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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Houston can win series on Sunday

Timely hitting helps Astros edge out D-backs to even series

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Astros had two losses over the last 24 hours; one a game against the Diamondbacks in the series opener on Friday night, the other the news that their recovering ace, Justin Verlander, announced Saturday afternoon that he is opting to undergo Tommy John surgery. The decision and surgery will likely sideline Verlander through 2021 when his current contract with Houston ends.

With that, the Astros headwinds continued to increase, meaning a win to even the series with Arizona on Saturday would be a much-needed pick-me-up. Here's how they did:

Final Score: Astros 3, Diamondbacks 2.

Record: 26-26, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Enoli Paredes (3-2, 2.84 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Luke Weaver (1-8, 6.51 ERA).

D-backs score two on Javier who is pulled early

Kole Calhoun, who drove in four runs, including a home run in Friday's game, would start the scoring on Saturday with a solo home run off of Cristian Javier in the top of the second, giving Arizona an early 1-0 lead. Javier allowed another run in the top of the third, giving up a leadoff single that would move to third on a groundout then score on a sac fly, doubling the lead to 2-0.

Javier finished the third and tossed a 1-2-3 fourth, but whether it be due to a pre-determined pitch count or other situation, he would not go any further, ending his night there on just 77 pitches. His final line: 4.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 77 P.

Astros grab a lead in the sixth

The Astros were able to cut the lead in half in the bottom of the third, getting a leadoff single by Josh Reddick, who would move to third after a walk and fielder's choice before scoring on an RBI-groundout by Jose Altuve, making it 2-1. Enoli Paredes was first out of Houston's bullpen, taking over for Javier in the top of the fifth and retiring six straight batters for two perfect frames.

Houston would get to Luke Weaver in the bottom of the sixth, getting a leadoff single by George Springer, who would score from first on an RBI-double by Altuve to tie the game. Altuve would come around as the go-ahead run later in the inning on an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker, knocking Weaver out of the game as the Astros took their first lead of the game, 3-2.

Houston evens the series and moves back up to .500

Josh James was the next reliever for Houston in the top of the seventh, and despite getting into a jam by issuing a one-out walk and hitting the next batter, he was able to get out of it. It was thanks to a great play by Michael Brantley, who started a double play by catching a lineout and throwing a runner out at second to end the inning.

Brooks Raley had the eighth and erased a one-out walk by retiring the next two batters to maintain the one-run lead. After a scoreless bottom of the eighth, the Astros turned to closer Ryan Pressly to get another save and finish the one-run game. Pressly would do so, as Houston would move back up to .500 and even the series 1-1 heading into the rubber game on Sunday.

Up Next: The finale of this series between Houston and Arizona, and Houston's last regular-season home game of 2020, will get underway at 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Madison Bumgarner (0-4, 8.53) ERA will be on the mound for the D-backs, while Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.70 ERA) will start for the Astros.

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