Before he was a UFC title contender, Yoel Romero was a force of nature on the international wrestling team when he represented his home country of Cuba.
The now 42-year-old middleweight is a former Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling and he’s one of the only people in the world to hold multiple wins over American wrestling great Cael Sanderson.
So it’s safe to say Romero knows a thing or two about wrestling, which is why he might be the foremost expert on the best grapplers in the sport. While there are plenty of high-level wrestlers currently competing in the UFC, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is one of the best takedown artists on the entire roster.
According to Romero, Nurmagomedov’s incredible wrestling skills start with the work he was doing in his home country before coming to the UFC.
“I don’t know if you know but the best for you, for everybody, for the world, the best city in the world for wrestling is Makhachkala, Dagestan,” Romero said when asked about Nurmagomedov’s wrestling pedigree ahead of his fight at UFC 248. “This place, everybody.
“I stayed for three months in this city when I was wrestling. I stayed three months in Dagestan. All in my division, six or seven world champions in Dagestan. Those six people for one of them to come out on top for the world championships or the Olympic games. You can’t imagine — six people, [all] world champions but you have that many people [to train with].”
Without even knowing it, Romero’s wrestling might have actually been an inspiration to Nurmagomedov when he first crossed paths with “The Eagle” after both were part of the UFC roster.
Romero says it was following one of his first fights inside the Octagon that he met Nurmagomedov, who told him a fascinating story about their original interaction years earlier in Dagestan.
“I remember the first time when I saw him, he was in the United States, was at my first fight,” Romero explained. “I finish the win, he went ‘hey Yoel, you remember me?’ and I said ‘no, who are you?’ He said ‘I am Khabib Nurmagomedov, I see you the first time when you stayed in Dagestan, a big tournament and I saw you and I was only 14 years old.’ I said, ‘oh really?’
“And he said ‘now I stay here, now I am a fighter for the UFC. I said ‘oh congratulations.’”
Years later, Romero will seek to join Nurmagomedov among the ranks of UFC champions when he faces middleweight king Israel Adesanya in the main event at UFC 248 from Las Vegas this Saturday.