It may not be the exact Bellator MMA debut that fans and promotional brass had hoped for Yoel Romero on Saturday, but the 44-year-old "Soldier of God" is still expected to have his hands full against former light heavyweight champion Phil Davis.
Romero (13-5) was forced to withdraw from his originally scheduled bout against Anthony "Rumble" Johnson in May, in a Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix quarterfinal fight, after being poked in the eye during sparring. Instead, the former Olympic silver medalist from Cuba will headline Bellator 266 in San Jose against an arguably more difficult opponent in the well-rounded Davis (22-6, 1 NC).
"[Romero] and I are both very good at getting a read on the tempo and the footwork and another guys' angles," Davis said during Thursday's media availability. "I think there's going to be a feeling-out process where we're both trying to see where the other person is spatially and see what kind of angles and feints and fakes were using. After that I think it's 4th of July. Fireworks!"
It's hard to ignore how many questions Romero enters with that go beyond age and his recent injury. He has been idle for 18 months dating back to his UFC middleweight title loss to Israel Adesanya in March 2020 and he will be moving back up to 205 pounds for the first time since 2011. Romero also enters having lost four of his last five fights albeit by close decisions against the middleweight elite.
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"I feel good because I didn't have to drop weight. I just kept my own weight," Romero said. "I just switched divisions and kept my own weight. And I've always trained with heavyweights and light heavyweights within my training camp. I'm completely adapted to the heavier weights."
The 36-year-old Davis, whose lone defeats since leaving UFC for Bellator in 2015 have come via razor-thin decision to current Bellator champions Vadim Nemkov (twice) and Ryan Bader, will enter the fight with advantages of four inches in height and six inches in reach.
Yet despite the difference in size, Davis doesn't believe it will play a factor considering how many rangy fighters Romero has faced in UFC to high levels of success. Davis also believe the long layoff Romero has undergone will prove to be a positive for him considering it gave his body time to adapt to the new weight class.
The only thing certain Davis could say regarding how the two fighters' styles will play against one another is that he doesn't know for sure.
Below is the complete fight card as well as a prediction for the main event.
Fight card, odds
Odds via Caesars Sportsbook
- Phil Davis -130 vs. Yoel Romero +110, light heavyweights
- Neiman Gracie -280 vs. Mark Lemminger +230, welterweights
- Alejandra Lara -190 vs. Deanna Bennett +160, women's flyweights
- Saul Rogers -125 vs. Georgi Karakhanyan +105, featherweights
- Christian Edwards -900 vs. Ben Parrish +600, light heavyweights
Bellator 266 viewing information
Date: Sept. 18 | Start time: 10 p.m. ET (7 p.m. prelims)
Location: SAP Center -- San Jose, California
TV Channel: Showtime | Stream: Showtime App
The fact that Romero is a threat to end the fight at any point with all four of his limbs should see Davis on high alert throughout. It could also lead him to a low output that would see the bout devolve into a three-round point fight and technical battle that would favor the longer Davis and steal from the entertainment value.
The onus will ultimately be on Romero to finish the fight and find a way to consistently get inside on Davis without gassing himself out in the process. It's a hard proposition in theory considering Romero is more of a counter striker and Davis, who has never been stopped in 29 pro fights, has seen 15 of his last 17 fights extend to at least the final round including 12 that have gone the full distance.
The fact that both have such decorated wrestling backgrounds likely means that the fight is contested exclusively on the feet. So the question will become whether Romero can be busy enough to have a shot at winning a decision should he prove unable to get the finish.
Although both fighters have dropped close decisions in big fights of late due to being not active enough to win over the judges, all of the relevant still favor Davis to get the win.
Davis will certainly need to navigate some difficult waters early given Romero's explosive unpredictability and the fact that the fight is three rounds as opposed to five likely plays a big role in the betting odds being so close as Romero has to worry less about pacing himself. Yet both negative scenarios potentially facing Romero -- the likelihood that he throws too little while being overly patient as a counter striker or the chance that he tires out going for the finish -- still lead to a Davis win.
For all the romanticized hope that Romero can lure Davis into the kind of exciting brawl he had with Paulo Costa just two years ago at UFC 241, Davis simply won't be a willing dance partner. Nor should he.
Pick: Davis via unanimous decision