In sports, the outcome can be decided by a matter of inches. Or sometimes, seconds. In a sport like mixed martial arts, a matter of pounds can be the difference between a win and a loss. It’s no longer commonplace for a fighter to win a fight at the sport’s highest levels when he’s outweighed by 15, 20 or 30 pounds come fight night. Even if two athletes tip the scales at the same weight a day before they clash, the disparity in size can be astounding when the two men meet in the middle of the cage the next day.

Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero knows this all too well. After enjoying a highly decorated career on the wrestling mats, where he took home the Olympic medal in the 2000 Sydney Games and captured a World championship in 1999 while competing in the 85-kilogram—or 187-pound—weight class, Romero made his professional mixed martial arts debut at light heavyweight in 2009. The 205-pound division would be his home until a September 10, 2011 Strikeforce bout against Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante changed the Cuban wrestler’s outlook.

“I felt very strong competing at light heavyweight in Europe, and I was comfortable there,” Romero told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “But after seeing the weight difference between Feijao and me the day of the fight, I knew that I had to make a change. I had built up so much muscle and had so little body fat, I did not even know if [a move to middleweight] would be possible. But I have been cutting down healthy for months now, and I’m very comfortable at this new weight and strong now.”

The loss was the first suffered by Romero in MMA action. Living in Germany, Romero had already used takedowns and strikes to score knockouts of two opponents and TKOs of two more in a series of four fights spanning three promotions. He had never traveled beyond the region, competing exclusively in Germany and Poland in those earliest days of his career. Then he signed with Strikeforce and made his first trip to the United States to compete against Feijao, a former Strikeforce champion. As much as Romero could fall back on the size differential as the only reason for his defeat on that night, he readily admits that there were many factors at play.

“That was my first time ever fighting in an actual cage,” Romero revealed. “In Europe, all my fights were in a boxing ring. That makes a big difference. Also, I had very little BJJ and technical striking training, which put me at a disadvantage. I had never fought in as big a show before either, which just compiled all the issues. But, I’ve been working on all of that for 12 months now, and I feel very comfortable with my progress.”

Romero has had every minute of those 12 months to work on improving his skill set. It’s a layoff that was necessitated by an upper back injury that nagged Romero following the fight with Feijao.

“We are not sure how it happened, but I started having pain after the Feijao fight and then really aggravated it during training,” the wrestler explained. “The recovery was long and slow, but everything is perfect now and I feel stronger than ever.”

Although his shift to the middleweight division is a significant move for Romero, it is not the biggest move he has made recently. After years spent living and training in Germany, Romero has moved to Florida and the American Top Team camp.

“The training where I was at in Europe was great, but nothing like I have at my disposal in the U.S., and I never had the level of sparring competition either,” Romero admitted. “It makes a difference.

“My biggest focus has been on improving my technical striking and BJJ. I’ve been working a lot one-on-one with the coaches at American Top Team Kendall and then sparring up at Coconut Creek with people like Hector Lombard.”

With a record that sits at just 4-1, the 35-year-old Romero is still a relative newcomer to the sport. He may have suffered a loss in his lone Strikeforce appearance, but his Olympic wrestling background, highlight-reel takedowns and his ability to batter opponents with strikes has led to an opportunity to transition from Strikeforce to Zuffa’s more prominent promotion, the UFC.

“Wow, it is amazing,” Romero said. “This is every fighter’s dream. I just want to go in there and prove that I deserve to be there. I feel I have something to prove after my last fight.”

His chance to prove himself will come at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., when he steps into the Octagon on April 20 to meet Clifford Starks on the preliminary card portion of UFC on Fox 7.

“I want to prove that I deserve to be in the UFC,” Romero said. “I want to go out there and have an amazing fight that is worthy of getting replayed on FX or Fox. I want my fans to believe in me again.”

In the contest, Romero will be working against another fighter with a wrestling background. Starks, who is 8-1 overall as a professional and 1-1 in the UFC, was a NCAA Division I wrestler in college.

“If I were him, I would not try to out-wrestle me,” Romero said with a laugh.

That could be the understatement of the year. A look at footage of Romero’s fights in Europe reveals a fighter who can land an ankle-pick takedown, which is not a common sight in MMA competition. With such a knack for wrestling and a trophy case full of medals, it’s no surprise that Romero feels strongly about the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to remove wrestling from its core group of sports for the 2020 Games.

“I don’t agree with it at all,” Romero stated. “Wrestling has been around in the Olympics since the start of the Olympics. How do you change history like that? Where are these guys in this sport going to compete now? It’s ridiculous.”

“Right now, I’ve been so focused on my recovery and now my fight. But after the fight, I plan on advocating to keep wrestling in the Olympics.”

Although Romero feels he holds a significant advantage when it comes to wrestling, he does grant that Starks holds an edge of his own.

“He has fought in the UFC before and knows the deal,” Romero explained. “He won’t face the first-time UFC jitters like I will.”

But that’s about all Romero will concede to his 31-year-old foe.

“With the exception of one guy, he has not really fought anyone that I would consider a challenge, and at this point I feel like my wrestling and striking is at a higher level than his,” Romero said.

In addition to determining that light heavyweight was not where he should be, Romero learned something else on that night in Cincinnati that he will carry with him when he enters into battle against Starks.

“In my last fight I came out slow,” he confessed. “I wanted to feel out the situation. I had never done that before in a fight, and it gave Feijao time to relax. I had never taken that strategy before in a fight, and I won’t make that mistake again.”

The Starks fight is just the first step in Romero’s journey. When any competitor joins the UFC, their ultimate goal is to capture a championship. With Romero now residing in the 185-pound division, his eventual target would be the legendary Anderson Silva.

“Wow, what a great fighter,” Romero said of Silva. “Truly the best in the sport. I admire him for what he has proven a fighter is capable of.”

As a newcomer to the UFC, it will be a long time before Romero earns a chance to fight the middleweight champ. However, after Chael Sonnen used wrestling to dominate Silva for the better part of five rounds, it is tempting to consider how Romero’s own wrestling prowess could lead to trouble for “The Spider.”

“I would enjoy the honor of competing against a guy like Silva. Of course, my goal is to be a UFC champion one day, but I have a long way to go and right now my only concern and focus is getting past Starks,” Romero admitted.

Starks represents a significant challenge for Romero. He is a nine-fight veteran with eight wins. He’s also the first adversary for Romero in over a year and marks Romero’s first attempt to compete at middleweight. And most importantly, he represents the obstacle in Romero’s path to a sustained career in the UFC.

Never has size mattered so much for Romero.

Yoel would first and foremost like thank Jesus. He would also like to thank his management team, ML Management, Tina Vidal-Smith and Ray Gonzalez: “Without them it would not be possible for me to be here and doing what I’m doing.” He would like to thank his coaches at American Top Team and his sponsors: Venum, Swole, Freegun, Headblade, Arancibia Bail Bonds, Lexani, RBP and Follow Romero on Twitter: @YoelRomeroMMA

Top Photo: Yoel Romero (MMA Junkie)

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The MMA Corner Staff

Your home for all things MMA. News, Interviews, Event Coverage, Editorials. If it is MMA related, you will find it on The MMA Corner.

  • Water Buffalo

    Great article, thanks for featuring our Cuban fighters in the UFC.
    I have followed Yoel’s career including the spinning fist from Feijao, his only defeat. At 185 lbs., if given a chance by UFC matchmaking, Yoel will continue to impress, as he has done already with the spectacular flying KO out of the night in his debut. With Yoel at 185, Hector at 170, Jorge at 155. Ricardo at 145, Bruce Leroy at 135, Cuban-Americans are finally here. What is going on with Yoislandry after his defeat by the disrespectful Iranian_Sweede, who is now in jail I hear. Suerte mi jente, y haci es Ache.