IN THE OCTAGON

A.J. Hoffman: UFC 221 preview

Luke Rockhold headlines UFC 221. UFC.com

UFC 221 was built on Robert Whittaker getting to fight former champion Luke Rockhold in front of an Australian crowd. Unfortunately, the middleweight champion suffered a nasty staph infection and had to pull from the fight. The UFC found a suitable replacement in Yoel Romero, who had gone 8-0 in the UFC before losing a “Fight of the Night” worthy decision against Whittaker back in July. Here is a look ahead at the card. 

The headliner features Rockhold (16-3) taking on Romero (12-2) for the interim title and first crack at Whittaker upon his return. Romero hasn’t seen any action since his loss to Whittaker, a fight where he started strong and faded in the late rounds. Rockhold looked on his way to a long title reign after his dismantling of Chris Weidman, but was upset by Michael Bisping in a fight that it appeared Rockhold didn’t take quite as seriously as he should have. I wouldn’t expect for that to be the case against Romero, who is a known one-punch knockout artist. Stylistically, Rockhold appears to have a massive advantage here. He is extremely effective from distance with both punches and kicks, and if the fight does end up on the ground, he will have a clear edge. The only way it appears Romero can win is with a big overhand left. You can’t discount the possibility, seeing as Rockhold was KO’ed by a less powerful Bisping. Rockhold will need to protect his chin and fight at a smart distance to walk out of Australia with a belt around his waist.

The co-main event features heavyweights with very different styles. Mark Hunt (13-11-1) will have the home crowd behind him against Curtis Blaydes (8-1), but the fight will come down to whether or not Hunt can stop takedown attempts. While Blaydes has improved his striking since his UFC debut, he is still not at a level where he can bang it out on the feet with Hunt. Hunt has knocked out Derrick Lewis, Frank Mir and Antonio Silva in his last 5 fights. Blaydes will undoubtably use the strategy that Brock Lesnar used against Hunt: Takedown attempts, followed by takedown attempts, and finally more takedown attempts. Blaydes is an accomplished wrestler and has the top-control to hold Hunt down for extended bursts. Hunt still has fight-ending power that will typically be set up by low kicks that lead to overhand rights. 

Jake Matthews (11-3) takes on Li Jangling (14-4), who is looking to build on a four-fight winning streak. Matthews is a former TUF contender who is going into his ninth UFC fight. Matthews is a versatile fighter, but sometimes focuses too much on his offense and forgets to not get hit. Jangling is 6-2 since getting to the UFC, and comes off an impressive TKO of Zak Ottow back in November. He also has his defensive flaws, but seems to have a way of fighting through contact and landing strong flurries that can finish fights. This should be a back and forth battle that could potentially go the distance. 

In a battle of light heavyweight prospects, Tyson Pedro (6-1) takes on Saparbek Safarov (8-1) in the pay-per view opener. While Safarov will want to make the fight ugly and push forward to impose offense, Pedro prefers the fight on the ground where he can unleash punches from top, or take the back (he has 3 rear-naked chokes on his resume). Both guys will feel the pressure of fighting coming off a loss, and in Safarov’s case a loss would make him 0-2 in the UFC, which is almost assuredly a ticket back to the regional circuit. 

The undercard features Damien Brown taking on Dong Hyun Kim, as well as Jussier Formiga, Ross Pearson and Alexander Volkanovski.

PREDICTIONS


Rockhold by TKO

Blaydes by DEC

Tuivasa by TKO

Matthews by DEC

Pedro by DEC

Brown by DEC

Adesanya by KO

Volkanovski by DEC

da Silva by SUB

Pearson by DEC

Quironez by DEC

Abe by KO

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Walter will host The Night of Champions. Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images.

In 2014, Austin Walter rushed for 2,704 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior at Crosby High School. Despite falling short of a state title, Walter was named District 19-4A MVP and finished his prep career with a little over 6,000 rushing yards on 613 carries (6,062 yds). Seven years later, Walter will be returning to his high school alma mater to give back to the community that laid the foundation for an NFL career as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.

"It's a blessing to be able to come from a small town and be one of the guys who made it out," Walter said. "Not a lot of people made it to the NFL or the NBA from Crosby High School. To be one of the first, it's an amazing feeling. It's a blessing and an honor."

On Thursday, April 15, Walter will host The Night of Champions to benefit the Crosby High School Booster Club from 6-9 p.m. The event will be a weight lifting competition at Crosby High School for student-athletes around the area to showcase their talents and abilities.

In addition to hosting a weight lifting showcase, Walter will also share his life teachings with student-athletes in attendance. Perseverance and not taking no for an answer will be one of the most vital messages the Crosby native will share with aspiring pro-athletes. It's the two virtues Walter has leaned on from little league football to the NFL. And as an undrafted prospect in 2019, it was that same morale that helped him outshine six other running backs during the 49ers rookie training camp that same year.

"Before I started playing football in high school, a lot of people thought I was too small," Walter said. "They thought because we played little league and not in middle school we would not make it in high school. My twin brother [Ashton Walter] and I did not listen to that. We just kept pushing forward."

"When I left Rice, people thought I was going to play in the Canadian league or AFF, and I did not take no for an answer. I believed in myself. And I believed in God. And if I can make it out of a small town like Crosby, anybody can make it...It's the mentality I've had my entire life of not quitting. I feel like that is what got me to the point I am at right now."

Whether their life goal is to play in the NFL or not, Walter's primary objective for The Night of Champions is to be an inspiration and show kids they can find success despite their environment. It is one of the things the former XFL running back (Dallas Renegades) wished he would have seen growing up in Crosby.

After graduating from Crosby High School, Walter went on to have a record-breaking collegiate career at Rice University. He became one of two players in school history to rush for over 1,500 yards (1,744 yds.) and 1,000 kick return yards (1,548 yds.) in four seasons with the Owls. In February, Walter signed a one-year contract extension to re-join the 49ers ahead of the 2021 NFL season.

Click here to learn more about The Night of Champions at Crosby High School or support Walter and the Crosby High School Booster Club.

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