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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 221’s Yoel Romero

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Olympic wrestling silver medalist, Yoel Romero, will face off with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Strikeforce Middleweight champ, Luke Rockhold, this Saturday (Feb. 10, 2018) at UFC 221 inside Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.

From 2013-2016, Romero won eight straight fights inside the Octagon. It was both a dominant and strange win streak, one that saw Romero nearly lose fights numerous times. He was forced to rally in the third round in three separate fights — producing a violent knockout win each time — and Romero was lucky to get the nod opposite “Jacare.” Luckily, none of that mattered, as Romero’s hand just kept getting raised. Unfortunately, Robert Whittaker finally diffused the Cuban in a five-round title fight last July. Romero has been on the sidelines since, but the knockout artist has a chance to jump right back into the title mix and leave with an interim strap.

Let’s take a closer look at Romero’s skill set:

Striking

Romero has one of the most unique kickboxing styles seen in mixed martial arts (MMA) today. It’s something of a hodgepodge of random, singular set ups and Southpaw fundamentals, but when that mix is fueled by perhaps the most insane athleticism to ever grace the Octagon, it’s undeniably effective.

Romero definitely has a standard gameplan on the feet. Outside of the occasional set ups and traps, Romero’s overall strategy is to stab at his opponent with range kicks and keep his foe guessing with lazy movements and half-hearted strikes. Once the opening arises, Romero changes up his speed and blasts his opponent with shocking power, made even more surprising by the sudden switch from lackadaisical to deadly.

The big benefit to this tactic -- besides high accuracy -- is that it allows Romero to conserve energy. As a heavily-muscled, 40-year-old fighter, Romero cannot afford to throw every punch and kick at full speed. If he expended himself at such a high pace, he’d slow down heavily unless he scored a knockout almost immediately. By staying relaxed and taking breaks, Romero allows himself to carry power deep into the fight.

While at range, Romero feints quite actively to disguise his attacks. Before long, he’ll begin finding his range by using his kicks. Romero mixes it up quite well, throwing both round house kicks and more flashy techniques such as side kicks, hook kicks and teeps. The side kick to the knee is one of Romero’s nastiest kicks, and it can help land his brutal left hand. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyzed these long distance setups. Notably, Romero stopped Tim Kennedy by following the left hand set up in the video with a right hook (GIF).

Out of the Southpaw stance, Romero can deliver seriously hard round kicks. After throwing out a lot of feeler kicks, Romero will slam home round kicks to the legs, body and head. When Romero does commit to those strikes, he really knocks around his opponent. In addition to the feints and kicks, Romero will throw punches toward his opponents’ legs. These can be mistaken for takedown attempts and help set up Romero’s overhand. Above all else, they help keep his opponent hesitant.

A great example of Romero’s range trickery came in the first round of his bout with Ronaldo Souza. “Jacare” was looking to pressure and counter the Olympian, and Romero had a great counter up his sleeve. There’s no better time to throw the spinning back fist than as an opponent moves in, so Romero followed up a kick with the back fist to both reset his stance and clobber Souza (GIF).

Romero is always looking for a moment to land a full power left hand. It can be set up by feints, hand-fighting (GIF) and half-speed punches. In addition, Romero is quite good at timing his opponent if his foes lunges forward face-first, both with the counter left hand and counter elbow (GIF). Countering with the left leads into an important part of Romero’s game, which is stopping the pressure. If his foe is pressuring him relentlessly, Romero will be unable to take rest breaks, and his cardio will suffer as a result.

Romero uses the takedown to stop pressure quite often, and he builds from there. Against both Chris Weidman and Clifford Starkes, Romero leaped into a flying knee and ended the bout. Both wrestlers were attempting to push the pace and shoot on Romero, but they failed to occupy him with punches first and paid the price (GIF).

From a defensive perspective, Romero is an interesting fighter. He’s quite hard to hit early on due to his range control and excellent ability to read strikes from his opponent, but Romero’s lack of concern for his opponent’s offense catches up to him at times. When fatigued, relying on reaction time alone is a bad idea, and Romero’s lack of kickboxing experience shows a bit. Once he’s slowed down, Romero will back himself into the fence more often, and it becomes far easier to predict his head movement and time it.

Wrestling

One of the most credentialed wrestlers in UFC, Romero secured a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics. Early in his UFC career, Romero did so little wrestling that it was unclear just where his skill remained more than one decade later, but he’s since proven to be excellent.

Romero’s explosion is never more obvious than when he’s looking to score a takedown. Romero can change levels unbelievably quick, driving through a double-leg with more power than most even while terribly off-balance (GIF). It’s a difficult thing to deal with; there’s just no one else who moves like “Soldier of God.”

Because of his lazy style, opponents sometimes think they are free to throw opposite Romero, who doesn’t appear to be ready to answer. However, Romero generally does an excellent job of timing his takedowns, either looking to drive through mid-kick or ducking under a punch (GIF).

In the clinch, Romero is able to manhandle his opponents with overpowering strength and amazing technique alike. In the clinch, it’s safe to say that Romero can do just about everything, so let’s take a look at a couple specific examples.

In the first, Romero used a sacrifice throw to slam Brad Tavares to the mat. The over-under in the center of the Octagon is not usually a position where takedowns are landed. However, Romero showcased his wrestling mastery by taking a deep step and blocking Tavares’ knee with his leg. With his hips tight to Tavares’ knee, Romero was able to pop his hips in and get Tavares airborne, making the throw possible (GIF). Tavares is a very difficult man to take down — he actually was a favorite over Romero at the time — but he had no real answer to Romero’s power and wrestling.

The best wrestling performance of his MMA career likely came in the second round against Weidman. Romero controlled the clinch masterfully opposite a truly talented wrestler, but the cherry on top was a slick foot sweep. As Romero yanked on his opponent’s lat to spin him, he blocked Weidman’s near leg with his own foot to prevent Weidman from recovering his footing (GIF). It’s simple enough, but to execute that type of foot sweep on a two-time Division 1 All-American is certainly an accomplishment.

Another rarely seen wrestling move in Romero’s arsenal is the ankle pick. Romero will drop down for the clinch to grab at his opponent’s ankle, which isn’t unheard of, but he’s also managed to simply pluck his opponent’s foot up from the kickboxing range. Frankly, I don’t have the wrestling ability or athleticism necessary to understand how this is possible, but “The Soldier of God” somehow makes it work.

Romero isn’t impossible to take down simply because he stays so relaxed on his feet. However, none of his opponent’s have had any success holding him down, as Romero simply pushes his opponent away and jumps to his feet. You can’t teach insane athleticism or decades of high-level wrestling instincts (GIF). Until he’s greatly fatigued, taking and keeping Romero down is not much of an option.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Oddly enough, Romero has been very unsuccessful at holding his opponent to the mat after landing the takedown. Usually, his opponent is able to work back to his feet in about a minute or so. Plus, in that minute or so of control, Romero’s general focus is securing an opportunity to end the bout with brutal elbows. For whatever it’s worth, Romero did use the kimura a few times against Tavares. Tavares gamely looked to wrestle with Romero, hunting for the single leg takedown. He managed to get into good position a couple times, but Romero would lock up the figure four grip on his opponent’s inside arm and wrench his foe over. It wasn’t exactly technical jiu-jitsu, but Romero was able to power through and reverse position.

Conclusion

Romero did not get to compete in UFC while in his athletic prime, but he’s nevertheless achieved great things inside the cage. Romero has shown no sign of slowing down yet, but athleticism cannot last forever, so it’s a critical moment for the Cuban. Capping off all his UFC success with a victory over Rockhold and interim title would be further proof of Romero’s extraordinary talent. And it would be a great milestone to achieve at 40 years of age.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.