As badly as the UFC could use a breakout performance by some of their new rising stars Saturday night at UFC 225 in Chicago, the veterans are intent to have their way, too.
In his first middleweight title defense since being elevated to full champion, Australia’s Robert Whittaker meets 41-year-old Cuban Yoel Romero in a rematch of their tightly contested fight last year.
And Colby Covington has a chance to force a showdown with full welterweight champion Tyron Woodley when he meets former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos for the division’s interim belt on the pay-per-view card that begins at 7 p.m. Pacific.
Whittaker has been sidelined since his unanimous-decision victory over Romero in July in what became a replacement main event for a Las Vegas pay-per-view that generated disappointing sales.
That’s been a trend that shaped negotiations between the organization and ESPN, which will take over for Fox as the UFC’s broadcast partner in January after striking a five-year, $1.5-billion deal.
While substantial, that figure fell short of the reported $450-million-per-year financial expectations for a new television deal originally set by previous ownership in 2016, when Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey were still active.
Whittaker (19-4) is an unquestionable talent, but the knee injury he suffered while defeating Romero and subsequent bouts with staph infection and chicken pox defused any momentum the 27-year-old had.
After ascending from interim to full champion when Georges St-Pierre relinquished the belt he won in November, Whittaker admits confronting Romero again is a “pain in the [rear].”
“It was a very hard and tiring first fight and to have to back that up with the same fight again … it’s certainly a pain,” Whittaker said. “I was trying to finish him. I have 25 minutes [five rounds] to try to finish him again.”
Romero (13-2) knocked out former champion Luke Rockhold in the third round of a fight last February and says the preparation for that encounter was focused on addressing vulnerabilities that emerged in the loss to Whittaker.
“I did well early taking him down,” Romero said of Whittaker. “I tired as the fight went on, but I’ve addressed it. I’ll be good for all the rounds.”
Like Romero, who’s a former Olympic silver-medalist in freestyle wrestling from Cuba, Dos Anjos (28-9) is banking on experience to quiet Covington (13-1), who has twice referred to Brazilians as “filthy animals” and said more harsh things about women on a recent conference call.
“I’m in a new position. Every single person I meet walking on the street says, ‘Please kill Colby, please,’” Dos Anjos said. “I’m in a good position now to do something that everybody wants to watch.”
Victory would continue a stirring recovery by Dos Anjos, who labored through 2016 by suffering a foot injury that scrapped his scheduled lightweight title defense against McGregor, then lost his belt to Eddie Alvarez. He lost again later that year to Tony Ferguson.
The pay-per-view opens with an appearance by former WWE performer CM Punk. Former women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm then meets Invicta FC featherweight champion Megan Anderson.
Holm has lost four of five fights since upsetting Ronda Rousey in 2015. All of those losses have either been against champions or a title challenger.
“It can seem like a loss erases all that you’ve done, like, ‘Are you done?’” Holm said. “A lot of people have asked that.