Why you should care

Yair Rodriguez looks ready to take over the UFC. Is a fight with Conor McGregor on the horizon?

Standing on a rusty industrial scale in the basement of a local bar, 14-year-old Yair Rodriguez was itching to make his underground kickboxing debut. His equipment was all borrowed, even the mouth guard — but damned if the young Tae Kwon Do champion wasn’t ready to brawl. From childhood street fights to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “El Pantera” has laid in wait. Now the UFC superstar is also becoming the face of Mexican mixed martial arts.

Lounging in a leather chair adjacent to the lobby bar in a Brooklyn hotel, Rodriguez seems relaxed –- and more well-rested than an average 24-year-old after a night of mingling with supermodels at the New York Fashion Week kickoff soiree. Road trips are usually all business: fly to a location for a swift dismantling of the opposition, return to Chicago. Train, rinse, repeat. But as the victories pile up and an untapped market of Mexican MMA fans takes notice, trips like this New York promotional tour are his new normal. If the UFC has its way, their clean-cut rising star will follow a path carved by the most famous active fighter on the planet, Irish knockout artist Conor McGregor. “At first it was difficult to understand all of this,” Rodriguez tells OZY about his promotional responsibilities. “But now I only feel support — no pressure. I don’t worry about the cameras anymore.”

Yair Rodriguez

Yair Rodriguez punches BJ Penn during their bout on January 15, 2017, in Phoenix.

Source Christian Petersen/Getty

Rodriguez was raised in Parral, a small city in northwest Mexico. His childhood was “normal” — poor but full of sports and mischief. As a boy, Rodriguez tried soccer and baseball, but he only took to martial arts. Tae Kwon Do training began at 6 and served him well in Parral, where fighting was an everyday occurrence. Parral’s colonial infrastructure, complete with winding alleys and corridors, proved the perfect urban labyrinth for street fights and robberies. “You fight because another kid will rob you or pull out a knife,” says Rodriguez. Returning home with only a “purple eye” was a success.

I watch [Rodriguez] fight and go, ‘Jesus Christ, here’s a new thing!’

UFC Analyst Joe Rogan

He seemed destined for the 2012 Olympics. But Tae Kwon Do garnered little respect in the boxing-obsessed locale. He tried boxing but was disheartened by the lack of creativity. Soon, Rodriguez was kickboxing old men in bars. His best competition, though, was family. In an effort to determine “whose martial art was better,” Rodriguez and a judo-loving cousin would ditch family cookouts and practice for hours. Judo emphasizes throws and takedowns, while Tae Kwon Do features an array of flying kicks. (“We could never figure out who won,” Rodriguez says.)

The cross-training paid dividends. Since turning pro in 2011, Rodriguez is 10–1. He’s won eight straight bouts, besting all six UFC opponents. “There are moments when a person emerges and you say, ‘OK, we haven’t seen one of these guys before,” said UFC analyst Joe Rogan on his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. Rogan described how the young featherweight’s Tae Kwon Do mastery has introduced a new breed of mixed martial art to the UFC. “I watch [Rodriguez] fight and go, ‘Jesus Christ, here’s a new thing!’ ”

McGregor does damage with a devastatingly powerful left hook. Rodriguez is all kicks. At times, a Rodriguez fight more closely mirrors interpretive dance than boxing, only interpretative dance doesn’t end with a TKO-induced fencing position. He throws flying kicks the way most fighters throw jabs. The end result is an unpredictable weapon that leaves opponents studying Jet Li films. When Rodriguez somersaults into a heel strike or springs from a crouch to a flying jab, sheer confusion sets in. Then? Lights out. “A lot of people start in MMA when they’re 18,” Rodriguez tells OZY. “I’ve been doing this since I was 5 years old. Controlling my body just comes natural to me.”

Rodriguez’s last fight, a demolition of aging UFC Hall of Famer BJ Penn, was noteworthy because of Penn’s place in history, but the legend was badly outmatched. Rodriguez grew up watching YouTube videos of Penn. On bashing his hero’s face in: “You can never have mercy,” he tells OZY. “My fight is with myself. I never try to punish anyone. If I execute, I’ll finish anyone who is just there.

Yair Rodriguez

Rodriguez celebrates his victory over Penn.

Source Christian Petersen/Getty

As Rodriguez prepares for a fight against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 211 in May, it’s abundantly clear that UFC President Dana White has big plans for the young star. White has begun strategically scheduling opponents for Rodriguez, ensuring that each fight presents a new stylistic challenge while boosting his notoriety — the same strategy White employed with a young McGregor.

One thing that won’t be re-created, though, is the occasionally inelegance of McGregor and the headlines his behavior garners. Rodriguez is, as Joe Carr, UFC senior vice president and head of international and content, notes, a “good-looking kid who fits the mold of a main-event, marketable guy.” McGregor is a global star due to his unrivaled trash-talking and “Fuck you, pay me” attitude. Rodriguez is more likely to thank you for your time at a press conference.

If Rodriguez goes the next two years unbeaten, he’ll likely own the UFC featherweight belt. A divisional jump to lightweight could then be an option, especially if a bigger payday awaits. So, is the UFC preparing its protégé to take down the current king? Rodriguez is ready, if that’s the case. “I’m not a guy who will call someone out,” he tells OZY. “But put the big name in there and I’ll win the fight.” That’s the thing about El Pantera: In the octagon or in the alleys of Parral, he’s always been ready to do the only thing he loves.

“If I wasn’t fighting, I’d probably be dead.”

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