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Bellator Paris: Yoel Romero says Cuban upbringing brought ‘the best and worst’ out of him

Romero is a former freestyle wrestling world champion
Venue: AccorHotels Arena, Paris Date: Friday, 6 May
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website and app from 18:00 BST, with the main card also live on BBC Three from 21:00 BST

When Yoel Romero looks back on his upbringing in Cuba, he does so with a mixture of emotions.

The 45-year-old, who faces Alex Polizzi at Bellator 280 in Paris on Friday, credits the country in shaping the athlete he is today, but challenges some of its sporting policies from the 1980s.

Aged eight, Romero was chosen by coaches to go to a specialist wrestling school, based purely on his physical attributes.

Romero would go on to prove the coaches right in winning world championship and Olympic medals, but it was the way in which success in the country was rewarded which is controversial.

The top Cuban athletes would benefit from perks such as being given more food and having better living conditions than the less successful ones.

“That’s something at the time due to the political system over there – nowadays I believe every athlete should eat and be treated the same, but that’s how it was back then,” Romero told BBC Sport.

“Of course [it made me into a machine], that system pushed me to be the best that I can. It pushed me to find the best in me, but also the worst in me.”

“What I mean by the worst is I’m going to compete and win, or I’m going to die trying. I’m In competition with myself until I drop dead from training and competing.”

Cuba has a history of producing successful Olympians in both wrestling and boxing.

In Romero’s family alone, his half-brother Yoan Pablo Hernandez is a former world boxing champion, his cousins are Olympians and his father was in the Cuban national boxing team.

Romero puts the country’s success in combat sports down to the way in which talent is scouted from a young age.

“Coaches go into schools where the children are five, six, seven and eight years old and they have never done any sport,” says Romero.

“These trainers give different activities to the children based on their physical attributes, then they [the coaches] choose for them which sport they’re going to be best at.

“Then they speak to the parents and if the parents decide yes, they take their child to a special school.”

‘Maybe deep inside of me there’s a frustrated boxer’

Yoel Romero
Eleven of Romero’s 13 wins in MMA have been via knockout

Romero transitioned unusually late to mixed martial arts, making his professional debut at the age of 32.

Despite this, he’s become one of the most recognisable names in the sport, competing in multiple world title fights and earning notable victories over former champions such as Luke Rockhold.

He’s also surprisingly appeared reluctant in many fights to utilise his wrestling background, instead preferring to stand up and strike.

Romero says he prefers to strike because of his love for boxing.

“Maybe deep inside me there is a frustrated boxer,” said Romero.

“I always told my whole family I wanted to be a boxer, but they didn’t let me box. They didn’t want me to be hit in the face.”

Romero’s opponent on Friday is American Alex Polizzi, who has come in as a late replacement for the injured Melvin Manhoef.

Romero will be looking to end a run of four straight defeats against the 30-year-old Polizzi, who is on a three-fight win streak.

The light-heavyweight bout will serve as the co-main event.

“Wherever the fight goes I can do it. If it’s a jiu-jitsu fight I can grapple, if it’s a striking fight I can strike, if I have to wrestle I will,” said Romero.

“This is MMA and I’m ready for whichever way the fight goes.”

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