In this edition of Pundit Arena’s ‘Fighter Of The Week’ series, we will be taking a closer look at the man who currently stands as the UFC’s #1 middleweight contender, the ‘Soldier of God’, Yoel Romero.
At 13-1 as a mixed martial artist and a perfect 8-0 inside the UFC, you wouldn’t be crazy to assume that after his impressive victories over Chris Weidman, Jacare Souza and Lyoto Machida, the freakishly athletic former Olympian would find himself in a title bout sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, however, the MMA world’s flagship promotion has proved itself once again to be straying further and further into the depths of a more ‘entertainment-heavy’ direction and for now, it’s looking like Romero will have to sit back and wait for his shot.
And though his future is unclear at the moment, Romero has still managed to be a constant in the minds of the general MMA community and for that reason, the time seems perfect to take a closer look at the man who may well end up as the UFC’s middleweight champion by the year’s end.
If you were looking for a good way to sum up the athletic prowess of Yoel Romero, the words ‘freakish’, ‘monstrous’ and ‘inhuman’ wouldn’t be the worst places to start. As a former Olympian, Romero spent the majority of his 20s establishing himself as one of the world’s premier freestyle wrestlers, defeating three gold medalists in his time as one of Cuba’s finest.
Strangely enough, it was not until he reached the grand old age of 32 that he made his MMA debut and even stranger still, for his first five outings it was his striking that proved to be his go-to as a means of achieving victory.
Of course, the competition he faced in these early fights perhaps allowed him to stretch out his relatively green skills on the feet but for a man who stood (and still stands) as one of MMA’s most decorated grapplers, the approach taken by Romero was most certainly noteworthy, all things considered.
On the back of KO victories and his truly exemplary pre-MMA résumé, Romero next made the step up to the now defunct Strikeforce organisation, facing the tried and tested knockout artist Rafael ‘Feijao’, who proved himself to be a real test for the inexperienced Cuban.
Romero’s power was, of course, unquestionable but in that matchup, his technique and variety were what let him down on the night. Sure enough, a KO for Feijao ended the fight in the second round and for the Soldier of God, he had tasted defeat for the first time as a mixed martial artist.
To this day it stands as the only blemish on his record.
Injuries forced Yoel to the sidelines for the next 18 or so months but when he did make his return – this time in the UFC – he did not take long to single himself out as a truly special talent.
Romero debuted in 2013 against Clifford Starks and announced himself onto the world scene with a flying knee in the first round that cracked home as cleanly as any you will ever see inside the octagon. Two more KOs followed including a thunderous destruction of the future contender Derek Brunson and once again Romero’s wrestling was used sparingly, if ever.
Yoel’s loss to Feijao in Strikeforce showed a man who had all of the talent necessary to reach the highest level but just lacked the knowledge and the versatility that would later come with it. The Romero who returned from his 2011 injury all that time afterwards, however, proved himself to have exactly what it takes.
Spinning attacks, front kicks, hook kicks and a plethora of other unorthodox weapons were added to the arsenal of the increasingly fearsome Cuban and despite us all being aware of his credentials as a grappler, it was not until he faced Brad Tavares in his fourth UFC matchup that we saw first-hand exactly how good he was.
Funnily enough, the takedown defence exhibited by Romero really isn’t anything to write home about but like many have pointed out in the past, this is more than likely a consequence of his very fluid and loose style in the standup.
His infamous win over Tim Kennedy currently stands as one of modern MMA’s most controversial moments. In short, Yoel – who had just been rocked by the American – and his corner, bought themselves more valuable seconds on the stool at the end of the second round than they should have been allowed, something that gave Romero more time to recover, regroup and win the bout shortly after by way of TKO.
Romero’s tactics and ‘bending’ of the rules have been criticised before and I can definitely sympathise with that but when you consider his advancing age, it’s easy to see why each and every bout Yoel gets himself into is one he has to win by any means necessary. I’m not trying to justify his actions but this may well be the only run at the title he has in him and his desperation to replicate his success in the world of wrestling will be increasing each and every time he goes out there.
His trio of wins over the former UFC champions Lyoto Machida and Chris Weidman and the former Strikeforce kingpin, Ronaldo Souza, cemented him as the division’s number 1 contender. His bout with the aforementioned Souza could have very easily been scored the other way and despite a strong opening round for Romero, was a rather tepid encounter, to say the least.
Still, though, his win over Machida proved that he was very much willing and able to stand with some of the best of the best on the feet out there and against Weidman, he showed us all that no matter how things are going, his explosiveness can make him a danger to anyone at any time.
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that four of Yoel’s six UFC stoppage wins have come in the third round and when you consider that many point to his stamina as a weakness, it’s still undeniable that his finishing ability is a constant factor throughout.
Romero’s title aspirations may well be put on hold for a while longer, and though time is most certainly not on his side, his low mileage within the MMA game should hopefully see this truly electric contender hang around for at least another few years. With no opponent on the horizon, however, it’s hard to know exactly what the future holds for the Soldier of God but if he does indeed face Michael Bisping for the title in the near future, the Count better have all of his wits about him because this man may well stand as the most lethal fighter at 185lbs at this current time.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena