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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 221

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UFC 221: Romero v Rockhold Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

UFC 221 was a show that seemed to have the air let out of it, time after time, for months.

When the UFC arranged a pay-per-view for Perth, Western Australia, the first-such event in a part of the country where cage fighting was banned until recently, the original idea was likely for Robert Whittaker, the interim middleweight champion, an Australian, to challenge for the title against either Michael Bisping or Georges St-Pierre. When St-Pierre won, it had the makings of a major event. But even though it was pushed that the Bisping-GSP winner would face Whittaker next, it was clear quickly after St-Pierre won the title that such a fight wasn’t going to happen. St-Pierre then vacated the title and Whittaker was suddenly the real champion by default.

So he was to make his first title defense against Luke Rockhold, a former champion. But then Whittaker fell out due to a bad staph infection. It was Yoel Romero to replace him to create, once again, an interim championship. Then the air was let out one last time when Romero missed weight, and the fight itself was even in limbo the day before. The talk was that if Romero won that it would be a disaster, because it would be a guy who already missed weight for a title fight, and someone that Whittaker had just beaten on July 8.

Romero (13-2) won, solidly, and it wasn’t a disaster going forward. He knocked out Rockhold in impressive enough fashion that for anyone who saw the show, you’d feel he was very deserving of a title shot. Well, except for the issue of rewarding a guy who missed weight by several pounds. And the reality is a Whittaker vs. Romero fight, as logical as it may be right now, isn’t likely to draw as a pay-per-view main event. It would be a strong match for FOX, or a very strong No. 2 bout on a pay-per-view, and would probably draw well live if held in Australia.

If one was to make a prototype for a cartoon character to play a fighter, it would be Romero that would be the physique to copy.

Even more impressive, is he still looks like that even though he’s turning 41 in April. He looks like a 25-year-old genetic freak, and he has the ability to appear to be fighting like a 41-year-old for several minutes, only to suddenly explode, going from Dr. David Banner to the Incredible Hulk in the blink of an eye, but minus the change in appearance. When he does, the fight is over. Rockhold, and Chris Weidman, were the most notable victims of the transformation.

And he should be a star, between the physique, the finishing ability and his performing at such a high level for so long. He was already a world-class wrestler 20 years ago. He won a world championship in 1999 and an Olympic silver medal in 2000. He held several wins in international competition over Cael Sanderson, the long-since retired best American wrestler from a different era.

But like many other talented fighters, Romero never caught on with the public. Perhaps it’s because he’s not a great talker. Perhaps some are skeptical about his physique, particularly after a 2016 test failure for a growth hormone stimulator, even if USADA cleared him to the point of saying he tested positive due to a contaminated supplement.

Romero vs. Rockhold seemed to have less interest than any UFC pay-per-view show in several months. There were only 200,000 Google searches related to the show on Saturday, down from more than 1 million for each the previous two pay-per-view shows. Most of the lesser-purchased shows of the last year have had more than 500,000 searches on the day of the fight.

We’ve already seen that the public doesn’t buy most interim championships. The undercard was weak on star power, even though a number of relatively unknown fighters to the general public like Alexander Volkanovski, Israel Adesanya, Tyson Pedro and Tai Tuivasa all come across like potential major players down the line. The Perth crowd reacted well for most of the fights, even more impressive since it was 7:45 a.m. local time on a Sunday morning when the first fight went into the cage. In that regard, the entertaining undercard with guys without big names is best suited for television rather than pay-per-view.

Perhaps a year from now, when the new TV contract ends up in place, shows like this will end up on television, where you have a bigger audience than for a pay-per-view that does weak numbers, and is a better medium for creating the needed new stars

Let’s look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of the weekend’s show.

YOEL ROMERO - Romero has been in the UFC for five years, and has been regularly knocking off ranked contenders for the last four. But he has yet to get a shot at the real championship. His next direction looks to be Whittaker (19-4), the only fighter who holds a win over him in UFC competition. Romero took the early rounds in their first meeting, but Whittaker closed strong to win a decision

The question, with Whittaker’s uncertain physical condition, is how long it will take for such a fight to be put together. Because no matter how his body looks, time is the one enemy that eventually beats all fighters, and Romero is likely already on borrowed time.

LUKE ROCKHOLD - The loss has to be devastating for Rockhold (16-4), who was the favorite going in. Many felt his title loss to Michael Bisping was a fluke and that he was still either the top guy, or close to it, in the division.

The nature of this loss removes him from any talk of being No. 1, or getting a shot at it, without putting together a series of wins. Rockhold was also, before the fight, talking about moving up to light heavyweight.

As a middleweight, there are three fighters, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (25-5). Kelvin Gastelum (14-3) and Chris Weidman (14-3), who Rockhold could face next. On paper, Souza vs. Weidman should take place as a No. 1 contenders fight, leaving Rockhold with Gastelum. But if, for some reason, Souza vs. Weidman doesn’t take happen, and Souza faces Gastelum instead, that would leave Rockhold as a good opponent for Weidman.

CURTIS BLAYDES - Blaydes (9-1, 1 no contest), at 26, is the youngest heavyweight ranked in the current top 10. A good next opponent for him would be the winner of Sunday’s Derrick Lewis (18-5) vs. Marcin Tybura (16-3) fight. With the exception of Cain Velasquez, Blaydes is also the highest-ranked fighter in the division that Stipe Miocic hasn’t beaten.

TAI TUIVSASA - At 24, Tuivasa is 7-0, with all seven wins ending in stoppages in the first round. You never know what this means, particularly since none of his opponents were big names and history is filled with guys who come in with records like that who get taken into the second round and they become very mortal.

Tuivasa came across like a star, and the heavyweight division desperately needs a new star. He was an Australian heavyweight knockout artist fighting in Australia. But Tuivasa has clear appeal that will translate internationally if he can continue scoring wins at the pace he’s been doing.

You could match him up next with the winner of the March 3 bout with Andrei Arlovski (26-15) and Stefan Struve (28-9). But that may be rushing him and perhaps a fighter like Justin Ledet (9-0) would bring him less of a giant step up when it comes to experienced competition.

ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI - Another Australian star, Volkanovski (17-1) picked up his 14th straight win, with a Khabib Nurmagomedov-like ground and pound performance in finishing he previously unbeaten Jeremy Kennedy. He feels ready for some bigger names in the featherweight division like Cub Swanson (25-8) or Myles Jury (17-2).