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Yoel Romero: The “Soldier of God” returns at UFC 221
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Yoel Romero: The “Soldier of God” returns at UFC 221

Yoel Romero - UFC

Cuba’s own Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero is a big weird genetic soup of violent weirdness.

Due to a staph infection punching Bobbie Knuckles in the guts, Romero gets the chance to do what most failed title challengers never do, and that’s jump straight back into a championship fight. Granted it’s an interim belt, but even still, this bout is highly irregular, even for the highly irregular world of UFC title fights. And it’ll no doubt be just as intriguingly spectacular, or even as spectacularly intriguing, as the originally scheduled fight twixt Whittaker and ex male-model Luke “Pouty face” Rockhold.

Think Yoel Romero and you can’t go past his sheer physical presence. The guy is a frickin’ specimen. He’s nearly a hundred years old and stalks about the place like some fiendish jungle predator. Whether it’s because he’s had vertebrae in his neck fused, or because he’s been half cut with gorilla, or because he’s a supervillain, Romero can’t seem to move his head independently of his body. For some primal reason that is instantly threatening. His traps are like steel bars, while muscularly he looks like a brown sock stuffed with coconuts. Plus that bald head and the beard, he could’ve easily been Fidel Castro’s personal bodyguard or a Bond villain who throws sharpened shoes at people. I’m sure if he was allowed to he’d walk out to the octagon with a cigar in his teeth the size of a tree branch and shooting rounds into the ceiling with a rusty Kalashnikov.

Romero’s bag of tricks

And as I mentioned before, he’s weird. And sneaky. He’s a big weird sneaky sweaty trickster.

All that “Soldier of God” stuff, it gets inside people’s heads, as well as him strutting around the outer edge of the octagon like a drill sergeant and saying weird things in his disturbingly slurred English accent during post-fight interviews. Romero’s whole act is unpredictable, and that’s precisely the reason he’s garnered so much success in his MMA career.

As for the sneaky thing, you all remember his antics in the Tim Kennedy fight, sitting on his stool for far too long after he’d been smashed, and during the Weidman fight when he poured water all over himself. He’s been in the game a long time and knows what he can get away with, and what he can’t. Just like his borderline creepy antics, it all makes fighters uncomfortable. He fights just as much with the intangibles as he does with his fists and feet.

In terms of fighting performance, he has a superb understanding of movement and he varies his cadence, sometimes going slow and sluggish, and then exploding with his trademark devastating power. The spinning attacks, the flying knees, the weird jump-feints, it’s all because he is not threatened by the takedown attacks of his opponents. An Olympic medalist wrestler, he is confident in his ability to reverse any position, and his sheer simian strength means he turns lesser mortals in rag-dolls. Those leg-trips, evidenced most handily in the Weidman fight, are a thing of beauty, as are his transitions, seeming to almost hover around his opponents to take any position he wants.

Not quite the perfect machine

But all that muscle takes a lot of energy to move at such a sustained high pace, and he’s been known to fade in the later rounds. Though he has learned to manage his output much better, Romero still relies heavily on his physicality, putting maximum power into his blows and explosions. That being said, he suffered his only UFC loss through decidedly different means.

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Romero wins not because of his power or his wrestling acumen; he wins because of his weirdness. In Robert Whittaker he met his match in that department, fighting a guy who was his equal in almost every arena. Romero’s signature dynamite detonations didn’t work, nor did his broken timing and rushes from odd angles, simply because that’s exactly Whittaker’s game. Where Romero slipped up in that fight was during the last few rounds when his gas tank abandoned him. Whittaker was able to maintain his output just that little bit more, and edged out a thrilling decision win.

Blue Steel

Enter Luke Rockhold. A guy who is highly technically proficient, an assassin on the feet and on the ground, and most importantly, completely orthodox and normal and decidedly not weird. While he may trump Romero in terms of striking and ground fighting (but then again perhaps not), he moves just like everyone else does. In other words, his movement is predictable. Just the type of opponent Romero is used to fighting, and scoring horrendous knockouts against. Think back to the second Bisping fight, and the beginning of the David Branch fight. Rockhold keeps his pretty face way in the air, a lightning rod of sorts for the fists of his opponents.

Beyond that, Rockhold thinks rather a lot of himself and considers his beautifully chiseled features as something worth wider study. Ever noticed how he’s never satisfied with anything? Scores a savage finish victory, looks sullen and pouty that he’s had to go fight and get all sweaty in the first place. Maybe he just gets cranky when he’s not allowed to wear turtlenecks and boat shoes. He has a certain ‘Nobody understands my beauty and the world isn’t good enough for me’ attitude, and he’s never happy with his performance, and that may just be—ala the second Bisping fight—his downfall this weekend. Poor pouty Luke Rockhold, always looking like he drank a glass of lemon-juice thinking it was orange.

Romero desperately wants to taste UFC gold and he’s willing to leave his soul in the octagon to get it. He has all the tools to knock that Blue Steel expression right off Rockhold’s dome, and the only question will be, should the finish not materialize, will he overcome his cardio issue and score the biggest win of his life? When watching a Romero fight, be on the lookout for sudden and savage violence and of course, sweaty weirdness by the truckload.

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