Yair Rodriguez faces familiar dilemma as MMA takes hold in his native Mexico

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Yair Rodriguez of Mexico enters the arena prior to facing Chan Sung Jung of South Korea in their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Pepsi Center on November 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Getty Images)

Mixed martial arts was in its embryonic stages as a sport in Mexico as recently as 2014, the year that Yair Rodriguez won the featherweight tournament of “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America,” in Mexico City.

Soccer and boxing have long been the top two sports in Mexico, and elite boxers such as Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Canelo Alvarez, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Salvador Sanchez and Ruben Olivares are iconic figures in the country.

It has taken longer than some, notably UFC president Dana White, may have expected, but MMA is quickly catching on with the populace.

“There is no comparison between now and then, to be honest with you,” said Rodriguez, who headlines UFC Mexico City on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) when he takes on Jeremy Stephens in a five-round featherweight bout.

“People know it a lot more. It’s growing a lot. People still love boxing, of course, but MMA is very popular now.”

Rodriguez’s wild action style makes him one of the sport’s most fun fighters to watch. His last-second knockout of Chan Sung Jung, aka “The Korean Zombie” 10 months ago remains the stuff of legend. He has fought eight times in the UFC and has been in Fight of the Night three times and gotten Performance of the Night three times.

A bout with Stephens figures to be another high-energy battle, and Rodriguez says he’s up for the challenge.

“Those are the kinds of fights everybody likes,” he said.

But as he plots the rest of his career, which he hopes includes a UFC featherweight title, he also has an eye on the future. Life after fighting is important for him, and he’s thinking of what he’ll do when he is no longer competing.

He’s not worried that he’ll blow all of the money he makes on jewelry, fancy clothes and cars — “That’s just not the kind of a guy I am,” he said — but he wants to leave the fight game with his faculties intact. And a good way to do that is to minimize the blows to the head.

That presents a conundrum for so many fighters: They make more money, and get better opportunities, if they’re exciting and win fights that pull the fans from their seats. Ducking under a shot and coming up with an elbow to the head to score a knockout with a second remaining, as Rodriguez did to Jung, is one way to win over the crowd.

Chan Sung Jung is hit with an elbow by Yair Rodríguez to end their featherweight bout during UFC Fight Night 139 at the Pepsi Center on Nov. 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Getty Images)

Those kinds of battles are a war of attrition, though, and take their toll down the road. Rodriguez is essentially trying to thread the needle, winning entertaining fights while avoiding too much damage.

“You know you’re going to get hit when you fight and if you don’t want to get hit, you shouldn’t be in this sport,” he said. “But what it is, it’s more the shots that you don’t need to take. Sometimes you get in there and the adrenaline is going and you fight a certain way and you wind up taking damage you could have avoided.”

He is returning to fight for the first time since the jaw-dropping finish of Jung, in part because he wanted to give his brain time to recover. He had some other health issues that he didn’t expand upon which also kept him out, but it was his desire to recover from the Jung fight that played the most significant role in his 10-month absence.

He’ll return as a star in his homeland on a card that includes six other Mexican fighters. That’s a huge increase from where the sport was a few short years ago.

“This sport is going to keep growing here and getting more and more popular,” he said. “Fighting is such a big part of the [culture]. People are being more [exposed] to MMA and they’re understanding it and it’s everywhere now. This is going to be a big place for MMA, and it’s not too far away.”

That’s a pretty safe bet. Rodriguez himself, though, is already there.

He has made himself one of the best featherweights in the world and is ranked seventh in the division, one spot ahead of Stevens.

If he wins and Zabit Magomedsharipov wins in Russia over Calvin Kattar next month, it could set up a mega-battle between the two with the most unique and varied collection of strikes in sport.

He’s not one, though, for looking ahead in fights. In life, yes, but in the fights, the focus can be on only one thing at a time.

“How often have you seen a fighter talking about the next fight and he didn’t win the fight he was in?” Rodriguez said. “You have to take care of business first and then worry about everything else later.”

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