As a child growing up in Parral, Mexico, Yair Rodriguez watched MMA videos with his brother and cousin.
They paid close attention to Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva and other legends who made the sport seem so intriguing. At the time, Rodriguez didn’t think much about becoming a fighter even though he had competed in taekwondo tournaments for years. He had also trained in judo, boxing and kickboxing.
When Rodriguez was 17, he and his mother were walking in Parral's downtown and noticed an MMA gym had opened. Soon, Rodriguez was spending hours each day there, working out and learning about the techniques his idols had used.
Now, seven years later, Rodriguez has emerged as one of the UFC’s most promising prospects. Since turning professional four days after his 19th birthday, Rodriguez has gone 9-1. His only defeat occurred in December 2012 during an MMA event in Mexico where he lost to Luis Roberto Herrera by knockout in the first round.
In 2014, he joined the UFC after winning the featherweight division of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. Since then, Rodriguez has proved he’s a legitimate fighter and caught the attention of fans, fellow competitors and UFC executives. With a 5-0 record in the UFC, a clean-cut image and multicultural appeal, he’s viewed as someone who could eventually headline pay-per-views and become one of the sport’s biggest draws.
That’s all in the future, though. For now, he still has to show he can beat big names and proven veterans. On Sunday night, Rodriguez gets his chance when he faces BJ Penn in a featherweight bout in the main event of UFC Fight Night 103 in Phoenix. Penn, known as The Prodigy, hasn’t fought since July 2014, hasn’t won since 2010 and has lost his last three fights.
Still, Rodriguez said he isn’t overlooking Penn, 38, a UFC Hall of Famer who made his professional MMA debut when Rodriguez was nine. Penn is one of only three fighters to win UFC titles in two divisions. Rodriguez hopes to someday accomplish what Penn has achieved during his career. More than that, he wants to surpass Penn in becoming a global ambassador.
"I don’t just want to grow the sport in Mexico," Rodriguez told Bleacher Report. "I want to grow the sport in Latin America and the world. I want to be the next Muhammad Ali."
The next Ali? Rodriguez was asked what he meant by that.
"When I die, I want my name to stay here just like Muhammad Ali did," he said. "I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy who your kids or your friends’ kids follow because I don’t have any tattoos. I never speak crap on television. I’m an athlete. I speak Spanish and English.
"I want to be an example for all the people around the world. I want to be that guy. I know it’s going to be hard. I know a lot of people aren't going to like it, but I just want to keep working hard. Hopefully one day it’ll happen. I want to be the guy who steps up and says, 'All right, guys. This is a new era.'"
Rodriguez has not always had such belief in himself, particularly early in his career. When he first got started in MMA, he knew he was good at taekwondo because he had trained in the sport since he was five years old. Still, he wasn’t as adept in the other disciplines, although he liked the challenge of learning new things and blending different styles.
In 2013, Rodriguez attended tryouts the UFC held at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Mexico City, around 800 miles from his hometown. The UFC at the time had some successful Mexican-American performers such as heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and lightweight contender Tony Ferguson, but it had a dearth of fighters from Mexico.
"It was very important for us to have a born and raised Mexican be successful," said Joe Carr, UFC’s head of international operations.
The initiative was part of the organization’s focus on scouting for talent in the region and expanding beyond its traditional hotbeds. UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby showed up and watched more than 100 fighters compete for a spot in a Latin America development program, which veteran MMA trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn would run in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"I used to think that to get into UFC was a dream, just a dream that would never come true," Rodriguez said. "My father told me, ‘Nothing is impossible, and you can do whatever you want. You just have to work hard,’ and stuff like that. I keep working hard until I have that opportunity. Since then, I’ve been holding to that chat. I don’t want to let it go."
After impressing the UFC brass, Rodriguez was among about a dozen fighters who were asked to participate in the program. For the next year, he mostly worked with trainer Mike Valle, who grew up in Matamoros, Mexico, on the Texas/Mexico border and speaks fluent Spanish.
Valle was into muay thai as a kid and then learned kickboxing and MMA. In the mid-2000s, he began training current UFC bantamweight Erik "Goyito" Perez. Valle attended a seminar Jackson gave in Mexico, and he and Perez later decided to move to New Mexico, where they worked with Jackson and others in his gym. Valle also helped train former female MMA star Gina Carano, whom he knew through kickboxing.
Valle saw early on Rodriguez had the most promise and talent of any of the Latin American fighters. Rodriguez just needed to believe he belonged with veterans who also trained in Jackson and Winkeljohn’s famous gym.
"Sometimes he would spar Cowboy [veteran UFC fighter Donald Cerrone], or he would spar somebody and say, ‘Oh, man, they let me, they let me hit them,'" Valle said. "I was like, 'No, dude. They’re not letting you hit them. You are hitting them.' It was just a process for him to start believing in himself, to start noticing, 'Hey, man, I’m that good.'"
When Rodriguez was cast in the first season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, he had already trained with Valle for a year and gained confidence. During the series, Rodriguez was part of a team that Velasquez coached.
Rodriguez won his first two fights of the competition via submission and TKO to advance to the final, which took place at UFC 180 in November 2014. That night, Rodriguez defeated Leonardo Morales via unanimous decision. Afterward, he shook hands with UFC President Dana White, who presented him with a trophy for the victory. He then gave an interview to announcer Joe Rogan in Spanish, telling the crowd he appreciated them coming and that hadn’t fought his best.
Around the same time, Rodriguez moved to the suburbs of Chicago, where he began working full time with Valle and Israel Martinez, the head wrestling coach at the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym. Martinez has trained Jon Jones, Holly Holm and a host of other UFC stars.
In 2015, Rodriguez won two fights, both via decision. Last April, he faced Andre Fili on the main card of UFC 197. During the second round, Rodriguez unleashed a flying kick to the head that knocked Fili out and caught the attention of MMA diehards. Rodriguez shared Performance of the Night honors with flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and won a $50,000 bonus.
The impressive victory over Fili led to Rodriguez’s first chance to headline a card at a UFC Fight Night in August against veteran Alex Caceres. Rodriguez won a close split decision. Two judges scored it 48-47 in Rodriguez’s favor, and the other scored it 49-46 for Caceres, who was 7-6 with a no-contest in his UFC career. Rodriguez and Caceres each won $50,000 for taking part in the Fight of the Night, and Rodriguez went five rounds for the first time.
Rodriguez wasn’t at his best, though. During the post-fight television broadcast, analysts and MMA veterans Michael Bisping and Kenny Florian said Rodriguez didn’t have enough success with his trademark spinning kicks and fancy style and suggested he work more on his boxing. However, both guys noted they may have been too picky and said Rodriguez was a talented prospect.
"Styles make fights, man," Valle said. "It was a difficult fight. Caceres has the same style as Yair. It was one of those things. … It doesn’t really matter how he looks last time or even if he had knocked him out. What’s important is our next fight. That’s it, man. That’s what we see."
After the victory over Caceres, Rodriguez recovered for a few weeks in Mexico, where his family still lives. He then returned to Itasca, Illinois, a town 25 miles from Chicago that is now his home for most of the year. He’s not a big fan of the cold winters and snow, but he knows being in Illinois is best for his long-term goals.
"The only thing that I do here is just go from my house to the gym and then from the gym to the house," Rodriguez said. "I don’t hang out. I don’t have any friends except my coaches and my team partners. That’s what I want for now. I’m pretty focused on my career right now. I don’t have anything else to do but be the best in the world."
Since September, Rodriguez has trained with Valle, his head coach, friend and mentor. He has also recently worked with well-respected jiu-jitsu coach Luiz Claudio, and Conor Beebe, an assistant wrestling coach at Northwestern University. Rodriguez has stopped working with Martinez, who declined comment for this article.
Beebe is no stranger to MMA. His older brother, Chase, is a former World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion, and his younger brother, Carson, appeared briefly on The Ultimate Fighter in 2011 and has 19 professional MMA bouts under his belt. Carson, who has trained with Rodriguez, asked if his brother could help Rodriguez. Conor was honored to help expand Rodriguez’s repertoire.
"The guy’s a freak," Conor said. "He has such an understanding for fighting in general that it makes teaching the guy wrestling easy. … I don’t think he ever claims to be a wrestler, but I would be very shocked to see if anyone can take him down in the game right now, especially if he keeps improving on the little things. He’s got a very good base for wrestling."
Rodriguez found out in November that his next opponent would be Penn (16-10-2), whose last fight was a TKO loss to Frankie Edgar at The Ultimate Fighter 19 finale in July 2014. Penn was scheduled to return last June at UFC 199 and face Dennis Siver, but Siver suffered an injury.
Penn was then set to face Cole Miller at the same event, but Penn was pulled from the fight after he admitted to using an intravenous medication in March. While the UFC had not banned the substance, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency suspended Penn for six months.
Valle doesn’t believe in sparring too much before fights, but Rodriguez has been in the gym with UFC bantamweight Marco Beltran and young fighters who train with Valle. Rodriguez met Penn last year at Jackson’s gym in New Mexico, and he has seen Penn fight several times, including his two famous fights (both losses) to Georges St-Pierre. Although Penn is 1-5-1 in his last seven bouts, Rodriguez respects Penn’s talent and work ethic.
"I used to look up to him," Rodriguez said. "Now I have the opportunity to fight him. This is a great chance for me to show the world that I’m ready for this kind of opponent."
Penn, meanwhile, has spent the past several months working with Jackson, who is expected to be in Penn’s corner Sunday night. Rodriguez also noticed recent Instagram photos of Penn in the gym with Caceres, Rodriguez’s most recent opponent. Penn is doing all he can to prepare for Rodriguez.
"He’s a legend, man," Valle said of Penn. "He’s seen it all. He’s fought everybody. I’m expecting the best BJ Penn, man. Like I told [Rodriguez], we’ve got to expect the best BJ Penn in his best years."
For Rodriguez, facing Penn in the main event is a sign the UFC sees big things for him. Carr, the UFC’s head of international operations, said Sunday’s date has become arguably the most important for UFC on FS1 each year because it is on the same day as the NFC divisional-round playoffs on Fox.
During the NFL game, which always draws huge television ratings, Fox plans on heavily promoting the Rodriguez-Penn matchup, just as it did with the Conor McGregor-Siver fight in January 2015 and the Dominick Cruz-TJ Dillashaw fight last January. Both of those bouts aired on FS1 following an NFC divisional playoff game.
"He’s young, he’s a good-looking kid, clean cut, his fighting style’s exciting with some of the crazy kicks and everything he’s doing," Carr said of Rodriguez. "He fits that mold of being a top-tier, main event, promotable, marketable guy. I think the hope is that this event really puts him on the map. It’s not a coincidence that he’s actually headlining this fight this weekend."
The UFC has held major events in Mexico before, including UFC 180 in November 2014 and UFC 188 in June 2015, both of which took place in the Mexico City Arena. For the sport to continue to grow in Mexico, though, Carr said the UFC could use a native star fighter to help expand the fanbase like St-Pierre did in Canada, McGregor did in Ireland, Anderson Silva did in Brazil and Alexander Gustafsson did in Sweden.
"There’s a lot of pressure on [Rodriguez] to basically carry the flag in Mexico as the lead fighter, the most promotable fighter down there, but he embraces it with open arms," Carr said. "When we talk to different sponsors and whatnot, they’re always attracted to him when it comes to their Mexican business and him being the face because he’s humble, he’s well-spoken, he’s personable. I think he does have that potential."
Rodriguez knows that in order to break through into the mainstream, it takes more than being personable or attractive. He needs to continue to win and impress the bosses at WME-IMG—the company that bought the UFC last summer.
So far, Rodriguez has spoken on the telephone with Shelby, who was promoted to senior vice president of talent relations in September. He also said he recently signed a contract with the UFC, and he’s as eager as ever to show the company he can live up to his promise.
"I don’t know how they look at me now, but I think they’re gonna look at me as a superstar," Rodriguez said. "I’ll become a superstar pretty soon. I think I’m not too far from becoming a champion. 2017 is gonna be my year. Just wait."