The UFC 221 main event between Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold was shrouded in controversy before either man ever set foot in the cage. Romero weighed in nearly three pounds over the middleweight limit for their interim title fight, placing it in jeopardy before he was later docked a percentage of his purse and forfeited his chance at the championship. When Romero and Rockhold finally climbed into the Octagon on Saturday in Australia, they gave the 12,347 in attendance a battle worth remembering.
It started slowly, with Romero mindful of his output and content to stalk his adversary around the cage. Rockhold tried to eat away at the 2000 Olympic silver medalist’s lead leg with kicks while keeping him at bay with jabs. It worked for the better part of two rounds. Entering the middle stanza, he had controlled the pace and distance, building an advantage with his diverse standup arsenal. Romero turned the fight on a dime, as he sent the Californian crashing to the canvas with a lightning strike of an overhand left. He then finished it with a brutal uppercut to the down Rockhold’s exposed face 1:48 into Round 3.
Afterward, UFC President made no ifs, ands or buts about it: Despite his weigh-in debacle, Romero will rematch undisputed middleweight champion Robert Whittaker -- the only man to defeat him in the UFC -- later this year, once “Bobby Knuckles” fully recovers from knee surgery and a staph infection.
Mark Hunt, 43, made his 16th appearance in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the co-main event, where he squared off with Curtis Blaydes. Despite his up-and-down career in MMA, “The Super Samoan” remained steadfast in his belief that he had much more left in the gas tank. For Blaydes, it was an opportunity to leapfrog a ranked opponent in the talent-starved heavyweight division.
Blaydes did not hide his approach, as he looked to stifle the hard-hitting 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix winner with takedowns and top control. Hunt was up for the challenge initially. He posted and stood after being taken down in the first round, engaged Blaydes on the feet and set him on wobbly legs with a crushing right hand. Hunt stalked his adversary and loaded up on big shots in a bid to end it. However, Blaydes kept his wits, ducked under a punch and landed a well-timed takedown. Hunt spent the remainder of the round on his back and conceded full mount before time was up.
The final 10 minutes played out as Blaydes had hoped. With Hunt tiring, it became easier and easier for the Elevation Fight Team product to corral the New Zealand native on the canvas. He also applied his ground-and-pound, opening a cut on Hunt’s forehead with an elbow strike. Blaydes executed multiple takedowns in the third round and again climbed to full mount, putting a stamp on his most significant win to date.
The unbeaten Tai Tuivasa made quick work of Cyril Asker in their heavyweight showcase. Tuivasa launched hooks and uppercuts at the Frenchman from the start, forcing him to circle out in attempt to avoid his powerful shots. He connected with a thudding right hand, shoved Asker to the fence and started to hunt the finish. More right hands followed, along with slicing uppercuts and a violent downward elbow. Tuivasa then shoved Asker to the mat, prompting Steve Perceval to call for the stoppage in what was a one-sided beating.
Meanwhile, Jake Matthews and Jingliang Li fought to a decision in what later earned “Fight of the Night” honors. Matthews rocked the China Top Team standout more than once on the feet and looked the exploit his grappling advantages whenever the action spilled onto the mat. In the second round, the Aussie trapped Li in a tight guillotine, jumped guard and squeezed for the finish. Li managed to free himself with a blatant eye gouge that went unpunished by the referee. Nevertheless, Matthews was awarded a unanimous verdict after three rounds and shied away from questions regarding the foul.
Finally, Tyson Pedro took care of Saparbek Safarov in their light heavyweight feature. He rattled Safarov with stiff right hands early in the bout, and though he later yielded a takedown, the 26-year-old Australian found his way back to his feet. Once there, Pedro exploded with punches and misfired on a head kick that had his counterpart on his back foot. Safarov shot for a takedown, only to find himself entangled in a kimura. Pedro dragged the M-1 Global veteran to the canvas, stepped over his head into an even more advantageous position and forced the tap 3:54 into Round 1.
“Maestro” Dong Hyun Kim and Damien Brown battled to the scorecards in a back-and-forth affair on the undercard. Kim walked away with a split decision, and it was later revealed that he had suffered a broken leg early in the bout ... Israel Adesanya made his highly anticipated UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson on the televised prelims. Wilkinson’s attempts to outgrapple the Nigerian kickboxer along the fence proved futile. Adesanya turned up the heat, walked down his counterpart and teed off with strikes until it was over. He has delivered all 12 of his wins by knockout or technical knockout ... Alexander Volkanovski moved to 4-0 in the UFC with a TKO of the formerly undefeated Jeremy Kennedy. The Aussie controlled the fight with takedowns, pushed Kennedy to the fence and cut loose with brutal ground-and-pound that resulted in the stoppage ... Perennial flyweight contender Jussier da Silva came through with a highlight reel-worthy performance at Ben Nguyen’s expense. In the third round, “Formiga” decked Nguyen with a perfectly timed spinning backfist, draped himself on the South Dakota native’s back and rendered him unconscious with a rear-naked choke.