Since his UFC debut in 2013, Yoel Romero has put together a four-fight winning streak. During that run, Romero has earned $100,000 in Fight Night Bonus awards, and launched himself into the top 15 in the promotion’s middleweight division. Not too shabby for a 37-year-old fighter with a total of nine professional fights to his name.
If you watched Romero’s first three UFC fights, you probably wouldn’t have pegged him as the most accomplished amateur wrestler on the promotion’s roster. Romero stuck zero of the six takedowns he attempted during those fights, and was himself taken to the mat five times. Another reason you wouldn’t have had an inkling of his wrestling credentials is due to the fact that he employed his developing striking skills to end all three of those fights by knockout.
Romero’s freestyle wrestling accolades include an Olympic silver medal (2000), five medals during World Championship competition, including a gold in 1999, as well as gold and bronze medals at the Pan American Games. Romero, who wrestled for Cuba in international competition, also holds two wins over four-time NCAA champion and 2004 Olympic gold medallist Cael Sanderson in freestyle competition.
After putting his wrestling on the backburner for his first three UFC bouts, Romero brought those skills to the forefront during his fourth trip into the Octagon. In that contest, Romero earned seven takedowns on 12 attempts, paving the way to a unanimous decision win over Brad Tavares in April 2014.
So, how did Romero, who said he defected from Cuba to Germany in 2007, “Out of necessity and wanting to improve my life,” go from feared freestyle wrestler to feared mixed martial artist? To hear the highly ranked 185-pounder tell it, all it took was a phone call, “I was in Germany and had no (MMA) experience whatsoever and had someone call me and tell me that they needed a fighter because there was an injury to one fighter. One week later I found myself in the ring and fighting MMA.”
Romero ended that fight against Sascha Weinpolter in 48 seconds. Romero said of stepping into that fight on short notice with no MMA credentials to his name, “It was pretty crazy to have done that, but I’m glad I did.”
Romero would then run off three more stoppages fighting in Germany (two TKO, one KO) before signing to fight Rafael Cavalcante under the Strikeforce banner. Cavalcante ended Romero’s winning streak that night in Cincinnati, Ohio, earning a TKO victory in the second round of their September 2011 fight. That loss remains the only defeat on Romero’s 8–1 record.
Falling to Cavalcante was an eye-opening experience. “Once I lost I knew I had a long way to go and needed to learn a lot,” said Romero. “No athlete may tell you that they are happy with a loss but I was glad it happened in a way. It showed me that with barely any training at all I had the potential of making it far, but I had to learn first. Now I am learning every day and trying to get better at everything. It gave me the awakening I needed.”
That awakening led Romero to drop from light heavyweight to middleweight. It also led him to train with the much-vaunted American Top Team, a team Romero was quick to praise: “ATT has helped me in all aspects. Besides God and my family, I owe it to ATT for everything they have taught me. It has been a blessing to be able to train at ATT. I am privileged to have that banner behind me.”
After the loss to Cavalcante, Romero went more than a year-and-a-half without a fight. The main reason for the layoff was neck surgery; a secondary reason for the time off was the fact that Strikeforce had been absorbed by the UFC, and there were some delays in getting fights booked for the new members of the UFC roster.
When Romero did make his UFC debut, he made the most of the opportunity, knocking out Clifford Starks with a flying knee at the 1:32 mark of round one. Romero’s KO win opened the 12 fight UFC on Fox card, which featured a total of eight knockouts. Despite the fact that seven stoppages followed his victory, Romero’s flying knee was memorable enough to earn him an extra $50,000 for Knockout of the Night.
What made the win even sweeter for Romero was the fact that there was initial uncertainty that he would be able to continue his MMA career following his surgery. Romero said the win was very emotional for him, and that, “I know that God was holding me by the hand and always will be.”
God comes into the conversation a great deal with Romero, and that’s not a surprise; after all, his nickname is ‘Soldier of God’. Romero is quick to point out that his connection with God is a deep one, “First of all I am not religious, I have a relationship with God. My nickname reflects that I am one of His Soldiers. I am a Soldier of God’s army, which is one that has been preached about. I am here to fulfill my life through Him and let others know about Him.”
Now that he is part of the UFC and making waves in the middleweight division, Romero says his ultimate goal is to wrap the UFC title belt around his waist. Some would say that his age and lack of experience will prevent him from reaching that goal, but Romero, who has wrestled since the age of eight, feels that his wrestling background will help his dream become reality, “Wrestling has helped me in all aspects of life. It has shown me how to be disciplined. Emotionally you can never get too high or too low, you must be balanced in everything. Physically it has helped me tremendously. I feel great at my age! I have become a Life Warrior!”
If a UFC title is not in the cards for Romero, it’s clear that he will still view his time in mixed martial arts as a success, as Romero said, “I already feel like I am a champion because I am able to share with fans, God.”