Even at 45, Yoel Romero is still a massive Cuban muscle meltdown.
Having made a name for himself as one of mixed martial arts’ most fearsome fighters over the past decade, the former wrestler is now poised to claim the kind of gold that eluded him at the 2000 Olympics and in the UFC, as he chases a world title in Bellator.
But, despite his reputation as one of the scariest combat sports athletes of his generation, Romero insists he doesn’t see what it’s all about – or the fear.
“Hmmm… no!” he laughs on the phone. “I don’t think I’m scary at all, at least not outside the ring. I don’t see it…but I’ve heard people say that, so I guess maybe I’m scary inside the ring. This could be a question for my opponents.
Twelve of the men Romero (14-6) beat survived long enough to hear the final buzzer, so even if they weren’t scared of him beforehand, they’re unlikely not to shudder at least slightly at the mention of the Cuban’s name now. Even Robert Whittaker, who twice went five rounds with Romero as UFC middleweight champion – earning a draw in 2017 and a victory in 2018 – admitted his dislike of a trilogy bout with the Olympian heavy-handed.
Romero, who surprisingly shunned his considerable wrestling ability for much of his MMA business, narrowly missed weight for his second contest with Whittaker, meaning he was ineligible to win the title this time around. opportunity. But his first meeting with the Aussie and his last fight in the UFC – against Israel Adesanya – saw him go zero-to-two in title fights in the promotion.
When asked if he has any regrets about his MMA career, Romero’s mind no doubt drifts to those fights. “Of course there are a lot of things in my career that I could have done differently, maybe,” he admits. “I’m thinking and thinking maybe I should have done a one-two or thrown a different combination, maybe added a different kick. From there, I just seek to correct those errors and continue to practice that in the gym and develop that.
This development has taken Romero to Bellator and the light heavyweight division, where he is 1-1 since his debut 12 months ago. A split decision loss to Phil Davis gave way to a TKO win over Alex Polizzi in May, marking Romero’s first win in just over four years as his opponent replaced Melvin Manhoef.
Manhoef, 46 (32-15-1, 2 No Contests) will be the man across the Romero ring this Friday, September 23, when the veterans face off at Bellator Dublin. However, they go in different directions. While the Surinamese-born Dutchman has said he intends to retire after facing Romero, the Cuban plans to keep fighting until he can finally qualify as world champion in mma.
“If I don’t have goals, what do I do? Romero asks. “The goal is always there, of course I want to be a champion – both [middleweight and light heavyweight]. I watch all the fighters out there and I’m definitely ready to fight all these guys. The level of competition is very high. And it’s an honor to fight someone like Melvin, someone of his caliber and his long career. For me, fighting him will also bring something to my career and my legacy.
Fighting well into his 40s isn’t something most fighters would consider, but Romero – who remains a remarkable athletic specimen in the middle of his fifth decade – always expected to still be competing at that age.
“I think I saw myself being in good shape all the time,” he insists. “I wanted to stay active for longevity and continue my discipline of just being an active athlete. I think being able to fight at that age now is because over time I’ve done those things and continue to do them – and because of all that activity.
Yet the odds of winning championship gold eventually dwindle, as do the abilities of top athletes.
“I think at 52 I could just stop fighting,” Romero confessed. “I think my goal after retirement would be to travel and just be with my kids.”
As a youth, wrestler Romero was repeatedly lured away from his home in Cuba by competition. After a tournament in Germany in 2007, he chose not to return.
“I came back to visit, but to live…” he interrupts himself briefly. “With the current situation, with the government, I do not see myself returning to live in Cuba.”
Romero, who trained in Florida for the better part of a decade, continues: “Of course there are a lot of things I remember [from my childhood]. Running in the street, playing in my neighborhood, being able to talk to my neighbors. Unfortunately, there are things like that that just don’t happen in the United States, and I miss those things very much.
Still, the United States will likely remain Romero’s home as long as his pursuit of a championship persists. According to his calculations, this company will last another seven years, if necessary. Then again, few would bet against Romero registering another signature knockout this weekend and emerging as a title contender sooner rather than later.
Watch BELLATOR 285: Henderson vs Queally live from 3 Arena, Dublin, live on the BBC. The prelims start at 6.00pm BST on BBC iPlayer before the main card action at 9.00pm on BBC Three.