Off a loss to middleweight king Robert Whittaker in one of the most grueling wars in MMA history, Yoel Romero’s purpose of staying at 185 is unclear; while he’s openly considered a move to light-heavyweight, he’s yet to pull the trigger on it, despite light-heavyweight having a far more beatable field of contenders (and a more beatable champion, considering Jon Jones’ disappointing performance against Thiago Santos).
Regardless of his reasons for staying, Romero remains a terrifying force at middleweight; in fact, given his last two fights, he’s only growing more terrifying as his career continues, despite being at the point in his athletic career where most would experience a decline. If Romero wins at UFC 241, the stakes are unclear regarding his position in the title scene (especially if Robert Whittaker retains at UFC 243), but he’ll keep his claim as a top pound-for-pound talent and as one of the least beatable fighters in MMA.
Paulo Costa has proven a truly scary prospect for a division that isn’t really at a shortage of them; fairly recently, fighters like Israel Adesanya and Jack Hermansson have risen from being unranked to being title contenders (and in Adesanya’s case, an interim championship win), but Costa alone has gotten the push from the UFC before he beat anyone notable, solely due to the vicious nature of his performances.
At 12-0, with four UFC wins, all of them knockouts, the swarming Brazilian has been largely unstoppable, and a decisive win over the middleweight division’s second-best fighter would naturally entail a title shot against the winner of Whittaker/Adesanya in October. While his rise to being the top contender would be absurdly quick (considering that his level of competition up to this point has been decidedly middling), a win over the version of Romero who faced Whittaker at UFC 225 would be one of the finest that anyone can have.
Yoel Romero’s resume in the UFC is downright staggering; in fact, had he won a belt at any point in his career, one would be hard-pressed to consider him anything but a middleweight great near or on the level of Anderson Silva (without the insane longevity but with an inarguably higher-skilled resume).
While one could argue that what kept Romero from the belt was a uniquely muddied title scene (Michael Bisping’s title win in 2016 and the money-fight matchmaking that followed), a more immediate cause was the rise of Robert Whittaker; Whittaker became the first man in the UFC to best Romero at UFC 213 and survived him in their rematch at UFC 225, and that has left the “Soldier Of God” without a path upwards at 185.
Read more: How to watch UFC 241 on ESPN+
The irony, of course, is that the first loss to Whittaker (while keeping him away from consensus all-time great status) inarguably made him a better fighter; there’s a good argument for Romero being a top 10 pound-for-pound talent, and he has a chance to show it against someone who isn’t Whittaker at UFC 241.
Romero entered the UFC famed for Olympic Silver in freestyle wrestling, and it’s put to decent use in MMA; Romero is one of the most skilled pure takedown-artists in MMA, one who can work with shots and from the clinch (the fantastic trip on Chris Weidman comes to mind) and whose freak athleticism has left him nearly unstoppable when he decides to start wrestling.
However, Romero’s lack of a real top game (beyond just killing Lyoto Machida the second it hit the ground) has left Romero’s seemingly-primary area of skill without a great deal of utility; Romero can school anyone in MMA as a pure-wrestler, but it isn’t something he seeks out.
As such, Romero is mostly a striker, and his striking took a dramatic turn after his first UFC loss; where his game before that was that of an extremely intelligent athlete with a gift for understanding rhythm and controlling pace, he became an honest-to–goodness boxer afterward.
Romero’s pressure game has become one of the better ones in MMA, his defense (while somewhat bizarre, relying on cross-guards and parries) is excellent, and his counterpunching is fantastic; Robert Whittaker’s rematch with Romero saw him using every defensive tool at his disposal to avoid getting left-hooked on entries, and he still got hurt badly multiple times as looked to land front-kicks.
Luke Rockhold looked in excellent form against Romero, and he couldn’t come close to winning; Romero’s bursts of aggression flustered the American, but what ultimately did it was Romero’s steady pressure and his excellent boxing (the finish coming with Romero jabbing in to draw the check hook as Rockhold was backed up, and firing the straight inside the hook). Romero’s game benefits a lot from athleticism, but he isn’t Tyron Woodley; behind his explosiveness and his crushing power, there’s a well-constructed fighter whose game makes sense even against other strong athletes (such as Whittaker).
Romero’s most obvious flaw is his tendency to take long breaks, which indicated a lack of cardio down the stretch, but exploiting that flaw is fairly difficult against the current form of Romero; while Whittaker was able to wind Romero with body kicks and take over late in their first fight, Romero’s improved counterpunching makes pushing a pace fairly difficult without ironclad defense. In a three-round fight, Romero has conventionally taken it slow in the first two rounds to make reads and finish in the third, and that provides an interesting contrast to the relentlessly attritive Costa.
Paulo Costa’s path to becoming one of the division’s most promising non-elites was a very convincing one, but his rise to being a top contender who deserves a title eliminator has really only been done halfway; a win over Uriah Hall (then ranked #9 and always an extremely limited fighter who was never all that close to being elite) has set him up for a fight against the best fighter in the division who doesn’t hold a belt, which speaks to the potential that the UFC sees in him due to the strength of his performances. “The Eraser” has broken down each of his opponents inside two rounds, and if he can remain undefeated after UFC 241, the following bout will likely be for a belt.
Costa is one of the more punishing pressure fighters in the UFC, one who combines sound footwork and cage-cutting with a uniquely relentless body attack. Costa’s strongest moments have come with his opponents backed to the fence, and the rest of his game does a good job making that happen; Costa is a strong and active body-kicker off both legs (both to attack the open side against other orthodox opponents with lead-leg kicks and to cut off the cage by kicking through the closed side as they circle), and he’s absolutely ferocious on the inside.
Costa is one of the more committed combination punchers at 185, excellent at using his shots to draw an opponent’s guard before beating their body up underneath it, and he’s usually at enough of an athletic advantage that he can just overwhelm opponents looking to counter. In his last fight, he even showed some good boxing at range; while flummoxed for a bit by Uriah Hall’s jab, Costa had success jabbing with Hall to push him back and playing it off the left hook, and the end was brought with a catch-and-pitch left hook that caught Hall clean. His wrestling and grappling are mostly untested against strong opposition, but his striking is promising and brings a process that isn’t all that common among prospects.
Costa’s weakness has generally been defense; while he’s not incompetent defensively, it hasn’t taken a whole lot of craft to find him. Against Hall, Costa had some trouble with the jab; while Hall had a fairly predictable one, Costa had some early trouble getting past it to close Hall down even though he didn’t do a terrible job dealing with it (he can slip and block shots decently). Hall and Johny Hendricks also had real success on the counter against Costa; Costa can get a bit too aggressive with his flurries when he feels he has an opponent stepping back, and this led to him getting caught over the shoulder by Hall (dropping him to a knee) or by Hendricks’ overhand left as he stepped in to kick along the fence.
Hendricks’ game seemed like a bit of a nuisance for Costa in general, in fact; while he had the athletic advantages to mostly ignore Hendricks’ connections and keep the pressure on, Johny was consistently able to gain ground off the fence (and connect consistently as Paulo backed away) by throwing and doubling up on the overhand left, and Hendricks started chaining leg kicks off those blows that Paulo also just took clean. In truth, it’s currently impossible to see how well Costa’s game works without athletic disparity in his favor; his fight against Yoel Romero could end up being just the evidence required in that sense.
Conclusion and Capping
It’s difficult to see Costa winning this bout unless Romero proves more inert in the first few rounds than ever. Costa’s pressure game is excellent, but he’ll be facing an opponent who’s defensively a lot more poised in the pocket, so if Romero stands his ground and counters, it’s unlikely that Costa is the one who comes out with less wear.
This makes his usual path to victory fairly difficult to implement; Costa’s aggression and his body-work might be very damaging to Romero down the stretch if he’s able to find opportunities to step in, but being so open on the counter means that he could just be forced to take damage in exchange for a chance that Romero gasses out from the pace (and Romero has the takedowns in his back pocket to alleviate Costa’s pressure, even if he finds himself conceding the back foot).
It’s a fight that’ll definitely test Romero in terms of whether he’s declined (as a result of his age and the terrifically brutal fight at UFC 225), but unless Costa shows skills he never has, it’s hard to see the Romero of his last fight losing.
Prediction: Romero via KO2. This writer caps Romero at -190.
Read more UFC 241 predictions
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.