For light heavyweight prospect Ricardo Romero, who makes his UFC debut this weekend against Seth Petruzelli, everything that happens from Saturday night on will always link back to family.
If not for the sacrifices made by his parents to put him through high school and then Rutgers University, he might not have picked up the wrestling skills, not to mention the degree in Philosophy, to compete at this level of the game. If not for his uncles and cousins, he may not have developed the love for combat sports that set him on this path. And if not for his son, his days would have been spent strictly on the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, where he still works as a phone clerk, brokering Natural gas and Crude oil options.
But it was after the birth of his first child, and the subsequent separation from the child’s mother, when Romero began considering doing something to fill in the hours after work until he could be reunited with his son.
“I was watching him a lot, and then she moved out of the area, and I ended up not seeing him as much, so to fill the time, I started training,” said Romero, who found his way to Brian Katz’ Advanced Martial Arts Gym in North Brunswick, New Jersey. That’s all it took.
“I respect the sport and all the guys that are in it, and you definitely have to dedicate a lot of time to this,” he said. “The beginning, middle of the road, or cream of the crop, you’re putting in a lot of time. So when I went into it, I knew the dedication it would take to make something substantial out of it. I did a jiu-jitsu tournament and a couple amateur fights, and I felt that my lifestyle warranted a possible pro career, so let’s give it a shot.”
By September of 2007, he was making his pro debut with a first round win over Bryce Harrell in the Ring of Combat promotion that has been his home throughout his career. Win after win followed, and suddenly the buzz started about the nice Puerto Rican kid from Jersey with the ferocious ground and pound attack.
Yeah, Puerto Rican. Not what you usually hear in mixed martial arts, but this Boricua Bomber has got the love of fighting in his blood.
“My father and his brothers, they all grew up boxing,” he said. “That’s where the roots come from – the drive to be competitive in that type of one-on-one combative sport. My cousins in Puerto Rico do judo, and I wrestled, so I guess we transferred from boxing over to those sports, and now that I do MMA, my parents have grown with me in watching and everything like that. It’s funny to watch them. People who watch my parents watch me fight tell me that ‘they just sit there, they don’t say anything until you win, and then they start screaming and going crazy.’ (Laughs) It’s a little bit different than wrestling because they see that you can possibly get hurt in this sport, so it’s a little nerve-wracking for them. But they still appreciate the sport.”
And so far, it’s been pretty smooth sailing for the Romeros, as their son has been the one dealing out the hurt. Winner of 10 of his 11 pro fights, his only loss came via disqualification against Glen Sandull in September of 2008, but it was around that time when Romero began looking at the fight game as more than just a hobby.
“It was probably the fight right before the DQ (a three round split decision win over Constantinos Phillipou) where I said, ‘you know what, I have something here, and I think I can do this,’” he recalled. “I don’t know what it was exactly. I had a nice three round decision, I came out of it, I felt great, I went toe-to-toe with a boxer for three rounds, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I felt competitive. And it was the DQ that made me say if you’re gonna do this, you really have to get focused. I went in and didn’t make weight the right way, I really had a hard time making weight that night and I didn’t put on the best performance. I was two seconds away from victory and I slipped up and did a very weak soccer kick. I didn’t know what I was thinking. After that fight, I said if I’m gonna do this, let’s do it the right way, let’s get focused, and little by little, we’re trying to critique things and get better.”
Since that lone defeat, he has added wins over UFC vet James McSweeney (submission) and Ultimate Fighter competitor Karen Grigoryan (TKO), and earlier this year he supplemented his training with Advanced Martial Arts by linking up with Mike Constantino and the AMA Fight Club, home to the Miller Brothers, Charlie Brenneman, and Rafaello Oliveira, among others.
“My first day (at AMA), there was over 20-something fighters in there,” said Romero. “My gym, there’s two pro fighters, two amateur fighters, and whoever shows up, and I’m one of the two. (Laughs) So I’ve been very fortunate with my success so far. We say it in wrestling all the time – your room makes you better. His (Constantino’s) room is definitely gonna make me better the more time I spend in there dealing with the guys in there.”
Next, he’ll get to step onto the sport’s biggest stage on Saturday against a hungry returning vet in Seth Petruzelli. Romero is ready for whatever ‘The Silverback’ throws at him.
“He has a wild arsenal that he can throw at you – whether it’s spinning back kicks, back hands, or whatever the case may be, he’s definitely gonna come with wild punches that you’re not too familiar with,” said Romero of Petruzelli. “It’s not a jab, cross, straight down the pipe, so you’ve got to be ready for anything with him. That’s the thing that gets my attention right off the bat. He’s very unorthodox and has some knockout power too, but I’m hoping to come in great shape, be consistent, stay aggressive, and get the victory.”
Then it’s back to work on Monday, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, knowing that he can devote all his energies to his fighting life without having to worry about where the next paycheck is coming from is liberating for the 32-year old prospect.
“My mindset definitely isn’t pressured so much where I’m wondering where the next rent check is gonna be, thank God,” he said. “That’s definitely not looming over my head, but I’m trying to take full advantage of this opportunity. Having a son now, you look at things differently, and I definitely want to try and set him up properly, the way my parents did. They did everything in their power to give me a successful high school and college life, and I want to do the same thing.”
And hey, if it happens, it would be pretty cool to fight for a living eventually, right?
“Every typical boy’s dream is to do a sport as a job,” he smiles. “If it were to come to that, great; it would be a phenomenal thing. But right now, I’m just taking it one fight at a time.”