I thought I misunderstood Yair Rodriguez when he said he was excited about cutting weight for his Saturday main event against “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung, but when I asked him to repeat his response, he doubled down.
“I love it,” he laughed. “It’s part of the process. I feel like if I don’t cut weight, you don’t feel like you’re going to fight. Dieting, eating clean and cutting weight is part of the tradition of the sport. As long as you do it safely, you’ll be fine.”
That’s the sign of a man happy to be fighting again, and that’s exactly where the 26-year-old is heading to this weekend’s bout, his first since a May 2017 loss to Frankie Edgar, his first as a member of the UFC roster.
Before that matchup with the former lightweight champion, Rodriguez was 6-0 in the Octagon, a TUF Latin America winner, and the next big thing in the sport, not just in the U.S., but in his native America and throughout the world. After that fight, things got sidetracked, most notably when he was released by the promotion and then was re-signed. Injuries kept him sidelined as well, but he tried to make the best of the situation over the last 18 months.
“Sometimes you have to give yourself a chance and not be too hard on yourself,” he said. “I was trying to enjoy the moment more and not being focused so much on the past or the future. That’s one of the biggest things I learned during the 18 months I’ve been inactive. But now I have the opportunity to come back and be able to see everyone and be in the loop again to fight. It makes me excited, it makes me happy and makes me want to be out there throwing down again.”
Ironically, it was an injury to Edgar that opened the door for Rodriguez to return, and he jumped at the opportunity.
“I said before in interviews that I would like to fight The Korean Zombie,” Rodriguez said. “He is one of the guys that I look up to because he’s been in the game longer than me and I’ve seen him fight Jose Aldo and other fighters that I respect a lot, and I know why they call him The Korean Zombie because he’s always coming forward and he’s aggressive and he never quits.
“I want to prove myself against the best in the world,” he continues. “What would be the reason to fight people you know you can beat? People who can make you prove to yourself that you can do it and push forward and make you take the next step, that’s the kind of fight that I’m looking for.”
And he will get that gut check kind of fight from the South Korean action here. So how does one stop a zombie?
“You gotta shoot the head,” laughs Rodriguez. “But with this Zombie, I think it’s gonna be a little different. We’re in high elevation and I think cardio is going to be a real important key. He’s gonna try to keep away from my range and we’ll see how the fight goes.”
At 26 years old and with a fresh start in the UFC’s featherweight division, Rodriguez’ excitement sounds genuine, and it’s good to see him back because he still has that talent to be a game changer in the sport. Does that mean the pressure’s back on his shoulders? Not in his eyes.
“I don’t feel pressure at all,” he said. “I actually feel super happy. After losing my job and after all this stuff happening me over the last year, not just professionally but in personal matters as well, it was one of those times in your life that sometimes you’ve gotta go through. And being able to be here, competing again in the best company in the world, it’s an amazing feeling.”
So no regrets?
“It’s made me a better person and a better athlete,” Rodriguez said of his time away. “I used to be worried and scared about losing. I think that was one of the first issues. You can’t be afraid to lose. You’ve got to go there and do what you love. I forgot that. But now I’m just happy to enjoy the process, enjoy the moment, and enjoy my weight cut. (Laughs) I feel better than ever before.”