If there's one thing I love, it's a wrestler with a versatile kicking game.
High level wrestlers come into mixed martial arts with that impeccable balance and a supreme level of confidence in their takedown defense. Combine these qualities with a boyish love of old school kung fu movies, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Disaster of the "shin bouncing off cranium" variety. When a confident grappler puts his feet to good use, the fans are usually treated to a stunning highlight reel.
Here's Josh Thomson teaching Nate Diaz the importance of good footwork.
And here's Cain Velasquez reminding Junior Dos Santos that he's got more to worry about than just the takedown.
So Kung Le is a pretty good wrestler too...
I suppose you get the point. It's simply an enormous advantage being able to throw these flashy and devastating techniques with impunity.
The wrestler is poised to take advantage of high kicks for three reasons.
- He doesn't fear the opponent's takedown, due to exquisite balance.
- Even if he is put on his back, he's confident of his ability to get back up.
- Repeated high kicks can be utilised to shift focus away from defending the takedown.
The Fighter in Question
So keeping all the above in mind, allow me to highlight a middleweight flying a bit under the radar who meets all of these criteria. Cuban Olympic silver medalist, Yoel Romero.
Romero made his UFC debut against Clifford Starks and well... he put his knee through the guy's teeth. I'm trying to hop on his hype train early, because Romero has a lot going for him. High level grappling credentials, Olympian athleticism, and a propensity to throw interesting high risk techniques against (thus far) mostly over-matched competition.
In addition to his success at the 2000 Olympics, Romero is one of the few guys to actually beat Olympic Gold Medalist and Collegiate legend, Cael Sanderson, in international competition. Not to mention his various successes at other international tournaments, which includes a gold medal performance at the 1999 FILA world championships. Bloody Elbow writer, Mike Riordan, even went so far as to rank Yoel as the 3rd greatest wrestler in UFC history.
I'd love to give you some stats concerning his takedown defense, but Fight Metric has it listed as 0% which I suppose means nobody's even attempted a takedown on the guy yet. Probably a smart move on the part of his opponents.
Now the most exciting factoid about Yoel, is his record: 5-1 with 5 KO's. Dude just loves to deliver concussive blows resulting in unconsciousness, and as yet has done so well with the strategy, suffering only a single misstep against Rafael Cavalcante. Though it's worth noting that this sole loss occurred at light heavyweight, and it was a very competitive affair until the finish.
So basically Romero is an aggressive striker who favors the kicking game, with about the best wrestling credentials possible.
Strikes at Range and Movement
In his UFC debut against Starks, Yoel threw a couple of side kicks, a hook kick, and a flying knee that all landed. He seems to favor a classic Muay Thai stance, relying on quick footwork to dive into attacks and quickly retreat before the counter. He puts a lot of emphasis on his erratic movement, presumably to keep his opponents guessing as to the angles he'll be attacking from and retreating to. However, he has a tendency to bounce a bit too much for my liking, and can be a overly cautious at times. The end result can make him look a bit sloppy, though still very dangerous.
His frenzied and exaggerated movement is fast and confusing, and I've seen him crossing his legs as well as put himself off balance in attempts to move away quickly. He also frequently retreats straight backward, rather than angling to a side. Though in general he circles very well. Despite these mixed habits, you could certainly put a positive spin on his ring-craft and just call him unorthodox or unpredictable.
So the guy isn't exactly Anderson Silva, but he's got a solid foundation to build from. His striking has a lot of potential, and once he's committed to an attack he will throw with power and conviction.
Though his striking from the outside seems to be somewhat limited to big flashy kicks and a lunging straights or overhands, he still manages to throw at a variety of targets. He's show willingness to attack the body with a straight left as well as side kicks. I've seen him throw the "charlie horse" leg punch (popularized by Ben Henderson in his fight with Nate Diaz) and when he has a guy cornered he unloads with powerful hooks.
Cage Work and Inside Fighting
Those hooks are key to his striking at clench range. His inside game is not quite as intriguing as his strikes at kicking range, but it's probably more dangerous for his opposition. Romero likes to use his grappling savvy to bully his opponents to the cage and launch powerful hooks from both hands. Here he looks very unseasoned in his MMA striking, though not necessarily ineffective. The squared up left and right hooks may not be the prettiest, but he does have 5 TKO's to his name that indicate he can hit hard. In his highlight reel you can glimpse the relative efficacy of these strikes, starting at 1:34.
Yoel Romero Palacio Highlights by Balint (via 1BALINT1)
He's predictable in these flurries, but that doesn't mean getting smashed by Romero's quick shots won't hurt an opponent. And the real problem for anyone on the receiving end is getting off of the cage and back to the center of the ring. Those cage grappling skills are legit, and only seem to be limited by Romero's gas tank, and his affinity for landing big strikes in the center of the ring.
Just as Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett, and Cain Velasquez have all exhibited immaculate control in their recent fights, Romero has the strength and skill to force a dirty brawl against the fence. Though from what I've seen, he prefers to fight it out in the open after uncorking a flurry, that is assuming the other man is still conscious after taking the shots. It'll be interesting to see if he takes advantage of the fence more as he develops.
In his fight with Cavalcante, Yoel had him cornered on a couple of occasions, and Rafael had a hard time punching his way out. When he did swing enough to warrant a break from the onslaught, Romero did a great job of making him miss while disengaging. He was actually taking control of the fight with Cavalcante before getting caught with a spinning back-fist that stunned him, allowing Fiejao to swarm for the finish. Before that though, I had him winning the round, and possibly the fight. It's hard to say because the first round was plagued with inactivity.
The unfortunate part of this story is that Yoel is already 36 years old. So he doesn't have much time to improve and elevate his status. This makes me question his ceiling in the increasingly competitive middleweight division. Though from the look of him, you'd never think he's on the back end of his physical prime
That is a scary dude right there. Something about Cuba seems to produce freakishly shredded super athletes. Romero and Hector Lombard both look more like body builders than fighters.
Still, in MMA you can never underestimate high level grappling, even in the elder statesmen of the sport. Dan Henderson and Josh Barnett are still hanging in there. Need I even mention the Natural? It certainly seems like the wrestlers have some staying power. A fact that is most likely due to their ability to dictate where the fight takes place, and therefore limit the amount of punches they have to take.
But back to Romero. I basically just wanted to put it on record that this guy has the potential to be very exciting, and that I can't wait to see him against some higher level competition. First though, he's got to get past Ronny Markes tomorrow at UFC Fight Night 31.
Markes is a much younger man, 11 years Romero's junior, and he's got an impressive win streak coming into this fight. The momentum and x factor of youth is on his side, but he's never faced anyone with grappling near Romero's level before. So I'm expecting a vicious ground and pound victory in the first round.
What do you think? Am I way off base here? Does Romero's age represent a ticking clock and his erratic movement spell technical failing against the top notch strikers in the middleweight elite? I realize it's far too early to be asking questions like this about a man with 6 fights on his record, but hey--the middleweight champ only has 10 W's next to his name, and a very similar skill-set to boot.