UFC 211: Yair Rodriguez thinks he'll soon be Mexico's biggest sports star

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

In most neighborhoods, there is that guy who believes he rules the roost, who has a little swagger about him and tries to intimidate others from coming his way.

Yair Rodriguez knew plenty of those types where he grew up in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico.

“The place I grew up, it was like what you might call the ‘hood,’ ” he said. “Bad guys. A lot of guys who thought they were tough. But there was always that one guy who thought he was king [expletive].”

Rodriguez is a burgeoning superstar, and faces former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar on Saturday in one of UFC 211’s best bouts at American Airlines Arena in Dallas. A win over Edgar would put Rodriguez’s name near the top of the list for a title shot.

Outwardly, Rodriguez may seem vastly different from the humble young man who oozed respect for B.J. Penn before their bout in January. These days, Rodriguez is talking plenty about his talent, his prominence and his future.

He believes he can be the biggest sports star in Mexico, or at least the biggest combat sports star. Now, that honor unquestionably belongs to Canelo Alvarez, who blew out Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in a heavily hyped boxing match in Las Vegas last week.

Alvarez is a massive star in Mexico and draws television numbers that are similar to what NFL playoff games attract in the U.S. But Rodriguez figures it won’t be long before he has a comparable following.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The Mexican people are just learning about MMA and they’re falling in love with it. It’s just going to grow and grow and I think [my popularity] will grow with it.”

Yair Rodriguez’s win over B.J. Penn on Jan. 15 was his eighth straight victory. (Getty)

The words on a screen look harsh, those of a man with a big ego. But to hear him speak, it’s different.

He’s confident of his skills, because of a lifetime as a fighter, and because he’s bilingual, he can relate to many different types of people.

His story is familiar to anyone who has followed the fight game for even a short period of time. He grew up in a rough environment and literally fought his way out.

As he fought his way up the ladder in the UFC, he was respectful of those who had longer track records of success than he did.

He’s no different than he ever has been, Rodriguez said. Those who know him the best were surprised, he said, to see the way he’s carried himself in his brief UFC career.

“They would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you talking [expletive]?’ ” Rodriguez said. “The time wasn’t right. But it is now.”

He’s been a fighter of some sort or another since he was 6, when his parents put him into taekwondo. He’s also learned karate, boxing and kickboxing and has moved to Chicago, he said, solely to learn how to wrestle to further his MMA career.

But like so many professional fighters, especially from impoverished areas, Rodriguez would fight on the streets when he was growing up.

He often fought because he had no option. He quickly learned not to be intimidated, even when he ran into the supposed king of the streets.

“I was here,” he said, putting his hand where due south would be on a map. “And I had to go here,” he added, pointing to a place that would be due north on a map. “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but that line took me through the worst area of the ‘hood.’ ”

He didn’t circle and take a longer route to avoid the toughest of the tough guys.

“When you run into that guy who thinks he’s the guy and he gives you that attitude, you cannot run away,” he said. “Whenever you speak up for yourself, and say ‘I’m tired of this. Let’s do it,’ they are like, ‘Oh my God! Who is this guy? I’ve never seen this guy before.’ ”

It seems on the surface that Rodriguez would bluff his way through, but he wholeheartedly disagrees.

“You can’t just bluff it,” he said. “You have to be ready to fight. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t say much, but when I say something, I’m going.”

And he believes he’s going to defeat Edgar on Saturday and move that much closer to a title shot. The winner of Saturday’s bout, along with Cub Swanson, figures to be the next challenger for whoever wins the June fight between featherweight champion Jose Aldo and interim champion Max Holloway.

Rodriguez, who has a dramatic, high-flying style that is as risky as it is sensational, wants to hold the title, but he wants to have an impact beyond just having a belt wrapped around his waist.

He speaks of becoming another Jon Jones, the one-time light heavyweight champion who set a new standard for greatness in MMA.

And he wants to be the guy who grows his sport in not only Mexico but throughout Latin America.

He believes he’s good enough as a striker now that he could have been a boxing world champion had he chosen to do so, but he fell in love with the various aspects of MMA and loves the challenge of dominating in “real fighting.”

The sport will soon be massive in Latin America, he predicts, and he wants to be the face of the sport for those new fans.

“This sport is only just starting to scratch the surface of what it will become,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be big, so big, in [Mexico and Latin America]. And I want all those people, when they think of MMA to think of Yair Rodriguez. That’s why I work so hard. That’s what I’ve done this for all my life, to get to that point. And we’re getting very close to finally walking through that door.”

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