Perhaps no fighter in mixed martial arts history was blessed with more physical talent than Yoel Romero.
The two-time Olympic wrestler turned to MMA as a 32-year-old in 2009, won four of his first five fights—a technical knockout loss to Rafael Cavalcante was the lone outlier—and arrived in the Ultimate Fighting Championship a little more than three years after he made his professional debut. Armed with world-class wrestling skills, knockout power and otherworldly fast-twitch athleticism, Romero tore through the Octagon, posted an 8-0 record and emerged as the No. 1 contender for the UFC middleweight championship. He has since fought for promotional gold on two different occasions and saw a third opportunity go out the window with a failed weight cut.
As Romero awaits word on his next move, a look at the few of the rivalries upon which he has built his resume:
Whittaker twice outpointed Romero. (Photo: Getty Images)
“The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes” winner took the best Romero had to offer, surged in front over the final three rounds and walked away with a unanimous decision over the 2000 Olympic silver medalist in the UFC 213 headliner on July 8, 2017 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Whittaker carried 48-47 scores across the board, the victory bringing with it the interim UFC middleweight championship. Romero made him earn it. The American Top Team representative appeared to injure Whittaker’s left knee with a series of side kicks in the first round before incorporating takedowns and top control in the second. All his work came at a price. Romero’s pace slowed to a crawl over the third, fourth and fifth rounds, his muscle-bound frame starved for oxygen. Even wounded, Whittaker managed to capitalize. He ripped into Romero with a punishing jab, mean left hooks upstairs and front kicks to the body. More importantly, he shut down Romero’s takedowns, the “Soldier of God” growing more desperate by the moment. Whittaker assumed top position late in the fifth round and carved up the exhausted Cuba native with punches and elbows from above to seal it.
In their rematch a little less than a year later at the United Center in Chicago, “Bobby Knuckles” successfully defended the middleweight crown with a contentious split decision against an overweight Romero in the UFC 225 main event. All three judges struck 48-47 scorecards: Chris Lee and Brian Puccillo for the champion, Sal D’Amato for the challenger. Whittaker was in danger on more than one occasion but survived Romero’s considerable efforts and exited the cage with a 2-0 lead in their head-to-head series.
Romero put the rest of the middleweight division on notice at the expense of an all-time great, as he disposed of “The Dragon” with third-round elbow strikes from half guard in the UFC Fight Night 70 headliner on June 27, 2015 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Machida met his end 98 seconds into Round 3, where he encountered a brand of savagery for which he was not prepared. Romero spent much of his time pursuing the Brazilian while he circled on the perimeter. Machida picked his spots but could only avoid the Cuban wrestler’s destructive talents for so long. Early in the third round, Romero executed a knee-tap takedown, climbed to half guard and uncorked his ground-and-pound. His shots grew in ferocity before the “Soldier of God” smashed Machida with a series of short elbows to the face that brought it to a close and gave him a signature victory inside the Octagon.
Controversy still stirs around Romero vs. Kennedy. (Photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)
It remains the subject of debate nearly six years later. Romero dismissed Tim Kennedy with a barrage of punches in the third round of their middleweight showcase at UFC 178 on Sept. 27, 2014 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. A battered, bloodied and exhausted Kennedy succumbed to blows 58 seconds into Round 3. Romero carved up the Jackson-Wink MMA representative with quick left hands through much of the first half of the fight. However, Kennedy turned the tide late in Round 2, where he had the Olympian out on his feet after a pair of right uppercuts and a series of follow-up power punches. Only the bell saved him. Red flags entered the picture between rounds, as Romero’s corner delayed their exit from the cage and allowed their fighter to remain on the stool well beyond the usual 60 seconds allotted for rest. Kennedy walked into a buzzsaw in Round 3, where he was met with a savage right hand and collapsed. Romero dropped him a second time with a left hook before finishing it with swarming punches on the ground. It marked the first time Kennedy had been stopped since his professional debut in August 2001.