Yoel Romero has a habit of laughing a bit before he answers a question. But he broke into a full-out giggle when it was noted to him that he will become the oldest fighter to win a UFC belt for the first time if he defeats Robert Whittaker for the middleweight title on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 225 at the United Center in Chicago.
He’s an easygoing guy who enjoys life and his work, so much so that he doesn’t consider what he does work.
“I’m 41?” he said, laughing. “Oh yeah. That’s right. I am.”
Back in August 2004, Randy Couture regained the light heavyweight title at UFC 49 by stopping Vitor Belfort on a cut when he was 41 years, one month and 28 days. He then moved up to heavyweight and defeated Tim Sylvia at UFC 66 to claim the heavyweight belt for the final time when he was 43 years, eight months and 14 days old.
Couture, though, won his first UFC belt when he was 37. No one has ever won the belt for the first time at an older age than Romero, who will be 41 years, two months and seven days old when he meets Whittaker for the belt.
The significance of what he is trying to accomplish doesn’t really carry so much weight with Romero, who has been an athlete since he was 10 years old dreaming of becoming a boxer.
“It’s been 31 years and always the same: Work hard, get ready, do your best and get back in the gym,” Romero said. “It’s all I know.”
Romero earned the rematch with Whittaker – Whittaker won a unanimous decision when they met for the interim belt on July 8 at UFC 213 in Las Vegas – by stopping Luke Rockhold in dramatic fashion on Feb. 11 at UFC 221.
That bout was supposed to be for the interim title, as well, since Whittaker was sidelined with a staph infection and a case of the chicken pox. Romero, though, took the bout on short notice and couldn’t make weight, coming in at 187.7. He attributed the miss to the lack of a full camp and insisted he won’t have an issue making weight Friday.
He repeatedly used the word “discipline” as he spoke of his athletic career, and said it is that trait which has him on the verge of a historic title reign.
“I am the No. 1 contender, not right now but for one year,” Romero said. “God helped me with the desire to be great and the discipline to get myself ready, so I am an example of what can happen if you really put your mind to something and work hard for it.
“There was a time in my life I wanted that Olympic medal and all I did was train, train, train and work harder than ever. And then I got that and I had different goals. I want this for my family, my wife and my kids, and so you see what I can do.”
Romero is a slight underdog in the rematch after having been favored to defeat Whittaker last year. He attributes the close loss to “a few mistakes,” but declines to divulge what he believes those mistakes are.
“That’s inside the team,” Romero said, laughing. “But you know what? I learned from it. I became better. As an athlete, it’s very important to have an open mind and to be willing to learn. You need to learn to improve and I can say that I learn something every day in the gym.”
Whether that will be enough to dethrone Whittaker, an agile, athletic fighter, remains to be seen. But if he does it, his name will go down in the history books as one of the oldest men to wear a UFC championship belt.
Couture, remarkably, won three UFC championship bouts after the age of 40, and won his last one at 44 when he stopped Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 on Aug. 25, 2007.
Romero called that feat “remarkable” and referred to Couture as “the Muhammad Ali of this sport. He’s a great, great man, just like Ali.”
Asked if he expected to be fighting past age 44, Romero answered in the affirmative.
“This is what I do and this is my job and so I’m going to do it until I can’t anymore,” Romero said. “But it’s really up to my coaches. They see me every day in how I work and how I perform. They’ll tell me if I can continue to fight or if it is time to say goodbye. I have told them I want them to be honest with me. I want them to be [candid] as they can: ‘Hey man, we know you love to train and you love to fight, but your career is done.’ That’s their job.
“But I feel good. I’m very ambitious and I think I’m better today than I ever have been, so now is not the time [to walk away from MMA].”
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