Robert Whittaker claimed interim middleweight gold in July, with a hard-fought victory over Yoel Romero at UFC 213.
Making the triumph even more impressive was the fact that Whittaker accomplished the feat at less than 100 percent after injuring his knee in the first round of the headlining bout. “The Reaper” was eventually installed as the undisputed middleweight champion after Georges St. Pierre vacated the crown, but the Australian was forced to pull out of his first official title defense against Luke Rockhold in the originally scheduled UFC 221 main event due to injury. Instead, Rockhold will vie for the interim crown against Romero on Saturday at the Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.
Now, Rockhold believes he can stake his own claim to being the “real” 185-pound champion with an impressive victory over Romero at UFC 221.
“It’s a shame it’s not going to be for the undisputed title, no doubt,” Rockhold said at the UFC 221 pre-fight press conference. “Whittaker beat Yoel to be the interim champion. I’m gonna beat Yoel to be the interim champion. It’s a matter of who did it better is gonna be the real champion at the end of this thing. That’s the way I see it.”
Rockhold appeared to be primed for a lengthy championship reign after dispatching Chris Weidman to claim the belt at UFC 194. However, in his first defense he suffered a shocking first-round knockout loss to Michael Bisping at UFC 199. Still, the longtime American Kickboxing Academy member owns an impressive resume that includes wins over the likes of Ronaldo Souza, Tim Kennedy, Bisping, Lyoto Machida and David Branch.
“I think it speaks for itself,” Rockhold said. “I’ve beaten Jacare, I’ve beaten every other guy in this division. I’ve got a way more impressive resume [than Whittaker]. He beat Yoel to be the interim champion. Take nothing away from Whittaker. He’s a gangster in this game. But if I beat Yoel and I put him away…who did it better? He had a close fight. That was 2-2 going into the fifth. He showed his championship spirit in that fifth round and he pulled it out. But if I can do it better, who’s the best? That’s what I plan on doing.”
Romero is a significant challenge. The Olympic silver medalist won eight fights in a row before the loss to Whittaker and even at 40 years old remains an imposing physical specimen with a decorated wrestling background. Rockhold respects his opponent, but is not especially concerned about any aspect of the fight.
“This is not wrestling. This is mixed martial arts and when it comes to grappling I’m the best. Yoel will find himself in trouble everywhere the fight goes,” Rockhold said. “If he wants to tangle with me on the ground, I’m like no one he’s ever grappled with. I promise you I will be on top, I will be above him. Anytime I’m above him, I will be winning.
“I can scramble, I can grapple. If he ends up on bottom, I’ll take the life out of him. Yoel is explosive. I respect his wrestling. He’s the best wrestler that ever graced this sport. But he’s an explosive wrestler, not a positional wrestler. He can’t compete with me on the ground. He’ll find that out shortly.”