The UFC heads to Australia for the first time this year when it sets up shop in Perth for UFC 221. Though the card is far from the sexiest you will see, there are still plenty of compelling bouts to keep diehard fans intrigued.
The main event features Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold facing off. This bout was for the interim middleweight crown but after Romero failed to make weight, the title will only be on the line for Rockhold. The rest of the card is stuffed with plenty of hometown talent that will look to get the crowd in Perth excited for their first event ever.
Romero (+120) is an athletic freak. Despite being 40 years old, “The Soldier of God” has more speed, power and athleticism than fighters half his age. This is the base of Romero’s entire game. In the striking phase, the Cuban just floats and waits for his moment to explode into strikes. It works the same for his wrestling. Romero is an Olympic wrestler and relies on that skill set more than any other but he still prefers to land takedowns with explosiveness rather than grinding it out.
However, Romero has a small gas tank. He is patient in the Octagon because he burns through his cardio extremely quickly. You can see him visibly breathing heavily after a big explosion of movement. That is why his entire game is built around controlled bursts of energy leading to controlling his opponent.
Not to be outdone, Rockhold (-150) is more athletically gifted than 95 percent of the fighters in the UFC. The former champion is fast and powerful but uses his natural size advantage better than most in the division, whether that is working from range behind his left hook and body kick or dominating the leverage battle in the clinch. Offensively wrestling isn’t something Rockhold focuses on – unless working out of the clinch – but he is one of the craftier submission fighters in the division.
There are very few holes in Rockhold’s game. The only minor flaw that sticks out is his tendency to rely on specific strikes on the feet. He can rely too much on his left hook and body kick, telegraphing and giving up a chance to get countered.
Romero is as dangerous as they come but his cardio is simply not there to compete with Rockhold. “The Soldier of God” can always land a KO shot – he’s proven that – but Rockhold’s clinch work will wear Romero down.
Prediction: Luke Rockhold (-150)
Mark Hunt vs Curtis Blaydes
Hunt (+135) is a knockout artist, plain and simple. “The Super Samoan” carries incredible power in his hands, which helps him dictate the distance of a fight. Opponents are worried about Hunt’s power and are too content to be picked apart by his probing jab. Hunt has plenty of technical expertise in the striking game, which leads him to counter-striking. Aside from that, Hunt avoids grappling exchanges as much as possible and wants to hide a chin that has plenty of wear.
“Razor” Blaydes (-165) was a national junior college champion in wrestling and still uses those skills as a fallback. He is working on his striking game and he has made noticeable improvements, especially with his jab and kicks. He loves getting into slugfests – he survived two rounds with Francis Ngannou – but knows that he can’t be doing that too much in the heavyweight division. He has developed a nice game plan of mixing his strikes and takedown attempts.
Blaydes’ tendency to get into firefights worries the hell out of me but if he can take punches from Ngannou, he should – theoretically – be able to take them from Hunt. Blaydes’ wrestling and athleticism ultimately shine through in this one.
Prediction: Curtis Blaydes (-165)
Tai Tuivasa vs Cyril Asker
Tuivasa (-300) is a power puncher who has finished all eight of his professional bouts before the second round. The Mark Hunt protégé spent some time as a pro boxer and likes to probe with a jab but seems comfortable mixing in kicks from a distance. “Bam Bam” is still rather one-dimensional with little proof he can grapple at a UFC level but his power checks out.
Asker (+230) is a solid, lower-tier heavyweight. “Silverback” has some good boxing skills and can move well but can be low output on the feet. Asker is at his best when he can get the takedown and start working his ground and pound, suffocating his opponent. He is undersized for the division and can be stifled by an opponent who pushes the pace.
This fight is meant to give Tuivasa some shine in front of the home crowd. And though the Aussie has the power to take advantage of Asker’s questionable striking defense, Asker’s proven grappling skills suggest he is the best dog value on the card.
Prediction: Cyril Asker (+230)
Jake Matthews vs Li Jingliang
Matthews (+155) is still young and relatively raw. His striking game has flashed some nice pieces, especially with his ability to work the body to wear down an opponent. “The Celtic Kid” wants the fight on the ground where he can pass with ease and work his brutal ground and pound. However, his wrestling is far from spectacular. There is still little technique to Matthews’ wrestling, as he relies more on tenacity and athleticism.
Jingliang (-190) is a fun, action fighter. “The Leech” wants to push the pace behind a long jab and stinging combinations. He is very much of the “take one to give one” category, as his striking defense can get sloppy when he starts really letting his hands go. Jingliang is doing his best work when he can push opponents back with his active strikes and flow into clinch work.
Matthews won’t be able to recklessly fire in on sloppy takedowns against Jingliang because it will just play into The Leech’s strength in the clinch and leave The Celtic Kid vulnerable to strikes. If Matthews can get top control, he may be able to pound out a victory but I expect Jingliang’s all-around game to win out.
Prediction: Li Jingliang (-190)
Tyson Pedro vs Saparbek Safarov
Tyson Pedro (-280) is a big, athletic 26-year-old who has still yet to put all the pieces together. The Aussie is good at working at a distance in the standup game and has some decent pop in his right hand. He can land brutal strikes in the clinch and is an aggressive finisher in top control. However, we saw in his bout vs Ilir Latifi that Pedro still doesn’t do well when pushed and still needs seasoning.
Safarov (+220) is strictly a brawler. There are no two ways about it, Safarov will take the center of the Octagon and start winging punches with reckless abandon. He owns a decent jab when he decides to be more patient but planting his feet and brawling is mostly the extent of his “technique.”
Pedro should win this fight. He is smarter, more athletic and has more skills than Safarov. As long as the Aussie doesn’t do anything stupid, he should be fine.
Prediction: Tyson Pedro (-280)