UFC 221: Luke Rockhold believes a KO of Yoel Romero will make him the 'real' champ

One can forgive Luke Rockhold's boldness in saying Saturday's interim championship bout headlining UFC 221 is for the promotion's "real" middleweight title when you consider his track record. 

Outside of a regrettable hiccup in June 2016 at UFC 199, when Rockhold's arrogance in overlooking late replacement Michael Bisping in their title rematch led to a shocking upset loss, the former champion has been UFC's best 185-pound fighter since arriving in 2013. 

That's not to say that Rockhold's first-round knockout against Bisping should be forgotten, nor should his violent KO loss to Vitor Belfort in his UFC debut (although Belfort's subsequently banned use of testosterone replacement therapy and wild mohawk explains it enough). 

But Rockhold (16-3) has been the most consistently dominant force and enters this weekend's showdown against last-minute opponent Yoel Romero (12-2) in Perth, Australia, with a chance to make a very large statement as the best in the world in his weight class. 

Bisping has since come and gone. Georges St-Pierre, who returned from a four-year retirement to vanquish him, quickly followed. And even though rising upstart Robert Whittaker (19-4), who was pulled from Saturday's fight after a nightmarish set of illnesses, already owns an impressive win over Romero and saw his interim champion status upgraded after GSP's withdrawal, Rockhold expects to do one better. 

Although Whittaker fought through a leg injury to take a decision from Romero last July, the 33-year-old Rockhold has visions of stopping him.

"Whittaker beat Yoel to win the interim belt, I'm going to beat Yoel to win the interim belt as well," Rockhold said. "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. All respect to Whittaker, he's a gangster in the game but if I put Yoel away, who did it better?"

Rockhold, 33, was never given an immediate rematch after losing to Bisping and went through a circuitous two-year journey to get back into the title picture. First, he battled a knee injury. Then, his attempts to turn down fights in hopes of strong-arming himself into the exact bouts he wanted proved unsuccessful. 

What didn't help Rockhold, or any other top middleweight's situation, was that UFC allowed Bisping to hold the division hostage by booking him against 46-year-old Dan Henderson before letting him wait for St-Pierre. 

In Rockhold's favor as far as consideration for division best is his track record. He destroyed Bisping in their first meeting in 2014. He did the same to former champions Lyoto Machida and Chris Weidman in the two fights which followed. The former Strikeforce champion also holds a gutsy, five-round decision win over Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza before his UFC days. 

Rockhold returns Saturday with the same cocky edge that cost him in his rematch with Bisping. The only difference is he learned from the lessons of that defeat and is no longer willing to overlook anyone. It has given him a nasty edge, which was evident last September when he forced David Branch to submit due to strikes. 

"Some people act the part, some people talk the part. But to be the part, to go there and to get into those moments, I've never been outdone," Rockhold said. "I'm willing to go deeper and darker than any of these m-----f------. Yoel can look it, and he can act it, but I'll bring it out of him, and I'll push this thing to a different world that he's not ready for."

Although Romero, a silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics, is one of the best wrestlers in all of MMA and arguably middleweight's most dangerous finisher, he's also 40 years old. Not only has Romero's cardio been called into question numerous times (he noticeably faded against Whittaker in his lone UFC loss), he was given just one month to train for Rockhold after filling in for Whittaker. 

"Yoel is dangerous, powerful and explosive and you have to contain him," Rockhold said. "If you're patient with Yoel, he'll expose himself. He's going to have to come in at some stage and that's when he'll expose himself."

Should Romero be successful in shooting for a takedown, Rockhold said he has no problems mixing it up with him on the ground. 

"I don't know if Yoel thinks he can grapple with me," Rockhold said. "He'll be in for a surprise if he really wants to take it there. So whether he wants to strike, and he thinks he's OK there, I'm going to make him pay there. I think he falls back to his instincts, and he tries to wrestle. I'm going to make him pay for the wrestling. I'm going to hit scrambles. I'm going to be on top. I'm going to get in positions where he's never felt."

Should Rockhold be successful and provide himself good standing late Saturday to declare himself the best middleweight in the world, he has no problem cementing that belief in a subsequent fight with a healthy Whittaker. 

Asked this week for his preference upon which opponent to face, Whittaker told The Halfcast Podcast he's hoping for a rematch with Romero. 

"I want Romero to win, because there's something about his crazy that I like," Whittaker said. "He's such a nice bloke -- but seriously crazy. I just like him. He's a likeable guy, but that was a tough fight I had with him. Now, my No. 1 and No. 2 contenders get to bash each other.

"If you'd given me that opportunity in the beginning I would've said 'Yeah, bash it out, I'll watch. You guys just punch it out.'"

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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