I’m pretty sure that Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero is not really an infantryman appointed by the Lord himself, but I can’t say I’d be all that surprised if it turned out he was. The Olympian wouldn’t look out of place on Olympus, leering over his mythical sires; he already looks as though he has been chiselled from marble.
Romero made his MMA debut on December 20, 2009, winning via first-round TKO, but it seems like most of his career has occurred over the last few months. Not that he had entirely evaded headlines before that, though. The #StoolGate controversy was a well-documented fiasco at UFC 178 that saw Romero, badly hurt at the end of the second round, take an extra 30 seconds on his stool. Many people (including the crowd, his opponent, Tim Kennedy, who Romero knocked out in the next round, and UFC President Dana White) considered this to be a dirty trick; a fighter cheating by snatching an additional half-minute of recovery time. And that could very well be true. But Romero was also smothered in Vaseline by the UFC’s officially-appointed cornerman, which referee “Big” John McCarthy instructed Romero’s corner team to remove – a slippery logistical error made slipperier by McCarthy’s instructions being delivered in English, to people who don’t speak or understand English. (As far as unintentionally funny officiating goes, that’s right up there with Steve Mazzagatti asking deaf light-heavyweight Matt Hamill if he was able to continue, and then waving the fight off when he didn’t answer.)
And then there was that spectacularly hilarious blunder during Romero’s post-fight interview at UFC Fight Night 70, in which Romero, a thickly-accented, devoutly-religious Cuban, instructed the crowd and the people watching around the world to “No forget Jesus”. To many people listening, it sounded a lot like he said, “No for gay, Jesus,” which many took to be Romero’s opinion on same-sex marriage – which the Supreme Court had passed legislation to legalise just 24 hours prior.
So, no, Romero hasn’t exactly flown under the radar. But the conversations around him always fixated on the attendant controversies, until at UFC 205 he not only flew above the radar, but through the air, cleaving former-champion Chris Weidman’s head almost in two before he landed. That bout was widely believed to be the deciding factor in which Middleweight would take the next crack at Michael Bisping’s 185lb title, and Romero had a few delightfully broken words for “The Count” post-fight:
Since then, the UFC instead scheduled Bisping in an extraordinarily ill-advised bout against the returning Canadian legend Georges St. Pierre, who has never fought at Middleweight before, leaving Romero as the inarguable number-one contender, but without a fight. He spent some time creating a fake GoFundMe page for the hospital bills that Bisping would inevitably accumulate should the two ever fight, but mostly he sat back, and he waited. And in the meantime, he morphed from a man who had been vilified as a cheat in several quarters and for multiple reasons, into the poster boy for the UFC’s repeated mistreatment of its talent. Here was a deserving contender, who was being overlooked and disregarded for reasons that were increasingly absurd and illogical.
Now, Michael Bisping is out with a knee injury and GSP is out with an eye injury, meaning two things: That their nonsensical fight isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and that Romero will contest for the interim Middleweight title on Saturday night, during Las Vegas’s International Fight Week, against surging Australian upstart Robert Whittaker. And all of a sudden, Romero is once again at the forefront of MMA culture. This time, though, he’s bringing all his perceived injustices with him. He’s not just shouldering the weight of a title fight on one of the year’s biggest fight cards, but the weight of being one of the few remaining representatives of the UFC’s purer, meritocratic roots.
And when Yoel Romero is in the conversation, so is USADA – the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a non-profit organization that oversees the UFC’s comprehensive (and comprehensively-flawed) drug-testing program. It’s inevitable, really. People see Yoel Romero, and they recognise that at 40 years old, he should not look the way he looks. They understand, implicitly, that it isn’t normal. And they naturally seek a rational explanation for it; some kind of easily-understood reason for a man who has lived four decades to look as though he has scarcely lived two. They don’t find one, of course. There isn’t one. So they turn to the next-best idea: That he must be chemically enhanced.
This isn’t an unreasonable assumption. It isn’t entirely fair, either – Romero has been competing internationally for the better part of 20 years, and has only ever tested positive for a tainted supplement, the use of which he was later exonerated for. But unreasonable? Not really. Nobody you know is like this. You have almost certainly never met or heard of a human being whose genetics are twisted in quite the same way as Yoel Romero’s. And that is your explanation, rational or otherwise: Yoel Romero won the jackpot on the genetic lottery.
I have a theory that many people discredit the significance of genetic variance in athletics because they like the idea of a level playing field; of anyone being able to achieve anything with the exact right amount of hard work and dedication. No such luck. You’ll never look like Yoel Romero, no matter how hard and consistently you train. Take all the steroids you want. Lift the heaviest weights you can find. Eat a lettuce leaf and a cup of cottage cheese every day for a year. You’ll never be that shredded. And if by some miracle you manage to sculpt your physique such that it remotely resembles Romero’s, I can personally guarantee that you will not be able to backflip into the splits at 40 years old – something that Romero did just the other day, as a fun warm-up:
The appeal of Yoel Romero is not his uncanny ability to knock other men unconscious. Lots of fighters have that trait. No, what people find fascinating about Romero, the reason he got by far the loudest pop at UFC 213’s open workouts and has had by far the most attention from the MMA press and on social media, is that he’s a freak. A mutant. The closest thing we have in the sport to a legitimate superhuman. He’s a 40-year-old man who’s built like a champion bodybuilder and moves like a panther. He’s a cartoon character, complete with that wonderful accent which, were it coming from the mouth of anyone else, would be a thoroughly racist caricature of a Latin-American. He’s genetically, physically, and comedically perfect.
Which is why, should he win on Saturday night, he might become the UFC’s next big star.
That sounds bizarre, I know. Romero can’t speak English, he’s a walking public-relations disaster, and he’s 40 – there’s only so long even a marvel like him can outrun the flawlessly-conditioned Father Time. His opponent, Whittaker, is a young, exciting knockout artist who holds the keys to the Oceania market that the UFC would very much like to penetrate. All available evidence would seem to suggest that the favourable outcome for the company would be Whittaker derailing Romero’s momentum, much like how he battered fellow Middleweight title contender Jacare Souza out of contention back in April. If it happens, the UFC will certainly make the most of it.
But it might not happen. Then what?
Then, I think, the UFC has a star on their hands – a star who will burn bright and fierce and probably not for long, but one whose trajectory will scorch a gleaming cleft in the night. Every few months we’ll get together, and we’ll exchange our hard-earned cash for the privilege of watching it barrel into one celestial object after another. And, eventually, we’ll get to see that star implode, due to either the passage of years or one of those cosmic collisions, it’ll flare with unimaginable intensity one last time, and as it winks out of existence, we’ll hear it implore us through the heavens. And never, ever, will we forget gay Jesus.