UFC 241 Fighter Profile: Yoel Romero

UFC 241 Fighter Profile: Yoel Romero

By Ross Markey

Despite the number of miles on 42-year-old Yoel Romero’s clock, the Cuban remains to this day, one of the most formidable top contenders in a deep middleweight division.

This weekend at UFC 241 In Anaheim, the Pinar del Rio native returns to the Octagon against Paulo Costa after over a year on the sidelines. Firmly retaining the #2 rank at 185 pounds, Romero was most recently involved in a 2018 Fight of the Year candidate alongside Robert Whittaker, as he failed to pry the undisputed crown from the Aussie.

The Olympic silver medalist is yet to achieve champion status in his professional mixed-martial-arts career, but it’s not for the want of trying. Failed weight cut attempts against both Luke Rockhold and Robert Whittaker resulted in Romero’s ineligibility to win the interim and undisputed middleweight championship respectively.

Despite a move to light heavyweight offering a much more comfortable fight week, Romero’s exploits at 185 pounds are absurd. Victories over four former world champions are splattered on Romero’s résumé and have cemented his status of one of the most gifted athletes to ever grace the Octagon. Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, and Lyoto Machida were all knocked out in shocking fashion while Jacaré Souza was beaten via a split decision.

Below, I study the frightening and brisk rise of Yoel Romero from humble beginnings in Germany, to UFC 241 this weekend.

Post-Amateur Wrestling:

Upon Romero’s professional mixed-martial-arts debut in 2009, one thing was for certain. Whomever Romero faced, it was common knowledge that the Cuban would possess an almost unfair advantage in any wrestling exchanges.

Romero represented his native Cuba during the 2000 summer Olympic games in Syndey, picking up a silver medal in freestyle wrestling, losing the final to Russian Adam Saitiev. Romero has also notably scored a victory over American wrestling gold medallist Cael Sanderson. Romero’s natural strength and explosive power earned him five consecutive knockout victories, before signing and fighting a one-fight deal with since defunct promotion, Strikeforce.

The ‘Soldier of God{‘s}’ North American debut resulted in his first professional loss. A light heavyweight pairing with Brazilian knockout artist and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Rafael Feijao was scheduled for Romero’s bow.

In a memorable back and forth, Feijao survived a striking onslaught from Romero, avoiding a stoppage loss narrowly, before dropping the Cuban with a spinning-back fist after a misplaced head kick attempt. Failing to recover, Romero stumbled and ate a check hook while moving backward before being finished with ground and pound.

UFC Tenure:

Before Romero’s interim title loss to Robert Whittaker, the 42-year-old tore through the middleweight division, picking up eight straight victories. Romero has picked up two flying knee knockout’s in his professional career, becoming somewhat of a staple of the Cuban’s offensive arsenal.

The first of two such stoppages came against Clifford Stark in his Octagon debut. Earning Knockout of the Night honors, Romero sprang with a huge flying knee, cracking Stark inside the opening two minutes, flatlining the Californian.

A clash with grappling talent Ronny Markes followed at the end of 2013, with Romero once more stopping his opponent in the inside the fifteen-minute limit. Romero led Markes onto a punishing left hand, dropping him before following up with two heavy strikes on the mat. The then 36-year-old was fast becoming a problem for contenders at middleweight.

Just two months later, Romero was back in action, facing fellow heavy hitter Derek Brunson. Brunson was swarmed after eating a left hook from Romero and visibly hurt, gave up his back. Landing some more ground strikes, Romero took side control and once Brunson rolled, began raining down with brutal elbows to the right side of Brunson, forcing the stoppage. Romero’s activity inside the Octagon continued as he featured just three months later, going the distance for the first time, in a unanimous decision victory over TUF alumni Brad Tavares.

‘Stoolgate’:

Arguably one of Romero’s most discussed fights in his fifteen fight career is his controversial knockout victory over Tim Kennedy. Maybe as compromised as we’ve seen him to date in his UFC stint, Romero was badly hurt during the closing exchanges of the second round. As Romero, still dazed, returned to his corner, the NSAC cutman applied too much Vaseline to his eye according to referee Big John McCarthy.

Romero remained on his stool for the next thirty to forty seconds actively recovering while McCarthy attempted to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, Kennedy was clearly livid as he paced back and forth the opposite side of the Octagon.

After the fiasco, Romero began the third round well refreshed, before dropping Kennedy with a long right hand. Kennedy curled up and forced McCarthy to step in after some damaging ground-and-pound.

The Top Five:

Off the back of the most significant win of his career, Romero was paired with former light heavyweight champion Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida in a top-five meeting at 185 pounds. Utilizing his superior wrestling ability, Romero executed an outside trip midway through the third round, immediately assuming half guard.

Posturing up, Romero landed multiple short elbows, eventually knocking out the Brazilian. Romero had the biggest scalp on his career.

Another Brazilian opponent followed, this time in the form of former Strikeforce middleweight best Jacaré Souza. In a tentative meeting, Romero scored an important knockdown via a spinning back fist in the opening round, to pick up an extremely narrow split decision.

MMA: UFC 205-Weidman vs Romero

A third former champion was dispatched next, this time it was Chris Weidman on hand to face Romero’s brunt power, in all too dramatic fashion. Offering some exciting scrambles and wrestling exchanges in the opening round of their UFC 205 meeting, Romero’s athletic ability was on display throughout.

Seconds into the second round, Romero achieved arguably his most impressive finish. Springing a second flying knee, Romero timed his shot to perfection, just as Weidman shot for a takedown. Opening a gigantic gash on the side of Weidman’s head, blood pooled around the former champion as Mario Yamasaki eventually jumped to his rescue. Romero scaled the Octagon fence and frogmarched around the perimeter as the Madison Square Garden crowd tried to make sense of what had happened.

Then middleweight champion Michael Bisping was goaded by Romero into a title clash during his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, with the Brit jabbing an imaginary needle into his backside, referring to Romero’s tainted supplement USADA violation in 2015.

Interim Clashes:

As Bisping remained on the sidelines following his successful defense against Dan Henderson, an interim title tilt was announced with rising striker Robert Whittaker meeting Yoel Romero in the main event of UFC 213.

Utilizing damaging front leg oblique kicks early and often, Romero found himself ahead on the early scorecards. Whittaker, who was taken down on cue for the majority of rounds one and two, began to sprawl and stuff Romero’s takedown attempts as the Cuban began to fatigue from the third onwards. Romero who tends to avoid the majority of heavy strikes coming his way found it difficult the more the fight progressed to deal with the front kicks and sidekicks to the body from Whittaker.

With his gas tank now completely shot, Romero ended the fifth and final round on his back. Whittaker was strapped with interim gold in a unanimous decision display, subsequently handing Romero his premier Octagon defeat.

An untreated staph infection injury ahead of Whittaker’s first title defense since been promoted to undisputed champion against Luke Rockhold, opened the door for Romero to step in on short notice. A botched weight cut attempt on the morning of the UFC 221 weigh-ins, saw Romero tip the scales at 188.3 pounds, missing championship weight, subsequently leaving him ineligible to claim interim gold.

Come fight night, Romero executed a cautious gameplan and utilized somewhat of a karate blitz offense to push Rockhold back to the fence before unloading hooks.

Early in the third round, Rockhold was dropped with a huge overhand left. The follow-up strike which ended the contest displayed Romero’s killer instinct, pinning Rockhold’s head to the fence, Romero landed a left uppercut to end the bout. Romero’s hand was raised, but the Cuban left Perth without the interim middleweight championship.

UFC-225-Whittaker-vs-Romero-2-Fight-Poster-750

The Rematch:

Despite failing to claim the crown, Romero was the obvious contender to Robert Whittaker’s undisputed championship. The rematch between the pair was officially announced as the headliner of UFC 225 in Chicago. Once more botching a weight cut attempt, Romero stepped onto the scale weighing 185.2 pounds, agonizingly just over championship weight. The headliner was reduced to a five-round non-title bout, but the general consensus was, whoever secured victory would be the best middleweight the UFC had to offer.

Somewhat of an uncharacteristic approach to the opening round from a clearly weary Romero, resulted in Whittaker taking the round. Romero kept a very high tight guard and remained almost immobile as Whittaker began his offense. Romero who was dealing with a rather significant hematoma under his right eye landed the biggest shot in the opening exchanges of the third round, clipping and dropping Whittaker on the end of a right hand.

Romero began to swarm as Whittaker regained his senses, somehow surviving a picture-perfect right high kick from the Aussie.

A late fourth-round exchange saw Whittaker wobbled again before the buzzer. Another big moment in the fight came for Romero in the fifth and final round, as he dropped Whittaker for a second time, still unable to find the finish. It’s a huge testament to Whittaker’s steely grit and heart that not only did he survive fifty minutes of gruelly punishment at the hands of Romero over both fights, but also the fact he claimed a split decision victory despite suffering a broken hand.

There is though, a valid argument that the rematch could have been scored a majority draw. Whittaker the more active striker landed more shots but attempted more, Romero landed almost the same number but attempted nearly one hundred fewer strikes.

Romero also landed two separate knockdowns and three successful takedowns, with round five in particular judged by many as a 10-8 round in favor of the Cuban. A rubber match down the line is a must in my opinion.

After more than a year on the sidelines and three scheduled return dates that have fallen to the waste side, Romero finally returns this weekend against Paulo Costa, with a keen eye on proceedings between the aforementioned Whittaker and Israel Adesanya unification bout at UFC 243 in October.

Romero vs. Costa is a huge stylistic hurdle for both men, Romero must adapt to Costa’s forward momentum and stopping power, while the Brazilian faces his first real wrestling threat in the form of the Sydney Olympian, and certainly his most explosive and powerful finisher to boot.

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