With frightening athleticism and elite wrestling credentials, Yoel Romero always seemed like a sure pick for MMA greatness and at times, he’s shown why. After suffering defeat in his solitary Strikeforce showing, Romero arrived in the UFC and made his octagon debut in April 2013. Though that fight would last just 92 seconds, it would very much encapsulate Romero’s dynamic game as he finished Clifford Starks with an explosive flying knee and some violent ground and pound. Now at 185lbs, Romero was in the world’s largest promotion and he couldn't have got off to a better start.
Romero’s next two wins wouldn't be as rapid but the result was the same nonetheless. Both Ronny Markes and future contender Derek Brunson dragged Romero into the 3rd round and had some success too but in the end the Cuban’s sheer dynamism was key, as he overwhelmed both for stoppage wins. Romero’s elite Middleweight peers would have certainly seen some chinks in his formidable armour but the raw materials of his skill-set had been enough thus far and that continued against Brad Tavares as he used his immaculate wrestling prowess to dominate the TUF alumnus.
Now 4-0 inside the octagon, Romero’s status as a contender was very much growing and a step-up in competition was quite obviously necessary. That step-up came in the form of Tim Kennedy as the pair engaged in a now infamous fight at UFC 178. Kennedy entered also undefeated in the UFC and was just months removed from a career best win over Michael Bisping, creating a real clash of surging contenders. On fight night, Romero would get the better of things early until being badly rocked at the end of round two. The rest is history.
After staggering back to his corner, Romero was inexplicably allowed an excessive amount of time on his stool which in turn of course, gave him a greater opportunity to recover. Eventually, the 3rd round begun but dramatically, it wouldn't last long as Romero dropped Kennedy out of nowhere and pounced, soon closing the show and securing another 3rd round win. Understandably, controversy surrounded the fight’s result and though it was later shown that Kennedy illegally held Romero’s glove during his own 2nd round flurry, the fight still holds a contentious place in history for many. Either way, Romero moved on with yet another win.
Injuries would halt Yoel’s progress briefly but he’d eventually return, taking on Lyoto Machida in his first UFC main event after a nine-month break. After some back and forth action, Romero would impressively score yet another 3rd round finish, landing with an onslaught of violent elbows to render the former Light Heavyweight Champion unconscious. Though he was now very much focused on securing a title shot, Romero’s next victory would be much less conclusive and once again, controversy quickly followed its result.
Fighting Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, Romero had success in the opening round and even floored his Brazilian foe with an explosive spinning back fist. However, Souza weathered that storm and in the minds of many, turned the fight around to take rounds 2 and 3. That consensus wasn't shared by two of the three judges though which meant that Romero escaped with a split decision win. If that wasn't enough, just a month later Romero failed an out of competition drug test. The public response to this news was undeniably impacted by Romero’s incredible physique but the fighter himself was still desperate to prove his innocence.
In USADA’s mind Romero basically did just that too, with his suspension being set at only 6 months after his claims about the taken supplement in question were proven accurate. Once that relatively short suspension was out of the way, Romero returned to action at UFC 205, the promotion’s first ever event taking place at Madison Square Garden. His opponent: Chris Weidman, the New York born former UFC Middleweight Champion. To his credit, the hometown fighter Weidman looked in great form and caused Romero some issues early but the Cuban fired back in round two, and brutally closed the show early in the 3rd with a highlight reel flying knee.
With some trash talk aimed at the then champion Michael Bisping in his post-fight interview, Romero seemed set for a favorable title fight but that wouldn't come to fruition as ‘The Count’ was unable to compete on the chosen date. In his place was Robert Whittaker as he and Romero fought for the interim crown. Though on paper he’d done nothing but win under the brightest lights, Romero’s actual journey had been much more tumultuous than that and it seemed he was finally set to get gold around his waist.
In the end though, it just wasn't meant to be and other than some good moments early on, Romero struggled down the stretch and faded badly en-route to a unanimous decision loss. With his lengthy road to that title shot halted in a disappointing 25 minutes, Romero seemed set for the back of the line but an opportunity to change that has since arose. An injury to now official champion Robert Whittaker pulled him from his scheduled main event with Luke Rockhold and that allowed Yoel Romero to step in, all on under a month’s notice.
Luckily for Romero, he was already preparing for a later February date and considering his age as a now 40 year old contender, this opportunity was just always going to be too good to pass up. After years of flirting with the championship level and defeating peers that have already reached that mountain top, Romero now finds himself with another chance to add UFC champion to his resume. I appreciate that the word ‘interim’ rightly comes with an asterisk but to Romero this moment still has to mean the world, especially considering the Whittaker rematch that would inevitably come with a win.
Taking into account all the factors, a loss would spell disaster for that ambition but in the same way, the fact that it’s all become so immediately possible after Romero’s last defeat shows how pivotal this fight is. Yoel Romero has looked like a championship level athlete and fighter since arriving in the UFC and this weekend in Perth, he gets another shot at proving it.