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Yoel Romero at the age of 40 will seek to become interim Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight champion in the UFC 221 main event on Saturday in Perth, Australia. However, the most notable time-related aspect of Romero’s career is not his age but how long he has been fighting. Romero has only been competing professionally as a fighter for a little over eight years. His 33-year-old opponent, Luke Rockhold, has been fighting longer. That’s because Rockhold first fought professionally at age 22 while Romero did so at 32 -- the same age women’s featherweight champion Cristiane Justino is now. “Cyborg” was a four-year veteran by the time Romero fought for the first time. Romero’s relatively rapid ascent was a necessity given when he started his career; elite fighters who start as late as Romero did are an extreme rarity.
Fighters like Romero weren’t always anomalies in the world of MMA. Back when there was much less money in the sport, competitors in different disciplines would wait longer to dive in. Amateur wrestlers would pursue their Olympic dreams. Jiu-jitsu practitioners would grapple. It wasn’t at all strange for fighters to begin their careers in their late 20s or early 30s.
Getting a late start also wasn’t nearly as much of a disadvantage in the past. Fighters relied more on their specialties, in general, so an extra five years of competing in wrestling, kickboxing or jiu-jitsu would translate well into MMA. Now, when it is a necessity to be much better-rounded, taking longer to learn those additional components is a significant liability.
Romero is a phenomenal athlete with world-class wrestling and excellent power, but his standup technique is less refined than most of his opponents. That remains an ongoing disadvantage because he just hasn’t had the time for those techniques to become second nature. It’s scary to think how good he could get with another five years of standup training at peak physical shape. Unfortunately, while he has made rapid gains in a short period of time, the clock is ticking on how long he’ll be able to retain his athleticism. We’ll never know just how good he could have been. Romero is a great fighter regardless, but it’s not hard to imagine he could have been an all-time great if he hadn’t started fighting at the same age Georges St. Pierre announced his 2013 retirement.
There’s good reason to believe that fighters need more time devoted fully to MMA in order to reach their peak potential, setting aside the time needed just to accumulate accomplishments once at one’s best. MMA has so many aspects to master. Most fighters in the running for the title of greatest fighter of all-time started fighting professionally at a young age. Fedor Emelianenko was 23; Anderson Silva was 22; and St. Pierre, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson were all 20. Throughout their 20s, they all made great competitive strides and evolved beyond their original identities as competitors.
Fortunately for fans, fighters like Romero are likely to become rarer over time. Athletes with significant potential for MMA are getting into it professionally at younger ages, just as in other major sports like baseball, basketball and football. If Aaron Pico had come along 15 years ago, he might have waited much longer to get into MMA rather than starting out at 20. There wouldn’t have been the money tempting him to get into MMA, and wrestling on the international level likely would have been his primary athletic focus.
Today, there are also so many more examples for young athletes from one discipline to model an MMA career trajectory after. It used to be that wrestlers learned about MMA through word of mouth from their friends. Now, there is widespread awareness of MMA and so many fighters getting into it from a young age. Aspiring fighters now see champions like Max Holloway, who started fighting professionally at age 18 and grew through competition. Holloway’s career arc resembles that of a basketball player who declares early, shows some potential while coming off the bench and then really comes into his own a few years in. Diving in certainly seems like a smarter play than taking one’s time when it comes to elite prospects.
This all offers limited solace for those who imagine just how good Romero could have been if he started training for MMA at age 18. Those questions will remain for him even if they exist for fewer fighters of his caliber moving forward. Still, Romero has built an impressive career for himself, even with the late start. He’ll have another opportunity to show how good he is against a world-class opponent when he faces Rockhold. If he wins, additional significant bouts will follow. On the other hand, if he loses, this could be his last chance at a world title. Time has never been on Romero’s side as a fighter.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.