UFC 221 Cheat Sheet: Yoel Romero vs. Luke Rockhold

Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold will compete for the UFC's interim middleweight belt on Saturday night at UFC 221. ESPN Illustration

The UFC wanted to promote Australian middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in his home country this weekend, but it wasn't meant to be.

UFC 221 was supposed to feature Whittaker's first title defense against former champ Luke Rockhold in Perth, Australia, but a myriad of health issues forced him from the card. The UFC replaced Whittaker with Yoel Romero, who will face Rockhold for the interim championship.

The event has lost some of its appeal as a result, but Rockhold vs. Romero is nevertheless an elite 185-pound matchup -- with plenty at stake.

Luke Rockhold (16-3) vs. Yoel Romero (12-2), Middleweight Championship

Odds: Rockhold -145; Romero +135

In a way, it's almost fitting that two UFC middleweights based in South Florida -- who train, literally, about 10 miles away from each other -- have been flown across the globe to compete for an interim title.

Lately, nothing has come easy for the contenders in this division.

It's been 20 months since Rockhold lost the title to Michael Bisping, in a stunning knockout. Bisping essentially held the belt hostage the majority of that time, angling for (and receiving) money fights. In November, he surrendered the belt to Georges St-Pierre, who immediately vacated it.

This weekend was supposed to be a turn of the page. A return to normalcy. And even though it's deviated from the original plan, it still will.

"Everything happens for a reason," said Rockhold, who sat out much of the last 20 months, partially out of protest for how the division ran. "Whether Yoel and I fight around the corner in Florida or we fight in Australia, the belt is on the line, and we're long overdue for this."

For Rockhold, 33, it's still an opportunity to set the division right after it went off the rails on his watch. And although he would have preferred to defeat an undisputed champion in Whittaker, he believes he can reassert himself at the top with a statement win.

"This is a fight that will tell who the best in the world is," he said. "Romero put up a closely contested fight with Whittaker last July. That fight was 2-2 going into the final round. The way I'm going to go out and put it on this guy, it will show everyone where I stand.

"Whittaker beat Romero last summer for an interim title. I'll beat Romero this weekend, for an interim title. Who's the real f---ing champion then? There's no real champion. At that point, it's about who made the bigger statement against the same man."

The fight Rockhold is referring to is Whittaker's five-round decision over Romero at UFC 213. Whittaker claimed the interim title in that victory and was later promoted to undisputed champion when St-Pierre vacated his title.

Whittaker's withdrawal was a gift for Romero, who was originally booked to a far less meaningful fight against David Branch on Feb. 24.

Romero told ESPN he believed he would have only needed a single win to get back into title contention, citing his eight-fight win streak prior to the Whittaker loss, but at age 40, any acceleration in his title aspirations is significant.

The last thing anyone wanted going into 2018 was the creation of another interim middleweight title -- and this fight certainly now looks out of place in Perth -- but as Rockhold stated, it's a matchup that is long overdue. And if it gets the division back on track, we'll take it.

Key stats

Romero: 12-2 (8-1 UFC); first fight since losing interim middleweight title fight to Robert Whittaker in July 2017

Romero: 10 wins by knockout (six in UFC)

Romero: Four of his last five fights have been "Fight of the Night" or "Performance of the Night" performances

Romero: 64.6 percent significant strike defense according to FightMetric (third-highest among active UFC middleweights)

Romero: Landed 17 successful takedowns in UFC according to FightMetric (1.9 per fight)

Romero: 80 percent takedown defense, according to FightMetric (fifth-highest among active UFC middleweights)

Romero: No. 3-ranked middleweight fighter, according to ESPN

Rockhold: 16-3 (6-2 UFC); 1-1 in UFC title fights (former UFC champion 2015-16)

Rockhold: Six wins by knockout, eight wins by submission

Rockhold: 2.50 strike differential ranks third among active middleweights, according to FightMetric

Rockhold: Has outstruck opponents by 136 strikes in his six UFC victories, according to FightMetric

Rockhold: 5.16 strikes landed per minute ranks first among active middleweights, according to FightMetric

Rockhold: 61 percent significant strike accuracy ranks second among active middleweights, according to FightMetric

Rockhold: No. 2-ranked middleweight fighter, according to ESPN

Fight Breakdown

Long-running concerns over Romero's cardio came to light last summer, when he dropped that decision to a one-legged Whittaker.

Whittaker went into that bout with a knee injury, which he aggravated in the opening moments by absorbing a kick. Despite that, Whittaker outworked Romero over the course of the fight, attempted 70 more total strikes and had him gasping for air in the later rounds.

It's safe to say Romero is most dangerous early. Rockhold has even accused him of avoiding five-round fight offers in the past -- which, of course, Romero denies. Regardless of who's telling the truth on that one, the reality is that a five-round bout does favor Rockhold.

As crazy as it might sound, it would not be surprising if Romero abandons the takedown. He's an Olympic silver medalist in wrestling, but Rockhold is a big, savvy grappler himself. Romero used a lot of energy trying to wrestle Whittaker early, and it hurt him late. That might still be on his mind.

And Rockhold is beatable on the feet, as Bisping so famously proved. He has his favorite weapons in the left body kick and counter right hook, which are devastating, but he's vulnerable to getting clipped in boxing-range exchanges and doesn't appear as comfortable when under pressure.

Pressure is an element to watch. Who will be the aggressor? Romero is known for lulls in action, presumably to preserve that gas tank. If Rockhold forces him to work early and keeps him on the end of his outside offense, Romero may find himself tired and down on the scorecards.

But as long as Romero is fresh, his pressure makes him extremely dangerous. Combine Romero's lightning-quick offensive spurts with Rockhold's (occasionally) questionable chin placement and defensive skills, and a knockout is always in the cards.

Prediction: Rockhold via decision