Luke Rockhold vs. Robert Whittaker was one of the most compelling matchups put together in the history of the UFC middleweight division. Sadly, we once again found ourselves in the situation where a great fighter’s career was thrown into jeopardy not by the men throwing strikes at his head, but by bacteria in the gunk down the cracks in the mats. Robert Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the fight with a staph infection in his stomach and Luke Rockhold was left without an opponent. Thankfully, Yoel Romerohas stepped in and created a matchup that has many more excited than the original title fight.
Romero has not fought since Whittaker took him to school while fighting on one leg back in July, but aside from that one misstep Romero has looked incredible throughout his UFC career. With a string of victories that included Derek Brunson, Lyoto Machida, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, and Chris Weidman, Romero is still very much the man at middleweight when Whittaker isn’t in the room. Romero’s highlight reel is a love letter to athleticism, full of jumping knees and explosive third round knockouts, but Whittaker exposed Romero’s greatest flaw: a need to take breaks.
Romero’s fights are lengthy periods of nothing, punctuated by explosions of rapid-fire violence. When he was working his way through the ranks, Romero’s physique and his unrefined striking raised a lot of questions about his gas tank, but his repeated third round finishes seemed to fly in the face of that. The truth is that he is good at conserving his energy and his opponents often seem so concerned about what he could do that they don’t push him when he is taking his breathers. When Whittaker stayed on Romero between his bursts of activity, Romero became far more hittable and these explosions became less frequent and far less dangerous.
Luke Rockhold was the golden boy. Good looking, well rounded, and he convincingly battered Chris Weidman to claim the UFC middleweight title. Some fans were already preparing for another Anderson Silva-like run of title defenses. Then Michael Bisping came in on short notice and slapped him silly. At the time that was painted as fluke, or as arrogance on Rockhold’s part, but the truth was that Rockhold’s boxing just did not hold up. Rockhold took a year on the sidelines amid bickering with the UFC, dating Demi Lovato, and teasing a fight with Fabricio Werdum which this writer would still gladly watch. His greatest mistake was not filming a web documentary in the style of Alistair Overeem’s The Reem during this period. When Rockhold returned to the cage, Dave Branch came out and surprised those who bought into the fluke by promptly putting Rockhold on wobbly legs again.
Open Guard vs. Closed Guard
At one point, a year or so back, over half of the middleweight top ten was made up of southpaws. Between old names like Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort, and new talents like Rockhold, Romero, Derek Brunson and Kelvin Gastelum, there are a fair few lefties around at 185 pounds. Luke Rockhold fought Vitor Belfort way back in the day—at the height of Vitor’s chemically assisted powers—but did very little before getting wheel kicked in the head. A couple of years ago Rockhold fought Lyoto Machida, but as far as good southpaws go, that is the extent of Luke’s experience.
Why does this matter? Pressure is one of Luke Rockhold’s greatest assets and one of Yoel Romero’s biggest weaknesses. The thought of being made to work and move constantly, on someone else’s terms, for twenty five minutes must have Romero sweating bullets. He prefers to slink around the cage like a big cat between meals, until he decides—almost on a whim—that it’s time to make a run at ending the fight. The problem is that Rockhold’s pressure is built around tools and angles that aren’t there as readily against fellow southpaws.
Watch a standard Rockhold fight and it will be built around two things—the left round kick and the back-skipping right hook. The left round kick provides the pressure. If you don’t do something, Luke Rockhold is going to walk you down and punt you as hard as he can. Miss it by an inch and that shin is going to make a dull thud against your liver whereupon you won’t be able to focus on much except finding a nice spot in the cage to curl up and cry. If your elbow stays too low, you get kicked upside the head and your night is over, but then at least you won’t feel it. Even if you catch that kick perfectly on your forearm, it’s still just a block, the lowest form of defense as you are taking Rockhold’s hardest strike at its point of greatest force. There is not much of a moral victory to be had there.
With the constant threat of this kick, fighters are forced to move or fire back. Fire back and Rockhold gives ground. The rangiest middleweight of the lot, Rockhold fights almost side on, with his head held far away from his opponent. Start reaching for Rockhold’s head and you have an excellence chance of eating that check hook.
But Luke has made his living kicking into the open side, where only the opponent’s arm can come between Rockhold’s shin and their organs. Switch the stance of his opponent and suddenly he is kicking into the closed side—the back and shoulder—the areas of the body which we have evolved in order to take shots from folded up steel chairs. It will be interesting to see what Rockhold can do to replicate this kind of pressure against Romero. Using the lead leg in the same manner is a bit more complicated because in order to get decent power a preliminary step up or switch is necessary. Furthermore the lead leg round kick often has a shorter range out of the stance than the rear leg. This seems counterintuitive but it is because the range is controlled by the pivoting leg, not the kicking leg. Kick with the rear leg and you are pivoting on the lead leg—which is already out in front of you. Kick with the lead leg and you need to bring that rear leg up under you or step through to get close to the same range.
But as the old saying goes, when God closes the side, he opens up the knee. When kicking the body and head it is always best to go into the open side—where there are the least obstructions—but when kicking the lead leg, particularly in the long-stance world of MMA, it is best to try to pound it inwards from the outside. Rockhold showed some biting low kicks against Dave Branch, switching stances to do so, and against Chris Weidman in the moments that Weidman switched to southpaw. A commitment to low kicks against Romero—especially below the knee—would be a great look.
Yoel Romero showed himself to be a mark for the front kick when Robert Whittaker decided that his busted up knee meant he should jab with his foot rather than his fist. Rockhold could make great use of both the rear and lead leg front kick against Romero but any kind of kicking against such an accomplished wrestler requires an enormous amount of confidence and if you can’t do it frequently, the chances of getting timed with a counter or a takedown on the few times you do for real greatly increase.
Fortunately one of Rockhold’s greatest strengths has proven to be not just defending takedown attempts but using the momentum of shots to wind up in attacking positions. The most famous example is, of course, Rockhold rice bailing Tim Boetsch over off a caught kick, coming up on top of a sprawl and locking in a reverse triangle. But when Weidman caught Rockhold’s kicks, Rockhold used the guillotine and a shin to keep turning Weidman to the mat.
Despite only picking up one submission by guillotine choke, Rockhold’s guillotine has proven to be a huge part of his game. While he was getting out hustled by Weidman along the fence and being turned every time he tried to pin Weidman there, Rockhold made Weidman back out of clinches by snapping him down and threatening the choke. When Weidman took Rockhold down in the first round and passed his guard, Rockhold maintained the guillotine grip, hooked the "empty half guard" over Weidman’s trailing right leg, and the two stayed there until Herb Dean stood them up.
While that is impressive, in a way, it is worth noting that this was one of the very few occasions we have seen Rockhold working off his back and it seemed to rely on stalling Weidman out and getting a stand up from a position where stand ups don’t usually happen. On the one hand, Yoel Romero’s takedowns tend to be of the dynamic variety, out in the open—where Rockhold can create scrambles with momentum—but on the other, the one man to beat Romero in recent years did so by being able to build up and return to his feet each time Romero took him down, not by simply stopping or reversing takedown attempts.
The one thing Rockhold should probably steer clear of—unless he has made earth shattering strides in the last few months—is getting into boxing exchanges with Romero. Not that Romero is a tremendous boxer in combination, but he countered well against Machida in exchanging range and Rockhold simply leaves himself so exposed whenever he does almost anything with his hands except his check hook. Hands by his hips, chin up in the air, Rockhold begs to be countered and Weidman and Bisping had a field day when he led with his hands.
Even on Rockhold’s tremendous check hook, he throws so much of his body into it that if he misses or his opponent makes it through, he is a sitting duck. Against Weidman he turned himself all the way around and gave up his back.
And Dave Branch gave Rockhold fits simply by repeatedly angling in on him and pushing through the check hook to crack Rockhold in a deep lean.
The best strategy against Romero will probably always be utilizing a good jab and feints to draw those reaching, leaping, ducking over-reactions that Romero makes under fire, and then punishing them. Rockhold hasn’t shown those tools though. The best strategy for Rockhold to beat Romero might be to press forward, initiating with low-low kicks and looking to counter punch off of them. Rockhold’s decent ringcraft should enable him to put Romero near enough to the fence that he can’t simply bound away from any low kick, and so that Romero is forced to push forward off these connections—opening him up to the check hook. Rockhold’s clinch game along the fence, in the standard American Kickboxing Academy mold, might seem a strange place to go against a wrestler of Romero’s accomplishment, but dirty boxing and looking to for the underhook pin could be a good way to force activity out of Romero.
Over five rounds with Robert Whittaker, Romero threw half as many strikes as Whittaker and averaged less than ten connections a round. The key in handling Romero seems to be that instead of being afraid of what he might do, his opponents should accept that he will never work at more than the rate that he likes—he is not going to leap up and knee opponents in the head off of every lead and the more a fighter works against him the less dangerous he looks. It seems to be a mistake for fighters to wait to weather the early storm and then pick up the pace later, because Romero just isn’t that kind of fighter. He doesn’t punch himself out early and the storm comes in well spread out bursts. A good indicator of how this fight will go would be how soon Rockhold can begin to commit to meaningful offense.
Yoel Romero’s fight with Lyoto Machida showcased a patience and understanding of the counter fighter that will be vital against Luke Rockhold. While Rockhold and Machida are very different counter strikers—one likes to lean away and swing in their counter blow from the side, the other likes head on collissions—they both encourage their opponent to over-extend themselves. But the key difference between Machida and Rockhold is that Machida is a very passive counter fighter, if you give him nothing he will win or lose a close, boring decision. Luke Rockhold is a forward moving power kicker who finds counters off his opponent’s reactions to his aggression.
Romero’s use of flicking low-low kicks to knock his opponents off balance could work perfectly against Rockhold. The way that Rockhold skips back and attempts to hook in answer to anything his opponent shows him, combined with his very long, narrow stance, makes him a mark for these classical point fighting kicks. Knocking the lead foot off line with one of these foot taps as the opponent retreats slows him down and can put him out of position as the kicking fighter follows with a straight punch, a kick off the opposite side, or even a takedown attempt. Romero’s showed a couple of nice straights off this foot trap against the orthodox Tim Kennedy.
Unfortunately, in a southpaw vs. southpaw matchup much of the utility of Romero’s beloved low line side kick is lost. The opponent’s lead leg is no longer in the path of the side kick and to kick it involves kicking across yourself. This is a shame because Romero can use the low line side kick nicely to glide in with strikes, or just as a hurting pot shot as he did against Robert Whittaker—trashing the now-champion’s knee in the process and setting up later hook kick attempts.
The more measured a fight this becomes the better it would seem to be for Romero. If he can circle freely and pick as he did against Machida and others, he will have a rollicking good time. More likely, Rockhold is going to try to get in his face, at that point it would be good to see him try circle out and keep Rockhold from planting himself to kick. As Rockhold’s porous boxing game continues to be his weakness, getting in to trade with Rockhold should be a priority. By keeping Rockhold on the back foot and keeping the fight near the fence, Romero could chop down the space in which Rockhold has to check hook—removing the skip back—and stand a great chance of getting in and landing punches without getting caught first.
Picking at Rockhold through the round with low line straight kicks and low round kicks, and closing towards the fence for a flurry or two per round would be a sound strategy. If Romero is to go after takedowns it would be good to see him utilize the sweeps and trips that he has showcased occasionally—focusing on the clinch and more upright takedown attempts than those which place his head in Rockhold’s noose and provide the momentum for a turnover the moment Rockhold’s back hits the mat. Perhaps when fight time comes, Romero ducks in and scoops Rockhold up, with the guillotine serving as nothing more than a mild inconvenience, but against a man who has so routinely troubled opponents with this one technique the smarter thing would be just to avoid that area if possible.
Whether Luke Rockhold or Yoel Romero comes out on top in their clash at UFC 221, the middleweight division continues to flourish with exciting possible match ups. The winner will inevitably be pitted against a healthy Robert Whittaker for the actual middleweight title, but even the loser will be in position for great match ups. A Rockhold-Weidman rematch would be tremendous fun, or a return on Rockhold’s 2011 match with Jacare Souza. A Rockhold–Gastelum fight would match the two extremes of middleweight builds, and pitting Romero against another smaller middleweight who keeps the pace high and can keep getting back up off the floor would be a great test.