When Georges St-Pierre vacated the UFC middleweight title he won from Michael Bisping at UFC 217, it appeared that the convoluted middleweight title picture would finally have some clarity. Robert Whittaker, who won an interim title by earning a hard-fought split decision over Yoel Romero at UFC 213, was promoted to the undisputed champion and quickly booked to make his first title defense on Saturday at UFC 221 against Luke Rockhold. Unfortunately, Whittaker fell prey to injury and Rockhold, who was upset with the middleweight title situation all of last year, is now set to compete for his own interim title against Romero instead. But while the change in opponent does mean Rockhold is no longer fighting for the undisputed middleweight championship, the former 185 pound kingpin believes he still has the chance to become “the real” champ.
Speaking at the UFC 221 pre-fight press conference on Tuesday, Rockhold said that the change in opponents isn’t a big deal because he expected to fight Romero after fighting Whittaker and that if he beats Romero more convincingly than Whittaker did, he will be “the real champion.”
“Slight difference but this was bound to happen one way or the other. Whittaker would have been first, Yoel would’ve been second. Yoel’s first, so Whittaker will be second. I’m up for the task. I’m not lacking in any way. I’m prepared to fight the best guys in the world. It’s a shame it’s not gonna be for the undisputed title but Whittaker beat Yoel to be the interim champion. I’m gonna beat Yoel to be the interim champion. It’s a matter of who did it better is gonna be the real champion at the end of this thing. So that’s the way I see it.”
Rockhold has been a mainstay of the middleweight division since coming to the UFC in 2013 as the Strikeforce champion. He won the UFC title with a dominant performance over Chris Weidman at UFC 194, but lost the belt in his first title defense, a short-notice fight against replacement Michael Bisping at UFC 199. He rebounded with a second-round submission win over David Branch in September. When asked to elaborate on why he thinks an impressive showing over Romero would make him the real champion, Rockhold says that his resume is superior to Whittaker’s, and that if he can finish a guy Whittaker struggled with, that should be clear.
“I think it speaks for itself. I’ve beaten Jacare. I’ve beaten every other guy in this division. I’ve got a way more impressive resume. He beat Yoel to be the interim champion. I take nothing away from Whittaker. I have all the respect for him. He’s a gangster in this game, but if I beat Yoel and I put him away, who did it better? He had a close fight. That was 2-2 going into the fifth [round]. He showed his championship skill and he pulled through that fifth round. He won. But if I can do it better, who did it better? Who’s the best? That’s what I plan on doing.”
Romero is an Olympic silver medalist wrestler who has amassed an 8-1 record in the UFC but has not competed since losing a close decision to Whittaker at UFC 213. Still, Rockhold says he believes that he, Whittaker, and Romero have “separated ourselves from the pack” of middleweight contenders so he isn’t looking past Romero to a future title unification bout just yet.
“I don’t see this as merely anything. This is as real as it gets. Yoel is as dangerous as they come. This is in that same realm [as the Whittaker fight]. This is real, so I’m prepared to leave myself in there and take him to that place that he doesn’t want to be. This is as dangerous as it gets. Yoel calls himself ‘The Soldier of God,’ yet he talks about crippling and hospitalizing his opponents. That makes it all the more real. We’re not playing games. This is for keeps. This is the real f**king deal. I’m ready to go.”
Luke Rockhold faces Yoel Romero for the UFC interim middleweight title in the main event of UFC 221 on Saturday in Perth, Australia.