Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker fought another Fight of the Year candidate at UFC 225 and established an annual tradition of hacking lumps out of each other. In the first fight, Whittaker fought the bout on one leg after Romero slammed a low-line side kick into the side of his lead leg. This time Whittaker’s right hand was taken out of action in the first round and Romero’s right eye was almost completely closed in the second. But that is the nature of fighting: nothing ever goes exactly to plan and the combatants are often left making the best of what they have left.
In our Tactical Guide we heaped praise on Whittaker’s tactics and overall strategy in the first fight as he drove a strong pace on Romero between takedowns and tired out the terrifying Cuban knockout artist. Yet this time Romero threw Whittaker for something of a loop. Instead of coming out southpaw, as he had in the first match, Romero spent almost the entirety of the bout fighting from an orthodox stance.
This was a peculiar decision because his low line side kick into the lead leg, paired with a nice hook kick, worked well against Whittaker in the first bout. In his writings on Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee advocated fighting southpaw to put the strongest foot in front, and in order to place this foot as close as possible to the opponent’s lead leg: longest weapon to nearest target. This principle has been demonstrated in dozens of big fights at the highest levels of MMA over recent years. By abandoning the southpaw stance, and the open guard position it created, Romero was losing that brutal straight kick. But going orthodox had some great pay-offs on the defensive end.
At Fightland we dubbed the first Whittaker-Romero tilt the “ Night of a Thousand Straight Kicks” because of Romero’s side kicks and the right front kick which Whittaker went to with uncharacteristic frequency. It was a strike which proved very versatile. It could be slammed in hard and used to push Romero away—breaking off the exchange and preventing a counter strike. This was particularly useful as Romero spends much of his time trying to intercept opponents with flying knees and spinning kicks or backfists, all of which resulted in him clashing with Whittaker’s raised knee or being pushed off balance. But the kick could also be used in combination, Whittaker would step down into a southpaw stance off the kick and chuck an overhand left, or retract his foot and drop into his sprinter’s stance in order to throw his lethal left hook. When two fighters match up in opposite stances—a scenario we term “open guard” or “open stance”—both men’s rear hand and foot can be slotted down the straight line to their opponent’s jaw or midriff where their back and shoulder would normally complicate matters. When Romero went orthodox and changed the basic angles, this right front kick was set aside and Whittaker had to make his mark using different weapons.
Robert Whittaker had an axe to grind in this bout though. After Romero hobbled him in the first bout, forcing Whittaker to have knee surgery and take much of the next year out, Whittaker seemed ready for a lead-legged, side-kicking duel. The champ wanted to stomp on Romero’s lead knee and keep his own the hell out of Dodge. Romero’s choice to fight orthodox changed the angle and Whittaker, instead of holding back, began firing the side kick across himself into Romero’s lead knee. You will see the occasional fighter go to a side kick across to their opponent’s lead leg, but never as frequently as Whittaker did in this bout.
The main danger of the side kick is that the opponent gets to the back side of the kicking leg. That is essentially giving the opponent a dominant angle on you without them having to move. That can be disastrous and you will see experienced side kickers like Stephen Thompson run a mile and reset any time it happens. Kicking across yourself increases the odds of this happening considerably so it takes some confidence and timing to do.
Since Romero adopted a bizarre cross guard in his previous fight (with the wrong arm on top, limiting his ability to effectively counter punch), fans of the mythos have been shouting about "the 52." This refers to 52 Blocks, or Jailhouse Rock, a semi-fictional African-American prison martial art which is actually just old fashioned boxing focusing on the cross guard, the high guard, and folding down behind one’s elbows. Any time that a black fighter has flashed even a little bit of cross guard in the last 20 years, speculation has started online over whether they know The 52, conveniently ignoring the success of fighters like Archie Moore, who became an all time boxing great doing this stuff in the 1950s. It doesn’t matter if you learned it in prison, from an old Chinese manual, or from watching professional boxing: getting your elbows in the way of the opponent’s punches is always a good idea.
Throughout this fight Romero continued to project his elbows towards Whittaker as he fought almost completely on the defensive. Whether it was a classical double forearms guard with the elbows held high—exposing the midriff but presenting the elbows—in what is sometimes called a "triangle guard," or pointing the lead elbow out in a stonewall-ish position, or in the cross guard (with the correct hand on top this time). Throughout the fight, Romero was putting his elbows in the way of Whittaker’s punches and it very quickly paid dividends. It is hard to pinpoint where Whittaker hurt his right hand but on the last two good ones he was able to throw, Whittaker smashed his right hand into Romero’s left elbow twice in quick succession. That’s the point of the cross guard and high elbows stuff, after all: not to specifically say “when he punches I shall break his hand” but to make it difficult for the opponent to throw full power head shots without risking hurting himself.
Whittaker’s corner could be heard calling on the champion to “just throw it” throughout the bout. The chances are that his corner weren’t trying to get him to hit Romero as hard as he could with his apparently broken hand, but rather wanted to keep Romero from realizing that Whittaker was working exclusively with his left. Looking at the x-ray Whittaker released the following day, it is pretty understandable why it took some serious convincing to get Whittaker to throw a couple of half hearted rights each round.
For most of the fight Romero adopted the high forearms guard and while he did injure Whittaker’s right hand, the jab was still threaded up the center of his guard a great many times. This combined with Whittaker’s whipping lead hook which he will use both as a lead, and as a follow up as Romero came back at him—dropping his level and snapping it in over Romero’s right shoulder. In the second round a succession of jabs and hooks saw Romero’s eye close quickly. Romero’s cut man did an admirable job of stifling the swelling but was never at peace for a moment over the coming rounds. Romero’s eye needed a break from the punishment, and often a fighter will start bringing out the big bombs when his opponent is half blinded, but Whittaker’s injured right hand meant that he was confined to using the left jab, hook and uppercut alone.
Yoel Romero is never a high volume fighter but coming into this bout on the heels of a gruelling weight cut, the Cuban’s attempts to conserve himself were especially apparent. We have discussed Romero’s need to take breaks in fights on multiple occasions but it has never been so obvious as in round one of this bout, wherein Romero did effectively nothing for the entire five minute period. The second was a little more active, with Romero looking for more counters out of his shell, and in the third round Romero finally found his mark. Whittaker had begun opening up with more and more confidence but mistimed a left front kick to the body which slid off the side of Romero as he pressed forward. This is the danger of straight kicking of any kind. It is tricky to step inside a straight kick because the path of the kick occupies the direct line between the two fighters, but if that kick gets knocked off line, the kicker is in a horribly compromised position. The right hand cracked Whittaker over the head and sent him tumbling.
A Balancing Act
Fighting hurt is an area with no solid rules. In boxing the easiest answer is “tie up," but in MMA that can be a smart or a terrible idea depending on the opponent. When hurt against Nate Diaz, Conor McGregor backed onto the fence and grabbed an overhook as soon as Diaz started swinging—Rashad Coulter also did the same thing at UFC 225. But what if the opponent is a spectacular wrestler? Then there are the other options. The hurt fighter could run but his legs are unlikely to be under him. He could stand still and move his head or cover up but in doing this runs the risk of being overwhelmed or having the fight stopped because it looks like he is being overwhelmed. He could fight back but if his ears are still ringing and his equilibrium isn’t there, he is opening himself up to getting knocked out.
After getting dropped in round three, Robert Whittaker performed a terrifying balancing act, cycling between all of these methods and managing to scrape through. He ran away, he chased the single leg, he clinched, and he fought back. While fighting back is often the absolute worst thing a fighter can do when he is hurt, Whittaker timed a couple of elbows on the surging Romero and seemed to shake him up a bit.
But Whittaker also flirted with disaster by trying to remain active. What might have been a clever counter body kick underneath Romero’s right elbow had it happened out in the open and Whittaker wasn’t reeling, simply saw Whittaker eat a stiff right hand on one leg. It is interesting to note how often Whittaker’s short push kick helped him out in this fight, though. Benson Henderson used to use this effectively when under attack along the fence. Notice that here it makes the space for Whittaker to jog out to his left.
What let Romero down in his attempts to finish in the third was his tunnel vision. All Romero could see was Whittaker’s head and he chased it throwing, largely ineffectively, and tired himself out. Only in the fourth round did Romero throw body shots, a couple of times, on a whim. A hurt fighter is distracted, worried, and overcompensating with his guard, there is no better time to dig into the body with hard blows. Not only is it money in the bank for later and a chance to hurt him again, it draws attention away from the head and opens the hurt fighter up to be hit there again.
In the fourth and fifth round, Romero went to the cross guard more and Whittaker tried to answer this with intercepting elbows and high kicks around the side of the cross guard. Whittaker also found success doubling and tripling the jab for damage—just as Luke Rockhold had. Romero scored a good counter left hook on an overconfident Whittaker near the end of the fourth that briefly shook the champion’s feet.
In the final round, Whittaker switched to southpaw to attempt some intercepting side kicks as Romero came forward, more aggressive than in the previous four rounds. After Whittaker switched back to orthodox, Romero switched to southpaw and attempted his favourite foot-trap-to-left-hand. Whittaker side stepped and ducked deep under the left hand—as he had done against Romero’s left hook all fight. But where Whittaker would have been past Romero’s lead foot and shoulder, and out the side door had Romero been standing orthodox, Romero stepped forward with his left to keep up and hit Whittaker second left swing as he came out of his duck and sent him to his rump.
The fight was a pure joy to behold: two totally different types of fighter, each adopting a different style of fighting from the first bout, and punctuated by wild swings in momentum. The judges came down on the side of the champion, Robert Whittaker, but many in the media scored the bout a draw, and just as many scored it for Yoel Romero. While Robert Whittaker is now 2-0 against Romero on paper, the first and second fight could not have been more different and should the UFC wish to sell a third match there would certainly be an audience for it. Though this wouldn’t be a "rubber match" in the traditional sense, the UFC have found a once-in-a-generation rivalry in these two marvelous fighters. It is hard to think of a time when more heart, talent, and technical ability was matched in the Octagon, let us just hope for the love of all that is MMA that the UFC managed to get some eyes on it this time around.