Bellator did it. Former ultra-explosive UFC title challengers Yoel Romero and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson are set to square off on April 16 at Bellator 257… but will the encounter actually live up to the hype?
Everyone loves to see two powerhouses collide no matter the competition. However, when it comes to seeing two athletes known for their unique ability to separate another from their consciousness, it just connects a little bit differently — literally and figuratively.
In the case of the returning Johnson and Cuba’s “Soldier of God,” we’ve seen matchups like this before. The sad reality is that they haven’t always been able to meet expectations.
When pairing two knockout artists of the highest caliber, the top example of disappointment, as a result, was seen in the form of UFC 226‘s heavyweight co-main event between Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou — a fight that seemed all but destined to have a highlight reel finish on either end.
Instead, it was the complete opposite. Essentially MMA’s “greatest” staring contest with an abysmally low number of total combined strikes landed at 31, Lewis vs. Ngannou was every fan’s worst nightmare.
This isn’t to say that “Rumble” vs. Romero will suffer the same fate. But there’s reason to fear that the chances of that happening are a lot more likely than things playing out as a Diego Sanchez vs. Clay Guida form of chaos.
For starters, let’s take a look at Johnson. This will be the Dublin, Georgia native’s first bout since retiring in 2017. In the meantime, Johnson bulked up to reported heights of 280-pounds as he dabbled in the powerlifting game.
At light heavyweight, the former welterweight hopeful was a devastator, unlike anything the sport had ever seen before. While always exciting to watch perform, that didn’t necessarily mean his fights were exciting from a competitive standpoint — outside of his lone losses at 205-pounds against Daniel Cormier.
Due to Johnson’s inhuman power in his hands, his wins north of 170-pounds were typically first-round finishes. Even if he comes back and is a little rusty — a likely possibility after four years away — it’s safe to assume it wouldn’t matter too much considering his power will always be there. The problem therein lies in the opponent and stylistic matchup leading to hesitancy.
Or perhaps an even worse possibility, an adrenaline dump or early emptying of the tank.
Despite Romero’s age of 43 and three-fight losing skid, he’s still one of the most explosive athletes in the sport. A former Olympic silver medalist in wrestling, the Cuban used to utilize his base brilliantly during his eight-fight winning streak that earned him his first crack at gold. Since then, unfortunately, he’s abandoned it almost completely.
On the feet, Yoel Romero is a patient and dangerous counter striker. Only unleashing when provoked or under attack — creating a high risk for a slower and big-hit seeker like “Rumble.”
With that in mind along with the fact that Romero is the most dangerous and diverse knockout artist Johnson has possibly ever faced, it would be hard to imagine him running in fearlessly — especially in his first fight back in a new promotion that also happens to be a part of a million-dollar title tournament.
That’s a lot at stake for either man to want to be extra careful with their approaches.
Ultimately, it should come down to if Romero wants to lead the dance and make for a barn burner. But as seen in the past, this recent stretch specifically, his play depends on his opponent. It wouldn’t even be all that surprising to see Johnson be the one to engage in grappling as the bigger man.
During “Rumble’s” retirement, he has also participated in some grappling competition as part of Chael Sonnen’s Submission Underground.
Similar to the dreaded Lewis vs. Ngannou, Romero’s last time out vs. Israel Adesanya was an easily forgettable waiting game. Yet directly before that Romero was forced to put on a show thanks to Paulo Costa’s aggressive nature. Go back one more fight, and an action dictator like Robert Whittaker is one of the entertainment-wise best — and worst to overcome — matchups for Yoel Romero.
On top of it all, both men have only been knocked out once in their careers. For Johnson, his wasn’t even truly KO or TKO as he was unable to continue following an eye poke in his first fight with Kevin Burns. Let’s just that the rematch did not end well for the first encounter’s victor.
It’s undeniable that Bellator made the right move with the light heavyweight grand prix as well as making this matchup in the opening round. The problem is that at this moment in time, the hype might not be as justifiable as if we saw this in let’s say 2017. The likelihood is either a quick knockout or a drawn-out slog.
But hey, that’s why we watch to find out.