Yoel Romero defies conventional wisdom.
The 41-year-old, who will challenge for the middleweight championship on Saturday in Chicago, appears as athletic as he was 18 years ago when he won freestyle wrestling silver at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Known for his propensity to cap fights with spectacular knockouts, the Cuban expatriate has an uncommon knack for ending fights in the third round — his last six finishes came in that frame, the last three against former UFC champions.
Ask him the key to these unique MMA traits, Romero (13-2, 9-1 UFC) credits the man upstairs first and foremost.
“I think it’s God,” he told amNewYork on Monday in lower Manhattan.
Romero makes no secret of his spirituality. From the pre-fight introduction of his nickname, “Soldier of God,” to just about any interview he gives, he makes frequent references to the importance of religion in his life.
That same conviction comes with him into the octagon for the UFC 225 pay-per-view headliner against champion Robert Whittaker, who defeated Romero 11 months ago in a thrilling five-round affair. In that bout, which was contested for the interim title that later became certified as the official UFC crown, Romero injured his Australian foe’s knee early with an inside kick but failed to capitalize as he dropped a close but unanimous decision, not fully aware how hurt Whittaker was.
The loss, Romero’s only UFC defeat, taught him lessons he carries into the rematch with 27-year-old Whittaker (19-5, 10-2), who was just 9 years old when his opponent was competing in the Olympics in his hometown. Chiefly, he and his coaches regret not taking advantage of the Aussie’s wounded knee.
“For four rounds, [I] only kicked,” Romero said. “We didn’t do anything different; only kick.”
“You need to see the fight Saturday, believe me,” he added, “because you’ll see something different.”
Even in his early 40s, Romero has no plans of leaving the cage anytime soon. That’s especially true if he becomes the first from Cuba to win UFC gold. He said his homeland, from which he defected to Germany after a 2007 wrestling tournament, is passionate about MMA, and he’s eager to make them proud.
“I take my responsibility very humbly,” said Romero, who now lives in Miami. “My country expects something big [from] me. Miami, my city, believes in me.”