The most remarkable thing about sports isn’t the accolades chased down by the athletes, the championships, awards, or all the fame and recognition. No, what makes sports so special is that it brings the earth together from worlds apart. This beauty is most amplified when athletes who most showcase that fact cross paths and, in our Ultimate sport, collide.
At UFC 225, we will witness such a collision, when fans from around the world come together to witness undisputed middleweight champion Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker making his first title defense against Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero.
Immediately following Yoel Romero’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience MMA Show in March, I had someone reach out to me, telling me he was moved to tears listening to Yoel Romero’s story and the pride Romero takes in now making a home for himself in the United States. When Romero sits across from Joe Rogan and, through Joey Diaz, provides snippets of what many are willing to go through to be a part of this country, Romero paints a picture for those listening at home. But without living it or even seeing it, it’s difficult to believe that any words can do such experiences justice. Fortunately, we are blessed to have a sport where stories are told within a cage, with blood scribed on the canvas rather than a page to leave behind a legacy.
Yoel Romero currently lives apart from his wife and children as he resides and trains in Florida. This is a sacrifice that Yoel Romero is willing to make so that he can provide a better life by sending money back home to Cuba frequently. As someone familiarized with tales of immigrants running past fresh corpses of loved ones to complete voyages and other stories carrying tales of rape, brutality, and horrors that we are completely oblivious to, Romero knows how much it means to so many to be able to make it to the United States, let alone find major success in the country. Both Romero’s journey to UFC 225 and that of his opponent have been a lifetime in the making.
Both Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker began athletic training at the age of six years old with the guidance of their fathers. For Romero, it was wrestling his father introduced him to, while Whittaker’s father had him enrolled in karate. Whittaker began competing in MMA in 2009 and went 9-2 on the independent circuit before participating in The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes in 2012, which culminated in a unanimous decision victory over Brad Scott to win Whittaker the tournament. After going 2-2 in his first four contests in the UFC, Whittaker would go on to win seven straight fights leading into his first encounter with Yoel Romero for the interim UFC middleweight championship at UFC 213. Romero, who continued honing his wrestling skills from age six to go on to win five wrestling world championships and a silver medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics, entered the bout without suffering a single loss in the promotion but eight victories, six of which being earned by KO/TKO.
Romero would start strong in the first two rounds, handicapping much of Whittaker’s movement with kicks to the left knee that would partially demobilize the Australian. As the fight progressed, however, Whittaker would use stellar takedown defense, frequent front kicks, and a superior striking output than his counterpart. Whittaker would take home a 48-47(x3) unanimous decision to earn what would later become the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. This first fight was very competitive and tested both men’s endurance, will, and resourcefulness.
As the victor, Whittaker has raised the middleweight championship with pride alongside the Australian flag, as stated in a GQ Australia interview following his championship win, “I am immensely proud to be an Australian and to be a pioneer in the sport to, you know, lead, lead today’s MMA scene against all these other countries, you know, it really, it really does light me up, to see that the Australian flag when I walk out, you know, to hear them called out that I’m Australian and I am very patriotic. I am really proud of my country and proud of where I am from.”
Yoel Romero is also proud of his roots. We saw glimpses of that that after Michael Bisping ripped up the Cuban flag as he sat cageside during the first Romero/Whittaker bout. In the aftermath, Romero wanted to defend the honor of his flag and get his hands on Michael Bisping more than ever after never getting the opportunity during Bisping’s controversial middleweight title reign. But when this Soldier salutes prior to each bout, he does so with a love and reverence for more than one flag. The gentleman who reached out to me after viewing Romero on the JRE MMA show said something profound when describing why he was so moved by the podcast. He said that it struck him as ironic that the most patriotic people he encounters are the very immigrants that so many shun. Yoel Romero’s appreciation for America comes from a lifetime of residing in an environment without the same conveniences that most take for granted on a daily basis. Yoel Romero does not take the United States for granted. And while he is still gracing our screens with his presence, we should return the favor.
At 41 years of age, we do not know how long Yoel Romero will be able to continue defying the laws of time and nature. With a loss, who knows? June 9th may even be the last time we see Romero compete. But win or lose, whether Romero fights one more fight or 10 more times, talents like him are hard to find, and he is just one of thousands of examples of immigrants who make our lives better in ways many do not stop to consider. Though immigrants do not take this country for granted, sadly many do just that to immigrants and their contributions, whether it be through their labor that makes our lives more convenient, the different cuisine from around the world that so many enjoy, or, as is the case with Yoel Romero, a tremendous talent that rarely comes along that we can witness as an escape from the trials of everyday life in order to be entertained. Like so many immigrants, Yoel Romero’s presence makes our lives better. In a country where folks can go wherever they choose whenever they choose to, fans will elect to use their freedom to tune in to UFC 225 to spend their night watching Yoel Romero making what could be his final attempt at UFC championship gold.
Yoel Romero has escaped his circumstances by necessity and, in doing so, has given us an opportunity to escape as well on June 9th to appreciate the splendor of the human being and the human spirit, which transcends ethnicity and nationality. As we have witnessed, it is Cuban. It is Australian. It is American. And on nights like June 9th, it is celebrated. This escape will feature Yoel Romero giving chase once more to the championship that has been within reach but never in his grasp. And whether you are riding with Romero on his latest journey or hoping the champion obstructs his pursuit of happiness, as long as you devote any of your time on this earth to witnessing this high-stakes bout when you could easily be somewhere else, then much like so many other immigrants Americans intersect with in ways often overlooked, we aren’t just a part of his journey…he is a part of ours.