Even at 45 years old, Yoel Romero is still a hulking Cuban muscle crisis.
Having made a name for himself as one of the most fearsome fighters in mixed martial arts over the last decade, the former wrestler is now out to claim the kind of gold that eluded him at the 2000 Olympics and in the UFC, as he pursues a world title in Bellator.
But, despite his reputation as one of the scariest combat-sports athletes of his generation, Romero insists that he does not see what all the fuss – or fear – is about.
“Hmmm... no!” he laughs over the phone. “I don’t think I’m scary at all, at least not outside of the ring. I don’t see it... but I’ve heard people say that, so I guess maybe I’m scary inside the ring. That might be a question for my opponents.”
Twelve of the men that Romero (14-6) has beaten did survive long enough to hear the final buzzer, so even if they were not afraid of him beforehand, it is unlikely that they wouldn’t at least shudder slightly at the mention of the Cuban’s name now. Even Robert Whittaker, who twice went five rounds with Romero as UFC middleweight champion – earning a draw in 2017 and victory in 2018 – admitted his aversion to a trilogy bout with the heavy-handed Olympian.
Romero, who has surprisingly eschewed his considerable wrestling capability for much of his MMA venture, narrowly missed weight for his second contest with Whittaker, meaning he was ineligible to win the title on that occasion. But his first meeting with the Australian and his final UFC bout – against Israel Adesanya – saw him go zero-for-two in championship fights in the promotion.
When asked whether he holds any regrets with regard to his MMA career, Romero’s mind no doubt drifts to those bouts. “Of course there’s a lot of stuff in my career that I feel like I could’ve done different, maybe,” he admits. “I reflect and I think maybe I should’ve done a one-two or thrown a different combination, maybe added a different kick. From there I just look to fix those mistakes and I continue to practise that in the gym and develop that.”
That development has brought Romero to Bellator, and to the light heavyweight division, where he is 1-1 since making his debut 12 months ago. A split-decison loss to Phil Davis gave way to a TKO win against Alex Polizzi in May, marking Romero’s first victory in just over four years as his opponent stepped in for Melvin Manhoef.
Forty-six-year-old Manhoef (32-15-1, 2 No Contests) will be the man across the ring Romero this Friday (23 September), when the veterans clash at Bellator Dublin. They are, however, heading in different directions. While the Surinamese-born Dutchman has said he intends to retire after facing Romero, the Cuban plans to continue fighting until he can finally call himself a world champion in MMA.
“If I don’t have any goals then what am I doing?” Romero asks. “The goal is always there, of course I want to be a champion – at both [middleweight and light heavyweight]. I look at all the fighters there and I’m definitely down to fight all these guys. The competition level is very high. And it’s an honour to fight somebody like Melvin, somebody of his calibre and his long career. For me to fight him will also bring something to my career and my legacy.”
Fighting well into their 40s is not something that most fighters would envision, but Romero – who remains a remarkable athletic specimen halfway through his fifth decade – always expected to still be competing at this age.
“I think I did see myself just constantly being in good shape,” he insists. “I wanted to stay active for longevity and continue my discipline of just being an active athlete. I think that being able to fight at this age now, it’s because over time I’ve done these things and continue to do them – and because of all that activity.”
Still, the chances of securing championship gold do eventually wane, as do the capabilities of even the finest athletes.
“I think that at 52 I might just stop fighting,” Romero confesses. “I think my focus after retiring would be on travelling and just being with my children.”
In his own younger years, Romero the wrestler was repeatedly lured away from his home in Cuba by competition. After one tournament in Germany in 2007, he elected not to return.
“I’ve been back to visit, but to live...” he briefly trails off. “With the situation right now, with the government, I don’t see myself returning to live in Cuba.”
Romero, who has trained out of Florida for the best part of a decade, continues: “Of course, there’s a lot of things that I remember [from my childhood]. Running down the street, playing in my neighbourhood, being able to talk to my neighbours. Sadly there are things like that which just don’t happen in the US, and I miss those things a lot.”
Still, the US is likely to remain Romero’s home for as long as his pursuit of a championship persists. By his reckoning, that venture will endure for seven more years, if it has to. Then again, few would bet against Romero recording another signature knockout this weekend and emerging as a title contender sooner rather than later.
Watch BELLATOR 285: Henderson vs Queally live from the 3 Arena, Dublin, live across the BBC. Prelims begin at 6pm BST on BBC iPlayer before the main card action at 9pm on BBC Three.