Mexican fight fans have been in UFC bosses’ crosshairs for more than a decade. A traditional boxing stronghold, the nation offers the potential for a mixed martial arts bonanza if the organisation’s Latino stars capture the public’s imagination. But the likes of Rico Rodriguez, Tito Ortiz and even Cain Velasquez have all failed to find traction with the public south of the border. But there’s a new hope. TUF Latin America winner Yair Rodriguez is young, exciting and, crucially, one of their own. Fighters Only met the 23-year-old to find out why he’s captured the attention of his countrymen.
From Chihuahua to Chicago
Q: When did you start training martial arts?
A: I did taekwondo for five years until I was 13, then I did judo for four years. After that I practiced some boxing, kickboxing, karate, jiu-jitsu and then, finally, I found mixed martial arts when I was 17 years old. I started fighting when I was 18. I learned (MMA) pretty quickly because of my martial arts experience so I knew the moment I started this was the sport I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Q: How did you transition into training MMA full-time?
A: I first started in a gym in Parral, Chihuahua. They taught some of the stuff, but it wasn’t a real MMA gym. I had to move to (the city of) Chihuahua – two hours from my hometown – to practice MMA every weekend for six months. After that I had to move to Juarez, Chihuahua, where I met Ricardo Morales, who was my coach there. That was seven hours from my hometown and I was living with my aunt. She was helping me out and I was working in a store to pay for my gym and all my stuff.
Q: What did you have to do to make it on to The Ultimate Fighter?
A: The UFC and Sean Shelby were in Mexico City in a gym and they were trying to pick us up to see if we had the materials to be potential fighters. They brought us to Albuquerque, New Mexico. That was the first time I stepped into Greg Jackson’s gym.
Q: How did you end up moving to the US full-time?
A: Before I won The Ultimate Fighter, I lived in Greg Jackson’s academy for a year and I trained there every day. I met Coach Mike Valle, Coach Jackson and Coach Winkeljohn. I also met Izzy Martinez there and he invited me to live and train with him in Chicago. I decided on the move because I knew that wrestling was something I’d never done before and I knew I needed to work on it. I did all my preparation (for the TUF Finale) there.
The next big thing
With a new home among elite American coaches who could hone his skills, Rodriguez followed his exceptional showing in the TUF house with a win in the Finale over Leandro Moraes in Mexico City at UFC 180. But when the Octagon returned to the capital for UFC 188 in June, he was a significant underdog against 10-1 American Top Team submission machine, Charles Rosa.
But Rodriguez made a mockery of the odds by overwhelming his opponent with spinning kicks, flying knees and relentless grappling offense, prompting UFC colour commentator Joe Rogan to describe him as “like a combo of Jon Jones and Anthony Pettis.” By the time his hand was raised as the winner by unanimous decision, it was clear a new star had been born.
Q: Were you surprised by how much of an impression you made with your second UFC fight?
A: I wasn’t surprised because I knew about my work and I worked so hard for that fight. I actually was a little bit disappointed because I knew I could do better. But I think it was a good fight against Charles Rosa – he’s a warrior – and I got the bonus for ‘Fight of the Night.’ I think a lot of people liked the fight. I feel happy and so blessed for that.
Q: What makes you fight in such an aggressive and exciting way?
A: I like to put on a show for the fans but I have to be careful. I know (my opponents) can knock me out – they can hit me with a punch or something like that. I have to be smart about it. Obviously I want to surprise and bring the people a new fighter, a fun fighter and a fighter that never stays in the same place. I’m a scramble guy. I like to scramble and fight a lot. I’m here in the UFC to surprise the world.
Q: Do your coaches encourage you to fight that way?
A: They tell me, ‘Hey, you need to fight more basic. You can’t do that crazy stuff all the time.’ But when it’s time to fight they told me, ‘Do whatever you want for the first round and in the second round we’ll tell you what to do and use strategy.’
Q: How much did winning the TUF Latin America tournament change your life?
A: My bonus at UFC 188 was bigger. That fight and cheque really helped me a lot because after my Ultimate Fighter victory they paid me my win money, but I had to pay coaches and stuff like that. I was trying to help my family. I started to spend my money too fast and I didn’t realise how much I was spending. When I looked at my bank account I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to do something about it.’ I had less than $400 – but then I won the fight and the bonus.
Q: Did you send some of that bonus cash back home too?
A: Of course. I like to help my family. My little sister Alundra is trying to learn English and so I pay for her school. She’s also going into a judo gym and taekwondo gyms. I like to pay for stuff like that for my family so they don’t have to worry about it. Whatever they need, I’m here for them.
Carrying the torch
Rodriguez continued his impressive run three days before his 23rd birthday in Chicago when he won another unanimous decision against Daniel Hooker, showing off his dynamic striking skills despite a suspected broken foot. Since then, he has been propelled to the forefront of the UFC marketing machine. He was the star attraction at the fan Q&A session in Monterrey in November, and then front and centre in Korea just a week later, where FO caught up with ‘El Pantera’ and asked him what his future might look like.
Q: What’s it like to have become be one of the UFC’s biggest Mexican stars so quickly?
A: The people recognise me a little more than before, but it’s not going to change the way I think or the way I am. A couple more pictures and a couple more interviews is nothing. I’m the same Yair Rodriguez from my small hometown. I’m going to keep being humble. It’s not that I don’t care, I just try to be nice and the same kid.
Q: Is there anyone you want to fight at 145lb this year?
A: I don’t think about it yet. My coaches, Dana White (UFC president) and Sean Shelby (UFC matchmaker) are the people who tell me who I’m supposed to fight. If my coaches think it’s a good fight for me they say, ‘OK let’s go,’ and I do it. I want to be smart about my opponents and my career. I know I’m young, but I don’t want to go too quick. I just want to win my fights, keep gaining experience in the Octagon and then fight for that title shot one day.
Q: How quickly can you get there? Will take you a few years, or longer?
A: It can maybe be less. I’m going to keep training hard, that isn’t going to change. I’m just here to fight the best guys in the world. In this sport you never know how things can be. You can be fighting for the title in your next fight. It’s crazy like that, you never know. You’ve got to fight the best fighters in the world so you have to be prepared.
*** This feature originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***