Why Blaydes fight was fascinating, Romero weight fail untroubling

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The brief, forced illusion that anything other than a shot at fighting Robert Whittaker was at stake this weekend in the main event of UFC 221 has thankfully been shattered. Whittaker is considered the full middleweight UFC champion these days, despite never getting the chance to fight or having beaten the former middleweight champ, Michael Bisping, or the new middleweight champion who choked Bisping unconscious just a few months ago, Georges St-Pierre.

How that happened is a long, convoluted and frustrating story that won’t get re-hashing in this column, but that is where we were heading into UFC 221, where Whittaker was set to defend his title against former champ Luke Rockhold, at home in Australia.

Then, sadly, Whittaker was forced out of the match-up due to serious illness. Romero subsequently stepped in to replace Whittaker against Rockhold.

The replacement was a great one and made for an important and compelling pairing on paper, but the UFC insisted on sullying it with the preposterous act of creating yet another interim title and claiming that the winner of Rockhold vs. Romero would be some type of new middleweight champion, at a time when two other men already can lay claim to the throne. So, when Romero failed to make weight after an abbreviated training camp, much of the MMA world waited with hilariously bated collective breath to see if “the title” would still be on the line.

It was, for Rockhold, but not for Romero, so somehow the most muddied title picture in modern MMA history instantly became even harder to explain. Romero ended up beating Rockhold, but didn’t get a new trinket from the UFC for the impressive victory.

It doesn’t matter. It would never have mattered.

In all likelihood, the only thing Rockhold or Romero were ever fighting for was the chance to meet Whittaker at a future date for a more legitimate title belt. After UFC 221, it was announced that Romero would indeed get the next fight against Whittaker, and that his missing weight would not likely play into the decision.

So, the shiny “championship” belt, and the pretense of a certain weight needing to be made was all an illusion. In the UFC, champions don’t need to fight for a championship to be on the line, and weight doesn’t need to be made for a fight to happen or a prize to be grasped.

None of that offends me all that much. I just think we should see things for what they are.

In fact, I’m not on the faux outrage train against Romero for failing to make weight. Dropping weight at that level is a long, scientific, and exact process for guys like Romero and Rockhold.

Rockhold, knowing he had a fight coming up, had an appropriate amount of time to make weight, and Romero – who did the UFC the favor of accepting the fight on short-notice – did not. Rockhold and his camp have reason to be upset at Romero being heavier, but no one else really does.

Missing weight isn’t a pattern for Romero, and I don’t see how he hasn’t made a decisive case in the cage that he’s the most deserving and difficult match-up for Whittaker, next.

Welcome to the top-five, Curtis Blaydes

Curtis Blaydes had the opportunity to enter UFC heavyweight title contention in the co-main event if only he could beat the legendary hometown hero Mark Hunt. The 26-year-old seized that opportunity with both hands and beat Hunt in decisive and masterful fashion, overcoming early danger to ultimately dominate the elite striker with his grappling en route to a unanimous decision win.

“That was always my game plan,” Blaydes said, afterward at the post-event press conference.

“I am not a fool. I had no aspirations of standing and trying to bang with Mark Hunt so he can knock my head off. That was always the game plan.”

What Blaydes and his team successfully did – devise and execute a strategy and set of tactics meant to capitalize on a recognition of his own advantages and his opponent’s relative weaknesses – is something that is celebrated in just about every sport other than MMA. Smart, mature fans of mixed martial arts, however, watch the sport specifically because they are fascinated to find out what fight methods are most effective in realistic unarmed, one-on-one scenarios.

That struggle always has imbued in it enough drama for any observer in it for the right reasons. If you’re one of those who don’t appreciate a win like Blaydes’ and would instead rather watched either choreographed action or unthinking bludgeoning, please stick to Michael Bay movies, and cartoons.

Blaydes own words after his winning fight reveal a cerebral approach that should always be lauded, especially in a brutal sport with little remuneration for its brave participants. He worked hard to have advantages in wrestling, and conditioning, and seized his reward.

“I am the better wrestler,” he continued. “Why not use it? And I train in Denver. We’re a mile up in the air. There’s no elevation here in Perth. I knew I’d be the better-conditioned athlete. I knew wrestling would gas him out a lot faster than standing and banging at his own pace.

“So, I wanted to dictate where we went. On the feet, he’s a lion. On the ground, I’m a shark. I wanted to drag him into deep waters. That’s what I did.”

About the author:
Elias Cepeda is a host of Sports Illustrated’s Extra Rounds Podcast, a staff writer at FloCombat, and has a weekly column for The UG Blog.

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