On Saturday night in the Bay Area, Yoel Romero will begin his latest and perhaps final chapter to his combat sports career.
The highly-decorated Cuban Olympic wrestler and multiple-time UFC title challenger has arguably the most intriguing act of the weekend on the always busy MMA calendar as Romero (13-5 MMA, 0-0 BMMA) makes his highly anticipated Bellator debut when he headlines Bellator 266 against former champion Phil Davis at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
It’s the continuation of Romero’s distinguished fighting career after saying goodbye to the UFC, where he fought his way into the elite class of the sport and established himself as one of the most feared men in MMA. The 44-year-old is as seasoned as they come, competing at a world-class level in wrestling since the 1990s and nearing his 20th professional MMA fight. Yet, despite having been through it all, there’s a novel feeling to the Bellator chapter, one Romero can’t ignore.
“There’s no nerves, but there is a feeling of happiness and joy,” Romero told MMA Junkie in Spanish. “There’s eagerness, hunger and just a feeling like, ‘Wow, I’m starting something new.’
“It’s fantastic the way people (Bellator) treat you. It truly gives you desire to get to work. They give you a lot of respect. I’ve seen the way they treat all the athletes, not just me. It doesn’t matter the name that you have. They treat you with respect, and they give you value. That makes you think, ‘Wow, it’s worth fighting here.’ It’s very beautiful the way they treat you.”
The release from the UFC was, in many ways, surprising. Romero was considered a fixture of the UFC’s 185-pound division and was coming off a close decision loss in a championship fight against Israel Adesanya. Regardless, that’s the way things unfolded for “The Soldier of God.”
The UFC departure forced Romero to hit the reset button. He now finds himself in a new promotion and with a new approach to his fighting career, which has made little difference in his everyday life.
“A little? Life is super good right now,” Romero laughed. “(Wednesday night) I’m starting the weight cut. I almost have to do nothing to make 205 pounds.”
That’s right, Romero is set to compete a weight class above this Saturday. It’s the first time he fights at light heavyweight since September 2011. Romero believes it was the right time to switch things up, but he assures fans the door is not closed at middleweight. In fact, he expects a return to 185 pounds.
“I just wanted to try 205 out and with the age, you know, I can’t be draining the body all the time,” Romero explained. “The organs and everything, even if you take care of yourself well, you’re still keeping your body deprived from ailments.
“These nutrients are vital to your organism and your health. So we can do a title fight or a title eliminator fight at 185 pounds, but the rest at 205. I think that’s just a better approach for my health.
“But the door to compete at 185 is still there. That’s actually something we talked to Bellator about.”
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With two potential avenues to gold, Romero is uncertain how things will play out for him at Bellator if victorious against Davis. One thing is for certain: He’s determined to put in the work and not let his fame and stature punch him a ticket into a championship fight.
“I’m of the mind that you shouldn’t ask for anything,” Romero said. “You get what you deserve. Now, sometimes human beings don’t want to be just and don’t give someone what they have earned then that’s different.
“But if you work for $5, then you are given those $5. If you worked for $6, don’t ask for $10. Work the hours and do what you need to do to merit those $10. That’s my thinking. If I keep winning and piling up victories, then the belt will come on its own. But, yes, I desire the belt. It’s the goal of any athlete.”
If opportunities open up for Romero at middleweight, he’d be honored to share the cage with Bellator middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi. Romero holds Mousasi in high regards and finds him to be an MMA icon.
“Mousasi is one of the greatest names at 185 pounds on a global scale,” Romero said. “He’s fought in all the companies. He’s one of the legends of this division. It’s been so many years of him fighting at a high level in different companies. He’s fought on them all. I think ONE Championship might be the only one he hasn’t fought in. In all, he’s passed the grade. In no organization has he come up short. He’s always been up there.
“So if he’s the one with the belt, and if God allows me to fight at 185 pounds for the belt, then it’s more than welcomed. It would be a fight that would draw a lot of attention.”
Middleweight definitely is in Romero’s future plans, but the imagination can’t help but run wild with the potential matchups Romero can part take in at light heavyweight.
Romero originally was set to make his Bellator debut in April against Anthony Johnson, and fans were salivating for the fight.
Unfortunately, the bout with Johnson hit a roadblock after Romero was not medically cleared to compete. The news caused some worry in the MMA community, but Romero assures his eye is back to 100 percent, and it was just a training injury caused in the camp for Johnson that needed time to heal.
The eye injury led to a new date and also a new opponent. Many were excited to see a “Clash of the Titans” in Romero vs. Johnson. It was a fight that put together two of the scariest fighters of this era. Romero understands why fans might not be as excited for the Davis matchup given his original opponent, but he hopes everyone gives the same respect to Davis.
“Yeah, of course (people were excited for Jonson bout), but you cant take away any merit from Phil,” Romero said. “Remember both of them fought in the UFC, and it was a decision. Phil was in the top four of the UFC light heavyweight division when Jonny (Jon Jones) was reigning, Daniel Cormier was there. There were many great names, and Phil was one of them.
“I think from what I remember, forgive me if I’m wrong, I’m not a good historian, but I think Phil was upset and left the UFC because he thought he should be fighting Jones, and they didn’t give him the title shot. That’s why he left the UFC. He left on top.”
The respect for Johnson runs deep for Romero. It’s a fight he eventually wants to get in this Bellator chapter of his career, and he understands it would be a show for the ages.
“It’s always good to face the big names of whatever it is that you’re doing,” Romero said. “Who didn’t want to play alongside or against Messi when he was at Barcelona? Who didn’t want to go up against Michael Jordan?
“If you don’t face those names, you can even leave whatever it is you’re doing with a bad taste: ‘Man, I would’ve loved to have played with or against these people.’ ‘Rumble’ is one of those names. Actually, Bellator’s light heavyweight division is full of great names. In my opinion, if you look at 205 compared to the UFC, I think we’re better. That’s my opinion.”
Only time will tell on how Romero’s career will unfold in this latest chapter. Many remain hopeful and have high expectations, while others remain skeptical.
There’s no denying Romero has seen better days. He’s only won once since 2017, as he’s gone 1-4 in his past five trips to the cage. He’s also 44 years old in a young man’s sport and hasn’t fought since the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the western part of the world. There’s definitely room to be a critic, but you can’t count out the man who’s defied the odds time and time again.
After all, Romero became a wrestling legend in Cuba – one of the toughest and most respected wrestling programs in the world. He was able to defect from his homeland and escape the oppression of the Cuban regime. He began his professional fighting career at the late age of 32 and managed to reach the pinnacle of the sport and compete for championship belts in his early 40s.
Romero is used to defying the very basic laws that keep fighters in check with reality. It’d be foolish to completely dismiss “The Soldier of God” as he enters what may be the final chapter of his distinguished career.
Photos: Yoel Romero through the years
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