CINCINNATI -- Yoel Romero Palacio will make his Strikeforce debut on Saturday against former light heavyweight champ Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, a tough test in just his fifth fight. But his journey to MMA was one that prepared him for any test.
Romero wrestled for Cuba, and around the turn of the century, was one of the world's best at 84 kg. He has world and Olympic medals, including a world championship in 1999, but he defected from Cuba after a wrestling tournament in Germany in 2005.
This was a dangerous decision, because top wrestlers are well-known athletes in Cuba. He had to sell all of his belongings and leave his family. His wife and young daughter are now with him in Germany, but his six-year-old son is still in Cuba. He told Cagewriter that it was a terribly difficult decision to defect from the Communist country.
"It wasn't just Cuba. It was my family."
He coached wrestling before starting to train in MMA. Though he didn't have his first fight until 2009, MMA was on his mind even when he was still in Cuba.
"It's a sport that I think God gave me the talent to be good at, and I felt that attraction when I was in Cuba and watched a few of the first UFCs, with Royce Gracie, and his wins made me really feel a passion to try the sport. I felt like it was in me to be able to try it out," he told Cagewriter.
He hopes to find the same success and satisfaction in MMA that he did in wrestling. He has yet to have a fight go to a decision, winning all four by TKO or knockout. Romero Palacio is hoping for a true test in Cavalcante.
"I haven't been able to let it go like I wanted to because those fights were just the beginners. To let it go the way I can? I will have even better satisfaction than in wrestling."
Though wrestlers are often tagged with being boring fighters, Romero Palacio promises that fans will enjoy watching him fight.
"I always fight for the public. It's always been my style to fight for the public. I like the fans to feel satisfied with what I have done," he said. "It's going to be a gladiators fight."
But that doesn't mean that he has forgotten his roots as a wrestler. With the Olympics coming up next summer, he does have the itch to compete again. His one-time nemesis, American Cael Sanderson, is returning to competition after retiring to coach. Romero Palacio smiled at the idea of wrestling Sanderson, who beat him at the 2004 Olympics, again.
"I would love to. I want to show the world who is the world's best wrestler at that weight class. I don't think [Cael Sanderson] would like it if I came back."
Romero Palacio's bout with Feijao and the rest of the preliminary fights for Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Kharitonov will air on HDNet starting at 8 p.m. ET.