Why Israel Adesanya insisted on Yoel Romero for his first title defense

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS — Over the last several years, UFC president Dana White has repeated the phrase so often that it just about has become one of the three certainties of life: death, taxes and, of course, nobody wants to fight Yoel Romero.

That, though, must finally change to be updated with the times: Nobody else wants to fight Yoel Romero, because on Saturday in the main event of UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena, Israel Adesanya will make the first defense of his middleweight title against the imposing Cuban wrestler/salsa dancer.

There were a lot of potential opponents who would have gladly taken this slot against one of the UFC’s rising stars, and White and his team presented most of them to Adesanya.

Adesanya, though, was insistent that Romero, a silver medalist for Cuba in the 2000 Olympics in freestyle wrestling, be the one for his first defense even though Romero has lost his last two fights and three of his last four.

“I never get anybody calling me and saying, ‘Hey Dana, I want to fight Yoel Romero,’” White said. “When do you ever hear a guy call him out? It doesn’t happen. Guys wind up fighting him because the rankings dictate it or whatever, but no one is volunteering for that. [Adesanya] just kept blowing up my phone: ‘I want Romero. I want Romero. I want Romero.’ I respect that. You want to fight a guy like that, I respect it and so we made it happen.”

Romero will become the second main event fighter in less than two full fights to enter the bout coming off back-to-back losses, as Donald Cerrone did at UFC 246 when he met Conor McGregor on Jan. 18

All three of those losses — two by decision to Robert Whittaker and another by decision to Paulo Costa — wound up being chosen as Fight of the Night. The one fight in his last four that he won was a knockout victory over ex-champion Luke Rockhold at UFC 221.

That, coincidently, was the card on which Adesanya made his UFC debut.

Israel Adesanya makes his way to the Octagon for the middleweight title bout during UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on Oct. 6, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Israel Adesanya makes his way to the Octagon for the middleweight title bout during UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium on Oct. 6, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Just over two years later, he’s in the main event against arguably the most feared man in the sport. And to him, it is no big thing.

“I’m a different guy,” Adesanya said. “I’m a guy who seeks out the challenges. Yoel is coming off a three-fight losing streak; that’s not good for business. The UFC, they didn’t want to put it on. But Dana is very impressionable, and I can convince him when I make sense. If it makes dollars, it makes sense, so I talked to him and said I want to fight him for so-and-so reasons.

“Pretty much, he’s a guy no one wants to fight, so that makes me want to fight him even more. I want to know, ‘Why is everyone so scared of this human?’ He is human. At the end of the day, he’s just another guy who bleeds if you cut him. He sweats. He gasses out. I don’t gas out.”

The simplistic view of the problem that Romero presents is that he is an elite wrestler who will be able to physically manhandle Adesanya once he gets his hands on him.

But Adesanya, whose background is as a kickboxer, isn’t overly concerned. And while few look better with shorts and without a shirt than Romero, whose muscles have muscles, Adesanya thinks thick musculature is overrated.

It’s the same thing with Costa, who beat Romero in a wildly entertaining fight at UFC 241 last year in Anaheim, California, by the narrowest of margins. Costa is also built like a bodybuilder.

Those types of bodies look good, Adesanya said, but aren’t always functional for the needs of a fight.

“People are fooled by this Hollywood facade of muscles,” said Adesanya, who at 185 pounds is a wiry 6-foot-4. “It’s been ingrained in us since we were kids, from [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, from Rambo: ‘Rrrrr. He must be tough.’”

Adesanya bought into that thought process until he began to watch MMA. His idol, ex-UFC champion Anderson Silva, had a thin body that was more like his, and he became the most dominant champion in the sport at the time.

That had a profound impact upon him.

“That’s why Anderson Silva changed the way I saw fighting, because I saw this skinny black guy whipping everyone’s ass,” Adesanya said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m a skinny black guy. I’m going to whip everyone’s ass.’ And I did. And I have been, and I still am.”

Because of that, Adesanya made the call for the guy no one else wanted. He believes in what he does, and his ability to execute it, that he laughs off the perceived threat he’s in against.

Romero to Adesanya: ‘I’ll see you soon, boy’

He’s not taking Romero lightly by any means, but he’s not buying the old MMA axiom that wrestlers, especially big, quick, powerful and explosive ones like Romero, control where a fight goes.

“I can control where the fight goes as well because of my footwork,” Adesanya said. “Wrestling doesn’t always start straight away from the clinch; it starts from the feet, and where your feet are placed. He’s flat-footed. I am not. I have really good footwork. And as for when he gets his hands on me, well, it’s hard to get his hands on me when he can’t see me. He keeps saying, ‘I’ll see you soon, boy.’

“No you won’t.”

On Saturday, though, Adesanya and Romero will see each other. And if it plays out the way Adesanya envisions, he’ll float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, because Romero’s hands won’t be able to hit what his eyes can’t see.

Or something like that.

“It’s good to be pretty,” Adesanya said, grinning. “It’s going to be fun.”

No one has ever called fighting Yoel Romero fun, but then again, no one else is Israel Adesanya.

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