Luke Rockhold (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 221 Preview and Predictions

On Saturday night, the UFC will return to Australia for the 12th time, but the event will be a historic one, nonetheless. The government of Western Australia had not previous allowed MMA events in anything other than a boxing ring, but due to recent changes in the laws, UFC 221 will land in Perth and the promotion will be using its patented Octagon cage.

The headliner is an interim-title showdown between Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero, but this was not the original plan. The original plan was to have then-champion Georges St-Pierre face then-interim champ Robert Whittaker for a unified title. However, GSP vacated his title, Whittaker was promoted to undisputed champ, and the New Zealand native was then to face Luke Rockhold. Last month, Whittaker pulled out and was replaced by Romero for the interim challenge.

Romero is currently the No. 1 contender, but he is coming off a five-round decision loss to the aforementioned Whittaker. The hard-hitting Cuban wrestler is in a prime position to get a rematch against Whittaker to earn the undisputed belt.


Former Strikeforce and UFC champ Rockhold lost his first title defense to Michael Bisping in June 2016. He has only fought once since. His last fight was in September when he submitted David Branch by strikes. He has been chomping at the bit to get the title back, but Romero will be one of his toughest challenges yet. All eyes will be on this one in Perth.

The co-main event features a heavyweight showdown between Australian favorite Mark Hunt, 43, and the 26-year-old Curtis Blaydes. Hunt is currently sitting at fifth in the division, while Blaydes is currently ranked ninth. Both of these men could earn a title shot with a couple wins. This one should be a highly entertaining fight.

The main card also includes a heavyweight battle between Tai Tuivasa and Cyril Asker, welterweights Jake Matthews and Li Jingliang, and a light heavyweight match-up between Tyson Pedro and Saparbek Safarov, both of whom are coming off losses in their last UFC outings.

The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 10, followed by the Fox Sports 1 prelims at 8 p.m. ET. The action then moves to pay-per-view with the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Zach Aittama get you ready for the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

With UFC middleweight titleholder Robert Whittaker on the sidelines, Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero square off for the interim belt. Each of these guys has suffered a recent loss — Romero to Whittaker; Rockhold to Michael Bisping — but they’ve somehow never fought each other. Is Rockhold capable of withstanding Romero’s power and defeating the Cuban-born fighter? Which man has the better shot at dethroning Whittaker?

Aittama: For every problem, there is great opportunity. This is the case this coming weekend when former champ Rockhold meets top contender Romero for the interim title. Despite the injury to the current titleholder Whittaker and the seemingly inevitable retirement of Georges St-Pierre, the door has once again opened for Rockhold and Romero to compete for a UFC championship.

Even as Romero hits the age of 40, he’s still one of the most physically gifted fighters on the UFC roster. The Olympic silver medalist puts fear into his opponents with his size, strength and explosive attacks. Romero is a dynamic finisher with 10 knockouts in his 12 career victories, including eight wins in the Octagon. Prior to his loss against Whittaker, Romero dominated Lyoto Machida, dropped Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, and decimated Chris Weidman with a flying knee. Romero’s style relies on instinct, power and reflexes. He’s always dangerous, no matter if the fight is in the first round or the final minute.

Rockhold is a solid athlete as well. He comes from a lineage of competitive sports. However, his success in the sport has come from his size, spectacular skill and supreme ability to dominate the grappling exchanges. Rockhold ran through the competition on his way to the middleweight belt with stoppage wins over Machida, Bisping and Weidman. Once the fight hits the mat, his suffering top control and ability to pressure his opponents into breaking and folding put him on the map as the consensus middleweight king.

Rockhold matches up better against Romero than he does against his original opponent, Whittaker. However, Romero presents some major problems for Rockhold on the feet, in the wrestling exchanges, and during the scrambles. Rockhold has spent years fending off takedowns against top-level wrestlers Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez at American Kickboxing Academy. However, for this fight, Rockhold spent time under the watchful eye of Henri Hooft. Rockhold’s ability to land his left body kick and right hook counter won’t be nearly as effective against a fellow southpaw, but Hooft has likely added some different looks for this upcoming title challenge.

Rockhold will have to weather the turbulent storm from Romero, but he should have a major advantage if he can get the fight down and begin to work his ground-and-pound. Romero has the ability to break Rockhold with one disastrous blitz. However, Rockhold will find an opening, get the fight to the floor, and put on a relentless onslaught that leads to the fight-ending submission victory. As for Whittaker, Rockhold will hold similar advantages, but the current titleholder is an excellent counter fighter with his own destructive power.

Kuhl: In terms of the fight Rockhold was expecting versus the fight Rockhold is getting, he might as well throw the whole game plan out the door. Rockhold is in big trouble. I don’t care where his camp was held or what he is proficient at doing in the cage. If he can get knocked out by an aging Vitor Belfort or the aforementioned Bisping, then he can get knocked into oblivion by Romero. He would have been better off fighting Whittaker.

Romero has outstanding wrestling and has defended 77 percent of his opponents’ takedown attempts. Also, to get in and score a takedown, Rockhold will have to strike too, and this is not a guy against whom he should engage on the feet. Unless Rockhold tries to stand on the outside and pick Romero apart with his reach, he is going to need to trade. If Rockhold trades, he will get put down. This is not a good situation to be in.

It’s important to remember that Romero has never been submitted. Jacare went the distance with him. Tim Kennedy got blasted, and Ronny Markes was sleeping in the third round. All three of those guys are Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts. He was undefeated in the UFC until one of the division’s top strikers, Whittaker, took him the distance, and Rockhold is not bringing anything new to the table.

Romero takes this one by nasty knockout, which earns him a rematch against Whittaker for the unified belt.

Curtis Blaydes, who suffered his only loss to vicious striker Francis Ngannou, gets a high-profile fight against disgruntled UFC employee Mark Hunt. Will Hunt’s frustrations with the promotion lead to a fiery performance from the veteran, or is this the star turn for Blaydes?

Kuhl: We all know what to expect from Hunt: finish or be finished. He’s 43 years old, he’s pissed off at the UFC for the way the promotion has handled just about everything related to him, and he’s trying to knock out anyone the company puts in front of him. The world-champion kickboxer also loves fighting on his home turf, and he’s the shorter fighter in both height and reach, but that’s almost always the case for a 5-foot-10 heavyweight. If he connects, though, Blaydes will likely be put to sleep.

So, what chance does Blaydes have? He’s 26 years old and has a more typically built heavyweight frame in terms of size and build. He is an Illinois state and NJCAA national wrestling champion, and his knockout power has historically been more of the TKO variety. He can likely out-wrestle the “Super Samoan,” but his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills are still in the developmental stage. His last win, over Aleksei Oleinik, was a nice TKO after a very entertaining two-way throwdown. However, Oleinik is very much a grappler, whereas Hunt is not trying to take anything to the mat.

This is going to be a nice baptism for Blaydes into competing against top-10 heavyweights, but this is not a great match-up for him. His wrestling skills are at a high level, but his bread and butter is his striking. However, he does not want to get into a striking contest with Hunt. This one is likely not going to go three rounds, as I suspect Hunt is going to knock out Blaydes before the midpoint of the fight.

Aittama: The key to this fight for Hunt will be patience. The last time he fought a skilled wrestler, he was ragdolled all over the Octagon for 15 minutes by Brock Lesnar. Blaydes won’t have the assistance of a banned substance, but he will most likely attempt to impose his will by wrestling the K-1 grand prix champion to the floor, where he will have the biggest advantage in the fight.

As my colleague stated, Blaydes has been working on improving his striking as his career has developed. The 26-year-old prospect moved to the Elevation Fight Team in Colorado, and the changes have paid dividends in his recent victories. However, Hunt is not the fighter against whom Blaydes should be testing his newly acquired talents. Despite Blaydes’ massive height and reach advantage, all it takes is one uppercut or overhand right from Hunt to put anyone in the world to sleep. Blaydes would be best served to use his distance to create opportunities to wrestle. Blaydes needs to bait Hunt into thinking he’s doing one thing when he’s really setting up his next few moves.

Hunt will be cognizant of his disadvantages heading into the fight. It’s not like the adopted Australian star hasn’t already experienced every style of fighter in his illustrious 70-plus fight career. However, there are worrisome factors for Hunt in this bout, including his self-written proclamation that he has memory loss, will stutter and slur his words, and stated, “I will probably die fighting.”

Hunt traveled to the UFC offices to appease the company’s brass following his removal from the UFC event in Sydney in November. Following the tests, Hunt was given the green light to compete again. He’s been fighting all of his life and this is just another bout for him. All of the pressure is on Blaydes.

Israel Adesanya — do we need to know this name?

Aittama: There is a reason why Adesanya was proclaimed a future UFC champion for years while he was competing at the highest level of the kickboxing world. He’s that damn good.

Adesanya was born in Nigeria and started his kickboxing training when his family emigrated to New Zealand when he was a teenager. He spent time training in China and Thailand as he branched out into the international kickboxing scene following a path of decimated opponents in New Zealand. Adesanya considers City Kickboxing in Auckland to be his home, and he trains alongside UFC fighters Dan Hooker and Shane Young, top kickboxer Brad Riddell, and prospects John Vake and Kai Kara-France.

Adesanya is the product of when elite technical skills meet entertainment. The 28-year-old is a showman in the ring and outside of it. His professional kickboxing record features 65 wins and only five losses. Adesanya has fought the best of the best in his division and even stepped up to heavyweight to win a one-night, eight-man kickboxing tournament and a one-night, four-man boxing tournament. He won the GLORY 34 contender tournament with victories over top-five middleweight Yousri Belgaroui and Robert Thomas. However, Adesanya lost a controversial decision to champion Jason Wilnis in a defensive showcase by the now-UFC fighter. His championship defeat against Wilnis and his upset defeat in his next fight against current GLORY world champion Alex Pereira, in the 2017 Combat Press Kickboxing “Fight of the Year,” opened the door for Adesanya to step away from kickboxing and pursue MMA.

To give you a little hint at what type of fighter Adesanya is, all you need to do is look at his 11 knockout wins in 11 fights. Adesanya is a finisher, as evidenced by his destruction of UFC veteran Melvin Guillard, UFC fighter Kenan Song, and, most recently, a highlight-reel question mark kick knockout against Stu Dare. Adesanya’s striking style has transitioned well to MMA because he can control where the fight takes place on the feet, he’s very strong in the clinch, and deceptively good in the scrambles. He rarely gets hit, because of his defensive awareness, ability to switch stances on a dime, and exceptional head movement. There are questions if he can consistently defend against a high-level grappler or wrestler, however. That is more reason to get excited to see if Adesanya can live up to the hype in a winnable match-up against Rob Wilkinson, who was also an undefeated 11-0 prospect when he made his UFC debut in a losing effort last year.

Don’t take my word for it, type his name into the YouTube search bar and enjoy.

Kuhl: As my colleague so eloquently put it, yes, you should definitely know Adesanya.

Prior to joining the UFC, he was the top unsigned middleweight out of Australia, and it’s not like he’s been fighting a bunch of amateurs. The combined pro record of his first 11 opponents was 131-54-3, and he ran right through every single one of them in eight and a half minutes or less.

Wilkinson is no slouch, though. He has only been out of round one twice — once in his title win in Australian FC 15 and once in his UFC debut, which he lost by TKO to veteran Siyar Bahadurzada.

The one accolade that could prove perilous for the kickboxer Adesanya is that six of Wilkinson’s pro wins have come by submission and Wilkinson trains under Priscus Fogagnolo, who is a multiple-time champion in judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling. This is not your classic striker-vs.-grappler affair, but it is a showdown between a one-dimensional fighter and a well-rounded mixed martial artist..

It’s definitely a fight to watch, because someone is likely getting finished, and it should be pretty nasty.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 221?

Kuhl: Curtis Blaydes. He is coming in as the 10th-ranked heavyweight to face fifth-ranked Mark Hunt, who will have the crowd solely behind him on his home turf. If Blaydes loses, that’s how it should have been, right? No harm, no foul. However, if Blaydes pulls off the win, it will have been against a top-five guy in front of a hostile crowd, and his stock will rapidly rise in the UFC heavyweight title hunt.

Aittama: The fans in Perth. Despite having to wake up at 7 a.m. to watch the UFC on a Sunday morning in their own country, these fans receive a gift from the UFC, which stocked this card full of local and regional talent. Top featherweight prospect Alex Volkanovski, heavyweight strikers Hunt and Tai Tuivasa, longtime UFC veteran Jake Matthews, budding light heavyweight Tyson Pedro, and clashing middleweight prospects Israel Adesanya and Rob Wilkinson are all set to step into the cage. No matter the outcomes of the fights, the Australian fans will have plenty to cheer about.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 221?

Aittama: Ross Pearson is in a precarious position heading into his upcoming bout. The Englishman is a 23-fight veteran in the UFC. However, he has four straight losses, which for any fighter puts some pressure on them to perform or potentially lose their job with another loss.

Pearson has been a loyal fighter for the promotion. He usually delivers fun fights and at the very least challenges each and every opponent he’s faced in the Octagon. Pearson rarely gets steamrolled in his fights, but his recent stretch of losses has been the worst of his UFC stint, which spans nine years. He was brutally knocked out with a step knee by Dan Hooker at UFC Fight Night 110.

His opponent, Mizuto Hirota, was on a seven-fight winning streak before he was thoroughly out-grappled by top featherweight prospect Alex Volkanovski in his last outing. Hirota is not without questions coming into this contest. He looked close to death when he weighed in for his fight with Charles Rosa at UFC Fight Night 117. Hirota was not only four pounds over the featherweight limit, but he had to be caught when he stumbled off of the scale. His training partner, Masakatsu Ueda, literally had to support him to make it off of the stage. Hirota made the logical decision to move back to lightweight, a division where he was a Sengoku, Deep and Cage Force champion before signing with the UFC for the first time.

Unfortunately for Pearson, Hirota is a game opponent and a willing combatant in the striking exchanges. Pearson is a solid boxer who can hold his own on the feet, but questions linger as he recovers from one of the worst knockout losses of his career. Pearson has an opportunity to prove everyone wrong against a name opponent, including his new bosses at Endeavor who don’t necessarily know how consistent The Ultimate Fighter 9 winner has been during his time in the UFC.

Kuhl: Honestly, Chris Weidman is the biggest loser of UFC 221, and he’s not even on the card.

The UFC middleweight division is already a complete mess. This event has two guys fighting for an interim belt who are both 1-1 in their last two respective fights, Michael Bisping is still ranked in the top six, Lyoto Machida got back in the win column, and Uriah Hall doesn’t even want to fight, but he’s still in the top 10. What used to be one of the best divisions is now a comedy of sorts.

Anybody in spots four through 10 is in a pretty terrible position right now, and, at No. 4, Weidman is the biggest loser of the division, so to speak. With Robert Whittaker unable to defend his belt on his own home turf, and the winner of the showdown between Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero most likely to get the next shot, a guy like Weidman is easily two fights out, assuming he wins his next one.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Kuhl: Ben Nguyen and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva.

Both of these guys are longtime veterans who put on entertaining fights, and you never know what to expect. Nguyen has the upper hand in this one, because of his knockout abilities, but Formiga is a tough guy with a sick submission game. This should be a good one for the fans.

Aittama: There are a few fights that people are sleeping on this weekend, but the contest that will likely digress into fisticuffs is the battle between Australia’s Damien “Beatdown” Brown and South Korean Dong Hyun Kim — not the welterweight “Stun Gun,” but the lightweight “Maestro” of violence who is on a two-fight winning streak.

Brown, 33, might have lost his most recent outing against slugger Frank Camacho, but he didn’t lose any fans following an all-action striking affair. Despite a record of 2-3 in the Octagon, Brown is tough as nails and an always-game opponent. Brown has earned stoppages in 11 of his 17 wins, including a first-round knockout of Cesar Arzamendia at UFC 201 and a four-fight finishing streak prior to his UFC debut.

Kim will indulge Brown during the exchanges, as evidenced by his thrilling “Fight of the Year” contender against Polo Reyes in 2016 in which both fighters were dropped and stunned on multiple occasions during the three-round slugfest. Kim last entered the Octagon against the once-great Pride lightweight champion Takanori Gomi. It took Kim just over 90 seconds to dispatch of the Japanese MMA legend in Gomi’s own backyard. Kim will hope to keep his winning ways going when he battles Brown in Aussie territory.

Pair this card with…

Aittama: A Coopers Brewery Best Extra Stout. The rich, robust flavor pairs nicely with a night of action-packed fights. Depending on which continent you reside on, the hints of coffee and chocolate will go down smooth following a hearty steak or a rack of ribs, even if it means you need to start grilling at three in the morning. Luckily for North American fans, it will feel like the typical fight night, except for that delicious Aussie favorite you just poured.

Kuhl: I really wish they still had Sheaf Stout available in my area. This is a full-bodied Australian stout that comes in a 25-ounce bottle with a very unassuming mustard-yellow label. That’s exactly how I feel about this card. It’s a big card, both figuratively and literally, and it will certainly pack a punch (pun intended). Sheaf Stout would make a perfect pairing.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Kuhl’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Interim MW Championship: Luke Rockhold vs. Yoel Romero Rockhold Romero
HW: Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes Hunt Hunt
HW: Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker Tuivasa Tuivasa
WW: Jake Matthews vs. Jingliang Li Li Li
LHW: Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov Pedro Pedro
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Damien Brown vs. Dong Hyun Kim Kim Kim
MW: Rob Wilkinson vs. Israel Adesanya Adesanya Adesanya
FW: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy Volkanovski Volkanovski
FlyW: Ben Nguyen vs. Jussier “Formiga” da Silva da Silva Nguyen
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Ross Pearson vs. Mizuto Hirota Hirota Pearson
BW: Teruto Ishihara vs. Jose Alberto Quiñones Ishihara Quiñones
WW: Luke Jumeau vs. Daichi Abe Jumeau Abe