Canadian lightweight Romero impresses in win but misses out on PFL contract
Canadian lightweight Anthony (The Genius) Romero looked impressive in winning a unanimous decision over Australian Antonio (The Spartan) Caruso but fell just short of earning a contract with the Professional Fighters League.
Instead, the one 155-pound contract up for grabs on Friday night's PFL Challenger Series card in Orlando went to Elvin (The Prodigy) Espinoza.
Espinoza showed off his grappling skills in the main event at Universal Studios, choking out American Damir (The Bosnian Barn Cat) Ferhatbegovic (6-3-1) at 1:53 of the second round to improve to 8-0-0.
Romero (12-1-0) took Caruso down six times and finished with a 77-52 edge in strikes. Fifty-eight of those strikes came on the ground with the 25-year-old from Welland, Ont., almost finishing the fight with a flurry of blows in the second round after felling the game Australian with a right to the jaw.
Referee Larry Folsom hovered over the two fighters, seemingly on the verge of stepping in. But Caruso survived the onslaught and ensuing choke attempt and eventually got back to his feet, albeit by illegally using the fence for support. He was docked a point for the infraction.
All three judges scored it 30-26 for Romero.
Each Challenger Series card features eight fighters in one weight class competing for one contract. Who gets it is determined by a celebrity panel and fan vote.
This time, it came down to Romero and Espinoza,
The celebrity panel — MMA stars Vitor (The Phenom) Belfort and Tyron (The Chosen One) Woodley and former NBA rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams — gave the nod to Espinoza although their verdict was not unanimous. The fans also opted for the 30-year-old Espinoza, a native of Nicaragua who trains out of Miami.
"Both guys really showed up tonight. They were amazing," said Carter-Williams.
"Romero, you're a phenomenal fighter," added Woodley.
Romero was a gracious runner-up, applauding as Espinoza was announced the winner. While he left without a contract, his performance may well lead to more offers.
Espinoza joins heavyweight Abraham Bably, welterweight Thad Jean and featherweight Amanda Leve as PFL Challenger Series contract winners this year.
A world championship and US$1 million are up for grabs in the PFL's top tier. (The Canadian Gangster) Olivier Aubin-Mercier, from Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que., is the PFL's defending lightweight champion, knocking out Scotland's Stevie (Braveheart) Ray with a right to the jaw in November to earn the seven-figure payday.
In the all-Brazilian co-main event Friday, Manoel Sousa won a split decision over Paulo Laia, the first deaf fighter to compete in the PFL. Charlie (The Bull) Decca won a unanimous decision over fellow American Jose Aguayo.
The PFL Challenger Series features the women’s flyweight division next Friday.
In August 2021, Romero fought (Money) Mike Breeden on "Dana White's Contender Series," a feeder show to the UFC.
Romero won, recording an 88-60 edge in significant strikes and hobbling his American opponent with 25 leg kicks. But he could not finish him, earning a 30-26, 30-27, 39-28 decision instead.
"He had a tough time stopping a guy with one leg and really had a hard time when Breeden switched to southpaw," White said afterwards in explaining why Romero did not get a UFC contract. "He's 23 years old, he's a young kid. And I absolutely positively think he's going to be in the UFC some day. Just not tonight."
Romero, who has black belts in both Japanese and Brazilian jiu-jitsu as well as a junior black belt in taekwondo, has won four of five fights since.
The 32-year-old Caruso (8-2-0) is a native of Adelaide who trains out of Hard Knocks Gym in Australia and Sanford MMA in South Florida. He won his first seven fights before losing a unanimous decision to Dutch fighter Pieter (The Archangel) Buist on a One Championship card in Jakarta in October 2019.
Romero, who has competed internationally in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, has his own gym, Genius MMA in Port Colborne, Ont. While he teaches there, he does a lot of his training at Niagara Top Team alongside UFC fighters (Proper) Mike Malott and Jasmine Jusadavicius and Bellator's Aaron Jeffery, as well as at Aegis MMA in Oakville, Ont.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2023