In a flash, Rockhold’s Feb. 11 title fight against UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was called off, as Whittaker was forced to withdraw from the contest due to undisclosed injuries. Instead, Rockhold will now travel all the way to Perth, Australia to take on late-replacement Yoel Romero in a makeshift main event at UFC 221, where an interim 185-pound title will be on the line.
While the end result of UFC 221 was far from what Rockhold envisioned for his next fight, now that the dust has settled, he is simply happy that gold is still up for grabs.
“It’s not an ideal situation, of course, obviously,” Rockhold said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I’m going across the world to fight a guy that I could fight down the street. I wanted to fight Whittaker. It’s a fight I’ve been seeking for a long time, and I thought it was a good time to make it happen, but obviously he’s got some health issues. I wish him the best and I know Whittaker’s not a man to run away from anything. I respect that kid and I wish him the best. I hope it’s not too serious.
“Yoel was the option right off the bat, and I’m ready to fight as long as the money’s right, the belt’s on the line,” Rockhold continued. “I had a good conversation with (UFC general counsel) Hunter Campbell and we worked out the situation, and we have an interim belt, which, it’s a good situation for me. Robert will out for over a year now, and champions have to stay active. And when you’re not, I think this is a justified situation. So, Yoel is as tough as they come. I mean, no one beats Yoel unless you’re a champion, and that’s what I am, that’s what I’m going to do.”
As of Monday morning, it is still unclear what exactly happened to Whittaker. The UFC’s statement regarding the matter said only that Whittaker suffered “several significant injuries,” while Whittaker said in his own statement that he was “devastated” after being “ruled medically unable to compete.”
Rockhold explained Monday that he, too, hasn’t received much information as to the reason for Whittaker’s withdrawal, nonetheless he sees Romero as a more advantageous stylistic matchup compared to the 27-year-old New Zealander.
“I’ve heard multiple things,” Rockhold said of Whittaker. “I’ve heard Whittaker is out with something serious. I’ve heard he could be potentially hospitalized. So I don’t know, I’ve heard he’s been dealing with something for weeks now, so I’m trying to wrap my brain around what it could possibly be. So we’ll see, man. I wish him the best and I’m just moving forward, I’m focused on what I have now. And Yoel would’ve happened now or later, one or the other, so it doesn’t matter to me. I’m sure I would’ve fought him after Whittaker, so either order, it doesn’t matter the order. Yoel first, it’s a very similar fight. Very explosive, athletic guys, so just contain them.
“I think Yoel has more holes to expose in his game,” Rockhold added. “I think Whittaker’s tighter. I think he’s harder to get to, whereas Yoel will kinda leave himself open. So, very similar fights, but I like this matchup.”
A former UFC and Strikeforce middleweight champion, Rockhold also pinpointed Romero’s cardio, or lack thereof, as a potential weakness to exploit at UFC 221.
“I think Yoel, his body is suspect,” Rockhold said. “I think his body can only go so — the way he fights, I think he can only push so hard for so long. Mentally, I think he has it. I mean, he has the will to win even when he’s tired. It’s about making his body quit, and that’s what I plan to do. He’s got limitations, he’s got holes, so I’m going to pick him apart and I’m going to push his body to that breaking point. I know he’s going to come forward, I know he’s dangerous, I know he’s not going to quit, but I know his body will give out, and I’m going to push him to that level.”
As it stands now, the news of Whittaker’s withdrawal had the unfortunate side effect of thrusting the UFC middleweight division back into disarray just as the weight class was beginning to settle down.
Suddenly an interim belt has been reintroduced back into the picture, mere months after Georges St-Pierre’s victory over Michael Bisping at UFC 217 and subsequent vacating of the title clarified a division in turmoil. But Rockhold isn’t concerning himself with the details of how everything has played out. He knows he still has a job to do next month against Romero, and that things will fall into place if he does it well.
“It is what it is at this point,” Rockhold said. “I think beating Yoel will speak for itself. I think it’ll speak to who the real champion is. Whittaker is a stud and I believe in the kid, but he couldn’t put Yoel away. So if I go out there and I put Yoel away, I think it speaks volumes, so I’m set to do what I think I can do.
“The information (surrounding Whittaker) is very tight-lipped, no one has spoken about it,” Rockhold added. “So until we know Robert’s health status, I’m sure we’re not [going to know where this leads]. But from what I understand, I think he could be ready by early summer. I go put Yoel away and I think we’re right in line to unify.”