Yoel Romero’s 2020 ended with a major surprise and a chance at a new beginning.
Less than a week after parting ways with the UFC, Romero was announced as Bellator’s latest marquee signing. The news prompted numerous questions not just surrounding what Romero’s role would be in Bellator and who he might fight first, but how one of the UFC’s most popular middleweights ended up as a free agent in the first place.
Romero, 43, spoke to ESPN on Wednesday and broke down how he heard about his release, explaining that it came out of nowhere as he was preparing to step back into the octagon sometime in early 2021.
“First and foremost, it was something that was completely unexpected,” Romero said via his Spanish translator Ray Fundaro. “I was already training very hard, getting ready. We were already thinking about fighting in January or February. We were looking to fight with the top-3 in either division, 185, 205. My managers explained this to the top of the UFC. They wanted me to fight Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, and we explained to them that it didn’t make sense for me to fight these young men.
“We had an idea we were chasing. The world title. The way that we were training and making it happen, we knew that we had one or two fights and then we would go for the belt. Our thought was that fighting any of these guys in the back of the roster, that it was taking steps backwards, not forwards.”
Romero’s management was negotiating opponents for a possible 205-pound debut, with his preferred matchups being Glover Teixeira, Thiago Santos, Dominick Reyes, or Anthony Smith. In the end, they couldn’t come to an agreement and it was eventually decided that the multiple-time UFC middleweight title challenger would be released.
The thought of leaving the UFC hadn’t crossed Romero’s mind when his manager Malki Kawa told him that they needed to talk. At first, Romero was more concerned that it was an issue with the USADA, who had handed Romero a six-month suspension back in 2016 after he tested positive for ibutamoren, a banned substance. Romero claimed he was the victim of a contaminated supplement and he later successfully sued the company that provided him with the supplement in question.
It wasn’t a USADA issue though, so Romero figured that the serious tone of his management was actually to set up a prank. If anything, he expected good news, including the possibility that the UFC was offering him a big fight that would put him on the path to another title shot.
When Romero was informed that he had actually been released, he was understandably upset, but after taking some personal time and distancing himself from the situation, a calm washed over him and he accepted that his time with the UFC was over.
“After I felt that peace, I felt something and I told myself after prayer and meditation, ‘Don’t worry about it. You look good. You’re in great shape. You’re training like a savage and a lot of other companies are going to give you a call. Everything’s gonna be okay,’” Romero said.
“I asked all the pertinent questions according to what was going on and once all was said and done, I talked to Ibrahim and Malki and I told them, ‘You know what? The person that merits anything doesn’t have to ask for it. Don’t ask anymore.’”
Now Romero is eager to begin his new life with Bellator, a company headed by his old Strikeforce boss Scott Coker. He told ESPN that his first fight will be at 205 pounds and he praised Bellator’s light heavyweight division that includes such standouts as champion Vadim Nemkov, Ryan Bader (currently the owner of a heavyweight title), former UFC champion Lyoto Machida, former UFC contenders Corey Anderson and Phil Davis, and recent signing Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.
Romero cautioned that for now any potential matchups are purely speculation, though he believes there’s a 90 percent chance that Johnson will be his first opponent in Bellator. Whenever he makes his debut, Romero expects it to be a warm homecoming.
“I’m happy to be working for this company,” Romero said. “I know it’s a good company, I know the president personally. He was in Strikeforce when I came from Germany. I’ve been working with the president of Bellator for a while, I’m happy. It’s almost like when a son returns from war, you feel really good about it and content and happy and joyous.”
As excited as he is about being in Bellator, Romero isn’t looking back at his time with the UFC with any bitterness; if anything, he has nothing but positive things to say about his seven-year run with the company that included numerous highlights and memorable battles with the best fighters at 185 pounds.
“When I started in the UFC I only had four fights, so I’m grateful to the UFC,” Romero said. “I believe that all my martial arts I learned while being part of the UFC, so I’m grateful to them for all the knowledge that I’ve had, but I believe that whenever the most high God wants to give you something better he’ll move you from wherever you’re at. I learned fighting, I learned in the fire, fighting athletes that were much more knowledgeable than me at that time. Having to fight them, deal with them with the resources that I had with the abilities that I had and continue growing and learning and I know that I’m leaving the UFC being the 185 best in the world.
“It’s not because I say it, it’s because all the fans say it. Whenever they see me walking on the street, everybody says, ‘You are the real champ.’”
“I fought against incredible, great athletes, legendary athletes,” Romero continued. “The fights that I had against some of the greatest fighters, athletes, were in that company. I’m leaving knowing that I had the best knockouts, having the best fight of the year against Robert Whittaker, getting multiple bonuses for the best fight or the best knockout.
“I leave very happy. I’m leaving this company very happy.”