Yoel Romero is at a prizefighting precipice. He has spent seven years competing in the UFC, is 42-years-old, and now has a fortuitous fourth chance to capture the UFC middleweight title on Saturday night in Las Vegas when he meets unbeaten divisional kingpin Israel Adesanya. Even recognizing Romero’s unique athleticism and apparent agelessness, it ostensibly appears to be his last stand—one last opportunity to bite the golden apple.
But, what if it doesn’t have to be? This is MMA, after all. The more I ponder the Adesanya-Romero clash and its hypothetical outcomes, the more I am intrigued by Romero’s potential future. Even in defeat, the ‘Soldier of God’ has the potential to fashion himself as a soldier of fortune, so long as he’s willing to march to the beat of a different drum.
Part of what makes Romero’s bid for Adesanya’s crown so strange is that despite clearly remaining one of the most outstanding, dangerous middleweights in the world, he’s wholly undeserving of the opportunity. He is only in this position because legitimate No. 1 contender Paulo Henrique Costa, who took a unanimous decision over him last August, is still recovering from a nagging bicep injury. And the UFC wants to keep Adesanya, one of their hottest rising stars, in the cage and in the spotlight. Romero is 1-3 in his last four; he’s won just one bout, a knockout of former champion Luke Rockhold, in the last two years. What’s even more conspicuously awkward about the Olympic silver medalist getting another title fight is that, despite what I wrote about this being his fourth bid for the UFC middleweight crown, it’s kind of… not?
Just as sticky and pernicious as Romero’s recent win-loss record is the fact that despite being lined up for three previous title challenges, this will only be his second time being eligible to actually become champion. For his February 2018 interim title bout with Rockhold, he weighed in at 187.7 pounds and was ineligible for the crown. Four months later, in his rematch with Robert Whittaker for the full version of the title, he couldn’t shave off the final two tenths of a pound—once more missing weight and nixing his chance to become champion, even if he had won. On Friday, he avoided another disaster on the scale, successfully tipping the beam at 185 pounds, but it’s little surprise that he was the last fighter to weigh in by a fair margin and took right up to the 11th hour.
Obviously, Romero is capable of hitting 185 pounds. But, in the fight game, it is not about discrete, individual instances of making weight; it has to be reliably replicable. This is especially true for fighters in championship positions. A Romero title win would be fairly chaotic even just in the simplest, logistic ways – does he defend first against Costa in a rematch? Does the UFC freeze out the convalescing ‘Borrachinha’ in favor of the dreaded immediate rematch with Adesanya? Whatever way he went, an even more pressing concern would be if he could be trusted to consistently, repeatedly keep registering 185 on the scale.
I think you might know where I’m going with this.
While Romero’s high-octane offense and sheer horsepower make him a viable threat in any contest, Adesanya is still a healthy betting favorite, hovering around -270 or -280 on most sportsbooks. Barring an upset, the Cuban will be 1-4 in recent history—with losses to the current three best middleweights. For most 42-year-old fighters, especially those with decades of a world-class wrestling career behind them, that would likely be the end of the line. Most men would be prompted to hang ‘em up.
Hell, Romero won his Olympic freestyle silver medal 20 years ago this September. Yet, he has asserted – in his characteristically fiercely assertive way – that he wants to fight for almost another decade, in a bid to fight longer than boxing legend Bernard Hopkins—who retired at an the nearly unfathomable age of 51 years old. While this claim is obviously worthy of serious skepticism, given Romero’s intense preoccupation with competition and freakish athleticism, he’s as good of a candidate as you could find to attempt such a feat. That said, win or (more likely) lose, despite recent failures and indiscretions, there is still an obvious, smart contingency plan. Even if Romero doesn’t seem hip to it.
During the course of fight week, Romero was asked about his weight issues and whether or not he would consider returning to 205 pounds, where he competed for the first two years of his career. Unsurprisingly, Romero was adamant that a second light heavyweight run wasn’t in the cards for him. Frankly, that’s a shame and it’s an idea he might want to reconsider depending on how his meeting with Adesanya plays out.
“When I’m training, I go down. And when I’m training, normally when I have a good training, (I weigh a) [I weigh] maximum 210. It’s not possible,” he said of a light heavyweight move during Monday’s media scrum for UFC 248. “I’m not training, boom, yeah, heavyweight. But when I’m training … 210, 208, 210, 208. It’s not possible for me. It’s not possible because I’m training good. I have respect for my job. When I’m training, I know what I need to do for good training.”
Romero has a constellation of explanations for both his weight failures and desire to stay at middleweight. According to him, injuries, erratic sleeping, less-than-ideal training camps, poor nutritional advice and the like have all been culprits in his weight struggles. He stressed that with “good training” he’s barely above 205 pounds and that the light heavyweight division was home to so many athletes larger than him. Naturally, I can’t profess to know Romero’s body better than the man himself, but this rationale seems specious to me. Tons of fighters are subject to bumps and bruises, unsatisfactory training camps and dietary struggles, yet still consistently make weight. As we’ve seen, even when Romero does hit the 185-pound limit, it still remains a more difficult ordeal than most of his contemporaries face.
There are intuitive reasons that we typically see boxers go up the scale as they get older rather than down, the opposite of what we often see in MMA. While bone density may decrease with age, the maintenance and development of lean muscle mass and the physically taxing, grueling nature of cutting weight becomes more difficult with age. There’s also a pronounced difference between an athlete in their 20’s dropping a division and opting for one in which making weight is an arduous slough,
It also surprises me that despite his typical forcefully cocksure demeanor, Romero’s response to the 205-pound question seems couched in some measure of self-doubt. Yes, light heavyweight is home to some physically imposing athletes, and Romero is, generously, about 5-foot-10. Nonetheless, he’s tangled with plenty of larger fighters throughout his middleweight tenure and has the rare athletic and physical gifts to atone for those shortcomings on the measuring tape. Does anyone really think that Romero’s freaky, explosive power would evaporate against an opponent who was 220, His lone defeat as a light heavyweight, a September 2011 knockout loss to Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante in Strikeforce, wasn’t on account of size. Despite Feijao’s bulk, Romero lost simply because he was still basically an MMA neophyte with barely beyond rudimentary skills outside of his wrestling—in addition to a shockingly poor gas tank. While cardio might still be an issue for Romero, eight-plus years ago, he was infinitely less equipped to deal with the rigors of a tough three-round fight.
Not only are there dozens of noteworthy fighters throughout the sport’s history who ably competed at both 185 and 205 pounds, we’ve quite recently seen second-tier middleweights like Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith – far less accomplished than Romero at 185 pounds – step up in weight and wind up challenging for light heavyweight gold against Jon Jones. Some even think Santos deserved the nod over ‘Jonny Bones,’ the best 205-pounder in MMA history. Even a shopworn Ed Herman has won back-to-back bouts in the division.
Light heavyweight is still thirsty for contenders, and desperately so. That’s why, should Jones and recent challenger Dominick Reyes run it back for a rematch later this year, the winner will likely be defending against Jan Blachowicz of all people. Even if Romero pulls off a shocker and unseats Adensanya, if he’s adamant about fighting past 50 years old – or even making it close – he’ll have to consider his options at some juncture; he’s not going to win the belt and reign for nine years. Unless he wants to opt for Bellator, Professional Fighters League, One Championship or another promotion, he’ll eventually be relegated to being a gatekeeper to the stars at 185 pounds, a designation I’m not so sure he’d be competitively content with.
For now, Romero has found himself in the right place at the right time, but typically, these kind of breaks aren’t just dumb luck. Opportunism is predicated on making savvy choices that put you in position to be the benefactor of serendipitous situations. These are the kind of hard, perhaps uncomfortable decisions that Romero will have to make in order to keep that kind of good fortune flowing and to try to avoid simply becoming an aged almost-was.
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