There are levels to this game.
That was Frankie Edgar's message on Saturday at UFC 211 after the former lightweight champion and longtime men's featherweight contender dispatched rising prospect Yair Rodriguez via an ugly second-round doctor stoppage.
In one fell swoop, Edgar proved he still has life as a championship contender. And while Rodriguez's time might be coming, the young pup isn't quite ready to run with the proverbial big dogs at 145 pounds.
"Before the fight, I said no matter what happens, Yair is going to be a superstar," Edgar told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan in the cage when the fight was over. "Just not yet, you know? Sometimes you need losses like that to get to the next level."
Do you, though? Really?
Even before this match became reality, observers were wondering what the UFC could be thinking. Rodriguez was an obvious blue-chip prospect, a potential linchpin in the company's plan to expand its brand into the Mexican fight market. Wasn't sending him out there against a guy the caliber of Edgar sort of a suicide mission at this stage?
Answer: Yes, and now that we've all seen the lopsidedness of their fight, we have even more questions than before.
Why would the UFC take one of its brightest rising stars and feed him through a Frankie Edgar-branded meat grinder? What exactly did that accomplish? Didn't it just squander all of Rodriguez's momentum for essentially no reason?
Joining me to discuss these and other vexing questions about this strategy (or, perhaps, lack thereof) is Bleacher Report featured columnist Steven Rondina.
Steven Rondina: This is why we can't have nice things. The UFC just won't let it happen.
Twenty-four-year-old super prospect Rodriguez was supposed to be the MMA equivalent of a turnkey product. There wasn't a single aspect of his existence that was hard to sell to fans and media partners.
Young? Check. Athletic? Check. Good-looking dude? Check. Exciting in-cage style? Check. First-of-his-kind talent from a market the UFC is looking to break into? Check. Undefeated? Check.
I'm not a fight promoter, but I feel like building up Rodriguez should be the easiest part of Dana White's day. The UFC brass, however, made it look like freaking calculus when they pitted Rodriguez against Edgar, who put such a thorough beating on him that it drew a rare doctor stoppage after the second round.
Even after sleeping on it, this contest feels dumb to the point I'm wondering what the heck the UFC could've been thinking. So I ask you, Chad. Is there something here I'm not seeing? Or is this just a complete gaffe by the UFC?
Chad Dundas: Mostly, I feel as confused about this booking as you do, Steven.
Even when the fight company announced the matchup back in March, it seemed nonsensical. Rodriguez was streaking, having won six bouts in a row in the Octagon, but he hadn't fought anyone close to Edgar's caliber. On top of that, one of the things we knew about the youngster was that his unorthodox offense required space to get going.
The rare instances when Rodriguez had struggled—like against Alex Caceres in August 2016—came against fighters who limited his arsenal of spinning kicks by dictating the range. Edgar is a master in that aspect of the fight game, possessing a high-pressure, highly mobile boxing attack with lightning-quick takedowns and smothering top control.
On paper, this looked like a nightmare pairing of styles for Rodriguez.
In practice? Same.
So what was the UFC thinking? Maybe it was gambling that it could press fast-forward on El Pantera's hype and rocket him straight to the top with a win over Edgar. Or maybe Edgar's somewhat tepid recent performance against Jeremy Stephens at UFC 205 convinced UFC brass he'd lost a step. Maybe there weren't any better available matchups for Yair.
Perhaps, as noted on the UFC 211 broadcast, it was a simple matter of Rodriguez asking to fight Edgar and having his wish granted. I dunno.
In any case, all those notions were wrong. Now we're left to sift through the aftermath.
Steven, considering Rodriguez's relative youth and inexperience, how much do you think this loss ends up hurting his stock as a super prospect? Might there be a silver lining buried in all this murk?
Rondina: I'll go on record as saying there is absolutely, positively no silver lining to this fight on any level. As I stated in my recap of the fight, nobody won here. There were only varying levels of loser.
Don't get me wrong, Rodriguez's career isn't over. At 24, he's a youngster in a deceptively old division. And while he left the cage with his face badly bruised and swollen, he didn't seem to suffer any catastrophic injury or suffer a massive concussion that will steal competitive years from him.
But did Edgar get anything out of this victory? Nope. Rodriguez's name doesn't add anything to his resume or legacy, and he is still locked in title-shot purgatory, waiting for somebody other than Jose Aldo (who has defeated him twice) to hold the featherweight belt.
Were the fans treated to something special at UFC 211? Nope. This wasn't an especially exciting contest, and it wasn't a technical marvel that sent hardcore fans home happy.
Did the UFC set anything up down the road with this matchup? Nope. While losing to a Cub Swanson or Chan Sung Jung could have laid the framework for a potential championship bout, this didn't add intrigue or promotional value to any hypothetical contest that could come together in its aftermath.
Do you agree on all that? Is there some redeeming value I'm not privy to? Any lessons you took away from this?
Dundas: I don't think it's quite as meaningless for Edgar as all that.
After a loss to Aldo at UFC 200 and then the Stephens fight, in which he didn't quite live up to his previous standard, Edgar needed this win to prove he's still an elite fighter wherever he decides to ply his trade. If nothing else, blowing the doors off Rodriguez reminded us all that The Answer only loses to championship-level opposition (and Gray Maynard).
He's in great shape moving forward, either to challenge the winner of the featherweight title unification bout between Aldo and Max Holloway at UFC 212 or to make his services available in some other high-profile spot.
With rumors going around that Cody Garbrandt might be out of his men's bantamweight title defense against TJ Dillashaw at UFC 213, Edgar could even toss his hat in the ring there. If I were him—and assuming I could make the weight—I'd call UFC brass and offer to drop to 135 pounds and take on Dillashaw in a championship eliminator.
Wouldn't that be something?
As for Rodriguez? Who knows, man? He's still so young he could rehabilitate himself. The question will be whether this loss spurs him to take his preparation and skill set to the next level.
Rodriguez's offense is dynamic, but against top-level opposition he needs a Plan B or better takedown defense or something.
I doubt this defeat changes his long-term fortunes that much, but it is certainly a significant setback. As you noted, the most disappointing thing is it came in a fight the UFC didn't have to make. Matchmakers easily could've held Rodriguez out until a more competitive matchup was available.
There's definitely blame to be placed for hurrying him into this bout, and I'm afraid it must either fall on the UFC or on Rodriguez and his handlers. A prospect of his potential but relative inexperience just didn't belong in there with Edgar at this stage of his career.