Yoel Romero Opens Up on Leaving UFC and New Lease on Life in Bellator

Tom Taylor@@TomTayMMAContributor ISeptember 16, 2021

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07:  Yoel Romero reacts at the end of his fight against Israel Adesanya, losing in a decision in the middleweight title at T-Mobile Arena on March 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Image provided by Bellator MMA

When 13-fight UFC veteran Yoel Romero learned that his time with the promotion was over, he did what he always does in times of strife: He trusted that it was all part of God's plan.

"Everything in life has a beginning and an end," the 44-year-old Cuban told Bleacher Report on Wednesday some eight months after his UFC run concluded. "I remember when I came to the UFC and when I left. I knew that one day it would have to end and that life would continue.

"It doesn't matter the reason or the motives. The ways of God are filled with mystery. We have to accept what God puts in front of us and be grateful." 

Free agency can be dangerous for fighters. Good opportunities are few and far between, and the risk of being lost in the shuffle is ever-present. Romero and his team navigated the wilderness of free agency with astounding ease, putting pen to paper with Bellator MMA—arguably the second biggest promotion in the sport—less than two weeks after his UFC contract went through the shredder. 

"When you do something very, very well and you really dedicate yourself to it, you'll be sought-after," Romero said, looking back on the day he officially became a Bellator fighter. "To be honest, I don't think I did anything wrong in the UFC. I knew I was going to find work. I knew my work and my talent would be in demand, and Bellator became home.

"I felt happy," he added. "It was almost as if God was saying 'don't worry, you're in my arms.'"

Despite spending the entirety of his UFC career competing as a middleweight, Romero elected to begin his Bellator career in the 205-pound light heavyweight division. Not long after he was signed by the promotion, ESPN reported that he'd been matched up with former UFC light heavyweight title challenger Anthony "Rumble" Johnson—one of a few fighters in MMA history capable of matching him in terms of knockout power.

The fight had fans drooling like dogs in a steakhouse. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. Bellator revealed there was an undisclosed issue with Romero's pre-fight medicals, and he was pulled from the matchup.

The fans were gutted, but Romero, as ever, was the picture of stoicism, confident that it was all a part of God's plan. 

"That's something we prepare ourselves for mentally," Romero said of the foiled Rumble scrap. "Sometimes things are canceled. We were ready for that.

"I put it in the hands of God and now we're here." 

Here, for Romero, is San Jose, California. The Sunny Californian city will host the Bellator 266 event Saturday, which will be topped by a fight between Romero and fellow UFC veteran Phil Davis. 

Davis parted ways with the UFC in 2015 and has stepped into the Bellator cage 12 times since, notably ruling over the light heavyweight division from 2016-2017. Romero relishes the opportunity to battle such an established and respected foe in his first fight with the promotion.

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Fire @YoelRomeroMMA steps into the Bellator cage for the first time ever! Don't miss #Bellator266 LIVE this Saturday on @SHOsports, 10PM ET/7PM PT. https://t.co/jZTM1tKiw7

"This division is stacked with big names, and I expected that, eventually, I'd end up matched up with Davis," Romero said. "It was already in our schedule. It's a big fight. He's a great fighter—one of the biggest names in this division—and we're ready for him. 

"We both have good wrestling," Romero added. "I don't think it will just be wrestling, or just striking, we're going to mix it all up. That's what I think will happen.

"It's going to be like a chess match." 

The Bellator light heavyweight division is ruled by Vadim Nemkov, a protege of the great Fedor Emelianenko and a man many consider the best fighter in the division—regardless of promotion. Nemkov is tied up with Bellator's Light Heavyweight Grand Prix, but if Romero can get by Davis, he'll be well-positioned for a shot at the champion's belt when the tournament concludes.

Romero sees Nemkov as a "very good, very complete" fighter and is also interested in dropping back down to middleweight to challenge that division's reigning champion, Gegard Mousasi, but he noted that "the most important thing is not who you're fighting, but the victory." 

"To be the champion is just as important as winning at the Olympics, competing in wrestling world championships, or being UFC champion" Romero said. "Being the Bellator champion is just as important."

Romero's Bellator fights—including his imminent showdown with Davis—will air on Showtime. The network, which is steeped in combat sports history, recently dipped its toes in the celebrity boxing pool, promoting boxing matches involving YouTube stars Jake and Logan Paul. Romero is interested in boxing in theory, but he isn't holding his breath for a fight with either of the Paul brothers—as lucrative as those opportunities might be. 

"As soon as I left the UFC, about a week after, the [Paul brothers'] managers and my managers talked," he said. "They suggested the fight, but when it came down to it, the Paul's managers let us know that they didn't want the match. They would rather fight Ben Askren." 

One way or the other, Romero has a smorgasbord of exciting options in front of him, from the light heavyweight division to the middleweight division and beyond. It could even be argued that the 44-year-old has too many options to fit into the remaining years of his career, but he isn't planning on slowing down anytime soon. 

"I would like to surpass Bernard Hopkins," Romero said, drawing inspiration from the former two-division boxing champion, who famously fought into his 50s.

While the future looks bright for Romero, a great many things—from Bellator title fights to lucrative boxing matches—would seem to hinge on the outcome of his looming fight with Davis. He hopes he'll win that fight, but as always, he is leaving it up to God.

"It's going be a very exciting fight that will keep fans in their seats," he said. "And God willing, Yoel Romero's hand will be the one that is raised."