• Andrew Starc

Yoel Romero – The Scariest, Most Likeable Fighter in the UFC

Yoel Romero is one of the most arresting figures in all of MMA.

The bogeyman of the middleweight division, the Cuban stands out even amongst the UFC's roster of athletic specimens.

His hyper-muscularised, seemingly lab-engineered physique and hair-trigger explosiveness – most brutally showcased in his KO of Chris Weidman – make him one of the most terrifying prospects, across all weight classes.

However, Romero also brings an element of comic relief to a franchise dominated by blustery, testosterone-fuelled self-promotion.

His heavily accented, almost cave-man English, paired with a zeal for Jesus of the purest brand, contrasts sharply with his feared aura, and has endeared ‘The Soldier of God’ to an army of fans.

The now 43-year-old’s origins lie in the crucible of Cuba’s elite Olympic wrestling program.

In a bid to upstage the capitalist behemoth to the north, Fidel Castro fed this ruthless immersion program with the nation’s most athletic youth. Cuba was soon unleashing scores of grappling ubermenschen with a will to win that only an outcast Communist regime can inspire.

Yoel Romero was one of these ubermenschen.

Yoel Romero in Strikeforce – From wrestling to MMA

Romero's was a storied wrestling career, becoming world champion at 22 and winning silver at the 2000 Olympics a year later.

However in 2005, he fell afoul of Cuba's wrestling association for allegedly throwing a match, leading him to defect to Germany after winning the country’s grand prix. It was there that the Cuban transitioned into MMA as a light-heavyweight.

Romero, like most UFC-calibre fighters, TKO'd his way through the lowly ranks of semi-pro MMA, before signing for the now defunct Strikeforce.

However he was uncharacteristically TKO'd in his debut bout – a bizarre sight now that he's considered one of the most feared KO artists in the UFC.

Below: Yoel Romero gets TKO'd in his Strikeforce debut.

Making his UFC debut

In 2013, ‘The Solider of God’ entered the UFC, this time as a middleweight.

He made an immediate, brutal impact with a first-round flying-knee KO of American Clifford Starks, a move that became his signature. A first glimpse of Romero’s impeccable timing and devastating power, it was a harbinger of plenty more savagery to come from the Cuban in the UFC.

Below: Yoel Romero debut's his first of several flying-knee KOs in the UFC.

Over the next three years, Romero wreaked havoc in the middleweight division, going on an eight-fight win streak. He T/KO'd some of the best in the world, including Lyoto Machida, Brad Tavares and Derek Brunson.

His explosive power, unpredictability and unorthodox style made him one of the most entertaining fighters in the franchise, doing things never seen before. Flying-knee knock-outs aside, his TKO of Derek Brunson via brutal elbows to the kidney is something only Yoel would do.

Below: Watch Romero's TKO by multiple kidney strikes.

While an undeniable savage, Romero's brings an authentic, endearing quality to a franchise dominated by bloviating clout-chasers. He's not one for contrived one-liners or calculated trash talk. His is a raw, spontaneous and often eccentric charisma that produces catchphrases like "See you soon, boi" and viral moments like upstaging Israel Adesanya with a back-flip.

Part of his genius – and I'm not sure it's intentional – is the ambiguity in which Romero traffics. It's often hard to tell if he's being playful or threatening, and he does a great job of leaning into a brutish, caveman persona, as evidenced by the video below.

Below: Yoel Romero puts his strength on display by bashing a large tyre.

Yoel Romero's "no for gay Jesus" moment

Adding to his intrigue is his unwavering and flamboyantly advertised faith in Christ.

A hulking caveman who regularly sends individuals to the ICU via flying knees to the face is hardly the image of a good Christian. However the 'Solider of God', while capable of breathtaking savagery, also seems a loving, gentle soul whom Christ would proudly tend as part of his flock.

And Romero isn't afraid to evangelise to fight fans, as evidenced by his in-Octagon interview after defeating Lyoto Machida – a moment of peak Romero.

With the Brazilian still regaining consciousness in a bloody mess, the 'Soldier of God' – wearing a John 3:16 emblazoned sweatband – began unintelligibly sermonising fight fans on the evils of, depending on what you hear a.) their worshipping of a gay Jesus ("no for gay Jesus") or b.) forgetting about Jesus ("no forget Jesus")

Public declarations of homophobia typically end most careers. However given the general incoherence of Romero, he was afforded a pass by a public genuinely unsure of what he's saying on the best of occasions.

Below: See if you can understand what Yoel says.

Yoel Romero vs Chris Weidman – Flying Knee KO

Almost as a backdrop to all this, Romero made an impressive run for the middleweight title, albeit hampered on multiple occasions by an inability to reign in his hulking physique to make weight.

After dispatching a flying knee of near-decapitory force to the face of Chris Weidman, sending the American into another plane of existence, the Cuban finally received his first of many chances to fight for a belt, facing Robert Whittaker for the interim title.

Romero went on to lose the bout via unanimous decision, after a gruelling five rounds.

Yoel Romero vs Luke Rockhold – A KO sealed with a kiss

Following the loss to Whittaker, Romero regained a shot at the interim belt by taking a short-notice match-up against former champ Luke Rockhold, before losing the shot by failing to make weight.

The bout, though, still went ahead, and ended in another moment of vintage Romero.

In a never before seen, eye-opening display of spectacular violence swiftly giving way to gentle, all-encompassing love, the Cuban would brutally KO Rockhold in the third round, before tenderly kissing the still-dazed former champ.

One can only imagine the bewilderment of Rockhold, the earth swimming around him, as the hulking Romero wrapped him in tender embrace and muttered unintelligible, sweet-nothings to him in Spanglish.

Below: Romero goes full Yoel Romero by kissing a barley lucid Luke Rockhold.

Yoel Romero vs Robert Whittaker 2

In July 2018, Whittaker squared off with Romero once more, a championship turned catchweight bout after the Cuban failed to make weight once again. While ‘The Reaper’ emerged a heavily bruised and battered split-decision winner, many hailed Romero the victor, having wreaked significant damage upon Whittaker.

Yoel Romero vs Paulo Costa

His next match-up, with Paulo Costa, was a mouth-watering affair for fans – all of whom I presume are fiercely heterosexual – of the UFC's two most chiselled physiques going at it with wanton disregard.

The fight went down as advertised. It was five rounds of writhing, sinewy torsos, glistening pectorals, pulsating biceps and hulking thighs translating into frenetic exchanges of vicious head-kicks, thunderous blows, and brutal elbows.

Romero, however, emerged the marginal loser in this battle of He-Men.

Yoel Romero vs Israel Adesanya

Despite two straight losses, the fates once again granted Romero a title shot, this time against rising-star Israel Adesanya.

On paper, pitting an explosive wrestler against a technical kickboxer seemed an entertaining title fight. However it turned out to be perhaps the worst in UFC history, with Romero chalking up his third-straight loss, now with a record of 0-3 in title fights.

The lead up to the fight did have its moments. In the pre-fight press conference, Yoel's aforementioned backflip stole the show, before he gifted the public with another vintage moment, declaring to an incredulous press that he'd been fighting in the middleweight division "since 1897."

Below: Jump to the moment Yoel declares he's been fighting for 122 years.

Many believe it may be his last title shot. With Romero now on a three-fight losing streak and entering deep into his forties, can he still capture the title?

Perhaps this question was no better answered than by the man himself, in yet another vintage moment leading up to the Adesanya bout.

Romero, wearing a flamboyant Gucci jacket and aviator sunglasses, delivered one of his most inspirational moments of his career. Removing the his aviators, he leans in, looks the interviewer intensely in the eyes, and says;

"Everything is possible in your life, when you believe."

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