The championship wasn't on the line, but Robert Whittaker proved once again that he's the best middleweight in the world by securing a split-decision win over Yoel Romero in the main event of UFC 225 from Chicago.
The bout was a strong contender for Fight of the Year as it once again yielded high-level striking. Unlike the first fight in which Whittaker took the lead late, it was Romero who attempted to take the fight over after a slow start, but the Aussie found a way to win the fight on two judges' scorecards.
Things appeared to be off for Romero early in the fight as the would-be title challenger looked sluggish from the outset. Whittaker took the early lead with a varied striking attack marked by sharp leg kicks that kept his opponent at bay.
Brett Okamoto of ESPN noted the timid approach from Romero:
Whittaker—on the other hand—looked as calm and collected as can be delivering kickboxing combinations that backed up a static Romero:
Romero didn't stay static, though. The third round offered a sharp turn as the 41-year-old caught a second wind to open the third frame and scored a knockdown of the champion to make things interesting.
The UFC passed along the crisp 1-2 that highlighted the round:
That highlight was just the beginning of one of the most action-packed five minutes of the year. Romero and Whittaker both exchanged knockout shots that both just ate and kept coming forward. Despite taking serious damage it was The Reaper who punctuated the round with a head kick toward the end of round:
The madness didn't stop in the third round. With Romero still periodically fighting in burst and Whittaker appearing to fight with an injured right hand, both fighters once again got their shots in in the fourth round.
Mike Bohn of MMAjunkie gave the round to Romero and compared the epic fight to the first one between the two brawlers:
Just like the third round, Romero landed a fight changing left hook that nearly ended the bout. Whittaker saved himself from being finished by grasping for a limb and covering up for long enough that he could once again stand:
The main event was only sullied by the fact that Romero—by 0.2 pounds—was unable to make the weight to make this an official title fight.
It's a frustrating set of circumstances given the hulking Romero was unable to make the 185-pound limit the last time he fought either. The Cuban's last fight was supposed to be for the interim title against Luke Rockhold, but he weighed in at 187.7 pounds for that contest.
It's possible that this is the last time we see Romero as a middleweight, but outside his two-fight series with Whittaker, he has been a destructive force in the class. Whittaker is the only fighter to beat him in the weight class in seven years.
That only makes Whittaker's reign all the more impressive, as he's defeated the Cuban twice.
This fight also marked a return from injury and illness for Whittaker. The Australian had been sidelined since his last appearance against Romero in July 2017, and now that he's back, he's looking forward to advancing his legacy.
"Creating a legacy is one of my overall objectives in my career as a fighter," Whittaker said, per Shaun Al-Shatti of MMA Fighting. "And it didn't stop when I got sick. That is part of the legacy and that is part of my journey. Being sick and going through those turmoils and hardships is what makes the rewards so sweet, or what makes getting over those bumps and those obstacles so glorifying."
He's well on his way. If his latest performance is any indication, he's going to be tough to top at 185 pounds.