Faith.

For many a mixed martial artist, it could be considered as essential as a healthy diet or a daily training regimen. Every time a fighter thanks God following a fight, they truly believe that a power far greater than themselves contributed in some way to their success. Without God, they say, none of it would have been possible.

There was a time when Cuban wrestler turned successful mixed martial artist Yoel Romero might have scoffed at such a notion, or at the very least dismissed it as a religious superstition. However, times have changed for the 36-year-old UFC middleweight.

“I wasn’t always a man of God, but accepting God into my life has changed everything for me for the better,” Romero told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I apply God to everything I do—my family, my training, my career. I know that as long as I represent him and do everything else I am supposed to do, he will always provide the best for me and my family.”

Romero (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Romero (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Romero’s nickname—“Soldier of God”—reflects his beliefs. When he enters the Octagon, he believes he’s doing so as a warrior on behalf of a higher power. Not everybody shares that faith, but the one undeniable fact is that Romero has indeed found success.

As a wrestler representing his native Cuba, Romero captured a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and medaled numerous times in the World Championships. After defecting to Germany in 2007, he eventually transitioned to mixed martial arts and notched four stoppage wins during an undefeated streak that landed him a contract with Strikeforce. Though Romero, then fighting at 205 pounds, suffered a knockout loss at the hands of Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante in his lone appearance with the promotion, his dynamic mix of wrestling and striking afforded him a shot with the UFC.

Romero moved to Florida to train with American Top Team and shifted to middleweight. He made his Octagon debut with a “Knockout of the Night” performance against Clifford Starks, leading to a match-up against a fellow highly touted prospect in Brazilian Ronny Markes. Romero and Markes battled into the third round before the Cuban finished his counterpart via knockout.

“I was intentionally very cautious during that fight,” Romero admitted. “He is a very good Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter, and I wanted to feel him out and get a handle on his timing. I was very aggressive in my fights before the UFC because I felt the caliber of fighters was less. However, everyone in the UFC is a great fighter. I want to fight smarter and then when I see the opportunity, I take it.”

It was another significant win on Romero’s resume. Markes had entered the eight-sided cage with a 14-1 mark and an undefeated run of three fights in the UFC.

“I really felt like I toyed with him the whole fight and made him fight the fight my way,” the wrestler revealed. “He wanted to go to the ground, but I made him keep it standing. I knew I would knock him out. I was just waiting on the right opportunity.”

Two UFC opponents, two devastating finishes. If nothing else, Romero’s moniker conjures images of destruction typically associated with war.

Before he was paired with Markes, Romero had been slated to meet Derek Brunson at UFC 164. Brunson, however, was forced out with an injury, leaving Romero to wait an additional two months before fighting Markes at UFC Fight for the Troops 3. With his knockout win over the Brazilian, Romero again finds himself lined up against Brunson at UFC Fight Night 35 on Jan. 15 in Duluth, Ga.

“I just want to keep busy and proving myself with the UFC,” Romero said. “Obviously, I want to gain the recognition to move up the ranks, so whether it was Brunson or someone else, it doesn’t matter.”

Yoel Romero (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Romero (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Brunson is a three-time NCAA Division II All-American wrestler whose records bears some similarity to that of Romero. The North Carolina native surged out of the gates to start his career with nine straight wins, including three under the Strikeforce banner. He then stumbled in back-to-back fights against UFC veteran Kendall Grove for the ShoFight middleweight championship and highly decorated grappler Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in a Strikeforce outing. Despite his loss in the Strikeforce cage, Brunson, like Romero, was invited into the Octagon. He debuted with a unanimous decision over Chris Leben and went on to submit Brian Houston in just 48 seconds at the same event where Romero topped Markes.

“Derek has very good cardio and wrestling. However, I have very good cardio and wrestling,” Romero said. “I know I am the better striker and definitely the better wrestler. I would not go to the ground with me if I were him.”

The Cuban’s confidence on the ground is derived from more than just his world-class wrestling background. His move to Florida has allowed him to supplement his wrestling with another dangerous set of tools.

“American Top Team has helped me improved significantly,” he explained. “My BJJ has improved greatly, as well as my striking. I train directly with Ricardo Liborio and Paulino Hernandez. I focus on everything every day—that is how you become the best.”

Any good soldier needs the right arsenal of weapons to succeed, but they also need an unwavering focus on eliminating the enemy. Romero doesn’t look at the middleweight title picture and predict his arrival as a contender. Instead, he takes out one target at a time. That’s the only way that he will one day find himself in battle with gold on the line.

“I only think of the next fight,” he admitted. “That helps me stay focused on exactly what is in front of me right now.

“Winning a UFC belt is my next goal. I always just want to be the best at whatever I am doing, and in the UFC, winning the belt is the equivalent of winning an Olympic medal.”

Though the consequences are much greater in war, the struggle in a cage does share a lot in common with the struggle faced on a battlefield. Soldiers often rely on faith to keep them alive, to get them home safely and to reign supreme in victory. When Romero stares across the cage at Brunson, he’ll be looking into the eyes of his adversary. When the bell rings, the battle will begin. Romero is confident that at that moment his God will be watching over him.

“If God wants the victory to go to me, then it will.”

Yoel would like to thank his sponsors: Torque, Miami Total Sports Medicine, Swole, Revgear and Alienware. He would also like to thank his managers, Tina and Ray at ML Management, and his trainers at American Top Team: Ricardo Liborio, Paulino Hernandez, Manuel Lopez and Alexis Vila. Follow Romero on Twitter: @YoelRomeroMMA