When talking about BJ Penn, Yair Rodriguez drops the “L” word frequently, clearly knowing what’s at stake and who he is dealing with when he faces the returning UFC Hall of Famer in Phoenix this Sunday. But once the Octagon door shuts, all that legend stuff will get put aside for 25 minutes or less.
“Well, you’ve got to do it one way or another,” Rodriguez laughs. “If you go into the fight thinking he is a legend, then he will kick your ass if you respect him too much. You have to fight him as any other guy. I always see my opponents as the best opponent at that time, the best fighter in the world, so I prepare for the best all the time. And I don’t care who’s in front of me, I will be prepared for him.”
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That might be talk from other fighters. From Rodriguez, perhaps the most serious 24-year-old you know, it’s his reality. If he wins on Sunday, it doesn’t just move him to 6-0 in the UFC and further up the featherweight ladder. This is his “passing of the guard” fight, the one that takes him to a different place in his already promising career. That’s heady stuff for a young man whose first exposure to “The Prodigy” wasn’t in person, but through video clips.
“One of the first videos was a highlight of him jumping out of a pool during training,” Rodriguez recalls. “I didn’t fight MMA yet, but I was trying to, and he was one of my motivations and one of the guys I used to look up to in the beginning.”
And considering that he was only eight years old when Penn made his UFC debut in 2001, the idea of fighting the Hawaiian star wasn’t anything based in reality until the fight was presented to him.
“It was kind of weird for me because at first we didn’t know that he was coming back,” Rodriguez said. “I knew he was in retirement, but once I knew he was coming back, I was pretty excited because this guy is pretty good. He’s been retired for two years, but that doesn’t mean nothing. He’s still a legend, a champion in two different weight classes, so I was pretty excited to get this fight. But for me, it’s just one more fight for my biggest goals.”
Those goals obviously include a world title, but he doesn’t talk much about that at this point. What he will discuss is his intention to not solely be an MMA star, but a beacon of light for his countrymen and women back home in Mexico. And that’s been his true focus since he won The Ultimate Fighter Latin America in 2014, a few months after Penn announced the retirement that officially ends with his return this weekend.
“The UFC really changed my life,” Rodriguez said. “There’s been a lot of good things coming into my life. Good people are coming into my life, some of them going out too, but you have to adjust to the process. It’s a pretty tough process, but it’s part of everyone’s life, and I’m only going to live this life once, so I’m enjoying the process, I’m enjoying my life every day and, for me, this was kind of a dream to fight for the UFC. And now that I’m here, I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to help out my family and my friends. This is a lot of motivation for kids coming out of Mexico and Latin America, because I come from a tough place. It’s good for me to be a motivation for them now because I know I can change lives.”
It’s not what you’re used to hearing from a pro athlete so young, but Rodriguez is an old soul in a lot of ways. That comes from living a life where nothing was ever handed to him, where each walk down the streets of Parral could have been his last. So to get to this point, Rodriguez thinks it’s more than just hard work or good fortune. He believes it’s destiny.
“I know I’m young, just 24 years old, but I’ve been in the sport almost all my life,” he said. “I’ve been in the sport since I was five years old. My parents taught me good, life taught me hard. So that’s why I’m the way I am right now. In life, you’re born a warrior, you’re born a fighter, and even more if you’re born in a tough place. I cannot complain, I’m still alive, but you see stuff that not many people get to see every day, so you just have to be smart about the way you handle yourself, and then you’ll be good.
“I know I’m a champion,” Rodriguez continues. “I was born a champion. Once you’re born a champion, you can’t do anything about changing your future. I accepted this already, I know I’m good at what I do and I’m just saying it in the humblest way that I can. Nobody’s gonna stop me.”
He’s right. It is the humblest way for him to say that he’s going to be here for a while. And someday, people may use the “L” word to describe him as well.