Pre-Fight Thoughts: Robert Whittaker -vs- Yoel Romero 2
The main event of UFC 225 is one of the more peculiar rematches in recent history. After defeating Yoel Romero 11 months ago, at UFC 213, clinching the UFC middleweight title, the New Zealander has been sidelined with a knee injury and complications from an improperly treated staph infection in his stomach (story) since that time. By the time "Bobby Knuckles" was able to return, Romero had managed his way into an interim title fight — which he failed to make weight for — and summarily executed Luke Rockhold with a third-round KO. Despite the weight miss, Romero was granted the next title shot ... for which he then failed to make weight for as well — making things just a little awkward...
I won't be discussing any opinions on the practice of weight cutting in this article, and there are claims that the Chicago Athletic Commission didn't actually give Romero the full 2 additional hours he had been alloted to try and make weight on his second attempt. Regardless, we have a main event in which the title is not in play yet again, and more fodder for the endless debating surrounding fighters missing weight. Still, we have the fight, which is what really matters. Robert Whittaker is unfortunately cheated out of a potential title defence on his record, but otherwise the show goes on.
Even though their last fight was less-than a year ago, I still find this to be a very difficult fight to predict. In their first encounter, Robert Whittaker's performance was virtuoso-level in his ability to stuff every single one of Romero's takedowns, maintain his desired range and land a high volume of strikes. What initially looked like a modern iteration of the striker versus wrestler battle ended up being a high-level stand-up battle. Making things even more impressive is the knowledge that Whittaker did all of this while suffering from an MCL tear incurred before the fight even began. To his credit, Romero lasted all 5 rounds and lost a decision, he was defeated but far from embarrassed by the new 185-pound champ.
Because Whittaker is coming back from a lengthy injury hiatus, the questions asked of him are exclusively about ring rust and whether or not he can repeat what he did last July, at UFC 213? That is not to say that Whittaker can't have added new wrinkles to his game, but the primary concern is how quickly he can acclimate to active competition after being sidelined for so long. Romero has to contend with the effects of cutting and missing weight, the additional stress that generates, as well as the reality that he is 41 years old and not getting any younger. I think concerns about Romero's cardio are overstated, as the Cuban has shown over time that he is very effective at managing his stamina and still producing violent finishes.
Trying to determine if Romero is extra depleted from the weight cut seems fraught with potential errors, so we'll disregard that and assume both fighters are going to be as close to 100% as fighters can be. If Whittaker's wrestling defence and footwork are even 75% of what they were in their first encounter, then I think we will see a repeat of that fight. Romero's conservative style could cost him rounds if Whittaker is able to stay busier and not provide him with any openings to land big shots. Romero tends to spend a lot of time studying his opponents, figuring them out and then dropping the hammer at precisely the right moment. This is where ring rust can figure in, as it's clear that Whittaker knows what needs to be done to win a fight against Romero, but a lot of that is contingent on peak timing and instinct, so there is a theoretical window, early in the fight, where Romero may have his biggest edge.
Still, this is a difficult fight to forecast as both Whittaker and Romero have proven themselves to be very intelligent fighters, able to read situations and adapt themselves where necessary in the middle of a fight. The improvements that Romero has made, even late in his athletic career, are impressive — his boxing has continually become more effective and technical. Likewise, the champion has grown by leaps and bounds since he stopped killing himself to make welterweight, and the consistency with which he outworked and countered Romero for 5 whole rounds in their last fight cannot be understated. It's one thing to land a "lucky" punch, it's another thing entirely to spend 15 minutes completely neutralising a professional fighter the calibre of Yoel Romero.
My prediction is that we get largely the same fight as last time, with Whittaker dictating the range and pace of the fight throughout, scoring another unanimous decision win. There is always the chance that Romero lands a kill-shot seemingly out of nowhere — that's one of his trademarks — but I think Whittaker has that well-scouted. It is unfortunate that weight issues have cast a shadow over this fight, as it otherwise illustrates the best that the middleweight division has to offer. This should be a great fight, and I am looking forward to seeing if Yoel manages to throw the division into utter chaos — defeating the champ despite being unable to win the belt — or if Whittaker proves the first time wasn't a fluke and hands the challenger another one-sided loss.
Published: June 9th, 2018.