In any given year you will see one or two performances that can truly be termed "great." The tailor made gameplan, executed to perfection, against one of the best fighters in the world. Cody Garbrandt’s masterful handling of Dominick Cruz or Rose Namajunas’s first victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk are examples of that. Robert Whittaker’s victory over Yoel Romero at UFC 213 was even more than that. It wasn’t just an excellent, competitive fight and a convincing tactical performance, it ranks up there as one of the handful of best performances this writer has seen in a few decades of watching men and women hit each other in the head.
We all suspected it would be a good scrap in the lead up—the skills and styles matched up in such a compelling way that it was on the "must watch" list for any fight fan—but tragically UFC 213 only managed a desperate 150,000 pay-per-view buys. UFC has decided to release Whittaker vs. Romero I on Youtube to advertise the rematch and before you do anything else with your day you ought to draw a bath, light some candles, prop up the iPad, and treat yourself to half an hour of as close as you will get to perfect fighting.
Yoel Romero started strong, as he always does. His suspected weakness was always his gas tank but the Cuban has been good at taking breaks and measuring himself in his bouts so that his reliance on large, explosive movements never drains him too fully. When Romero does attack it is normally so intense and unsettling that in his moments of relaxation afterwards his opponents are all too happy to just leave him to it. Robert Whittaker’s job was to soak up those attacks and keep Romero working. It started out well, as Whittaker timed a couple of his gorgeous jabs, including a beautiful interception up the inside of a round kick (a karate favorite often shown by Kyoji Horiguchi).
And then Romero landed the low line side kick he had been looking for since the start of the bout, and a ligament in Whittaker’s knee went absent without leave. Noticeably hampered by the knee injury, Whittaker had nothing like the speed and grace he usually did out at range. The jab almost disappeared, but the right front kick—which he toyed with in the early going—now became his crutch.
Slamming it into Romero’s body again and again, Whittaker was able to control the range with the push, and take some wind out of Romero through his target selection. With that being said, round two was considerably worse for the Aussie, as Romero was able to take him down several times and effectively hold him down for the first time.
Leaving his corner for the third round, Whittaker was told that he had plenty of time and he just had to get through the pain. This was where Whittaker began to take control of the fight. Walking Romero to the fence from the get go, he worked to push-kick Romero back each time Romero advanced. The side kick found Whittaker’s standing leg twice as Romero came off the fence but did little as Whittaker’s push kick slammed into Romero’s chest at the same time. 90 seconds in, Whittaker hit his push kick and dived in with his trademark left hook to chin the Cuban. As the round wore on, Romero stopped throwing. Whittaker feinted and drew half-swings and failed takedown attempts while scoring his own offense.
In rounds four and five, Whittaker took over. Dozens of feints, a high output of strikes, beautiful takedown defense. Each time Romero worked to get a takedown, Whittaker was springing up and scraping Romero off along the fence. By the fifth round Romero was gasping for air and Whittaker was putting it on him along the fence. It was among the most beautiful showings in UFC history… but can he do it again?
Not a whole lot has changed in the time since their first meeting in July 2017. Michael Bisping and Georges St-Pierre fought for the "real" middleweight title before we scrapped that and made Whittaker the actual champion. Whittaker was scheduled to face Luke Rockhold in February 2018 but was forced out with another injury, so Romero stepped in to fight Rockhold in his stead. After being frustrated by Rockhold’s stationary triple jabs, Romero double jabbed in on Rockhold along the fence and starched the American as he leaned back on the same check hook that he has been overusing for his entire career.
What made beating Romero handily the first time so impressive was that Romero is incredibly dangerous in single bursts of action. He has made a habit out of stopping opponents in the third round and will often pull a knockout victory out after three or four minutes of seemingly uninterested work. You can put on a great show against Romero and still get starched when you slip up or get complacent. Whittaker was on a knife's edge for five rounds, but was still the one dealing out the damage. Yet the watershed moment came in the third round, where Romero went into complete inactivity and Whittaker was able to push the pace on him along the fence. Romero would circle off when attacked, or eat strikes to the body, but was always reacting and being made to work.
Obviously, “Romero should train more cardio” is a terrible piece of analysis when you are talking about a professional athlete with twenty years of competition experience. What Romero can do is to find ways to use his energy more efficiently. Robert Whittaker didn’t spring up at the final bell as if he were ready to do another five or ten minutes, pushing a pace is hard work too and prevention is worth more than a cure. One way to prevent Whittaker from piling in, scoring points, and making Romero waste energy with feints, is just to keep a better track of where the bout is. Rather than hanging around by the fence, circling when he’s made to, it would be good to see Romero spend the extra energy to get back to the middle of the cage and keep a closer eye on where he is. It is far easier to take the breaks that Romero likes out in the center of the mat than it is with nowhere in which to retreat. Add to that the fact that Romero’s jumping knees and reactive takedown attempts just weren’t working because there isn’t a great deal of confusion caused by either dropping to your knees or leaping into the air if those are the only two things you are known for doing along the fence.
If Romero could work more effectively when he completes his takedowns, it would also help him a great deal in getting off the fence because Whittaker would have to respect level changes a lot more. In the first bout, Whittaker used tie ups to prevent Romero from striking effectively on the ground and used double underhooks and grapevines to transition to butterfly guard and commence a stand up or a sweep attempt. To get anything going Romero needs to prevent himself from being clutched chest-to-chest. Against Lyoto Machida he did this by immediately posturing and striking as he was completing his takedown. Unfortunately, Whittaker saw that horrendous knockout and it was likely why he stuck to Romero constantly in the bottom position.
So much of Whittaker’s takedown defense came from that kneeling position along the fence, when Romero had the bodylock. By positioning himself against the fence and bringing the inside knee up, Whittaker made it very hard to put hooks in or return him to the mat, and he could then turn into his man and get an underhook.
Rather than holding this position for dear life and looking to land knees to the thigh which only really present space for Whittaker to move, it would be good to see Romero accept the position is gone and come out of it striking. Elbows to the head are a terrific choice against a kneeling opponent along the fence because they tend to forget about them, thinking they are safe from knees due to the rules prohibiting them. Pushing Whittaker off and trying to crack him with a good punch or kick as he turns to face (perhaps an Yves Edwards style jumping roundhouse if he’s feeling particularly flashy) might also mix things up a little for the challenger.
A final thought is for the elbow. Brian Stann remarked on the number of collisions between the two men in the first bout. Particularly as Romero was gliding in to side kick and Whittaker was stepping in to land a punch. There were a dozen moments where the men clashed, coming chest-to-chest, where neither landed the flush connection they had hoped for. Romero likes jumping in on kicks and knees, Whittaker likes to shorten his stance, bounce into the sprinter’s stance, and burst in like a points karateka. The man who gets his elbows up as his opponent closes in has a great chance of splitting open a cut or even stumbling his man with their own momentum.
For Whittaker, protecting that lead leg opens up new avenues of offence that he didn’t really show in the first fight. Whittaker’s jab is a rapier and could have caused Romero fits if Whittaker’s movement hadn’t been so hampered. Against Jacare, Whittaker’s shoulder roll and head movement looked good off his jab.
If he begins doing the same against Romero along the fence he will have a nice platform to counter off, and a great way to enter on his combinations which isn’t that front kick. You would have to imagine that Romero has been drilling counters to the front kick religiously for this one.
These stuttered jabs are exactly the kind of feint-strike combination that Whittaker could have been having a field day with against a tired Romero in the later portions of the first bout.
With news of Romero struggling to make the weight today, and remembering his difficulty making weight against Rockhold, it is hard to work out what lessons he has learned from the first bout. With a hard cut it might be in Romero’s interest to really go after Whittaker for the first three rounds and bank on taking him out of there. But as Romero is always concerned with conserving energy, this could just put him into a passive state even earlier than in the last bout—something he shouldn’t be planning on doing against the ultra-active Whittaker.
With a win here, Whittaker reaffirms himself as perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Romero, meanwhile, has the chance to snatch the title and force a deciding third match. The stage is set for what might be the best fight of the year between two pound-for-pound greats, we can only hope that the fans actually throw down the cash to watch it this time.