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Wrestling for MMA: Yoel Romero

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Attempting to understand how the Cuban Olympian has applied his unique wrestling style to mixed martial arts

Coverage of mixed martial arts has become largely about narratives. Questions of motivation, career momentum, and sweeping generalizations about styles dominate the conversation.

Basic narratives and factoids are easily digestible and can carry across a fighter’s career. When you have hundreds of fighters to learn about, It’s just an easier way to operate than digging up specifics or developing deeper insight. You didn’t expect Mike Goldberg to think of new things to say about Anderson Silva each fight, did you? Most experienced commentators, and even analysts at times, can fall into these comfortable patterns.

It’s up to motivated individuals to combat misleading or shallow narratives, one at a time.

When it comes to Yoel Romero, it’s hard to overstate the advantage of his athleticism. Given the way his abilities have endured well past what most consider a person’s physical prime, it’s fair to call Romero the greatest athlete in MMA history.

While I think far too much of Romero’s athleticism is attributed to genetics (by Joe Rogan, mostly), it is also fair to say a lot of what Romero does works due to physical advantages.

But so many take it too far. You’ll find many fans of the sport believe Romero wins solely through, random, thoughtless, explosive bursts. There is a popular narrative that Romero is utterly without process.

In highlighting the way Yoel Romero has utilized and sometimes struggled with his wrestling in MMA, I hope to bring to light the clear intentionality, predictability and development of his game in many respects.

Cuba’s Yoel Romero (R) battles Russia’s Photo credit should read RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Perennial Contender

On the subject of narrative-expanding, let’s address the abbreviated nature of Yoel Romero’s freestyle credentials.

At this point everyone knows that Romero lost in the 2000 Olympic finals to take silver.

I will not discount that the Olympics are typically tougher to win than the World Wrestling Championships. The Olympics carry more symbolic significance, leading to cyclic peaking by many athletes. Today, the difference is even more pronounced considering fewer weight classes are offered in Olympic years than not, usually resulting in a higher density of talent per weight.

With this in mind, many athletes have gotten hot for one tournament and done nothing else with their international careers. The list of one-time World and Olympic medalists is exhaustive.

Earlier I poked fun at Mike Goldberg, but he actually did a better job regarding Yoel’s credentials than most. His typical line was, “One of the best in the world for nearly a decade.”

Yoel Romero (Cuba)

Junior World Championship Pan American Championship Pan American Games World Championship Olympic Games
Junior World Championship Pan American Championship Pan American Games World Championship Olympic Games
1997 Silver 1998 Gold 2003 Gold 1997 5th 2000 Silver
1999 Bronze 1998 Bronze 2004 4th
2001 Gold 1999 Gold
2002 Gold 2001 Bronze
2004 Gold 2002 Silver
2007 Gold 2005 Silver

He wasn’t lying.

There are many Olympic silver medalist, but there are very few wrestlers who medal at five straight World and Olympic tournaments, or earn six medals in eight years at the senior level.

It’s even more impressive to consider that Yoel Romero was not a late bloomer, he went from Junior World silver to senior World bronze in one year. For clarity, the “junior” classification is, at least today, reserved for athletes under the age of 21. Some wrestlers transition well from juniors to seniors, but more often than not the change from wrestling fellow teens to grown men impacts results significantly.

Obviously World and Olympic tournaments are a big deal, but what about Pan Ams? As far as continental championships are concerned, they don’t quite compare to Euros or Asian Championships. More often than not, Pan Ams are a proving ground between the US and Cuban team. Romero defeated Cael Sanderson, the most successful folkstyle wrestler in American history, at the Pan American Championship in 2003.

The Pan American Games hold a bit more significance, as they are only held once every four years, the cycle running one year prior to the Olympics.

I’d like to have provided an in-depth rundown on Romero’s wrestling career, but the necessary footage is unfortunately unavailable. Instead, enjoy some highlights that demonstrate Romero’s typical style.

As a wrestler, Romero was a dedicated hand fighter, spending most of each match snapping on the head of his opponent. After enough time wearing on the neck muscles, wrestlers will either become easier to fully snap to their knees, from where you can work go-behinds, or will make more concerted efforts to resist and straighten their posture. If you’re really lucky, a wrestler will stand up straight out of their stance to get a rest.

For Romero, it didn’t matter. His form on his snapdown was such that he could reliably lower the level of his opponent, opening up the ankle pick. Early in the video you can see him ankle picking a prolific ankle picker in Cael Sanderson.

I’d heard that early in his career Romero was not able to practice on soft mats and only trained higher level shots for the most part. It’s possible Romero’s upper body game, mostly chained attacks off of inside and outside trips, and his snapdown assault, were developed due to these circumstances. Low ankle attacks are the perfect complement to a heavy handfighter’s game, see Kyle Snyder.

So while the force behind Romero’s snaps and shots was certainly freakish, his form was near-perfect and he knew exactly when, how, and why to use those attacks.

You may be surprised that Yoel Romero only collected one World championship, considering how many years he was clearly among the best two or three wrestlers in his weight class. As mentioned in my breakdown of Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez, the wrestling community largely agrees that Cuban athletes sometimes agree to lose matches in exchange for financial incentives. There are countless stories of Cubans being seen talking to opposing coaches before losing suspicious looking matches in high profile situations. There are several specific examples pertaining to Romero himself.

While that is mainly heresay, know that I personally believe Romero would likely have one or two more World, and perhaps Olympic titles to his name if he had wrestled every match in earnest.

Cuba’s Yoel Romero appears tied up by Ru Photo credit should read RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Yoel Romero: Wrestling for MMA

Early on fighting in Europe, the athletic and pure mechanical disparity between Romero and his opponents makes it a bit difficult to find strategic choices. Frankly, he didn’t need strategy at the time.

The basic principle for what works in MMA is still there. He waited on his opponent to walk in on him with strikes and shot. It’s the setup that will always be the most available for wrestlers, one you can see clearly in the early careers of Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes.

In a wrestling match, you will almost never see your opponent offering you their hips with their arms reaching out toward you. On the regional circuits where striking is more single-minded and rudimentary, shot entries are readily available.

An athlete with the drive and finishing mechanics of Romero could get pretty far by just waiting on sloppy striking entries and shooting under, but by his second pro fight, Romero can already be seen playing with the ideas that will make him an elite fighter.

You may remember Romero’s viral one-handed ankle picks from this bout.

Aside from treating Michał Fijałka like a pre-teen camper at a summer clinic, Romero showed an early iteration of his bouncing, rhythmic in-and-out boxing approach. Exaggerated head movement brought Fijałka in over extended on his own attacks, while the explosive striking entries of Romero either froze Fijałka, or got him covering up reliably enough that Romero could shoot under his hands on his open hips.

Explosive power striking mixed in with convincing feints left Ņikita Petrovs flinching and pawing at Romero, opening up the shot in a similar fashion.

In summary, Romero learned how to feint and throw his hands, read and anticipate reactions, then punish with doubles.

Strikeforce and Early UFC Career

After less than two years as a professional UFC fighter, Romero was signed to Strikeforce (RIP) to fight Rafael Feijao, fresh off a light heavyweight title loss. In his freestyle career, Romero rarely competed above 190 pounds, a promotional debut against a championship level fighter in a major organization was less than ideal.

As wrestlers often due in high profile matches, Romero spent the first round limiting exchanges. It’s fairly common for a six minute match to begin with next to zero attacks from either wrestler, the first point of the match being awarded due to multiple passivity calls. Romero drew the ire of the crowd and commentary team by taking zero committed actions, drawing a verbal warning from the referee.

Shot Entries

But Romero couldn’t just “decide” to do something. It was clear he recognized that striking into the pocket against Feijao was a dangerous proposition, and he lacked the kicking game at the time to contend with him on the outside. What we saw instead were naked shots when Feijao’s back neared the cage.

Perhaps a bit too used to fighting in the ring, Romero seemed entirely unsure of how to proceed once his shot left him pressing Feijao up against the cage. Romero’s adaptation was to leap at Feijao with a flying knee, strike, then duck under on a shot against the cage. The entry worked like a charm, but Romero clearly had no idea what to do once he was in on the double.

Wrestling against the cage is not something wrestlers just pick up inherently, it’s a trained skill. That’s not to say no wrestler ever enters the sport with that knowledge, but it comes from wrestling against the wall in the room, there are no wrestling specific situations to mimic that challenge in competition.

How did Romero adjust? To start, the flying knee brought him to the cage, but he had a hard time controlling the position he landed in and his level change was shallow as a result. Against Brad Tavares, Romero leans on the switch front kick to drive Tavares back, lands as a southpaw and throws to continue his forward momentum.

Once Romero arrived at the cage, the length of his barrage varied, but what was consistent was that he played with the hands of Tavares. The clear difference between his successful and unsuccessful shots against the cage on Tavares was that he kept posts on elbows and wrists while he threw, encouraging Tavares to keep his guard high. Strangely enough, although Romero was an excellent with low shots in freestyle, he doesn’t love a deep level change in MMA. When shooting right under the hips, even a little resistance with underhooks or attacking a wrist can pull you up off your shot.

Romero’s incredible drive was much more of a factor in open space, where he actually shuffled in outside Tavares’ lead leg behind his lead hand, shooting under behind the feint of his rear hand.

Otherwise, simple reactive shots were still present for Romero.

Playing With Level Changes

Masters of low attacks in wrestling require strategies to straighten up their opponents. The easiest way to do that is to frequently tease attacks that require them to lower their level in response. A subsequent threat that capitalizes on that lower level is helpful, but not required, your opponent will naturally come back up into their regular stance. Jordan Burroughs is one of the best at utilizing this approach.

Against Rafael Feijao, Yoel Romero played with low level attacks in his own, unorthodox manner.

To fit in more directly with a cohesive MMA game, Romero shifted to body and leg punching for a similar purpose. A level change from a wrestler of Romero’s caliber is already enough to elicit a response, but if they attack is actually damaging, as most of Romero’s are, now his opponent has to legitimately fear being punched in the leg. After giving that look, Romero’s opponents are faced with additional considerations when they see the level change. Do you downblock, retract the leg, attempt to counter?

Against Ronny Markes, Romero constantly showed different possibilities off level changes. He shot straights to the body, he lowered levels without striking at all, he briefly ducked for takedowns. Off all of these looks, Romero saw a consistent reaction, Markes dropped his hands.

In the third round Romero starts to dip, Markes flinches and drops his hands, and Romero clobbers him with an overhand.

Wrestling for MMA is often about the interplay between striking and wrestling, it goes both ways.

Upper Body Attacks

Romero’s bursting striking approach has been known to create collisions. Off striking entries and failed shots alike, Romero often ends up clinched with his opponent, opening the door to upper body wrestling techniques.

The inside trip is a beautiful attack for MMA, it works best when your opponent is pressuring hard from over-unders to drive you back to the cage. Most fighters feel safer with their opponent’s back to the cage, so that scenario comes up fairly often. Derek Brunson was pushing in so vigorously that all Romero had to do was cinch his overhook, plant his rear leg and crow hop in to hook the inside of Brunson’s lead leg. The momentum of Romero’s body weight following suit was enough to plant Brunson on his butt.

My articles on the takedowns of Hector Lombard and Jon Jones both showed the potential throw opportunities opened up by clinch striking, specifically knees to the body. Against Brad Tavares, Romero pummeled for an underhook, causing Tavares to begin to back his hips away. With his body wide open, Romero nails him with a knee to the gut. Not only does Tavares walk himself back into Romero, he turns his hip toward Romero to blade himself and make his body a smaller target.

With Tavares’ lead leg up for grabs and the angle already there, Romero reached over the underhook of Tavares and locked his hands behind his waist. Romero exploded into a pivot, stepping deep behind the lead leg of Tavares, arching his back and ripping the body lock. It’s called a Polish throw, and it’s gorgeous. Romero hit it twice on Tavares.

Defense and Scrambling

Early in his UFC career, many fans noticed that Romero was shockingly susceptible to being taken down.

The commentary team supposed that the loose striking style of Romero was what was opening him up. While many striking entries of Romero put him wildly out of position and often gave up his hips or leg, that doesn’t tell the full story.

I believe it comes down to two things, one I can prove, one I can’t. My guess is that, logically, Romero did not train for people to be trying to take him down very often and got a bit rusty in that department. In the same vein, Romero likely really never learned how to wrestle off the cage offensively or defensively, and it shows.

Watch what happens when Romero is forced to defend a shot from Derek Brunson. Romero sprawls in the traditional sense as much as he can, but his feet are against the cage. As Brunson drives forward, Romero attempts to attack with his hips, arching his back and pushing them forward, as one is encouraged to do in wrestling. The problem is that with no room behind him, Brunson could continuing driving and stood Romero up straight and out of position. In MMA the preferred defense is to flatten out against the cage and take a wide base, something you would really never do in a wrestling match.

On the bright side, Romero proved himself to be an excellent scrambling, consistently making use of posts and frames to create distance and shrimp his hips away, much like the great Jose Aldo.

FOX UFC Saturday: Tavares v Romero Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The Contender

Romero’s showcase bout against Brad Tavares marked his transition from rising force to UFC contender, each subsequent bout has held major divisional importance, and the caliber of competent grapplers and wrestlers he faced increased significantly.

Successful Attacks

While we got to see a bit more depth in the wrestling offense of Romero, the basic principles supporting his attacks did not change in these examples.

But it is so fun to watch.

Just as he did in his first professional fight, Romero timed the striking entry of Tim Kennedy, changed levels and blew him over with a double.

Later against Kennedy we once again saw Romero’s ability to take deep outside steps off over-unders, resulting in a high-energy scramble. Romero picks the ankle as Kennedy begins to stand back up, but Kennedy has height, he turns in hard and punches his underhook across the back of Romero, knocking him off his base. Romero bases on his hands and one knee and quickly recovers, regaining his footing and distancing his hips from Kennedy, coming up into what we call the “quad pod” in freestyle, on both feet and hands. Kennedy steps around for a lazy go-behind off the quad pod and Romero catches the trail leg, switching off to a shot. With one leg still on the single, Romero finishes high on the armpit and puts Kennedy on his back.

Perhaps concerningly, Romero treated that situation like a freestyle scramble. At no point was his back exposed to the ground, even when it meant allowing the threat of Kennedy getting behind him. Romero also instinctively pounced on the opportunity to put Kennedy’s back on the mat, disregarding different adjustments that could have been made to better avoid the resulting guillotine.

I truly believe that Yoel Romero had adjusted his entry game for MMA, but the remaining framework of his wrestling remains conditioned for freestyle.

Against Chris Weidman, who was consistently shooting from the outside, Romero caught an underhook and stood him up straight. Weidman planted his feet and leaned forward hard to avoid being driven into the cage, and Romero broke the tension by powerfully blocking his base on the right with a foot sweep while throwing Weidman by his head in the same direction. Weidman’s back exposed (four points in freestyle!) and he managed to belly down, but not before Romero had already followed him down and spun for a graceful go-behind.

Defense

Plan A for anyone defending against a shot is pretty simple, sprawl, catch underhooks, and disengage. Like Jose Aldo, Romero’s secondary takedown defense is based around posting and framing enough to free up his hips and turn. Getting a level underneath the head, if not an underhook, works as well. If he can limp leg and kick out he will, if he has to give up rear standing and fight the hands from there, that’s plan C.

You can see most of this on display against Tim Kennedy, Jacare Souza and Chris Weidman.

But what approaches do work on a wrestler like Romero?

As we’ve seen, attacking near the fence is a great idea. I still have yet to see Romero pick up on the side-on wide base defense that is taught in MMA. If his reaction isn’t fast enough, you’re going to get deep on his legs.

Even without a deep level change, Romero is often just standing straight up against the cage. If you can get past his hands, his base is narrow and the entries are there. Jacare had no trouble getting a tight bodylock, Romero was only able to survive and reverse the attempt because of an egregious cage grab.

The takedown Chris Weidman finished on Romero was fairly circumstantial. He got to his usual snatch single and Romero underhooked what would be the connecting hand. Weidman reacted quickly enough, and had the requisite strength to lock his hands through the underhook and crack Romero down to his hip. Not exactly a replicable formula.

UFC 225: Whittaker v Romero 2 Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Robert Whittaker

If we were ranking the best hips in UFC history among non-wrestlers, I’d have a hard time deciding between Jose Aldo and Robert Whittaker.

Not only is Whittaker a freakish athlete, but he actually took the time to become a serious freestyle competitor for Australia, nearly making the team.

Balance, combined with Whittaker’s quick whizzer defense and hip separation, made deep entries off Romero’s leads nearly impossible to finish.

Whittaker’s use of the whizzer goes far beyond holding, you can see him pressuring hard on the shoulder and angling his body off the whizzer side when Romero attacks, then quickly squaring his hips with Romero’s when they tie up.

Like Aldo and Romero, Whittaker also frames under the head to raise the posture of Romero on driving shots, allowing him to secure his base while bouncing back on one leg.

But these are shots from relative space when Whittaker has time to see Romero coming in, how does he deal with Romero shooting under his entries reactively?

Absurdly well, all things considered.

Whittaker’s springing striking style should theoretically be a death sentence against a proficient counter shot wrestler like Romero. You can see when Whittaker is slower to react, Romero can get a clean bite on the legs, run Whittaker’s feet the way he wants to and finish strong.

So why doesn’t it always work? Some inherent qualities in Whittaker’s mechanics help tremendously. Whittaker often turns his hips in while throwing, especially with his lead hook. Entering side-on, you’ve created the furthest possible distance between your hips, and Whittaker’s wide base compounds this effect.

Robert Whittaker also makes use of frequent feints, Romero can’t always know if an entry is coming, and he doesn’t have the energy to always shoot under an entry. Sometimes he’s more likely to throw a strike. Early in the above clip, you can see Whittaker spring in, parry Romero’s lead hand, and then easily gain his defensive bearings against a delayed level change.

At about 27 seconds of the above clip, Whittaker shows how deep his wrestling skill goes. He leads with a rear straight, his hips square. Romero ducks under and turns the corner, getting to rear standing, attempting to run his feet in circles and intermittently drag Whittaker’s hips to the mat. Whittaker saves his base by getting to the quad pod, then instantly drops to his butt and looks to sit back and out. Romero follows and Whittaker gets back to the quad pod, reaching for a switch when he sees Romero is favoring one side.

All this scrambling buys Whittaker enough time to work his way to the cage where he can lean against it and peel hands. Almost any other fighter would have conceded the position and would not have had the savvy to keep Romero from progressing.

But Romero did find success wrestling Whittaker from upper body positions, specifically rear standing, where you can see they ended up quite frequently.

In their first fight, Romero found that Whittaker kept his feet underneath him while working to peel hands from rear standing, rather than leaning his hips back and widening his base in front of him. For Romero, this opened up the powerful foot sweep from rear standing, or the simple act of kicking out Whittaker’s base from behind the ankle in more static positions.

Romero showed off a few other ideas, some successful, some not, but his attacks from rear standing were by far the most consistent and effective.

UFC 241 Cormier v Miocic 2: Ultimate Media Day Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

UFC 241: Yoel Romero vs. Paulo Costa

In Paulo Costa, Romero will be facing a fighter that can essentially only fight well moving forward and pressuring toward the cage.

He will not be shooting on Romero, but he will be swinging.

My initial concerns for Romero’s wrestling are centered around the consistent body hooking attack of Costa. “Borrachinha” has been known to switch up the level of attack on his hook flurries, which could give him easy access to underhooks if Romero shoots underneath.

Romero did, however, show off an improved and intentional jab in his last two outings. The jab of Uriah Hall frustrated Paulo Costa and caused his entries to come a bit more predictably from a bit further away, opening up a reactive double.

If Uriah Hall can jab and double Paulo Costa, I have high expectations, even for an aging Romero.

While this article covered a variety of topics, I hope that you gained an appreciation not only for the credentials of Yoel Romero, but for his game that is much more intentional, while flawed, than many give him credit for.