It’s been an eventful early career for undefeated Welland, Ont. lightweight prospect Anthony Romero (9-0), who squares off against Bellator MMA veteran JJ Okanovich (7-2) this Sunday in the main event of Fury FC 50 in Houston, TX.
Romero, 24, began his professional MMA campaign with six straight wins before a unanimous decision victory over Mike Breeden on Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) in August of last year, but in one of the show’s most publicized and controversial outcomes, was denied a contract offer from the UFC president ostensibly for not securing a finish.
Another year and win on his resume later, Romero is resolute that continuing to rack up victories will soon make his case for another shot on the big stage undeniable. Whether this comes by way of another appearance on DWCS, or a short notice call for a UFC event, Romero said he stays in peak condition for such an opportunity.
“I was in shape before I even knew about this fight (with Okanovich). I never take long periods of breaks. I’ll take rest days because it’s the smart thing to do—it’s not the easiest thing mentally because you just want to keep going going going—but I’ve always been ready,” said Romero in an interview with MMA Empire.
“I was in the gym through COVID, through the lockdowns, and everything’s been the same. All the hard work has been done and I’m just excited to finally get that opportunity to get on the show again.”
First, however, Romero will have to get through American Kickboxing Academy’s Okanovich, 30, who he views as a serious challenge, but also one he is more than prepared for.
“He’s good everywhere. He’s good on the ground, good standing up. He’s a good overall MMA fighter, but I see lots of holes in his game. It’s interesting because he’s comes from, I guess, a wrestling-based gym, with Russians like Khabib and all those guys, but he kind of ended up losing that whole game and now seems to be more of a striker. To be honest, I kind of expect anything from him. He’s had a little while since his last fight to develop his skills, and fix the holes that he has, so I’m expecting a brand new fighter. Someone who’s hungry, trying to get that W. I’m just ready to shut him down,” said Romero.
“I know how good I am everywhere, and yeah, it’s going to be a little too much for him. I always go into the fight knowing I’m going to win. I have that confidence that I can win, no matter what I have to go through in that fight. It all depends on what happens, but I always look to get a finish in the fight, no matter what people say. People think I just always try to go to a decision; I don’t.”
Romero, a blackbelt in taekwondo by age 12, credits his confidence as a fighter to his early absorption of striking fundamentals, but more importantly the pressure that came with regularly participating in demonstrations and tournaments.
“I remember breaking lots of boards. I remember how nervous I was for those grading tests. I had to do, say, a tornado kick and break the wood while everyone was watching me,” he said.
“A lot of the techniques are very fancy in taekwondo, with the jump kicks and all that, but there’s a lot of basics involved as well, like knowing how to rotate your hips. That helped me get steps ahead in different disciplines, you know, to already know how to throw a kick. I wasn’t really familiar on how to throw punches at that time because taekwondo is mostly kicking, but everything kind of came together by having those basics set in.”
Romero said his composure in high-pressure situations comes not only from his martial arts experience, but from the blood running through his veins.
With a father who immigrated to Canada from El Salvador under harrowing circumstances and family still residing there today, Romero says he fights not only for himself but to show the people there that they too can achieve great feats, regardless of their current stations in life.
“I have grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins over there, and I have them in my heart when I get in the cage. I just love representing them because it’s such a small country. There’s a lot of poverty in that country, and I love representing a small country like that to show the world that there’s a lot more out there. As well as my father, I know it means a lot to him with the whole story he had there, being in the military and coming over to Canada. It’s amazing to think what he’s gone through to get here, and I just feel like it’s my duty to represent that country, given all the stuff they’ve gone through and still go through to this day,” said Romero.
“It’s tough, some people over there don’t even have money to pay for internet. They hear about my fights through phone calls with my Dad and stuff, or we might record it, and sometimes we’ll go for a visit and show them everything that’s been happening. Some people who do have internet follow the journey on Facebook and Instagram and get the updates that way. I know, no matter what, they’re always supporting and they’re always there.”
Provided he can procure another win this weekend, Romero remains steadfast in his desire to grace the UFC octagon once again, but is not ruling out other options.
“It’s all about impressing the bosses. And if they’re not interested I’m more than willing to take another route in becoming successful in this game. It’s not just about fighting, you’ve got to learn how to make money, make a living. I want to eventually have a family one day and have a house and all these things I have big goals for, but I can’t do that if I’m fighting on regional shows,” he said.
“If they’re still giving me the chance to get a finish and they’re like, ‘okay you got the finish, now you can jump on’ then that’ll be the plan. If not, then PFL, Bellator, One Championship, I’m more than willing to go any of those routes.”