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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Keep your eye on Ryan Blaney this week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

It’s that time of the year again, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega for the Yellawood 500. Over the course of the season, with this new car, tracks like Talladega or Daytona have been frighteningly unpredictable. I expect this week to be no different. There aren’t many times when I worry about the drivers, but this week is one of those races. Let’s hope everyone has a safe race come Sunday and no one gets hurt.

Last week, at Texas Motor Speedway, Tyler Reddick was able to survive the carnage and capture his third win of 2022. As we have seen all season, this was a race that featured many cautions and took a lot of drivers out of contention for a win. It’s clear that this car is becoming more of a problem each week as we continue to see much smaller fields that finish these races. We are beginning to see more drivers get hurt driving them. Kurt Busch has been out of the car since July, and now Alex Bowman will miss Talladega next week as he has also suffered a concussion. Ever since last year, there has been a lot of fear surrounding this car. When I went to Charlotte, I spoke to someone who worked at Jr Motorsports and he spoke about the new car. He mentioned Noah Gragson and his crash at Talladega and how it would worry him if that was today’s car. The sanctioning body has got to find a way to lessen these impacts and make the cars, or else they will continue to lose credibility with their drivers.

Another issue that has arisen has been their spec parts. We have gone from hardly seeing engines fail with the Gen6 car to an engine blowing almost every week. Both Martin Truex Jr and Kevin Harvick have been extremely critical of the exhaust system that has been the cause of numerous fires this season, including at Texas with Chase Elliott. A possible solution to this would be to allow the teams to go back to manufacturing their own parts. While some teams may find an advantage, and it might make things less equal, it’s a much safer model than what they have now. Besides, a lot of the teams that are underfunded are still having a difficult time keeping up with the big teams, so it’s not like much has changed.

More controversy emerged later on in the race as Denny Hamlin and William Byron made contact on the backstretch. After a caution came out for the spin of Christopher Bell, Byron would get his revenge on Hamlin after spinning him into the infield grass. NASCAR completely missed this and Hamlin was moved to the tail end of the longest line for “not maintaining pace car speed.” It was absurdly obvious that Byron spun the 11 under caution and should have been penalized further during the race, but there was much more to worry about considering 3/4ths of the field had crashed. Matters weren’t made any better by NASCAR posting the video on their Twitter account of Byron’s onboard camera when he did it. A couple of days later, Byron would be penalized $50,000 and docked 25 points, which knocked him out of the top 8 in points.

Another fine was doled out to Ty Gibbs after he made one of the stupidest decisions behind the wheel of a race car I have ever seen anyone make. During a pit stop, the 19-year-old driver felt he was being crowded by Ty Dillon, so he decided to swerve into the side of the #42 car, narrowly avoiding a NASCAR official and the Roush-Fenway pit crew. Usually, a suspension would make sense when you blatantly jeopardize the life of a race official and pit crew members, but according to NASCAR, a 25-point penalty and a fine of $75,000 was sufficient. This isn’t the first time they have dropped the ball on this, last season Kyle Busch went speeding through the garage area at Darlington and was only fined $50,000. Aside from NASCAR’s complete disregard for safety, it’s also clear that Ty Gibbs is not mature enough to carry himself in the Cup Series. He needs to be kept at Xfinity for at least another season.

Despite all the negativity, there is still a race this week that needs to be run and someone will punch their ticket to the round of eight with a victory. As we all know, Talladega is a track where anyone can win, but avoiding the big one is the most essential. The driver who has been in the best position so far has been Ryan Blaney. In the past two races here at Talladega, Blaney has been in the picture when the checkered flag falls, not to mention how fast the Fords have been on superspeedways. Blaney’s scored two victories here at this track and also has the third highest average finish among all drivers who have run 15 races or more on superspeedways. If Blaney can stay ahead of the pack and out of trouble, he will be a threat for victory.

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