When Yoel Romero looks back on his upbringing in Cuba, he does so with mixed emotions.
The 45-year-old, who faces Alex Polizzi at Bellator 280 in Paris on Friday, credits the country for shaping the athlete he is today, but challenges some of its 1980s sports policies.
At age eight, Romero was chosen by trainers to go to a specialized wrestling school based solely on his physical attributes.
Romero would go on to prove the coaches right by winning world championship and Olympic medals, but it was the way success was rewarded at home that is controversial.
The best Cuban athletes would benefit from benefits such as receiving more food and having better living conditions than the less successful ones.
“That’s something at the time because of the political system there. Nowadays I think all athletes should eat and be treated the same way, 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 I can be. It pushed me to find the best in me, but also the worst in me.”
“What I mean by worst is I’m going to race and win, or I’m going to die trying. I’m racing myself until I die from training and racing.”
Cuba has a history of producing successful Olympians in both wrestling and boxing.
Only in the Romero family, his half-brother Yoan Pablo Hernández is a former world boxing champion, his cousins are Olympic athletes, and his father was on the Cuban national boxing team.
Romero attributes the country’s success in combat sports to the way talent is sought out from a young age.
“The coaches go to schools where the children are five, six, seven and eight years old and have never played any sport,” says Romero.
“These trainers give kids different activities based on their physical attributes, then [the coaches] choose for them which sport they are going to be better at.
“Then they talk to the parents and if the parents decide yes, they take their child to a special school.”
‘Perhaps deep inside me there is a frustrated boxer’
Romero made an unusually late transition to mixed martial arts, making his professional debut at the age of 32.
Despite this, he has become one of the most recognizable names in the sport, competing in multiple world title fights and scoring notable wins over former champions like Luke Rockhold.
Surprisingly, he was also reluctant in many fights to use his wrestling background, preferring instead to stand up and punch.
Romero says he prefers punching for his love of boxing.
“Maybe deep down inside of me is a frustrated fighter,” Romero said.
“I always told my whole family that I wanted to be a boxer, but they wouldn’t let me box. They didn’t want to get punched in the face.”
Romero’s opponent on Friday is American Alex Polizzi, who came on as a late replacement for the injured Melvin Manhoef.
Romero will be looking to end a four-fight losing streak against Polizzi, 30, who is riding a three-fight win streak.
The light heavyweight bout will serve as a co-main event.
“Wherever the fight goes, I can do it. If it’s a jiu-jitsu fight, I can fight, if it’s a punching fight, I can punch, if I have to fight, I will,” Romero said.
“This is MMA and I am ready for whatever path the fight takes.”