Among the many headlines produced by Bellator MMA on Tuesday, including an exclusive broadcasting move to Showtime and the announcement of an eight-man light heavyweight tournament, it was the announcement of a first-round matchup that set the internet ablaze.
In the co-main event of an April 16 card from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, former UFC title challengers and recent free-agent signings Yoel Romero (13-5) and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson (22-6) will square off in a must-see bout.
This quarterfinal pairing is not only the sexiest fight on paper from the standpoint of name value that Bellator could produce in its World Grand Prix at 205 pounds, it's the one with the most questions surrounding the status of both fighters.
Johnson, 36, returns to competition for the first time since a UFC title loss to Daniel Cormier in their 2017 rematch sparked a self-imposed retirement. The ageless wonder Romero, meanwhile, who is listed as 43 (although the former Cuban Olympic silver medalist claims he's actually 44), will be fighting at light heavyweight for the first time since 2011 and is riding a three-fight losing streak, albeit all in disputed decisions against elite competition.
When playfully reminded during an interview with "Morning Kombat" on Tuesday about Johnson's reputation for one-punch knockouts, Romero gave a disappointed look in response and was quick to remind how Johnson, who once fought in the UFC at 170 pounds, ballooned up to close to 300 during his retirement and will likely have trouble cutting weight.
"He is coming down and I am moving up," Romero said. "I think 205 is going to be tough [for Johnson].
"I am very excited. I have a good respect for him and all of the people in this division for the Grand Prix but I am ready for that. I am ready for that. I have very good experience and this is my time."
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Despite pushing UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to the limit in their chess match last March at UFC 248, Romero was abruptly released by the promotion in December. Although he was surprised by UFC's decision, Romero isn't necessarily motivated to prove them wrong.
"I said in one interview before that everything is good," Romero said. "When you see the opportunity where you can go up, everything is good. I did not go down [by signing with Bellator MMA], I went up. That is what I see. God gave me the opportunity to go up.
"Many people have asked me why they didn't see me going up to 205 in the UFC. I tell them that now I am in Bellator and the 205 is the same as in UFC. There are tough guys. [Ryan] Bader is an ex-champion, you have Phil Davis and Corey Anderson. These guys, every time and for a long time, have been a tough fight in the UFC at light heavyweight. This is no joking, this is no joking. It is very good."
Although he jokingly admitted a weakness for gelato, Romero looked even more muscular and defined and said he's currently walking around at 215 pounds. As far as what his fighting style might look like in the new division, Romero was direct in stating he won't be going in there looking to knock out his bigger foes on the feet.
"No, no. Wrestling and punches," Romero said. "My focus is I don't want to lose the speed and explosion. I wanted a little more power. My coaches said if I move up, they don't want me to lose that. That is my focal point right now."
It's rare to see a fighter with defeats in four of his last five bouts being received as favorably in the free agent market as Romero was with Bellator. It's even more difficult to believe when considering Romero's age.
Yet the oddsmakers, who opened by naming defending light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov (12-2) as the favorite, installed Romero as the next in line for most likely to win the Grand Prix.
"I am 44. I am feeling great. I say thank you God because I am feeling young," Romero said. "I play soccer three times a week. I don't want to lose the speed. When you stay together with the young people, the good energy is transmitted to you. That is what I wanted. I don't want to lose the spring."