Sometimes super-talented athletes rise through the ranks of their sport in a pretty straight line. They show promise, pay their dues, check all the boxes on the way up, and then, poof, they win that big championship and stay on top for a while, all of their dreams coming true.
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At the turn of the 21st century, Yoel Romero looked like he would have one of these perfectly linear career paths in the world of international freestyle wrestling. After a promising stint representing Cuba in FILA's Junior age group (20 years old and under), a 20 year old Romero placed fifth at his first Senior-level (all ages) World Championships in 1997. He followed that up with a third place finish at the 1998 Senior World Championships, and in 1999 he took the next logical step, winning a gold medal at the World Championships. Romero was young, powerful, dynamic and every indication pointed to a future with him collecting multiple world championships. Going into the 2000 Olympic year, Romero appeared to be the odds-on favorite to win gold at 85kg at the Sydney Games.
When the Olympics came along, everything started according plan. Romero trounced his first four opponents without conceding a single point. He made it to the Olympic finals accompanied by a sense of inevitability. When the matside announcer introduced him to the crowd before the gold medal match, he stood still, stoic and regal, oozing confidence; the king had arrived for his coronation. He wore his singlet straps in his signature criss-cross fashion; a style he likely adopted because he thought it made him look like a badass.
He was probably right.
At this point you probably notice the scrawny, Rubber Soul-era Beatles reject looking lad rubbing his elbows nonchalantly in the baggy red singlet. Perhaps, you might be wondering if Olympic wrestling medal matches feature jobbers just like pro wrestling house shows, or if Yoel plans on kicking sand in the young man's face to demonstrate the virtues of proper strength training and nutrition. Most likely, you figured that some poor bastard wandered into the arena to absorb a butt whooping with a side of silver medal.
You'd be right.
Of course, as it turns out, that the poor bastard is Romero.
The guy in red happens to be Adam Saitiev of Russia (specifically Chechnya), a stone-cold killer on the mat. 15 seconds into the match he inside trips Romero off his feet, and holds him on his back, placing the Cuban in a 4-0 hole. The intricacies of Saitiev's technique defy any sort of scientific description; his wrestling crosses the threshold from great into the sublime.
Saitiev wrestled in these games at least a full weight class above his optimum weight. At the next weight class down in the Sydney Olympics, Russia sent Bouvaisar Saitiev, Adam's older brother, and the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time. Bouvaisar wrestled like he competed in a different sport than his contemporaries, he was a magician, the sport has never seen his like and may never again, and Adam was, at most, only slightly worse than him.
To his credit, Romero doesn't just fold after the first trip; he tries to stage a comeback. Later in the match, he narrowed Saitiev's lead with an ankle pick, dropping and scooping the Russian's heel with one hand, while pushing his head over the scooped heel with the other.
Romero could not close the gap any further, and his aggressiveness plays right into Saitiev's hands.
You cannot quite see it, but early in the second period, Saitiev throws the Cuban's body over another lightning-fast inside trip low on the right leg, and steps his hips over Romero's as they both fall to the mat. They land, Romero momentarily flat on his back, and the referee, after some unnecessary gesturing, calls the pin; Saitiev wins in a historic spectacle with one of the greatest single wrestling moves in Olympic history, and Romero winds up with the silver medal.
After this match, the upward slope of Romero's wrestling career flattened out. For the next seven years, he consistently maintained his form as one of the world's best wrestlers, but the mystique of early Romero had evaporated, never to return. In 2002 he would lose to Saitiev again in the finals of the World Championships, and take the bronze at the 2001 World Championships. He put himself in position to win a second world title in 2005, but wrestled a head-scratchingly terrible match against Georgia's Revaz "The Sasquatch" Mindorashvili, losing a lopsided decision in the gold medal final. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, he narrowly missed out on making a second straight Olympic finals, falling by a slim margin in the semifinals to the eventual gold medalist, Cael Sanderson of the United States, whom Romero had beaten twice and never lost to up to that point. Romero's career showed he had what it took to be great, but not what it took to truly make history.
Yoel Romero's WrestlingTechnique
Romero carried a full toolbox of effective takedowns with him onto the wrestling mat, scoring the vast majority of his points with offensive wrestling from his feet. He could take opponents down through a variety of means; he hit smooth duckunders and a capable slide by. However, if Romero had a signature takedown to hang his hat on, it would be his ankle pick.
Here he hits this ankle pick to the same side as his right-handed collar tie. He uses his immense strength to pull down on his opponent's head, collapsing his body while dropping to the knees and lifting his adversary's leg from behind the foot.
As often happens with avid ankle pickers, Romero found himself wrestling from his knees fairly often. Though an unadvisable position for most wrestlers, particularly in freestyle, Romero enjoyed a great deal of success on his knees. Here his opponent blocks the initial ankle pick attempt, but Romero follows up by pouncing off his knees into a quick double leg. These days, you can see American superstar Jordan Burroughs shoot doubles in a similar manner.
Romero's ankle picking abilities morphed into the freakish ability to simply stoop over and grab his opponent's ankle with no head control. Watching this, you may think it looks simple and easy. It certainly is not. Taking a good wrestler down in this manner requires almost superhuman speed and timing. Try it sometime, you will quickly find that it's actually almost impossible.
Here Romero executes the same technique during his weird stint in the German professional freestyle wrestling league, shortly after defecting from Cuba. He clowns around a bit, probably well aware that competing on this level amounts to the same degree of ridiculousness as Peyton Manning suiting up for a game in a second-tier arena league.
The fact that he also actually hit this move in an MMA bout is simply astounding.
Factgrinder Final Analysis
I don't want to create the unfair impression that Romero underachieved as a wrestler. He had the ability to place himself on the extremely short list of the greatest wrestlers of all time at his weight, but instead, ultimately wound up on a somewhat longer list. He still sports an impressive trophy case, with five medals from World Championships, including a gold, not to mention an Olympic silver medal. Additionally, in his career he managed to beat three Olympic champions, five world champions and a slew of other medalists. Right now he can claim the most of accomplished amateur wrestling background of any fighter in the UFC, by far.
As for his outstanding wrestling skills failing to manifest themselves in the octagon, some may point out that the low-level attacks he relied upon as a wrestler do not adapt well to MMA. I find this explanation a bit simplistic and highly unsatisfactory. If Romero can knock people out with flying knees, he can certainly hit a more conventional mma-relevant wrestling attacks, like a high double leg, with the requisite proficiency. Fairly regularly, you see sequences of Romero's fights that would easily resolve themselves favorably through the slightest application of his wrestling, but it seems as if he doesn't deign to use it.
It all goes back to the crossed singlet straps. Romero, to this day, remains keenly conscious of his image. I think he believes that knocking people out with strikes from his feet makes him look like more of a badass than beating an opponent to a pulp after taking him to the ground. Perhaps most would agree with him, including those writing his checks, but I fear that his preoccupation with fighting aesthetic will cost him in the long run.
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