Yair Rodriguez picks up where Conor McGregor left off as top featherweight prospect
When Yair Rodriguez debuted in the UFC as a cast member of "The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America" he didn't have a ton of hype as the next big thing in the featherweight division.
No one would ever confuse Rodriguez with a fighter like Conor McGregor, who not only came in with a lot of eyeballs on him but also a mouth that has produced some of the most epic trash talk in the history of the sport.
Instead, Rodriguez preferred to let his fighting do the talking for him and his first few performances have certainly echoed rather loudly throughout the featherweight division.
From his back and forth brawl with Charles Rosa to his jaw-dropping switch kick knockout over Andre Fili, Rodriguez has quickly become one of the most electrifying fighters on the entire UFC roster and this weekend he has the opportunity to add a UFC legend to his resume.
Rodriguez faces UFC Hall of Fame fighter BJ Penn in the main event at UFC Fight Night in Phoenix on Sunday. On paper, Rodriguez is 5-0 in the UFC with only two professional fights while going up against Penn, who is a former two-division champion with nearly 30 fights on his record and a list of opponents that features a who's who of mixed martial arts legends.
Penn might seem like a daunting task for most competitors but Rodriguez is quick to point out that his record doesn't reflect the real experience he has as a fighter.
"I've been a fighter since I was born. I'm a (expletive) warrior is what I am," Rodriguez told FOX Sports. "I've been training since I was like five years old. This is what people don't understand. People think that I'm an up and coming fighter, I have a couple of fights but I've been fighting all my life.
"I have hundreds of fights in different kind of areas like taekwondo, kickboxing, judo, boxing, all these martial arts. I was born to compete. I'm a competitor. I'm a winner. I'm a champion. That's where I'm at."
While Rodriguez may pale in comparison when it comes to Penn's record and resume, he's obviously doing something right because oddsmakers have installed him as a four-to-one favorite over the UFC Hall of Famer.
The matchup with Penn could be viewed as the past versus the present with Rodriguez now being touted as the heir apparent to McGregor's throne as the next major featherweight star to emerge.
Rodriguez may have entered the UFC with a whisper but lately, everybody seems to be roaring about this 25-year-old prospect out of Mexico. Of course, Rodriguez appreciates the compliments but sadly he's probably seen none of it because he rarely if ever hears anything anybody has said about him.
"I never read the good comments or the bad comments people make about me. Because guess what? I love people and I love my fans but it doesn't make any difference," Rodriguez explained. "Their comments doesn't make any difference in my fight.
"So I'm just going to go there, fight and win and if they keep thinking that of me, thank you guys, I appreciate it. If you don't, what I'm going to do is I want to show you different."
A big part of what has made Rodriguez can't miss television every time he steps into the cage is the flashy style he's unleashed through his first few fights in the UFC.
From the out-of-nowhere head kick that demolished Andre Fili to the series of spins and cartwheels he unleashed against Alex Caceres, Rodriguez has quickly become a self-made highlight reel during all of his fights.
Still, for all the flash and flare that Rodriguez has uncorked in recent fights, he says none of it is planned before he steps into the Octagon. Instead, Rodriguez is all about reading and reacting to whatever opening his opponents give him and those unorthodox offensive maneuvers are just instinctive.
"I don't really think about that stuff when I'm fighting, it's just there. If it's there, I'll throw it," Rodriguez said. "I just let my body go. If you're thinking when you're fighting then you're (expletive). You're totally (expletive).
"You cannot be thinking out there."
Rodriguez's fight wisdom seems well beyond his years and maybe that's part of what makes him such an interesting fighter to watch during 2017.
As 2017 begins to unfold, Rodriguez hopes to inject his name into title contention by the end of the year, but for now the only thing on his mind is adding Penn's name to his resume as the sixth win of his UFC career.
"My mind is only on BJ Penn right now. BJ is my next goal. If I win this next fight then I can get to my next one. That's the way to get into a title shot. From now, I'm just looking at BJ Penn as my goal. I'm going to win and then I'll start worrying about my next fight, next opponents," Rodriguez said.
"I'm just going to go there, fight him with all that I have and hopefully I win. If I win, this fight is going to put me in a good position for my title shot. I'm here to show you guys who I am. I'm here to show that I'm the next guy."
Rodriguez faces Penn in the main event at UFC Fight Night in Phoenix with the main card airing live at 10 p.m. ET on FS1.