Few may remember this but when Yoel Romero made his major mixed martial arts debut back in 2011, it was a dud. Fighting against former Strikeforce champion Rafael Cavalcante in that promotion, Romero did almost nothing in the first round—seriously, he threw only six strikes, according to FightMetric stats—and then he was knocked down twice in the second on the way to being stopped via knockout.
While he was only in his fifth pro fight at the time, Romero was already creeping up on his 35th birthday. At that moment, it seemed like he had left his best days in the wrestling room, and that the MMA learning curve would be too steep to navigate, and for that, he could hardly be blamed. He had lived under the authoritarian Cuban regime until defecting after he’d already turned 30.
What we didn’t know then is that Romero is a modern athletic marvel, seemingly with no expiration date. Now fast approaching his 41st birthday, we are left to wonder if Romero is the Cuban version of Randy Couture, only scarier.
No fighter in UFC history has ever won his first UFC belt after the age of 40, not even Couture, who was a prime 34 upon winning his first title. The oldest ever first-time UFC champ is Michael Bisping, who was 37 years, 4 months old upon winning it. It appears Romero will have another opportunity at being the first to reach the top at an age when most athletes are long gone from most every sport, let alone MMA.
Romero is likely to get the opportunity after knocking out Luke Rockhold in the UFC 221 main event. It was, as most of Romero’s wins are, a third-round finish, making it the sixth for him out of nine UFC wins. Romero, it seems, has no problems waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting, even past the point where most would consider it wise. He defies all rules of logic and time.
MMA is not a sport heavy on analytics, but the existing ones tell us that it gets more difficult to finish a fight with every passing moment. In 2012 for example, one of the most recent years with such stats published, out of 104 stoppage wins in the UFC, only 11 came in the third round or later. And he has done it in six of his nine wins! That is absurd. Part of it is a function of his style; Romero is a deliberate fighter, a tactic that requires an unthinkable level of confidence. He doesn’t care if he falls behind, he doesn’t care if time is ticking away. He fights in bursts and trusts himself to carve out a path to success.
This seems to be his overriding philosophy on not just his career, but his life. Romero chose to defect to Germany simply because that’s where his wrestling tournament was on that date in 2007. He would figure out the rest afterward, and it’s safe to say he did alright.
Just last July though, we had to wonder if his ability to will his way forward was over. In a golden opportunity to win a share of the middleweight belt, Romero let it slip away. He won the first two rounds on the judges’ scorecards and hurt Robert Whittaker’s leg in the process. Everything was set up perfectly for him, but Whittaker valiantly rallied to win. The loss seemed like it should have been devastating for Romero. He was 40 and his path to the belt seemed waylaid for good.
Yet barely an hour later in the post-fight press conference, Romero was able to flash a few smiles.
“The game is not over,” he said then. “We have a second part. It’s to be continued.”
It’s like he knew. Maybe he did, after all he seems to have a way of making the universe bend to his whims, and opponents cave to his bursts. Finding a way is just what he does.
Against Rockhold, he started slow and then came on in the second, and then backed off early in the third until he breached the distance with an overhand left that dropped Rockhold and set up a brutal, exclamation point uppercut ending. It was a stunning kill shot, and it pretty much made the fight world forget that just 24 hours before, Romero had missed weight by nearly three pounds and wouldn’t get the interim title.
Usually, fighters who miss weight are unofficially disqualified from heading straight into a title fight, but UFC president Dana White wasted no time in telling ESPN that yes, Romero would slide on into that title rematch with Whittaker. Of course he will, he’s not bound to regular rules.
And the craziest part about it? It seems Romero did it all despite injuring his leg in the first round. Because of course he did. Because as you now know, Romero is immune to things like rules and logic, so why would he feel pain?
At some point, Romero will decline and struggle and maybe he’ll even start looking his age, but that time is not now. Instead, he moves forward, seemingly impervious to all the rules of life the rest of us live by. It seemed like it was over for him all those years ago, and yet here he still is. Ancient in a young man’s game, yet one of its biggest winners.