The middleweight division has been on hold for a while. His Fistic Majesty, Michael Bisping, pulled off the upset of the year in his manhandling of Luke Rockhold on June 4 th 2016, but has since rested on his laurels looking for money fights which are almost always easier prospects than jumping back into the shark tank that is the top end of the 185 lbs division. At UFC 213, the UFC have once again committed to setting up that played out 'champion versus champion' angle down the road by having Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker meet to fight over the interim middleweight title.
Soldier of God
Yoel Romero has been the man haunting Michael Bisping since the Englishman won the belt. Already the presumed number one contender, Romero went on to starch Chris Weidman in November of 2016. This was just weeks after Bisping struggled through a defence of his crown against the decrepit Dan Henderson in Manchester, at 4am so that the American market could watch it at their normal time, and is still estimated to have sold less than 300,000 pay-per-views.
Romero came into MMA as an Olympic silver medallist in freestyle wrestling, with a list of other tournament accomplishments as long as your arm. A genetic marvel, Romero moves better at forty than most fighters do in their athletic prime, tainted supplements or no. Twenty years of wrestling at the highest levels has given Romero a sixth sense for takedowns and agile, heavy hips. Watching a Romero fight you almost hope that his man shoots a takedown just so you can see Romero smush their face into the mat with his sprawl.
Romero doesn't have the mechanics perfect but he understands that wrestling and striking have a good amount of cross-over. Just as with wrestling, the idea is to try to draw the opponent out of position or dull his senses for when you intend to commit to your shot. There are men in the UFC who have boxed or kickboxed for twice as long as Romero who don't seem to understand this as well as he does. Romero's faked shots are constant and he is just as happy to physically unbalance an opponent before blasting in as well. Against Tim Kennedy the quick, skip-up foot tap took Kennedy out of position and lined up Romero's left straight on several occasions:
And if your intentions are obvious enough, Romero will happily knee you in the face as you step in.
In almost every Romero fight the commentators will remark that his musculature and explosive movement will trouble him over the distance, and yet many of Romero's stoppages have come in the third round. Romero does end up breathing hard in many of his fights and noticeably slowing at points but one of his great strengths is in fighting in bursts. There are long, long stretches of inactivity in almost every Romero fight, before he leaps in with a flurry.
While all eyes have been on Romero since he first appeared in the UFC, Robert Whittaker is an unlikely contender for the middleweight crown. A decent welterweight, Whittaker went 3-2 in the UFC before making the uncommon decision to move up in weight in hopes of revitalizing his career. Since his middleweight debut Whittaker has rattled off six victories in a row and has looked slicker and sharper from fight to fight. It has often been argued that too much of a fighter's time and energy is used in struggling to make weight and Whittaker can now stand next to the great Frankie Edgar as a testament to there being another way.
Whittaker was already one to watch by the time he met Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza in April of this year, but that performance cemented him as a worthy title challenger. Jacare had been in with Romero and dropped a controversial decision, he had beaten the division's best and was spinning his wheels waiting for the Bisping logjam to clear. Then Whittaker boxed his ears off. Coming in behind the jab and getting down behind the lead shoulder in anticipation of the right hand, doubling up the jab and exhausting Jacare with volume and pressure. He turned back Jacare's pressure with stiff straights and front kicks to the solar plexus, and when Jacare himself was on the run Whittaker decked him with a right high kick to end the show. For more on the specifics of Bobby Knuckles' game check out Rise of the Reaper and Whittaker vs Jacare: Pace Over Power
Jacare possessed many of the same threats that Romero does and many thought the fight was a foregone conclusion. Hopes are now high that Whittaker can pull the upset against Romero just the same way, but what would he need to do?
Yoel Romero has taken to punching people like a duck to water but his game is still what is sometimes termed an 'attribute based' one. Romero relies heavily on his speed of hand and foot and on his power, rather than his placement and sound defences. Of the two men, Robert Whittaker is considerably more economical on the feet where Romero often throws himself wildly out of position and over-reacts to attacks. That being said, speed and power with a little bit of cunning will still allow you to walk right through someone with a much better striking pedigree if they don't mind their Ps and Qs religiously. The first champion of London, James Figg had business cards made that advertised him as a 'master of time and measure' and for the most part that is where the difference between the sweet scientist and the banger can be seen: over time and over distance.
Yoel Romero's game in recent bouts has been pressing forwards and retreating a step as soon as his opponent lashes out. Against Lyoto Machida, Romero went largely untouched because offence is not a Machida strong suit. Each time Machida stepped up to kick, Romero would take a step back and Machida would be left with nothing to hit and no way to catch up. But that is the extent of Romero's defensive acumen—stepping back.
He'll take a big step back and then he'll immediately step back in. This means that Romero can be tricked by manipulating rhythm. Rafael Feijao, Tim Kennedy and Chris Weidman all demonstrated this either by design or by accident. Convincing Romero to give ground, pausing, then scoring a body kick to the open side just as Romero was stepping back in. Feijao's were neater:
Where Kennedy often ended up reaching for Romero:
The key difference is the timing: convincing Romero that you have already lashed out and he can go back to pressuring you. Simply going forward and chasing just results in him continuing the retreat:
Jacare wasn't too different, the same simple method of moving forward, pressuring his man and then stepping back to let his opponent's attacks fall short. Whittaker showed his understanding of rhythm and anticipation in that bout, using nice double jabs and feints to legitimate jabs and hooks to keep Jacare on edge. No one wants to run a mile from a flinch of the shoulder, which is how feints dull a fighter's senses as he waits later and later to ascertain whether the strike is legitimate before he moves.
Not Jacare, but a gorgeous demonstration of Whittaker's fake to legit jab and covering of distance.
And this comes back to the question of Romero's gas tank. Fighting Romero at Romero's pace, a fifteen to twenty five minute stroll around the Octagon with occasional sprints, won't wear him out. Tim Kennedy did a fantastic job of winding Romero just by staying in his face while getting his butt kicked. Kennedy was sprawled on each time he shot for Romero's hips, and largely ineffective in the stand up, but by continuing to chase Romero and put in short punches in the scrambles, Kennedy had Romero breathing heavy.
Kennedy was also exhausted but the point was more that Romero will get tired and slow when made to work. When his long retreats start disappearing and he is standing there to be hit, you know that Romero is feeling the pace.
Robert Whittaker's gameplan against Jacare was built entirely around making Jacare work. Whittaker wasn't throwing knockout punches, he was probing Jacare and encouraging him to work. Jacare—like Romero—doesn't do half measures, he always punches for the knockout and shoots with the intention of finishing. If Whittaker can make Romero swing for targets that aren't there and shoot for takedowns from too far out as he did with Jacare, he can almost certainly tire the Cuban.
The few occasions that Romero has moved his head to evade blows he has done so in the leaning, awkward style that you would expect from someone who has spent most of his life not striking. The kind of deep slips he was performing in front of Derek Brunson's swings are the kind that guys like Whittaker will want to get him doing with jabs and feints, then follow up on with well-placed uppercuts or even high kicks.
But even if Robert Whittaker can stop the takedowns, he has some exploitable of his own. While he understands the use of the double jab and the feinted jab to real jab, Whittaker will often lean forward at the waist and reach for his opponent where a more upright stance and a focus on the feet might allow him to cover the ground more quickly. Leaning to punch is not something you typically want to be doing against a guy who is known for trying to time jumping knees.
Whittaker often makes use of a low lead hand in his stance. For a boxer this saves some energy and draws right hands to the head, which can be slipped or shoulder rolled and then returned. For Whittaker, Junior dos Santos and a few others in MMA, this also means that when the takedown attempt or clinch comes, the left hand is already in position to take an underhook. We often discuss shortening the lines of strikes to get a head start in the race, the same is true here—the underhook is there waiting for the opponent, not something being dug in once the guy is already in on the hips.
Against Jacare, Whittaker was in position to shoulder roll after his leads, expecting Jacare's booming right hand response to everything:
But with his left hand in position to create an underhook, Whittaker was able to shoulder feint, draw the shot from Jacare, and attempt to land a counter right uppercut. Timing counter right uppercuts on strong takedown artists is dangerous, but with the underhook already there it's considerably less risky.
The problem is that once that low lead hand becomes an underhook and the shoulder rotates out, the fighter is no longer down behind the stonewall. Forcing Whittaker to dig for the underhook and coming up with a tight right hand could prove a free connection. Jacare almost caught Whittaker hard in the above clip. Whittaker circled out away from the right hand, probably aware of this opening, but a good left hook to catch him on the way out would work just as well—notice that both of Whittaker's hands are down at the time he circles out. The low lead hand is discouraged in kicking sports generally because taking a kick across the hanging arm can cause tremendous damage. A couple of good punches across the upper arm can rapidly stiffen it up and make guarding, jabbing and wrestling far more difficult.
In summary, for Whittaker distance is crucial. Romero will often open up the distance willingly when shown an attack, he's a patient fighter, and Whittaker should take advantage of this with double jabs, body kicks as Romero believes it is safe to step back in, and constant feints to confuse Romero. Using feints and leads to keep Romero moving is the most important thing to a long term gameplan, but if Romero stops moving the chance is always there for that Bobby Knuckles left hook, or a high kick as Romero uses his unpolished head movement.
For Romero, measuring the action is important but getting to work early might give him the best chance of a stoppage. Whittaker's counter wrestling has proven brilliant, but Romero might find success in simply pushing Whittaker to the fence and making him work. Georges St. Pierre famously tired out B.J. Penn's arms by forcing him to dig for underhooks along the fence, then boxed him up out in the open. Anything Romero can do to take away Whittaker's hand speed would be a good decision.
Of course, perhaps Romero scores a flying knee in the opening seconds or Whittaker catches a triangle from his back, but we have tried to stick to the habits that the fighters have repeated most often in their previous bouts. The middleweight division can't stop lining up compelling matches and this might be the best of the bunch. Whatever the result, get back here Monday and we'll look at how it went down.
Pick up Jack Slack's hit dissection of the Conor McGregor phenomenon, Notorious from Amazon.