The UFC has had fighters who have competed in the Olympics before. It even has a current Olympic gold medalist as its flyweight and bantamweight champion. But there has never been a man or woman inside the Octagon, with or without those Olympic credentials, as fearsome as Yoel Romero.
Even at 42 years old, Romero is one of the most athletically gifted individuals to have ever competed in the sport. His wrestling is second to none. His punches, kicks, elbows and knees are all lethal. He can explode from anywhere at any time and end a fight without warning.
He is one of the greatest pure athletes to ever step foot inside the UFC's Octagon.
At UFC 241 in Anaheim, California, he will be looking to get back in the win column so that he can finally challenge for UFC gold. It is an elusive piece of hardware that has avoided his grasp, and standing in his way is Paulo Costa.
We are about to embark on a journey through Romero's rise in MMA. From the world of wrestling to the world of fisticuffs, Romero has excelled every step of the way. The appreciation for his specific brand of violent art begins now.
Romero's journey to being an elite athlete began in the 1990s as a wrestler. He made his way through the ranks and ascended to the upper echelon of the wrestling world. He would reach the pinnacle by winning the 1999 FILA wrestling world championship.
In 2000, in Sydney at the Olympic Games, Romero came up just short of nabbing gold, standing on the podium as a silver medalist. He holds countless other medals throughout his time as an elite wrestler, including five gold medals at the Pan American Championships.
Romero couldn't find the podium in 2004 in Athens. He would continue his career, but he defected from Cuba in 2007 after competing in a tournament in Germany, where he would stay for several years. It was during this time he transitioned into the sport of MMA.
MMA Debut at Light Heavyweight
It should be no surprise that a combat athlete the caliber of Romero won his MMA debut without issue. In under a minute, Romero dispatched of Sascha Weinpolter in December of 2009 in Nuremberg, Germany.
His next three fights, two in Germany and one in Poland, were also KO/TKO performances. Although halfway around the world, someone with Romero's pedigree would not go unnoticed from the scouts of major promotions.
Strikeforce dialed his number and put him in the cage against Rafael Cavalcante. "Feijao" was a former light heavyweight champion of Strikeforce and a feared striker.
It was a tall order for the relative newcomer, and Cavalcante won the fight with a second-round knockout.
Thanks to injuries, Romero would not return to the cage until 2013.
Middleweight and UFC Debut
The "Soldier of God" had been on the shelf for nearly two years prior to his UFC debut in April 2013, but he immediately announced his presence with a stunning Knockout of the Night performance against Clifford Starks. A flying knee connected, and Starks was out.
The legend of "Third-Round Romero" began in his second UFC bout. Against the ever-tough Ronny Markes, Romero knocked him out one minute and 39 seconds into the third and final round.
The back-to-back knockout start to Romero's UFC career gained a lot of attention, especially as other Strikeforce alums found success in the UFC's middleweight division as well.
He was another standout to help deepen the talent pool at 185 pounds. Romero's third straight win came over Derek Brunson by TKO, and then Romero pushed it to four with a decision against Brad Tavares.
At 8-1 overall and a four-fight win streak, Romero moved into the deep end of the UFC's middleweight division and became a contender.
Becoming a Contender
The first big test against another contender came against Tim Kennedy in September 2014, and that evening's Fight of the Night winner did not come without controversy.
On the brink of defeat, as Kennedy punished Romero's body in the second round, Romero got extra time to recover between rounds.
In part, it was because his corner used old delaying tricks, such as not removing the stool for their fighter. The UFC's cut man then left too much vaseline on Romero's face, making referee John McCarthy stall again.
Within a minute of the third round actually beginning action, Romero closed the show.
Watch #UFC241 live on BT Sport 1 HD @btsportufc
Ronny Markes round 3️⃣ finish Derek Brunson round 3️⃣ finish Tim Kennedy round 3️⃣ finish Lyoto Machida round 3️⃣ finish Chris Weidman round 3️⃣ finish Luke Rockhold round 3️⃣ finish Yoel Romero comes to life in the third round 😳 https://t.co/2oGx5VSoeX
Next up was former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida. Third-Round Romero put Machida's lights out with sickening elbows that echoed throughout the arena.
At UFC 194 in December 2015, Romero took a contentious split decision against Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. It took all of that to simply get a title eliminator against former champion Chris Weidman.
Without fail, Third-Round Romero was there to close the show. A flying knee connected, and Weidman went down 24 seconds into the final round of what had been a competitive fight. Romero ran his win streak to eight and claimed his first UFC title opportunity.
Epic Fights Against "Bobby Knuckles"
UFC 213 was the event. Romero came in overweight and, thus, could not win the title. But Robert Whittaker could. The interim title was on the line for one-half of the bout, and it was almost not awarded.
Romero attacked Whittaker's leg in the first round. He won the first two rounds and had an injured opponent, but Whittaker would not go away.
Over the final three rounds, Whittaker battled with Romero on the feet and got the best of the exchanges.
Whittaker gradually got more and more strikes to land through each of the final three rounds, per UFCStats.com. Romero lost 48-47 on all three scorecards.
The grueling bout put Whittaker on the sidelines with a leg injury. In the meantime, Romero iced Luke Rockhold in the third round of their fight to get another chance at gold.
At UFC 225 in Chicago in June 2018, Romero missed the championship weight again, but he was still able to fight against Whittaker in the main event.
It turned out to be Fight of the Night.
Whittaker showed a champion's resolve to not only survive huge bombs from Romero, but to come back with ones of his own. Per UFCStats.com, Romero more than doubled his output from their first fight, but Whittaker upped his as well and was able to sneak past the Cuban with a split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47).
Romero had two attempts at UFC gold but failed both on the scales and against Whittaker. Still, those fights went down as remarkable battles that thrilled the audience.
One Last Chance?
Romero returns on Saturday against the undefeated, No. 7-ranked contender Paulo Costa. A win over him would put Romero back in position for another crack at the title he has failed to get.
Even with concerns about his prior two missed weight cuts for championship bouts, Romero would undoubtedly be the top contender. His scintillating knockouts, Olympic-medal-winning wrestling and sheer physical presence is an undeniable force that would warrant another chance at gold.
The 20-plus-year saga of Romero's athletic career is winding down, but he is still a threat in the UFC's middleweight division. Saturday night will be a crucial step to capping it off with gold.