Romero vs Rockhold; Hunt vs Blaydes: Picks & Predictions for UFC 221

UFC 221 (February 11th) was meant to be a glorious night of middleweight title unification. Then-interim champion Robert Whittaker was scheduled to face the newly-crowned Georges St-Pierre for a blockbuster headliner. But GSP is battling health issues and instead chose to vacate his title. Whittaker was promptly promoted to the undisputed champ and Luke Rockhold was called upon to contest the title in place of St-Pierre. Then that fight fell apart when Whittaker was forced to pull out due to injury.

Now, for the final iteration of the event headliner, Rockhold will meet Yoel Romero for the interim middleweight title. The winner will face Whittaker for the undisputed title once the Aussie champ recovers.

Also on the card is a slugfest between heavyweight veteran Mark Hunt and the promising young Curtis Blaydes. Expect fireworks. Bovada has the odds, and we have the picks. [Is Bovada the right sportsbook for you? Learn the advantages and drawbacks of the site, and if you are new to MMA betting, get acquainted with our guide to betting on MMA and boxing.] 

Yoel Romero (+130) vs Luke Rockhold (-160)

There’s very little between these two. Yoel Romero (12-2) has the edge when it comes to speed and power; Luke Rockhold (16-3) has the larger gas tank and a huge height and reach advantage. They share four mutual opponents — Tim Kennedy, Lyoto Machida, Jacare Souza, and Chris Weidman — and both of them beat all four. 

Romero has been the more active fighter. Since losing the middleweight crown to Michael Bisping in 2016, Rockhold has fought just once, facing David Branch in 2017 and showing quite a bit of rust in the process. He ultimately secured the victory in the second round after getting the fight on the ground, but he sustained a decent amount of damage. If he allows Romero to tee off on him in the same way, it’ll be a short night. The Cuban middleweight packs explosive power and boasts a knockout rate of over 70%.

Romero is not your average 40 year old. His recent fights show a man still near his physical prime, and with only 14 pro fights on his resume, he hasn’t sustained decades worth of punishment like others his age. He still has his power, he still has his speed, and he definitely still has his drive.

This is a fight that could go in many different directions. Romero is an elite wrestler and an Olympic silver medalist in the discipline, while Rockhold’s roots are in jiu-jitsu. Romero is accustomed to taking down his opponents at will, and Rockhold has one of the best takedown defenses in the game.

They’re both also forces to be reckoned with on their feet. Rockhold stands at 6”3’ and makes full use of his range, especially with his long head kicks. Romero is significantly shorter (his official height of 6”0’ is probably an exaggeration), but he’s a master at closing the distance to set up power shots. 

If the fight drags into the championship rounds, Rockhold stands to gain from his superior cardio. Will the fight get that far? Rockhold’s three professional losses have all come by way of first-round knockout. The former champ has a habit of allowing his opponents to land a few clean shots in the opening rounds. Against a fighter like Yoel Romero, that comes with severe consequences. The underdog is the better value in this close matchup. 

Pick: Yoel Romero (+130)

Mark Hunt prepares for yet another fight.
Mark Hunt prepares for yet another fight.
(Photo credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) CC License)

Mark Hunt (+140) vs Curtis Blaydes (-170)

If Yoel Romero is a 40 year old that doesn’t look his age, Mark Hunt (13-11-1) is a 43 year old that definitely does. The war-weary veteran has been through the ringer many, many times and he’s got the scars to prove it. The “King of Walk-Offs” has only won four of his last 10 fights, but his losses have been against the very best of the heavyweight division.

Standing opposite him on Sunday will be Curtis Blaydes (8-1), a 26-year-old rising star. The UFC is eagerly seeking fresh, young talent for the stagnant division, and Blaydes is one of just a few prospects. His sole loss was to Francis Ngannou, and he’s still looking for his first big win.

Hunt suffered a brutal knockout against Alistair Overeem last year, and before that was mauled by a juiced-up Brock Lesnar for three rounds. After admitting to suffering from brain damage, he was pulled from a card late last year. I don’t know what’s changed, but he’s been cleared to fight now.

Blaydes is a pretty nondescript fighter, adequate at everything but not really spectacular at anything. The biggest advantage he has is that he’s not 43 years old. Also, Hunt has struggled with wrestlers in the past, so we’ll likely see Blaydes put his collegiate wrestling background to use on Sunday.

Heavyweights tend to blossom a lot later in their careers compared to their lighter counterparts. Blaydes has a bright future ahead of him, but he doesn’t appear ready to take on the very best of the division. Mark Hunt is a fighter visibly on the decline, but his recent performance against Derrick Lewis showed that he’s still got it. Bet on the “Super Samoan” to snatch another knockout.

Pick: Mark Hunt (+140)