Former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold hoped he would have the opportunity to win his belt back with a fight against current champ Robert Whittaker this weekend.
Instead, Rockhold will fight replacement opponent Yoel Romero on Saturday in the main event of UFC 221 in Perth, Australia. Well, maybe. Romero missed weight late Friday, and the sides were negotiating new terms for the fight.
If it does go off, Rockhold can win the interim belt with a victory, but Romero is ineligible for the title.
The way Rockhold sees it, he would be competing against the injured Whittaker, who won the interim belt with a narrow victory over Romero and was crowned undisputed champion when Georges St. Pierre vacated the title.
Should Rockhold score a more impressive win over Romero than Whittaker did, he would have just as strong a claim on the outright title, he said.
“I think that speaks for itself,” Rockhold said at a Thursday news conference. “I’ve beaten (top contender Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza). I’ve beaten every other guy in this division. I’ve got a way more impressive resume. He beat Yoel to be the interim champion. I take nothing away from Whittaker. I do have all the respect for him. He’s a gangster in this game, but if I beat Yoel and I put him away, it’s who did it better?
“He had a close fight. That was 2-2 going into the fifth (round). He showed his championship spirit, and he pulled through that fifth round. He did. He won. But if I can do it better, who’s the best? That’s what I plan on doing.”
The change in opponents, which was made a month ago, didn’t bother Rockhold. He knew he would have to beat Romero and Whittaker to solidify himself atop the division.
“I believe the three of us have separated ourselves from the pack, so this was bound to happen one way or the other,” Rockhold said. “Whittaker would have been first, Yoel would’ve been second. Yoel’s first, I’m sure Whittaker will be second. I’m up for the task. I’m not lacking in any way. I’m prepared to fight the best guys in the world. It’s a shame it’s not gonna be for the undisputed title, but Whittaker beat Yoel to be the interim champion. I’m gonna beat Yoel to be the interim champion.”
Rockhold, 33, knows the feeling of reigning supreme in the 185-pound division.
He captured the belt with a spectacular win over Chris Weidman in December 2015 only to surrender it in a stunning knockout loss to Michael Bisping six months later.
Rockhold took more than a year off and returned to score a shaky win over unheralded veteran David Branch in September to get back into title contention.
In Romero, Rockhold faces an Olympic silver medalist in wrestling in 2000.
“Every fight has its challenges,” Rockhold said. “This isn’t wrestling. This is mixed martial arts. When it comes to grappling, I’m the best. I’m like nobody he’s ever grappled with. If he ends up on the bottom, I will take the life out of him. He’s a phenomenal wrestler, one of the best to ever fight in this sport. But he’s an explosive wrestler, not a positional wrestler. He can’t compete with me on the ground.”
The bout headlines a main card that will take place Sunday morning in Australia in order to air live at 7 p.m. PST.
Heavyweight Mark Hunt will also be in action against rising prospect Curtis Blaydes.
A breakdown of the fights on the 7 p.m. pay-per-view portion of Saturday’s UFC 221 card at Perth Arena in Perth, Australia:
— Yoel Romero (12-2) vs. Luke Rockhold (16-3), middleweights
— Mark Hunt (13-11-1, 1 No Contest) vs. Curtis Blaydes (8-1, 1 No Contest), heavyweights
— Tai Tuivasa (8-0) vs. Cyril Asker (9-3), heavyweights
— Jake Matthews (12-3) vs. Li Jingliang (14-4), welterweights
— Tyson Pedro (6-1) vs. Saparbek Safarov (8-1), light heavyweights