UFC 221: Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero Full Card Preview and Predictions

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2018

UFC 221: Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero Full Card Preview and Predictions

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    Luke Rockhold is still on the UFC 221 card with a new opponent.
    Luke Rockhold is still on the UFC 221 card with a new opponent.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    After a top-heavy UFC 220 that featured two big title bouts atop the card, UFC 221 takes a big step back and offers little to anyone outside MMA diehards.

    With a shuffled-up main event and an undercard that is heavily tailored to the local audience, few outside Australia will have reason to tune in before the headlining contests.

    The full card stands as follows:

    Main Card (Pay-Per-View)

    • Yoel Romero vs. Luke Rockhold
    • Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes 
    • Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker 
    • Jake Matthews vs. Li Jingliang 
    • Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov 

    Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1)

    • Damien Brown vs. Dong Hyun Kim 
    • Rob Wilkinson vs. Israel Adesanya 
    • Jeremy Kennedy vs. Alexander Volkanovski 
    • Jussier Formiga vs. Ben Nguyen 

    Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass)

    • Ross Pearson vs. Mizuto Hirota 
    • Teruto Ishihara vs. Jose Alberto Quinonez 
    • Luke Jumeau vs. Daichi Abe

    So who are these fighters? What's on the line for them? And who is going to win?

    Read on to find out!

Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass)

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    Ross Pearson's back is likely against the wall as he enters UFC 221 on a five-fight losing streak.
    Ross Pearson's back is likely against the wall as he enters UFC 221 on a five-fight losing streak.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Ross Pearson vs. Mizuto Hirota

    After his scary weigh-in miss in September, Japanese veteran Mizuto Hirota is jumping up to the lightweight division.

    Welcoming him to the fold is Ross Pearson. This is a must-win affair for Pearson, who is now on a four-fight skid (and stands at 4-8 since 2014), but given how solid Hirota has looked in the UFC to this point, the odds are stacked against the Brit here.


    Teruto Ishihara vs. Jose Quinonez

    The Teruto Ishihara hype train is back on the tracks following his win over Rolando Dy, but he needs another win or two to get the engines chugging again.

    The UFC isn't giving him much help in that regard, though, as he faces the TUF: Latin Americas runner-up Jose Quinonez, who has made some big strides in his game over recent years.


    Luke Jumeau vs. Daichi Abe

    Luke Jumeau and Daichi Abe are both unknown commodities at this point, so naturally, the UFC is having them face off to make them into slightly-more-obvious commodities.

    Abe is the clear favorite here, but it's hard to favor him too strongly when their contest is being overseen by notoriously awful Australian MMA officials.

Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1)

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    Dong-Hyun Kim's star has grown since his 2016 Fight of the Year candidate.
    Dong-Hyun Kim's star has grown since his 2016 Fight of the Year candidate.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Damien Brown vs. Dong Hyun Kim

    "The Maestro" Dong Hyun Kim (not to be confused with Stun Gun) has bounced back from his 2016 loss to Marco Polo Reyes with back-to-back wins.

    The UFC is giving him a good shot to keep that momentum going, too, as he faces Damien Brown, who is yet to post an especially impressive win.


    Rob Wilkinson vs. Israel Adesanya

    The UFC made waves by picking up veteran kickboxer Gokhan Saki, but the addition of Israel Adesanya hasn't attracted as much attention.

    Adesanya has been juggling MMA and kickboxing since 2012 and has managed to stay perfect inside the cage while enjoying strong success in the ring. He makes his UFC debut at UFC 221 and has a favorable matchup in Rob Wilkinson, who was last seen getting KO'ed.


    Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy

    Alexander Volkanovski and Jeremy Kennedy have both had strong starts to their UFC careers, with both scoring 3-0 records in the Octagon to this point.

    They're likely coming up on their contract negotiations, too, so the UFC is looking to have one of them take a pay cut by catching a loss here. Volkanovski is the slight favorite based on his stopping power, but this is really close to being a pick 'em.


    Jussier da Silva vs. Ben Nguyen

    The UFC is committed to getting rid of the flyweight division, it seems, so it's relegating the second-best fight on this card to the opening spot of the Fox Sports 1 prelims.

    Jussier da Silva is 125's foremost gatekeeper, losing to the cream of the crop but smashing anyone outside that lot. Ben Nguyen, however, looks the part of an elite talent after running through Tim Elliott, and he should be able to get the better of the Brazilian here.

Main Card

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    Tai Tuivasa's UFC debut got a fair bit of attention.
    Tai Tuivasa's UFC debut got a fair bit of attention.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker

    Twenty-four-year-old Tai Tuivasa turned heads when he scored a flying knee knockout in his Octagon debut, and the UFC is seemingly impressed enough that it's going to groom him...at least for a little while. 

    For his sophomore effort, the Australian will get to fight on his home turf and receive a favorable matchup in Cyril Asker.

    While Asker isn't an easy out by any stretch of the imagination, his two recent KO losses to less-than-elite opponents don't hurt the chances of a slugger like Tuivasa.

    The UFC tends to get what it wants in this kind of matchup, and while Tuivasa isn't yet a sure thing (especially against someone as dangerous as Asker), precedent suggests he'll come out on top.


    Jake Matthews vs. Li Jingliang

    In one of the strangest turns of 2017, Li Jingliang has become an intriguing UFC fighter. While he's always been a deceptively important talent, given that he is probably China's best mixed martial artist, the Leech has recently tapped into a well of punching power that has transformed him from a heavy grinder into a dynamic finisher.

    The UFC seems to be looking to keep Jingliang's momentum going, too, as he faces Jake Matthews.

    At one point, Matthews was a compelling 155-pound prospect, but a 2-3 record from 2015 to 2016 sucked a lot of the wind out of his sails.

    He returned after a yearlong layoff in November 2017 with a jump up to the welterweight division, but he failed to do anything particularly impressive against a relatively manageable opponent.

    He'll be the fan favorite in his home country, but he'll likely struggle to get the ball rolling at any point against Jingliang.


    Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov

    This is one of those silly "these dudes can bang" fights the UFC likes to throw on pay-per-views.

    Tyson Pedro and Saparbek Safarov are a combined 2-2 in the UFC. Neither man has scored a particularly noteworthy win to this point. Neither holds "must-see prospect" status.

    They're just two fairly large men who will, presumably, combine for a short bout. Pedro sits as a big betting favorite, per OddsShark, and while that's somewhat odd, given that he hasn't done anything to inspire extreme confidence, he is definitely more likely to come out on top.

Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes

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    Mark Hunt's back but his beef with the UFC likely continues.
    Mark Hunt's back but his beef with the UFC likely continues.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Back in September, Mark Hunt honestly discussed (NSFW ahead in multiple links) his physical and mental state after two decades in combat sports, detailing the inevitable aches, pains and increasingly shaky memory suffered by combat sports veterans. The UFC, out of a concern for his health, pulled him from his scheduled November bout.

    Was that concern genuine? Was it the UFC yanking around a fighter that has an ongoing lawsuit against the company's management? Was it just a matter of wanting to avoid a PR bloodbath if tragedy struck Hunt in the cage?

    That's up for debate, but ultimately irrelevant, because whatever worries the UFC may have had didn't last long, as Hunt was scheduled to fight at UFC 221 just two months later. And the UFC's choice of opponent would certainly suggest it's not too worried about Hunt's well-being. 

    Curtis Blaydes is an interesting commodity for the UFC. At 26 years old, the former NJCAA wrestling standout has looked generally solid in the Octagon to this point, amassing a 3-1 (1) record with three of those bouts ending in knockout victories.

    Coming off an unceremonious (but ultimately legitimate) win over Aleksei Oleinik, Razor has the opportunity to make a huge leap in his career by beating the fan favorite.

    While this is a critical moment for Blaydes, this is Hunt's fight to lose. Blaydes is no slouch in the wrestling department, but Hunt's takedown defense is solid—to the point where few outside the division's elite can be expected to get things to the mat and standing with Hunt is a dangerous proposition.

    It's possible the younger Blaydes can stay disciplined and peck away at the Super Samoan en route to a decision win. Odds are, however, that this one ends up on Hunt's highlight reel.

    Prediction: Mark Hunt def. Curtis Blaydes by TKO in Round 2

Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero

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    Yoel Romero has the chance to take the belt that slipped through his fingers at UFC 213.
    Yoel Romero has the chance to take the belt that slipped through his fingers at UFC 213.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    For a little while, it looked like the middleweight title picture had been sorted out. Michael Bisping's reign as champion was over. Georges St-Pierre was gone. All that was left was Robert Whittaker, who conveniently already had an interim UFC belt, and a lineup of contenders who wanted to take it. 

    Everything was neat and tidy...for about a month.

    Last week, Whittaker pulled out of the UFC 221 main event due to an undisclosed injury. Worse, following UFC 220, UFC President Dana White revealed that Whittaker is suffering from a serious staph infection that could shelf him for an extended period of time.

    This is a devastating blow to the entire division, but it's a particularly devastating blow to UFC 221, which was largely built around the Australian returning home with the belt.

    The lemonade the UFC made with that lemon was finding Whittaker's opponent, Luke Rockhold, a new foe in Yoel Romero.

    In a vacuum, this is a solid contest. Rockhold is one of the deadliest fighters in the middleweight division, with all-over-the-cage skills and an exceptional nose for finding finishes. Romero remains one of the most interesting fighters in MMA, with peerless athleticism and obscene punching power to go along with his Olympic medal-winning wrestling skills.

    But unfortunately, this isn't in a vacuum. It's taking place at a flimsy UFC 221 and will add another fake belt into the mix, which serves little purpose but to muddy up a division that desperately needs clarity.

    Prediction: Luke Rockhold def. Yoel Romero by Unanimous Decision