Unlike the huge buzz surrounding his originally scheduled Bellator MMA debut in May against Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, it seems as if Yoel Romero is riding a bit under the radar entering Saturday's rebooking atop Bellator 266 in San Jose, California.
Romero (13-5), the 44-year-old ageless wonder from Cuba who was curiously cut by UFC in 2020 following a close defeat in a middleweight title bout, was ruled medically unfit to face Johnson after being poked in his left eye during sparring. Johnson went on defeat late-replacement Jose Augusto to advance to the semifinals of the Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
Four months later, Romero declares he has a clean bill of health to snap an 18-month layoff when he sets foot inside the SAP Center, which was the same building he made his UFC debut eight years ago. The potential problem is that he will get no favors in the matchmaking department by taking on a former Bellator 205-pound champion in Phil Davis (22-6, 1 NC) who, while not as outwardly dangerous as Johnson, is arguably a tougher fight altogether considering how hard it is to look good against him.
"I had a little trouble with my eyes again," Romero told "The MMA Hour" on Wednesday. "The doctor said you can't fight and it's better you have a little time. I said, 'OK, I can wait.' You have to be prepared for it because anything can happen. And now everything is OK and everything is perfect, thanks to God."
Considering how rusty the 37-year-old Johnson looked in snapping a four-year retirement when he was nearly stopped by Augusto before rallying for a finish, Romero is confident he would've handled the former two-time UFC title challenger. Instead, Johnson will fight for the Bellator title next on Oct. 16 in the tournament semifinals against defending champion Vadim Nemkov.
Can't get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news.
"[Johnson] is an amazing guy and it was an amazing fight but I didn't think it was his best night," Romero said. "He is a great fighter but I don't think it was his best performance. I think that if we would've fought that night, I would've won for sure."
Although Bellator president Scott Coker has maintained since Romero's injury that the promotion is still interested in booking a fight against Johnson sooner than later, the structure of the tournament might make that complicated. "The Soldier of God" must also still answer many of the same questions he faced entering the Johnson when he returns this weekend.
Those questions include everything from a long layoff and the status of his eye to whether this will be the fight his age catches up with him a bit. Romero has also lost four of his last five fights to end his UFC run although all four came by somewhat debatable decision -- including three title fights -- against four of the best 185-pound fighters in modern history.
Romero, a silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics in freestyle wrestling, will also be fighting at light heavyweight for the first time since 2011, when he lost his only appearance under the Strikeforce banner via second-round knockout against Rafael Cavalcante. The loss, in just his fifth pro fight, led Romero to take nearly two full years off of the sport before making his UFC debut in 2013 and winning his first eight trips to the Octagon to earn a title shot.
And then there's the task of taking on Davis, a 36-year-old fellow UFC alumni who has been among the most winning and consistent fighters under the Bellator banner since making his debut in 2015. Davis has only lost against the very best -- Ryan Bader and Vadim Nemkov (twice) -- and two of those fights were split decisions.
Given his patience and technical prowess to go along with his five-round stamina and decorated wrestling skills, Davis is a slight betting favorite fresh off a title loss to Nemkov (48-47 on all three scorecards) in their April quarterfinal bout.
"I think it is an excellent fight," Romero said. "You need to see me on Saturday. I am very happy and have to say thanks to God because God protects me and keeps me in a condition that is amazing. He is just watching over me all the time.
"When [I was] young, I would waste a lot of energy on unnecessary positions. Now, I have learned how to manage my energy and I am much more energy efficient now."
Given that Romero's age might lead one to believe his window will be small to maximize his opportunities under the Belllator banner, the Davis fight presents an intriguing risk/reward scenario for the explosive striker.
A loss, especially should it come in boring fashion that is sometimes the norm against Davis, would send Romero deeper down a losing streak that would make it hard to see him as nothing more than an aging attraction. A win, however, could line Romero up to the next title challenger upon the conclusion of the Grand Prix.
Romero has just one win in the last five years yet he has performed incredible well at the highest level throughout, leaving a compelling argument each step of the way that he either should've won in close decision defeats to Robert Whittaker, Paulo Costa and current UFC champion Israel Adesanya, or at least that he was one big surge away from doing so.
The onus will be on Romero this time to take full advantage of the opportunities he has left, especially considering he no longer has to cut down to a 185 pounds, which saw him miss weight in consecutive title bouts.