Cuban Olympic wrestling silver medalist (2000), Yoel Romero, will rematch Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight roost-ruler, Robert Whittaker, this Saturday (June 9, 2018) at UFC 225 inside United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Almost one year ago, Romero came up short in a five-round war with Whittaker, starting strong to capture the opening two rounds before his opponent rallied. Romero returned to the cage back in February in what was supposed to be an interim title match with Luke Rockhold, but trouble on the scale stopped Romero from capturing the strap.
It didn’t stop him from destroying Rockhold, though.
Now, Romero faces an uphill battle in the form of a younger champion who beat him once already. That’s historically an absurdly difficult situation to overcome, but Romero tends to make the impossible look somewhat mundane.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Romero’s style of kickboxing is unlike any others. 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. In short, he’s not the guy a young fighter should model his game after unless we’re talking about Romero’s offspring, but there’s still something to be learned from the Cuban.
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, 41-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 roundhouse 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. Notably, Romero stopped Tim Kennedy by following the left hand set up in the video with a right hook (GIF). We actually talked about the relationship between the side kick to the knee and the cross in the last fight highlight filmed for Romero, but the side kick was Romero’s most damaging weapon in the first Whitaker fight. In the below video, we’ll talk about the side kick itself and why it’s becoming a popular weapon opposite fighters with some Karate influence to their approach.
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 and on the outside.
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).
Last time out, Romero faced a fellow high-level Southpaw kickboxer in Luke Rockhold. Both men are accustomed to fighting right-handed athletes and were forced to adjust. In Romero’s case, he simplified his game quite a bit. After taking a round to watch Rockhold — who genuinely showed sharper boxing than ever before — Romero realized that his foe would still back straight up each time he advanced.
As a result, Romero found a lot of success with the switch-cross. Firing a jab and switching stance to Orthodox at the same time covers distance, creates a new angle, and it loads up a power shot. Romero would hit the switch-cross — something he set up with stiff jabs to the body and leg — then explode into a series of hooks and overhands, rushing Rockhold back into the fence and smashing him.
In the end though, boxing basics and old habits ended Rockhold’s night. Romero used a double jab to cover a bit of distance, allowing his left to beat Rockhold’s favorite check hook (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.
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 has 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.” The flying knee is actually a frequent double leg set up, as he’ll leap high into the air only to suddenly drop to the mat and explode forward.
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). Opposite Whittaker, Romero repeatedly timed his lunging left to get good position on the Aussie’s hips.
Romero has an interesting habit of timing a shot perfectly at the waist and driving into the body lock rather than finish his double leg at the hips. He’s great in the clinch — more on that below — but often Romero finishes such a shot with an inside trip.
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 mixed martial arts (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. A common enough technique in freestyle wrestling — in which wrestlers stay very low to the ground and thus are closer to each other’s ankles — Romero has somehow scored the same takedown simply by picking his foe’s foot off the mat.
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.
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.
Romero is a fighter who is the underdog reasonably often despite his insane credentials and athleticism. The man also seems to have ignored aging. He’s a special athlete, which is precisely what’s required to overcome the odds and defeat a younger champion who has already beaten him once.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter 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.