It wasn’t a battle for the belt as planned, but middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero put on a remarkable fight at UFC 225 on Saturday in Chicago.
Whittaker won the first match-up with Romero at UFC 213 last July, wearing him down over the course of five rounds to take a unanimous decision and the interim UFC middleweight title. Whittaker was elevated to undisputed champion after Georges St-Pierre won the belt and then vacated it.
Romero earned his second shot at Whittaker by defeating Luke Rockhold earlier this year, although he missed weight for that bout. He missed weight again for this fight, blowing his shot at taking the middleweight strap from Whittaker in Chicago.
Whittaker opened strong, immediately attacking Romero’s lead leg with side kicks before establishing a solid jab. Romero uncharacteristically held his hands up in guard for the majority of the round, content to sit back and let Whittaker bring the fight to him, which the champion did. By the end of the opening round, Whittaker’s jab was stinging and his lead-leg sidekicks were starting to land more squarely.
The champion kept his strategy going, attacking with the jab and the lead-leg sidekicks, but started to mix in several body kicks throughout the second frame. Late in the round, Whittaker landed a jab that almost instantly closed Romero’s right eye, but he fought on to the horn.
The ringside doctor let Romero fight on, despite his eye, and it led to one of the most entertainingly brutal rounds of the year to date.
Romero started the third frame with desperation coursing through his veins, attacking wildly, and it worked. He finally connected with some of his patented power, knocking Whittaker to the canvas. Whittaker wasn’t going away quietly, however, as the two unleashed on each other with too many shots to count throughout the round, each landing several that, by rights, should have put the other away many times over.
Both survived to fight on.
Whittaker immediately began taking advantage of Romero’s swollen right as round four began, landing head kick after head kick before once again settling back into his combination of stinging jabs and lead-leg sidekicks.
Romero continued to keep his right hand at bay throughout the fight, insinuating that he must have an injured hand, but as Whittaker kept peppering him with jabs, Romero found a home for a powerful left that set up a right hand that rocked the champion yet again just before the horn.
Romero opened the fifth frame with another one-two that rocked Whittaker, but the champion didn’t go down. Romero kept fighting with urgency, but Whittaker kept his distance as best he could jabbing and side-kicking. He couldn’t stay out of range, however, as Romero attacked and dropped him with little more than three minutes remaining in the final round. Romero swarmed and relentlessly punched Whittaker, who was on all-fours, just trying to survive.
Whittaker eventually regained his feet, but Romero kneed him in the face and bludgeoned him with punches, before dragging him back to the mat. Romero landed a couple harsh knees from behind, but Whittaker stalled Romero’s progress and the referee separated them with about 25 seconds left in the fight.
Each man fired until the final horn, putting on a stunning display of perseverance and heart. It’s only unfortunate that this wasn’t a battle for the belt, as initially planned.
At the end of the day, it wouldn’t have mattered if the belt were on the line because the judges, while seeing it as a razor-thin fight, scored a split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47) in favor of Whittaker, who was not at risk of losing his belt, even if he had lost the fight.
What’s next for Whittaker is difficult to say, though he admitted that Romero had him rocked near the end of the fight.
“He hits like a truck! I know he looks weak, but he has some power. He caught me in the fourth, in the fifth, and I was just trying to survive. I thought I controlled three of the five rounds, but he caught me in the fourth and the fifth,” said Whittaker.
“He was a tough fight. I’m just gonna go back and talk to my team, see where the journey takes us.”
Though he ended up on the losing end of the decision, Romero felt he had done enough damage to win the fight, and question the athletic commission for stopping his weight cut on Friday, believing it cost him the belt.
“It is my humble opinion, I no lose tonight,” said Romero. “Tonight, I think I take the belt, that’s my humble opinion.”
But he’s willing to run it back again.
“I don’t have a problem ten times a rematch with him; it’s my pleasure.”