We’re catching some rays for this week’s edition of “Who Takes It?” as the UFC visits Florida!
Fittingly, the event is not only a meeting between two of the world’s top middleweights, but a pairing of two fighters who have spent most of their lives in the tropics: Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida, who was born and raised in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, and the Cuban-born, Florida-based Yoel Romero.
Both are 37, and both are southpaws. They are ranked similarly by the UFC, but mostly represent a contrast of styles. The former light heavyweight champion Machida, who boasts a karate-based MMA style, is fourth in the 185 lb division; while Romero, one of the world’s most decorated wrestlers to transition to MMA, is sixth.
There’s a stark contrast in the perception of these two as well – including, or maybe especially, for me.
Machida? That’s a guy I never want to miss. As I described earlier this year, there’s something in his approach to the sport which is impossible to dislike. He’s that lifelong traditional martial artist, seen practicing kata outdoors with his father. He’s also that fearless mixed martial artist, bouncing in and out of that classic stance to grind out a strong showing against the world’s best middleweight in Chris Weidman – and earning the light heavyweight title in an earlier era. He’s heart and soul: 22-6 in an MMA career which more or less began at the top of the sport.
His opponent, Romero? Despite massive wrestling credentials and showing off vicious punching power — he just hasn’t quite made the same impact. He’s an impressive 10-1 (5-0 at middleweight) in his MMA career; but unfortunately, a controversial fight with Tim Kennedy seems his signature win.
Odds-makers have Machida the favorite, probably seeing “The Dragon” as the more proven commodity.
But then, Romero has been the underdog in his last two bouts as well, and won both. Looking through his recent film, I think this may just be his day in the sun.
I don’t think this match favors Machida, who loves to suck his opponents in to his game — snapping out a counter left from his wide karate-style stance.
Romero actually does something similar, but in a much more staggered stance. It’s not what we’d usually see from a wrestling-based fighter, but it works. Simply put, he’s quick and hits hard. He also disguises his takedowns well, and finishes his opponents on the mat with some murderous ground-and-pound.
We expect Olympic wrestlers to learn to jab to set up a takedown. Romero enjoys everything but that tactic, it seems. In recent wins against Brad Tavares and Tim Kennedy, he showcased a wide vocabulary of strikes: a variety of kicks, an odd downward punch to the leg in addition to strafing them with his sudden straight left.
He can be guilty of coasting down the stretch of his wins, and while Tavares managed to only make the rounds closer than they possibly had to be — landing a leg kick here, a punch there as Romero slowed — Kennedy made him pay and almost stole the fight.
After taking an early lead, Romero stood flat-footed towards the end of the second round; and Kennedy cracked him with a series of right hands and uppercuts. Romero appeared out on his feet – and was aided by some extra time between rounds in the infamous “stool-gate” incident. But he recovered to win by TKO in the third.
Prior to that, Romero had a subpar performance against Derek Brunson; seemingly asleep at the wheel until scoring an impressive TKO win.
Can he snap that straight left out and connect with Machida? Can he set up his takedowns, get and keep “The Dragon” on the mat?
I think he can and I think he will, although he may struggle to follow up. If Romero comes out strong, gets his takedowns and lets his hammers go on the mat, I see the bout ending in the third round with a TKO win.
If he is hesitant to follow up, I can see the Dragon accumulate enough strikes of his own to earn a decision to prove the odds-makers right.
At the end of the day — I see a changing of the guard happening tomorrow, with Romero scoring his third straight upset win and sixth straight win in the UFC. So, I’ll raise a tropical drink and call it for Romero, TKO in 3.
This division feels strong with lots of great match-ups to choose from, although we won’t get that Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold bout in Madison Square Garden as hoped. (It should still be a great fight anyway!) Watch for Romero to add his name among the division’s best: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Rockhold, and Weidman. Questions for the future will remain — whether or not his body, ravaged by all those years wrestling internationally, can hold up. But tomorrow in Florida, look for Romero to have his day in the sun.
As always, enjoy the fights!