Yoel Romero planted two sledgehammer left hands on Luke Rockhold, then sealed victory with a kiss.
In an illustration of the Cuban’s beauty and the beast persona, the 40-year-old phenom positioned himself for another crack at middleweight title holder Robert Whittaker with a third-round knockout of the former champ in UFC 221’s headline slot.
In the end, Romero’s eruption of violence negated the legitimacy of the interim belt – only on offer to Rockhold after he missed weight – as the volcanic nature of the UFC’s Middle Earth continues to quake.
Indeed, the 185lbs division is among the UFC’s most muddled. Georges St Pierre vacated after deciding his foray would be a brief one, promoting Whittaker from interim – a title he claimed by beating Romero – to undisputed champ.
Rockhold was then initially slated to fight Whittaker in Perth on Saturday only for the Australian to pull out through injury allowing the dangerous Romero to slot in on four-weeks notice.
Obviously he would go on to miss weight, and the empty interim belt lost all gravitas the UFC desperately attempted to give it. Yet, victory for either was always likely to place them in line for a shot at genuine gold.
Despite the fact Romero turns 41 in a couple of months time, he is left as the only real challenger for the only man who legitimises the division after sending Rockhold into a turbulent slumber before awakening him with a kiss of life on the cheek post-fight.
However, the signature KO came at a cost.
“I think in the first round I took two kicks and I’m pretty sure it broke my leg,” the Olympic silver medallist said through an interpreter post-fight.
“Life is like the weather. Sometimes you have a lot of sun. Sometimes it rains. You need to be prepared for these weather changes.”
Right now, the middleweight climate is stormy and for a division which for so long was dominated by one man, Anderson Silva, it has failed to find any real consistency since the Brazilian was dethroned.
Chris Weidman always came with the caveat of two victories against Silva tinged with fortune until he lost the belt to Rockhold. His subsequent defeat to Michael Bisping threw the division into disarray before GSP’s victorious return. Now we are here, with a 40-year-old veteran as a sole challenger, one already defeated by Whittaker.
At least the route for Romero appears obvious, the next step for Rockhold is less so.
His talent is undeniable but in equal measure so is the ability hit him. There might not be another elite-level fighter quite as hittable as Rockhold – a hard man in name only it seems.
Respect to Yoel that man is made of steel.— Luke Rockhold (@LukeRockhold) February 11, 2018
As Bisping has proved, Rockhold is open when he throws a right hook and after feinting with a double jab, Romero exploded from docility to seat him in similar circumstances.
The American will be left contemplating his position because in one sense, the cut to 185lbs is brutal but in the other, his chin is clearly suspect.
Granted, light-heavyweight is wide open and with Daniel Cormier retiring next year it’s something to consider.
But Jimi Manuwa, Volkan Oezdemir and a potentially returning Anthony Johnson are all frightening prospects for him.
Still, nightmares don’t come much worse than being on the receiving end of death’s kiss.
Before the soul was sucked out of Rockhold came the injection of much-needed youth into the heavyweight division.
Curtis Blaydes smothered Mark Hunt to a unanimous decision in the co-main event while Tai Tuivasa increased his burgeoning reputation with another first-round knockout.
At 26 and 24, respectively, the duo’s victories help the turnover of talent in a division which has struggled with stagnation.
Francis Ngannou was billed as the next big thing – figuratively and metaphorically – to the point his hulking frame dominated the UFC 220 promotional spotlight and left the heavyweight champ in the dark.
But Miocic dimmed the Cameroonian’s incandescent hype with a dominant performance and in the process became the division’s longest reigning champion.
In truth, the fight wasn’t even close and it ultimately came down to one heavyweight first round.
Miocic survived the challenger’s early onslaught and escaped the session with only a swollen left eye to show for.
‘The Predator’ was on the hunt in the opening minutes with his violent combinations backing Miocic up against the cage wall.
But wearing the same unmoved, deadpan expression he carried into the Octagon, Miocic maintained his composure to impose his way by landing takedown after takedown.
— UFC (@ufc) January 21, 2018
He practically breezed through the four remaining rounds with the element of danger diminishing by the minute as an exhausted Ngannou ran out of steam.
In the end, Miocic’s versatility and experience sucked the super from Ngannou’s superhuman athleticism. The punishing defeat provided the promotion a painful reminder that star names are born rather than manufactured and while you have to admire Ngannou’s heart for enduring a five-round suffocation, respect has been a hard commodity to come by for Miocic.
Indeed, the currency of breaking title defence records has far more weight, merit and value than the gimmick of owning the hardest punch despite UFC president Dana White’s infatuation to add gravitas to Ngannou’s world-record strike.
While he justifiable hits like a Ford Escort – see his previous knockout of Alistair Overeem – the UFC forgot that the champ has the ability to halt the vehicle carrying any hype and after adding Ngannou to Overeem and Junior Dos Santos in his list of title defence successes, Miocic offered his own reminder.
“It was the Stipe show tonight,” Miocic said post fight.
“It wasn’t about him. It was about me, because I’m the champ. I broke the record. I’m the best.”
— Stipe Miocic (@stipemiocicufc) January 21, 2018
He added: “Yeah, I do (feel like the best ever). I had a killer’s row to get to it. I had a hard path to get to the title, and I had a hard path to defend the title. Nothing’s ever easy, but I’ve never had an easy road.”
The nature of Miocic’s title win over Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198 was a shock unto himself but his progression as a fighter is hallmarked the confidence he exudes now.
Nothing about his achievement is a surprise to him and having cleared out practically the entire top five there is no immediate obvious challenger.
The perennially injured Cain Velasquez’s return is TBD with a potential comeback not expected until the backend of 2018.
However, Miocic’s next opponent could be right under his nose, or rather right on his UFC 220 undercard.
Light-heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier’s situation runs parallel after he mauled Volkan Oezdemir to a second-round stoppage in Boston’s co-main event.
With Jon Jones heading for a suspension after a doping violation, Alexander Gustafsson is the sole challenger at 205lbs. The Swede, however, is out of action until at least the summer after shoulder surgery and it means Cormier could head north of his division for a fascinating superfight with Miocic.
White floated the idea when talking to FOX and Cormier, who fought his first 13 pro fights at heavyweight, offered his reply in the post-fight press conference.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said.
“It’s hard for me now, because Cain’s in the gym more. Cain’s in the gym now getting back, preparing to do what he does best.
“If he’s getting prepared to get that belt back, then I have nothing for that division. That’ll never change.”
— UFC (@ufc) January 22, 2018
Conor McGregor constructed a reputation for being able to “predict dese tings” with his forecasted finishes developing the moniker ‘Mystic Mac’.
Unfortunately, we mere mortals struggle to predict our next meal nevermind the future and in MMA the job of formulating predictions is often a hollow business.
You only have to peak into the past to see why with McGregor himself at the epicentre of the most unpredictable event in combat sports history with last year’s boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather.
Few predicted that reality and so plotting the path of 2018 is a challenging prospect.
Still, there are sign posts which could assist in the direction of the year and with that in mind here is our best guess at the complexion of 2018 for the UFC.
Despite all the proclamations of an intended stay at 185lbs, Georges St Pierre vacated the title and division quicker than an awkward conversation.
And the discussion about his future starts and ends with a 2018 retirement.
It poses one of the burning questions of the next 12 months but the Canadian simply has nothing left to prove in this sport.
The nature of his win over Johny Hendricks left questions about his validity as the best in the world but having joined BJ Penn, Randy Couture and Conor McGregor as the UFC’s only two-division champions after choking Michael Bisping, his legacy is cemented.
Aside from an unlikely clash with McGregor, there are no big money fights out there for the Canadian. He turns 37 in May and is on the sidelines after being diagnosed with colitis making the prospect of a return improbable.
HOLLOWAY WILL BE P4P KING
If 2017 was about laying the foundation for Max Holloway’s legacy, the next 12 months will be about building a permanent residence among the best in the world.
Demetrious Johnson is the current pound-for-pound king and granted there is no equal – not just right now but perhaps ever.
But the flyweight champ faces the trickiest test of his long reign with bantamweight title holder TJ Dillashaw his projected next opponent.
Dillashaw’s striking is another level while his wrestling is too good for DJ and his gas tank equal as well.
Defeat for ‘Mighty Mouse’ will knock him off top spot and in will step Holloway.
The Hawaiian is on a 12 fight win streak, beat the best featherweight of all time twice last year and can take down another all-time legend in Frankie Edgar in 2018.
At 26, he is closing in on the all-time consecutive victory (16) record and most UFC wins (20) having notched 14 and 15 over Jose Aldo.
Clean out the rest of 145lbs this year and he will be the UFC’s P4P king.
McGREGOR RETURNS AND LOSES
The curious case of Conor McGregor. Will he a: box again; b: defend his title or c: both.
The best predictor is the hardest to predict and the Irishman’s next move is as unclear as it ever has been.
For a man in a permanent trajectory 2018 will be a rarity for the 155lbs champ because it will be a step down both in money and magnitude after his defeat to Mayweather.
What is clear, is that the money is in boxing for McGregor, the legacy in MMA and it’s likely the latter, for once, will appeal.
That should see the 29-year-old fight the winner of interim champ Tony Ferguson or Khabib Nurmagomedov and with the prediction of a win for the Dagestani follows defeat for McGregor. Nurmagomedov’s frightening physical manipulation of his opponents is unrivalled and should he get his hands on McGregor, it will be a second defeat of his UFC career.
JEDRZEJCZYK BECOMES CONCURRENT TWO-WEIGHT CHAMP
A bold prediction considering Joanna Jedrzejczyk is no longer champ in one division, nevermind two.
However, the Pole is more McGregor than Rousey in terms of handling defeat with her gracious post-fight persona after a shock loss to Rose Namajunas indicating a mental fortitude prepared to take back the title.
Having left the nutrition team which botched her weight cut prior to Namajunas loss, Jedrzejczyk could return better than ever in 2018.
Reclaiming her strawweight belt naturally segways into a move up to the newly opened flyweight division and given the fledgling nature of 125lbs a win there is on the cards.
With an ability to flick between the two weight classes, we could well see Jedrzejczyk become not just the first two-division women’s champ, but also the UFC’s second concurrent two-weight belt holder.