Robert Whittaker injured; Romero vs. Rockhold now headlines UFC 221

Yoel Romero, right, takes down Robert Whittaker in their interim middleweight championship bout at UFC 213. (John Locher/AP)

The UFC has suffered a devastating blow to its upcoming event in Australia after middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was ruled medically unable to compete.

Whittaker, born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, was scheduled to face Luke Rockhold in the main event of UFC 221 in Perth on Feb. 11 but he suffered several significant injuries in training. Yoel Romero has been named as his replacement. Romero and Rockhold will compete in a five-round bout with a belt on the line as the promotion is introducing yet another interim title.

The news was first reported by ESPN’s Brett Okamoto and later confirmed by the UFC early Saturday morning.

“I would like to apologize to all my supporters and fans of MMA for not being able to put on the show you deserve,” Whittaker wrote in an Instagram post. “I’ve been ruled medically unable to compete and won’t be able to defend on home soil. This card meant so much to me and I’m devastated for not being able to fight. All I can do is focus on getting healthy to come back better than ever. All the best to Yoel and Luke for their fight and I’ll be waiting.”

Whittaker (19-4) has gone 7-0 since moving up to the 185-pound division in 2014 after competing at welterweight for the first five years of his career. He began his UFC tenure by winning The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012 and holds notable victories over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Derek Brunson, Brad Tavares and Uriah Hall among others.

The 27-year-old was crowned interim middleweight champion last July after earning a tightly contested unanimous decision victory over Romero in the main event of UFC 213. Whittaker’s interim tag was removed and he was promoted to undisputed champion in December after Georges St-Pierre vacated the middleweight title he won when he submitted Michael Bisping at UFC 217 in November.

Romero (12-2) hasn’t competed since his loss to Whittaker and had been preparing for a Feb. 24 fight against David Branch.

Meanwhile, Rockhold (16-3) is coming off a September submission win over Branch. It was the former champ’s first fight since losing his middleweight belt to Bisping at UFC 199 in June of 2016.

Here’s a look at the updated UFC 221 fight card:

MAIN CARD
— Yoel Romero vs. Luke Rockhold
— Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes
— Tai Tuivasa vs. Cyril Asker
— Jake Matthews vs. Li Jingliang
— Tyson Pedro vs. Saparbek Safarov

PRELIMINARY CARD
— Damien Brown vs. Dong Hyun Kim
— Rob Wilkinson vs. Israel Adesanya
— Jeremy Kennedy vs. Alexander Volkanovski
— Jussier Formiga vs. Ben Nguyen
— Ross Pearson vs. Mizuto Hirota
— Teruto Ishihara vs. José Alberto Quiñónez
— Luke Jumeau vs. Daichi Abe