Yoel Romero is one of the most menacing, explosive and highly decorated athletes to have ever stepped foot inside the Octagon. But to go along with the overwhelming pressure of trying to become the first fighter ever to defeat superstar striking savant Israel Adesanya in a cage fight, the 42-year-old enters UFC 248 carrying the added weight of all that near-miss historical baggage from his past.
Add to it that Romero is probably hearing in his head the ticking timebomb that comes with being an old person in a young person’s sport, and the UFC’s “Soldier of God” is likely to feel as if his back is against the wall on Mar. 7 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Romero is heading into UFC 248 as the underdog, but don’t count the powerhouse phenom out just yet. Despite his advanced age, Romero absolutely has the power, pedigree, and perhaps even the perfect timing bestowed upon him to dethrone Adesanya for the UFC middleweight championship.
But to do that, Romero will need to vanquish the personal demons that are his past failures.
Because despite being one of the most phenomenal athletes of a generation, Romero enters his upcoming title fight against Adesanya without the fighting credentials today most pundits would have believed he was on his way to achieving when he first entered the sporting world two decades ago.
UFC 248 takes place March 7 at 10 p.m. Eastern time. It will air as a pay-per-view on ESPN+.
Romero’s Freestyle Wrestling Career Lacked Olympic Gold
Wrestling is arguably the single most important component of an MMA fighter’s repertoire, so it’s no surprise that the sport is filled to the brim with athletes who reached tremendous heights in the amateur ranks.
But even among that group of high achievers, Romero stands out. He won the world championship at the 1999 FILA tournament and countless other medals during his years as an elite freestyle wrestling prodigy.
Still, Romero came up short during both his Olympic experiences. He was mauled by Russia’s Adam Saitiev in the gold medal match at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and missed the podium entirely four years later in Athens.
But the stunning loss to Saitiev was particularly disappointing. Romero had trounced the field up until that final day of action, and Saitiev standing next to the huge giant looked more like a spectator than an actual opponent for the statuesque Romero.
Claiming the silver is no slouch move, but the unlikely loss to Saitiev in 2000 seemed to play out in different forms over the years forever after on repeat. It could be that loss served as the genesis for later troubles.
For example, Romero lost during his next Olympic outing to eventual gold medalist Cael Sanderson. Again, that looks reasonable on the surface, but Romero had already defeated Sanderson twice up to that point and had never lost to the American until it mattered most.
In the end, Romero’s amateur wrestling career revealed a superbly talented athlete who just couldn’t seem to win the sport’s biggest prize.
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UFC Gold Proved Just As Elusive for Romero
After defecting from Cuba to Germany and picking up the MMA trade to start his new life, Romero started 8-0 in the UFC and appeared to be on his way to capturing UFC gold.
After four years with the company, Romero finally got his first crack for the interim middleweight title against Robert Whittaker at UFC 213 in July 2017. That win appeared inevitable through the first two rounds, but Whitaker rallied over the final three rounds to nab the decision.
After Whittaker became undisputed champion, his next scheduled title defense was to be against Luke Rockhold at UFC 221. But Whitaker suffered an injury, so Romero landed the gig instead based on him almost having beaten the champ at UFC 213 and faced Rockhold on short notice for an interim belt.
Indeed, Romero stopped Rockhold in the third round, but there was one big problem. The fighter had come in 2.7 pounds overweight the day prior, so he was ineligible to win the title on fight night.
Still, Romero’s performance landed him the rematch against Whitaker at UFC 225 in June 2018. But this time, both of his previous UFC title failings sort of happened at the same time. Not only did Whitaker not make weight for the fight, but the middleweight also suffered a heartbreaking split-decision loss in a back-and-forth scrap with the champ.
Once again, gold had eluded Romero when it seemed as if it shouldn’t.
Old Middleweight Monster Almost Beat New One at UFC 241
Despite the recent rash of UFC title opportunities that have been given to fighters coming off losses, which is exactly what is happening with Adesanya vs. Romero at UFC 248, the truth of the matter is that the UFC does an excellent job of putting its fighters in positions to earn their ways to title shots.
That’s exactly why UFC president Dana White and his stalwart team of matchmakers put guys like Romero in tough fights against undefeated middleweight terrors like Paulo Costa. That strategy helps give fighters like Romero, who came close to winning titles but couldn’t, the chance to get back into the title mix. It also tests the up-and-comers like Costa to the max to be sure they’re ready for their shots.
Most importantly to the UFC, though, it gives its fans the type of fights they want to see.
So Romero had another opportunity to prove he belonged at the top of the sport at UFC 241 in August 2019. Here was the Cuban facing what essentially boiled down to be a younger version of himself. Costa, 28, from Brazil, had finished all four of his UFC opponents up to that point and was similarly gifted with fast-twitch muscle fibers, incredible power and the bold body type of a superhero.
But Costa defeated Romero, though it was an incredibly close fight that seriously tested both fighters. However, while Romero was the first UFC fighter the Brazilian had looked human against as well as the first one he couldn’t finish, Costa left the cage with the important win.
Again, the fight was painstakingly close. Some in the crowd booed the decision as it was announced, but the judges awarded the other fighter the victory. It wasn’t a title fight but had Romero won it, he’d be next in line for a shot at the champ.
Did Fate Interven to Land Romero One More Chance?
But here’s where fate may have intervened, and maybe for good reason. After all, some in the sport aren’t so sure they’ve ever really seen Romero lose a fight in the UFC. All his losses, both times to Whitaker and later to Costa, were back-and-forth battles that could have been scored either way.
Heck, Romero doesn’t even feel as if he’s been beaten yet.
“But when you ask them, inside their soul, ‘Did Yoel Romero lose?’ Romero said on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show. “Yoel Romero did not lose. Yoel Romero is still the winner. Now, you see what happened. The people want to see the really best people fight. Who is the best middleweight right now?”
It’s a fair question.
After Costa suffered a biceps injury in October, his upcoming title fight against Adesanya was scrapped. So the door again swung open wide for Romero, the phenom, the wrestling god with mighty power in all his limbs and some of the most fluid and explosive moves in the sport, to strike gold in the UFC.
Will he do it? History suggests he won’t.
History Isn’t Always Right
But history isn’t always the best judge of the future.
Sometimes things just don’t work out. For whatever reason, no matter how talented and skilled a fighter is, fate, luck, or whatever you choose to call such things in life, just seems to keep a fighter down.
But sometimes it seems as if a story is being told, and that story can only be seen in hindsight. The story is about someone who kept trying, failing over and over and over again until it looked like all his chances were gone.
Cue the sad music and let the credits roll on another almost great career.
Suddenly, though, one more chance jumps out of the abyss.
And at long last, the fighter finally succeeds. Then the same story, one which previously appeared to be about failure and disappointment, takes a shocking final turn. It becomes a story of hope, one about a man who never gave up despite constantly suffering setbacks all his life. It becomes an example of why the best fighters in the world, both in the Octagon and in life, never stop trying no matter what else happens.
Cue the victor’s song?
Such very well could be the case with Romero’s apparent last chance at capturing UFC gold at UFC 248 against Israel Adesanya. He’s always had the look of a champion. At UFC 248, he might finally bust out his Midas touch.