At an age when most professional athletes are several years deep into their retirement or hanging around at the end of the bench, providing veteran leadership, Yoel Romero remains at the top of his game.
Less than three months shy of his 41st birthday, the Cuban Olympian turned middleweight standout is days away from competing for UFC gold for the second straight fight when he takes on Luke Rockhold for the interim middleweight title in the main event of UFC 221 in Perth, Australia.
“It’s a matter of having as much discipline as possible,” Romero said through a translator when asked about his able to remain at the top of the division into his forties. “I don’t have a nightlife; I don’t go out at night. My life is pretty much based on a schedule that surrounds my sport and what I need to do. It’s a lot of discipline.
“I intend to keep fighting as long as I can and as long as I feel healthy. So far, age hasn’t been (an issue) and I will continue to keep fighting.”
While he was scheduled to return this month, Romero wasn’t supposed to be in Perth this weekend and he wasn’t supposed to be facing Rockhold.
He was originally booked to face David Branch two weeks later as part of the UFC on FOX event in Orlando, Florida, but when current champ Robert Whittaker was sidelined with a litany of maladies, the call went out to Romero to fill the vacancy opposite Rockhold, and the former silver medalist and world champion wrestler accepted without hesitation.
“When they gave me the fight with David Branch, I took it because I couldn’t sit on the sidelines for (several) months or a year waiting, so I took the fight, of course,” began Romero, who is fighting for the first time since coming away on the wrong side of a unanimous decision result against Robert Whittaker in his first bid to claim the interim middleweight title last summer at UFC 213 in Las Vegas.
“After I lost the title fight with Whittaker, the only fights that eventually made sense were fighting with the No. 2 in the world or a rematch with Robert Whittaker. So in my mind, I knew that I had to be prepared because I knew eventually I would have to fight one of these guys.”
The pairing between Rockhold and Romero has indeed been percolating for some time and has always felt like one of those matchups that had to come to fruition in order to really get a clear picture of who reigns supreme in the middleweight ranks.
Both worked their way up the divisional ladder after matriculating to the UFC from Strikeforce, and on the night Rockhold ascended to the middleweight throne at UFC 194, Romero established himself as the No. 1 contender with a split decision win over another former Strikeforce veteran, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
Seated on the dais in Ballroom A at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the happy-go-lucky Cuban wrecking machine lobbied Rockhold for a shot at the shiny gold belt positioned in front of him.
The ultra-cool Californian laughed and said their time would come.
“In my head, I knew I would eventually cross paths with Luke Rockhold,” said Romero. “I knew I would eventually fight Luke Rockhold because he’s been at the top for a long time.
I knew this was in front of me, this is what was going to be on my plate in the near future; this is what I felt.
“When you’re at this point that you’re No. 1 in the world, No. 2 in the world, in the Top 5 in the rankings, you know that eventually it is going to be your turn to fight for the title. I knew this was going to happen.”
Romero enters this weekend’s main event showdown with Rockhold in the unfamiliar position of coming off a loss.
Prior to losing to Whittaker, the “Soldier of God” had been perfect inside the Octagon, rattling off eight straight victories powered by his uncanny blend of elite athleticism, awkward movements and fight-changing power.
But Whittaker was able to scramble out of Romero’s clutches and avoid the sudden power moves that felled the likes of Derek Brunson, Lyoto Machida and Chris Weidman before him to take the fight into the latter rounds. He found his rhythm and never let Romero regain his, and after falling behind early, the Australian upstart was able to sweep the final three rounds and walk out of T-Mobile Arena with the interim middleweight title around his waist.
“I learned a lot. You always learn, but little things, key points,” offered Romero. “This was my first five-round fight, (so I learned you have to) be a little more patient, wait for my openings, not force them and not give away any rounds.
“You always learn. It was my first five-round fight that went five rounds.”
With that experience under his belt and having come close to capturing UFC gold once before only to have it wrestled from his hands, Romero has no intention of allowing that same thing to happen a second time this weekend in Perth, even if he’s not willing to talk about what a win this weekend would mean to him until after his arms are raised in victory.
“This isn’t something that I can tell you until I win the title,” said Romero. “Once I win the title, ask me that question again and I’ll be able to answer.”