A week before his Saturday headliner in Mexico City, Yair Rodriguez isn’t thinking about his opponent, Jeremy Stephens.
“I'm not focused on the fight right now,” said Rodriguez the day before he would climb once again to the fourth highest peak in Mexico, Nevado de Toluca. “I'm just focused on myself. If I focus on myself in every moment that I have and if I can transform that in a positive way, that's what I'm trying to do. The fight is going to go easy if I can do that.”
He might be right, considering that the featherweight contender spent three weeks training at a location with an even higher elevation than Mexico City’s 7,382 feet.
“Right now I'm staying at 10,720 feet,” said “El Pantera.”
Guess he’s ready for five rounds with the “Lil’ Heathen” this weekend.
“I can go ten rounds,” Rodriguez says definitively.
Again, he might be right, and there is a calm intensity to the 26-year-old as he prepares for his first fight since last November. That’s a long layoff for anyone, but it was a welcome break considering that the last time he stepped into the Octagon was for a five-round war with Chan Sung Jung that ended with Rodriguez scoring the Knockout of the Year with a come from behind elbow that landed and ended matters with one second remaining in the bout.
For most, a win like that would be a good opportunity to strike while the iron’s heart and return for another big fight as soon as possible. Rodriguez is not like most fighters.
“It was important for me to recover and just take my time and get better,” he said of his break from the Octagon. “It's not a joke for me. So every time I'm gonna go inside that cage, I want to be ready, I want to be prepared, and that's why I take my time. I'm not in a rush.”
At 26, he’s got a point, but it’s got to be hard to follow your own path when he had to have pulls to keep the momentum going from the biggest win of his career.
“It's not difficult at all,” Rodriguez said. “It's just who I am. I think it's difficult to follow other people. It's easier for you to be yourself and do your thing. You've got to be original in this life. You only live once, and I don't want to be copying nobody. I want to be myself and I want people to see what I'm capable of without following somebody else or imitating somebody else. I like to do my own stuff.”
Rodriguez, who credits the martial arts he has been studying since the age of five with his maturity, has done just that. And it’s largely worked so far, with the proof being UFC wins over the likes of Charles Rosa, Dan Hooker, Andre Fili, Alex Caceres and BJ Penn. There have been hiccups along the way as well, but Rodriguez refuses to dwell on the victories or the defeats. His definition of success is something different.
“At the end of the day, when I'm done with this career, the only one who's going to be regretting or proud of the work is gonna be myself,” he said. “It doesn't matter if I lost or if I won; if I'm comfortable with what I'm doing and if I'm completely sure that after the fight I'm going to be happy with myself, that's all that matters because I know I'm doing all I can and giving my all every second that I have.”
The Parral native is a serious young man. It makes you wonder if he is able to enjoy this ride at the top of his chosen profession. He says he is, in his own way.
“Every moment I have, I'm trying to enjoy it with my friends and family because everybody is here to support me,” he said. “I'm enjoying my life, I'm enjoying my career, and that's why I decided to take my time between fights. I like to enjoy my family and enjoy my life. I know life is not just fighting. It's more than that. If I decide after this fight to retire or whatever, that will be fine too. If I decide to keep on going, it's going to be my choice. No one is controlling my life. I'm doing it.”
At this point, the interview is over. There’s more training to do and a mountain to climb again the next day. I wish him luck on that trek, and in his ensuing response, it’s almost as if climbing mountains is like fighting to get a world title in the UFC. And he knows it.
“The road is hard,” Rodriguez said. “When you're going up there, it's super hard. But once you are up at the top, it's the most beautiful moment of your life. I know it can be hard sometimes, but you've got to find a way to keep enjoying it, so that's what I'm doing right now.”