest fighter on the UFC roster. Maybe some of that is due to his quirkiness and unpredictability, both inside the Octagon and out. But a lot of it is due to sheer athleticism and the fact that he can be utterly docile one second and a raging force of nature the next.
Which is what we saw against Rockhold, the arrogant California boy who seemed so sure Romero had nothing to offer him in the Octagon. Romero did a lot of fun hand movements in the first round as well as some solid work on Rockhold’s leg, but Rockhold was never in any real danger.
But as it turns out, Romero was doing two things: lulling Rockhold into a false sense of security and saving his energy for the terrifying way he’d sprint at Rockhold in the second round, his arms whirling and flailing, swinging from the ground up in repeated attempts to separate Rockhold’s head from his shoulders and his soul from his body.
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And that’s what happened in the third round. Romero knocked Rockhold face-first to the canvas. Rockhold was unconscious but awoke when his face hit the mat.
And then came the coup de grace: Romero rushed in with unnatural speed and landed an uppercut/hook that snapped Rockhold’s head backwards and ended his night. The referee was quick in waving it off, which is a thing Rockhold (and the rest of the world) should be quite thankful for.
After the fight, Romero came over to Rockhold, who was standing against the cage, and started talking to him. It appeared he was saying nice things, and he kissed Rockhold on the cheek. Really, it was just another odd thing Romero has done. Rockhold, still trying to reconnect his soul and body, looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but right there with the man who had just put him to sleep yakking in his face.
You can’t really blame Rockhold for feeling that way. Romero doesn’t act like other fighters act. He’s an absolutely breathtaking athlete—one of the best competitors to ever fight in the UFC—but his strange mannerisms and habits only serve to make him more unpredictable and fearsome.
As Romero talked with Jon Anik after the fight, he sat on the canvas talking about a variety of subjects, jumping from Jesus and soldiers to Whittaker and Rockhold. It was hard to follow the point he was trying to make, but it was inconsequential. Romero gives us plenty of be critical about outside the cage, and he’s probably going to keep on doing things that make us shake our heads in confusion, because that’s just who he is.
But he’ll also keep us shaking our heads at the things he’s capable of inside the cage. In the end, that’s the only thing that matters.