Stewart Allen-USA TODAY Sports
Luke Rockhold’s right hook proved the death of him. In his campaign to reclaim the UFC middleweight title that he lost in 2016, Rockhold was carrying the fight to Cuban super-athlete, Yoel Romero at UFC 221. At the end of the second round Rockhold had just discovered that some rudimentary doubling and tripling of the jab was more than enough to have Romero floundering—reaching blindly for the first jab and eating any others that followed. Seeming to have found the answer, Rockhold continued to work, not even realizing that he was backing himself straight onto the fence in the third round. Rockhold ate a knockout left straight down the inside of his instinctual, and always overcommitted, lean-back right hook and that was the end of his quest for redemption.
The straight down the inside of the lead hook. The great Barney Ross believed this was the most dangerous counter punch in boxing.
Rockhold’s classic flaws were still evident. He’d rather step on his mother’s back than step an inch off to the left or right and break the line of attack. Rapid advance or retreat? Rockhold’s your man. Unfortunately, bouts are not fought on an infinite plane and eventually you will hit a wall. Even in the old Mr. Strongman bouts which Igor Vovchanchyn grew up in, and which seemed to take place on a matted football field, attacking and retreating exclusively on a straight line would get you into trouble eventually. As we noted in our pre-fight Tactical Guide:
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.
Overcommitting both to the wind up and the follow through of the check hook has seen Rockhold caught by Dave Branch and Chris Weidman. Against Weidman he overcommitted so far that he turned all the way around and Weidman began climbing on his back.
With that being said, don’t let the finish distract you from the fight. Luke Rockhold found himself in his first extended striking match with a southpaw and he actually brought the tools to do some good work. A flicking front kick with the ball of his lead foot digging into Romero’s solar plexus visibly frustrated the Cuban. The low kicks into Romero’s lead leg worked a treat—though by throwing them naked, Rockhold telegraphed his intentions and kicked into a stiff check early, cutting his shin wide open and making him reluctant to go after the leg as much as his corner would have liked.
The finish will also make it all too easy to forget just how Romero fought in this bout. There are already writers claiming he is provably a vastly improved fighter from his bout with Robert Whittaker. The truth is that Rockhold exposed all the same flaws in Romero, he just couldn’t exploit them nearly as well because Whittaker is a considerably slicker, higher-paced striker.
Some spectators seem to expect technical flaws to be shown up immediately, and if they aren’t it must mean the flaws don’t matter—that they are just cosmetic. Romero regularly goes three rounds and finishes emphatically in the third, therefore his unpolished striking skills can’t be that much of a detriment, they say. As we mentioned in the Tactical Guide:
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 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.
Bizarrely, Rockhold unveiled a jab. It wasn’t versatile and he couldn’t pair it with his feet very well, but it was more than enough to have Romero reaching wildly. In fact Rockhold’s offensive boxing in this fight looked considerably better than it often has.
His effective use of one-twos in the early going had Romero reaching so severely that Rockhold was able to use his favorite left kick on Romero’s body. As we discussed last week, the closed guard set up should make that nearly impossible, but Romero’s reaction to the whiff of a left hand was to throw his right elbow up above his head. This is a man whose athleticism and reaction times are elite but whose boxing form and comfort under fire can only be categorized as cryptic.
And whenever we get to talking about a fighter’s insane athleticism—how they are the Scariest Man Alive and how ‘it only takes one’—it is important to realize that technique will not carry a non-athlete to a victory over a freakish athlete, but a good athlete can get the better of a freak athlete by using the tactical and mechanical edge. The early bum rush and the late, all-heart resurgence are the areas in which technique and tactics count for the least—the middle part of the fight is the sweet spot for technical excellence and that is where the master striker really thrives. Luke Rockhold might not be a freak athlete on the level of Romero—but he has no business getting caught with straight line bum rushes like this. That is a flaw in Rockhold’s ringcraft and footwork, not anything to do with Romero’s freakish athleticism.
Not good any way you look at it.
On the subject of craft, Israel Adesanya made his Octagon debut at UFC 221 and he stole the show. As we mentioned in our pre-fight article Uncovering the Hidden Gems of UFC 221, Adesanya’s opponent Rob Wilkinson was a grinder who got to the fence well in his first UFC bout, but who faded soon afterwards. Adesanya vs. Wilkinson followed exactly the same flow as Wilkinson vs. Siyar Bahadurzada: Wilkinson got to the cage, wrestled for a while, exhausted himself trying to take his man down, and was a punching bag through the second round. Unlike Siyar the Great, however, Adesanya put a beating on Wilkinson, calmly and consistently building towards the finish rather than swinging big ones and hoping.
We noted of Adesanya in our pre-fight analysis:
Adesanya’s striking style is one which might well be better suited for MMA than pure kickboxing: a dozen fakes and feints a minute, flicking jabs from below the opponent’s guard, stance switches and beautiful "question mark" or "Brazilian" kicks. Adesanya is also a fairly handsy fighter: he likes to push and pull his opponents around, stiff arming them and nudging them out of stance between strikes. Strikers who like to check and palm their opponent’s head and shoulders anyway can adapt that well into a layer of their takedown defense as Anthony Johnson and Joanna Jedrzejczyk did.
That flicking jab from below the guard—the blind angle—worked a treat throughout the fight, switching to a powerful left straight when Adesanya went southpaw. What was especially noticeable was Adesanya’s manipulation of rhythm: often his blows come slower than expected and sneak through in ways that they just wouldn’t if he were always fighting at 11.
Adesanya’s striking stood in stark contrast to Rockhold’s. Rockhold got Romero out of position but then couldn’t follow up with anything useful. Adesyana’s feints all make something happen, while keeping him in position to strike. For instance this hip bump, almost identical to the actual motion of Izzy’s body-tracing middle kicks, drew the back leg up and allowed him to push off into the one-two.
The right straight to the body along the fence is a treat to see from any fighter, but Adesanya dug left hooks and right straights to the body consistently along the cage. The knees and high kicks draw the eye, but Adesanya’s commitment to the body showed an understanding of how to work towards a finish—making it an inevitability—rather than simply trying to land a concussion-making single shot.
Alexander Volkanovski and Tai Tuivasa, both of whom we also examined in the Hidden Gems preview, also picked up entertaining finishes and demonstrated the styles we noted them for. Tuivasa looked considerably wilder than he did in his last bout—sprinting to chase his man with right elbows, a terrible idea against competent strikers—but he is young and it is very early in his career to be featured so prominently on a card this size, in front of his countrymen. Volkanovski, meanwhile, hit the fence to dirty box but found that the takedowns came too easily. Roughing his man up on the ground, Volkanovski forced a stoppage with ground and pound which was more from mercy than a decisive point in the action.
So what is next for the headliners? For Luke Rockhold, we can only hope that this loss is a learning experience and not used to convince him that working with Henry Hooft is pointless. His recent exploration of other camps and coaches has clearly improved his striking chops—this is a man who rarely threw in combination and couldn’t throw a punch without serving up his chin on a platter just a few months ago. For Yoel Romero, Robert Whittaker is assumedly next and his main concern should be working out how he can keep Whittaker from driving the pace on him when he is taking his breaks. The lulls in action were so obvious in this fight that Jimmy Smith would call them out as they happened. Whether that can be done by pushing Whittaker to the fence and trying a more grinding type of fight—making use of dirty boxing and limiting Whittaker’s movement, or by trying to improve Romero’s footwork so that he doesn’t have to engage when Whittaker wants him to, it’s going to take some doing.