UFC 211 Preview: How good is Yair Rodriguez?

The result of Saturday’s (May 13) featherweight fight between Yair Rodriguez and Frankie Edgar hinges primarily on the answer to the following question: how good is Yair Rodriguez? Because, in a sport as unforgiving and truth-revealing as mixed martial arts, there comes a time in every young fighter’s career when this question will be asked, usually when in the company of a veteran or danger man, and the answer provided goes some way to revealing not only the result of the immediate fight but also the subsequent trajectory of their career.

In the case of Mexican Rodriguez, he has, in the tradition of all blue chip MMA prospects, done everything right so far and looked talented and skilled enough to one day win UFC featherweight gold. Few are as flashy, few are as outwardly confident, and few have beaten BJ Penn, albeit an older, faded version of ‘The Prodigy’, so comprehensively it appeared one fighter was fighting, which is to say making use of every tool available, and the other was blindfolded, their hands tied together, their feet in sand.

Rodriguez, therefore, is seemingly ready for this moment, set for stardom, foundations in place. But he’s also, in MMA terms, still a relative pup at 24 years of age, has four UFC decisions to his name, one of which was a five-rounder with Alex Cacares, and there’s every possibility his win against Penn, showy and empathic though it was, could have been flattering in the extreme. Certainly, should he slip up against Edgar at UFC 211, this win – his so-called coming-out party – will be viewed in fresh, less favourable context.

A fighter like Frankie Edgar, 21-5-1, is just the man to separate substance from style and make a clear distinction between the two. His nickname, ‘The Answer’, is no mere throwaway nom de guerre. It is appropriate, it is revealing. It summarises his uncanny knack of exposing young prospects and, indeed, established champions and issuing them their moment of truth. In essence, beat Edgar and you know you can compete with the best fighters on the planet. There’s your answer. Fall short, however, and, well, you simply join a long line of lightweights and featherweights who have perceived the Toms River-native to be a gatekeeper gimme only to discover just how difficult a man he is to beat, regardless of the weight division in which he competes.

In nine years the only men to have defeated Edgar are Jose Aldo, the current UFC featherweight champion, and Benson Henderson, the former UFC lightweight champion. This speaks to both Edgar’s durability and his consistency. What’s more, consider the men he has beaten during that period, many of whom were favoured to conquer him, many of whom were tipped to climb higher and higher. There’s Charles Oliveira, the highly-touted Brazilian who succumbed to Edgar in 2013. There’s Cub Swanson, everyone’s favourite rock-em-sock-em featherweight, a man well and truly in the title frame. He was submitted by Edgar in 2014. There’s also Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes and Jeremy Stephens and just about every other fighter weighing between 145 and 155-pounds.

If you want to be tested, Edgar is your guy. If you want the wheels to come off – and who wants that? – Edgar is simultaneously the guy you avoid at all costs. He will make it happen. You might think he won’t. You might think you’ve finally got him at the right time and that he’s slowing down and not quite the force he was when dethroning a prime BJ Penn in 2010 to lift the UFC lightweight belt. But you’ll find out the hard way. Edgar will prove you wrong. At this point, it’s just what he does.

Yair Rodriguez has been warned. He will know all about Edgar’s propensity to upset the apple cart and will be aware his tenacity and takedowns and all-round temerity will represent a considerably stiffer test than the offering received from the shell of BJ Penn. Rodriguez will know all these things because he, like us, has seen all the evidence. He has seen Edgar do it time and time again; fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. It’s become the way with Edgar. Many have tried to manoeuvre him closer to retirement, but few have managed to get the better of him, much less do so in a way that ushers the 35-year-old towards the exit door.

Whether Rodriguez, 10-1, is the man for the job depends entirely on the answers he is able to provide to the questions Edgar will undoubtedly pose. Because, rest assured, questions will be asked, game plans will be executed, takedowns will be sought and Edgar, a man who appears well-versed in getting it right when it matters most, will know exactly how to go about dragging Rodriguez into deep waters and not allowing him to come up for air. He will stifle and suffocate him. He will make him work when he wants to rest. He will give him looks and take him to places, figuratively and literally speaking, Rodriguez won’t want to go. Again, we know all this because Edgar, as reliable as any fighter in the game, has done it before and to more experienced and (at this stage) better foes than Rodriguez. It’s by now his calling card, his unique selling point.

It’s up to Rodriguez, then, to give Edgar looks he has never before encountered. He needs to distance himself from the likes of Swanson, Oliveira, Mendes, Faber and Stephens and show us rather than tell us the extent of his potential. A tough ask, no doubt, and a test many have flunked, but if – and it’s a big if – Rodriguez is able to do to Edgar what he did to Penn – or, you know, just get the win – there’s every chance we could be looking at a future featherweight title challenger. Perhaps even a future champion.

That said, let’s wait and see.