In May of 1997, a 35-year-old former Olympic alternate wrestler named Randy Couture made his UFC debut when he entered (and won) a four-man heavyweight tournament. With the sport still in its infancy, it wasn’t all that uncommon for a fighter to debut in their early to mid 30s back in ’97, but the way that “The Natural” was able to dominate his competition was still enough to raise a few eyebrows. After defeating a then 19-year-old phenom named Vitor Belfort in just his second UFC appearance and quickly following that up with a heavyweight championship victory over Maurice Smith, Couture was suddenly at the pinnacle of the sport.

If it was surprising to see a fighter on the wrong side of 30 walk into the Octagon and immediately become a world champion, it was even more surprising to see “The Natural” remain near the top of the heap for almost 15 years after his first championship win. From his trilogy of title bouts against Chuck Liddell to his final knockout at the hands of Lyoto Machida, Couture was able to compete at the highest level well into his 40s. Needless to say, that’s a remarkable achievement in a sport that could easily be called a young man’s game.

There’s a reason we haven’t seen anyone quite like Couture since he showed up in the Octagon in 1997. For one, there aren’t tons of people in their mid-30s that randomly decide to give MMA a try, and those that do aren’t likely anywhere close to the caliber of athlete that Couture was at 35. Throw in the daily toll that training for a fight takes on an athlete’s body, and it’s even more evident why most people would be considered insane to start an MMA career after age 30.

Of course, there are always a few exceptions to any situation, and rising UFC middleweight Yoel Romero has slowly but surely turned himself into an intriguing prospect to watch, despite the fact that he is 36 years old.

Following a successful freestyle wrestling career that saw him earn a silver medal in the 2000 Olympic games, Romero made the jump into MMA in late 2009 at the tender age of 32. Competing in the light heavyweight division, the Cuban fighter got off to hot start over the first two years of his young career while fighting in Germany, going 4-0 with all four victories coming by knockout or TKO. The winning streak was enough to earn him a spot opposite former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante in Romero’s Strikeforce debut. It was a golden opportunity for a fighter with less than a handful of MMA fights.

Although Romero wasn’t quite able to capitalize on his massive opportunity in just his fifth-ever MMA bout and defeat Feijao, the former Olympian was fortunate enough to be brought over to the UFC when Zuffa started sending Strikeforce fighters to the Octagon. The loss to Cavalcante was also enough to convince Romero to drop another 20 pounds and join the middleweight division, and that’s where he’s remained during his two-fight stint in the UFC thus far.

Since entering the Octagon in April of 2013, Romero has been a destructive force, dispatching both of his opponents in devastating fashion en route to back-to-back knockout wins. First on the agenda was Clifford Starks, who lasted roughly 90 seconds in the cage before Romero sent him packing via a vicious flying knee. The quick win made a solid statement to the rest of the middleweight division, and on top of that, it earned Romero a “Knockout of the Night” bonus to go along with his victory. UFC veteran Ronny Markes was able to stick around into the third round during Romero’s next bout this past November, but he too was forced to succumb to the brutal power of “The Soldier of God” when Romero clocked him with a left hand almost 12 minutes into the bout.

The question around Romero heading into his third UFC outing isn’t whether or not he’s good enough to compete inside the Octagon. Instead, it’s whether or not he can reach his full potential before his skills start deteriorating. With one of the most accomplished wrestling backgrounds in the sport and some of the most brutal power in the middleweight division, it appears that Romero has the tools to make at least one decent run at a UFC championship. However, at 36 years old, the Cuban needs to get a move on it. His 6-1 record doesn’t contain a list of victims that will impress anyone at the moment, and he still lacks a convincing win over a top-20 middleweight.

The tools are there, but his resume doesn’t quite live up to his hype, and he’s going to have to win both often and convincingly over the next year in order to make his move up the middleweight ladder. And unless he undergoes some serious stylistic changes over the next year or two, Romero won’t be the second coming of Couture either.

Unlike Couture, who was able to compete far past his physical prime due to his strategic game plans and ability to wear guys down, Romero relies on his physical gifts and explosiveness in all aspects of his MMA game. His striking is a combination of flashy unpredictable strikes and powerful knockout blows. His wrestling game will always be world-class, but as many of his takedowns come due to his explosiveness as they do from his technique. If Romero were a 26-year-old, the fact that he had earned all of his MMA wins by stoppage would make him twice as intriguing. At 36, though, it forces fight fans to wonder what is going to happen when that power and explosiveness goes away.

If Romero had started competing in MMA even two or three years earlier, he may very well have become one of the top contenders in the UFC by now. His raw skills and explosiveness would have made him a handful for plenty of the top-ranked middleweights in the promotion over the past few years, and with another handful of fights under his belt, who knows where the Cuban native may have gone. However, at 36 and with a lifetime of abuse endured by his body during his years on the wrestling mat, it’s tough to believe that Romero can continue to improve at the level he has shown on a fight-to-fight basis.

Although his skills are improving at a solid pace, there is still a lot of room for “The Soldier of God” to get better as a complete mixed martial artist. Yet, it’s doubtful that he’ll be able to fully reach his potential before he loses some of the athletic ability that makes him so exciting to watch. As unfortunate as it sounds, it looks like Romero may have gotten started a bit too late in life to completely live up to his potential, and as a result, his status as a prospect to watch may be on borrowed time.

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.