Cuban Yoel Romero makes his Bellator debut Saturday night, and when he steps into the cage to face former light heavyweight champion Phil Davis in the Bellator 266 main event at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, it will be the long awaited presentation of something special.
Why is this appearance by a 44-year-old man who has lost four of his last five fights so highly anticipated?
On the one hand, Romero is an enigma impossible to ignore. He is a two-time Olympic fighter and 2000 silver medalist who has produced his best MMA moments not by controlling opponents on the mat, but by eliminating them in standing fights. Romero plays the role of an extraordinary athlete just by standing in front of you, and when he moves he does so with graceful explosiveness, something he exhibited in his two victories with a flying knee. And this is a man whose robustness is sustainable. Romero’s last six knockouts came in the third round.
Some of Romero’s most memorable moments occurred on the fringes of those fights. After knocking out Luke Rockhold in 2018, he took on his stunned opponent and planted a kiss on him. When Michael Bisping pointed his finger at him during a post-fight interview in 2016, Romero yelled into the microphone, over and over, “I love you, Mike!” And in an interview with ESPN a couple of years ago, Romero spoke with terrifying intensity about the inspiration that drives him.
That Romero has been out of action for 18 months and is making his return in a new promotion, in a new weight class, adds to the intrigue.
As for the losing streak? Think of Romero’s dance partners.
Romero’s most recent fight, in March 2020, was a decision loss to Israel Adesanya. That challenge for the UFC middleweight championship was not a beautiful thing. In fact, it was mainly two statues looking at each other for 25 minutes. Nonetheless, that fight was the fourth opportunity in a title fight in Romero’s last five bouts.
The 185-pound veteran lost two close fights to Robert Whittaker, one of them while the Australian was undisputed champion, the other an interim title fight. Romero missed the weight in one of those bouts, as he did the day before knocking out Rockhold, another former champion. Romero lost to future title challenger Paulo Costa, then cashed one of three Fight of the Night bonus checks he pocketed after his most recent five fights.
Now he’s finally ready to headline a Bellator event, at 205 pounds. Romero was originally scheduled to make his debut in May as part of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix, but failed a medical exam. He was ready to face another former UFC fighter making his Bellator debut, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, but the tournament continued without Romero. You now have Davis, who lost to champion Vadim Nemkov in the April quarterfinals.
What will Romeo bring to his Bellator debut? It’s a good bet that it will be something special. Here are four things to know about Yoel Romero.
1. Romero is on the short list of the best fighters in the history of MMA
When it comes to the most decorated fighters to ever set foot in a cage, the list boils down to Kevin Jackson and Mark Schultz. They both won Olympic gold. They both won two world championships. But Schultz competed only once in MMA, while Jackson fought only six times. One of Jackson’s fights was for the inaugural UFC light heavyweight championship in 1997, and he lost to Frank Shamrock via submission in just 16 seconds. So Jackson’s MMA career was short in every sense of the word.
The most successful fighter with a sustained career in MMA could be Henry Cejudo. Before capturing two UFC titles and becoming a cheesy comedian, he was an Olympic gold medalist in 2008.
Or maybe the honor should go to Romero. He won a silver medal for Cuba at the 2000 Olympics and also competed in the 2004 Games (fourth place). He won gold at the world championships in 1999 and added two silvers (2002, 2005) and two bronzes (1998, 2001) at the world championships. He took home three golds (1998, 2000, 2005) among his six medals at the Wrestling World Cup.
It is an impressively trophy case.
2. Davis will be the most decorated fighter Romero has ever faced in MMA
Before we get into that, first things first: here’s a caveat to not let the accolades lead you to think that Romero is practicing his trade inside the cage as a fighter. On the contrary, he has shown no interest in winning in that way. When Romero ended his 13-fight UFC streak two years ago, he had seven knockouts and 10 knockdowns, tying him for fourth all-time in both categories among middleweights. He was second only to the great Anderson Silva with eight post-fight bonuses. Those checks are not delivered by grappling.
The only wrestling-related appearance in the statistic top 10 of his former promotion: Romero possesses the 10th best takedown defense among middleweights (80.6%). Meaning: He prefers to stand up and strike, and has shown himself capable of dictating where his fights unfold.
Is Davis able to push Romero out of his comfort zone?
Among Romero’s 18 fights over nearly a dozen years in MMA, a couple of opponents stand out. They had credentials that made them strong candidates for maybe, just maybe, getting a taste of Romero with wrestling. Chris Weidman was a two-time NCAA Division I All-American and finished third in the 2007 nationals. Derek Brunson was a three-time Division II All-American.
Weidman attempted eight takedowns in his 2016 fight with Romero and was successful in just one. A failed takedown attempt resulted in Weidman receiving a knee to the skull which ended the fight. Brunson fared better in his 2014 fight with Romero, posting three of five tackles. But Brunson also ended up on the mat as another of Romero’s knockout victims. Both fights ended in the third round. Romero has lasting power.
Davis has never been finished in 29 pro fights, and it’s not due to pretty foot play. He was a 2008 Division I wrestling champion and a 2006 runner-up. Can he impose his grappling against Romero?
3. Romero’s most lucrative victory did not take place inside a cage
In 2016, weeks after he defeated Jacare Souza by split decision, Romero was informed that he had failed a drug test and was facing suspension from the US Anti-Doping Agency. Romero’s team maintained that he had taken a supplement that contained a prohibited substance that was not listed on the label. That was confirmed by a USADA test on the supplement.
Romero sued the supplement company and initially received more than $ 27 million in lost wages, emotional damage, and damage to reputation. This summer that judgment dropped to $ 12.45 million, and there may be more to come.
4. Romero grew up with the great Joe Louis (sort of)
Romero’s half brother is Yoan Pablo Hernández, a former world cruiserweight champion. Like his older brother, Hernández competed for Cuba in the Olympics. And like Romero, Hernández later defected to Germany.
In his adopted country, Hernández starred in a film in 2010 about the famous German boxer Max Schmeling, playing Joe Louis. This was an important role, of course, because even though Schmeling had already been a world champion, he is best remembered for his 1936 knockout of the “Brown Bomber” at Yankee Stadium.
Schmeling was booed at the stadium, and when Louis won the rematch two years later at the same stadium by first-round knockout, he became an American hero.
Hernández won two world titles after that performance before walking away from the ring. Last year, he returned from a six-year absence and was knocked out, ending a 15-fight winning streak.
Romero, who has not fought since March 2020, hopes to avoid continuing that family legacy.
Showtime, 10 pm ET
Light Heavyweight: Yoel Romero vs. Phil Davis
Welterweight: Neiman Gracie vs. Mark lemminger
Flyweight: Alejandra Lara vs. DeAnna Bennett
Lightweight: Georgi Karakhanyan vs. Saul rogers
Light Heavyweight: Christian Edwards vs. Ben parrish
YouTube Bellator and Showtime, 7 pm
Light Heavyweight: Grant Neal vs. Alex Polizzi
Middleweight: Khalid Murtazaliev vs. Anthony Adams
175 pounds: Abraham Vaesau vs. Albert gonzales
Bantamweight: Socrates Hernandez vs. Pedro Juarez
Bantamweight: Bobby Seronio III vs. Erin hunter
Welterweight: Rhalan Gracie vs. Shane keefe
160 pounds: Eddie Abasolo vs. Art hernandez
Flyweight: Edwin De Los Santos vs. Jon adams
Agreed Weight (130 pounds): Jesse Delgado vs. Joshua Dillon