In 1999, Cuban wrestler Yoel Romero Palacio was busy capturing gold at the World Championships. In 2000, it was a silver medal at the Olympic games in Sydney, Australia. In 2002 and 2005, again competing at the World Championships, he added more silver medals to his collection. Now, the 34-year-old is out to conquer new ground: The Strikeforce light heavyweight division.

“I wanted to fight in the big show and Strikeforce is it especially now that they are owned by Zuffa,” Palacio told The MMA Corner. “I felt that the organization would be able to provide me with the opportunity to fight the best Light Heavyweights in the world.”

The Olympic wrestler will get exactly what he wants, starting with his first fight under the Strikeforce banner. Rather than giving him an easy opponent while introducing American audiences to his dynamic combination of striking and world-class wrestling, Strikeforce has opted to throw Palacio into the deep water. His first foe will be Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, a 10-3 fighter who held the Strikeforce light heavyweight title until being dethroned by Dan Henderson in March. Palacio and Cavalcante will lock horns at Strikeforce’s Sept. 10 “Barnett vs. Kharitonov” event in Cincinnati.

Palacio (r) vs. Nikita Petrovs at Superior FC 3 (Olga Fritzler)

“Feijao is an excellent fighter and I respect him,” said Palacio. “He’s got great hands and obviously is really good on the ground. I’m honor(ed) to have the opportunity to fight him at this level.”

Until now, the Cuban-born resident of Germany has competed much closer to home. Three of his fights have taken place within German borders and the fourth came in neighboring Poland. Only one of those fights lasted beyond the first round, and Palacio tallied three TKO’s and one knockout in the four outings. Even more impressive, two of Palacio’s foes “retired,” admitting that to continue would be futile. Overall, that leaves Palacio with a 4-0 mark since entering the ring for the first time as a professional in Dec. 2009.

Now, as Palacio journeys across the Atlantic to face competition on US shores, he’ll confront a number of challenges. First and foremost, the level of competition he will encounter will be greater than what he experienced in Europe.

“It is definitely going to be a tough fight and a big test,” Palacio admitted. “I’m going into this fight knowing that it will be my most difficult test so far and me and my management team discussed the risks associated with taking a fight like this so early on, but I will prepare for it.”

The sentiment was echoed in a statement made by Palacio’s manager, Tina Vidal of ML Management, in a recent press release.

“This will be Yoel’s toughest competition to date,” said Vidal via the release. “When I tell him this- he laughs at me and says ‘You wait to see what I can do in the cage.’ I believe he is going to go in there and prove to the world he deserves to be in the Top 10.”

Palacio’s response to his manager illustrates the level of confidence that comes with the 205-pounder’s background. His decorated career in wrestling is no secret, but Palacio also has the advantage of training with his younger brother, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, who happens to be the current interim WBA cruiserweight champion boxer with a 24-1 record.

We’ve already seen a few examples of what Palacio can do in combat. Most notable was his ankle-toss takedown of Michal Fijalka during their fight at “IFF: The Eternal Struggle” in Oct. 2010. Palacio effortlessly snatched Fijalka’s ankle with one hand and put the Polish fighter on his back. It’s a wrestling move, but one we don’t often see from the high-caliber wrestlers already competing in the UFC and Strikeforce. Will we see more similarly impressive displays out of Palacio as he competes on American shores?

“I will continue to take advantage of whatever opportunities I see that are going to allow me to continue winning,” Palacio said.

Palacio (l) vs. Fijalka (Piotr Pedziszewski/MMARocks.pl)

In addition to training with his brother, Palacio prepares for his fights with Kampfsport Althof in Germany. He’ll continue to call the camp home as he prepares for his US debut, but that doesn’t mean he’s just following the same routine as always.

“We have changed my strategy to prepare for this fight,” said Palacio.

Beyond just the higher level of competition, Palacio will also have to deal with the cage for the first time in his professional career.

“I’m excited to finally fight in the cage,” Palacio said. “I will be preparing for the change.”

While 34 is an advanced age to launch a career in MMA, Palacio hopes to fight as long as possible. Beyond Cavalcante, the Cuban’s sights are set on capturing the light heavyweight crown. He has inked a five-fight deal with Strikeforce and hopes to be fighting for the title before the end of the contract.

“I want the chance at the title and will fight whoever is in the way of that,” Palacio said.

While champion Dan Henderson is coming off an impressive victory at heavyweight over Fedor Emelianenko, he currently lines up at the bull’s eye of Palacio’s targeted goal in the light heavyweight division.

“Dan’s a great wrestler and a tough competitor,” Palacio said. “I look forward to the opportunity to fight him for the title.”

Should Henderson still possess the belt when Palacio earns his shot, fans would have the privilege of witnessing two Olympic-level wrestlers clash in a mixed martial arts battle. Obviously, MMA combines wrestling with many other martial arts disciplines, making it an entirely different animal. Palacio knows he must continue improving all aspects of his game, rather than relying solely on wrestling, if he wants to climb to the top of the light heavyweight mountain. He has targeted a couple of areas on which he plans to focus.

“I definitely want to continue working on my striking and submission defense,” said Palacio.

It’s still too early to know what’s in store for the highly decorated wrestler as he embarks on his quest to attain success in his new sport of choice. He’s off to a great start with four victories under his belt, but Strikeforce represents an even tougher test for him, one that will force him to continually evolve his game.

If his wrestling pedigree is any indication, however, Palacio might soon have to clear space in his trophy case for some new championship gold.

Palacio would like to thank his family, coaches and management team, ML Management, Tina and Ray for all their continued support.


Top Photo: Palacio (r) takes down Michal Fijalka with an ankle-toss (Piotr Pedziszewski/MMARocks.pl)

Note: This feature was originally posted on The MMA Corner on Aug. 1