The curious case of Yair Rodriguez: An enigma and an ‘Answer’.
Four months ago, Yair ‘El Pantera’ Rodriguez picked up the biggest win of his Mixed Martial Arts career. Knocking out longtime UFC legend and former UFC Lightweight and Welterweight champion, BJ Penn.
Fast forward a few months and as a result of a 6 fight undefeated UFC run, Yair Rodriguez is rewarded with a high stakes match-up against one of the premier fighters of his division and another former UFC champion, Frankie ‘The Answer’ Edgar.
Leading up to fight week, I couldn’t help but feel that although he looked impressive in his most recent victory over BJ Penn, Yair Rodriguez had been prematurely rushed into Elite level Featherweight competition.
Prior to defeating BJ Penn, Yair Rodriguez won a close split decision victory over Alex Caseres, an unranked Featherweight. This close fight may have been an eye opener for some fans, and a sign that Yair was not currently ready for a significant step up in competition. I felt that he was more suited to a mid level, Top 15-10 ranked opponent.
A Lion vs A Cub:
As his UFC 211 fight eventuated, it was quickly made evident that Yair Rodriguez was well out of his depth. Frankie Edgar ground and pounded Yair Rodriguez in what may have been two of the most dominant rounds of mixed martial arts in recent memory. The 10 minute mauling eventually reached the point that Yairs left eye had completely swollen shut. Forcing the cage size doctors and referee to call an abrupt end to the contest.
Because of his fan friendly fighting style and recent knockout of a legend, Yair Rodriguez was prematurely oversold to the public. Which as a result, put unrealistic expectations in the eyes of MMA fans and the wider MMA community.
During the lead up to their UFC 211 clash, Yair Rodriguez was being sold as the poster boy for the new age of MMA. While it appeared as though Frankie Edgar was being sold as the old lion and former champion who was going to give way to the new breed of the Featherweight division.
In reality Yair Rodriguez had gone from fighting an unranked Featherweight in Alex Caseres and a retiree in BJ Penn, to fighting one of the biggest threats and top 3 ranked fighters of his division in Frankie Edgar. The astronomical step in competition raised many questions.
Is Yair Rodriguez the future of the UFC Featherweight division, or is he the now?
Unfortunately for ‘El Pantera’, Frankie Edgar had ‘The Answer’.
A slippery slope:
After the setback against Frankie Edgar, the UFC and Yair Rodriguez face an interesting proposition.
The UFC could give Yair more elite level competition and continue to push him as the poster boy for the new breed of MMA, or they can give Yair a series of mid level tune up fights to continue his steady development and growth as a potential future UFC star.
Reminiscence of Rory MacDonald:
While Yair Rodriguez sat on his stool at the end of Round 2, his facial injuries were reminiscent of Rory MacDonalds face after his war with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189. With a battered, cut face and a swollen eye, Yair appeared to resemble something from a Rocky movie. It was an unfortunate but necessary ending to the contest.
This isn’t the only similarity that Yair Rodriguez and Rory MacDonald share.
Similar to Yair Rodriguez, early into his UFC career, Rory MacDonald was widely regarded as the future face of MMA and an inevitable UFC Champion.
After his war with Robbie Lawler in which he suffered a broken nose, Rory MacDonald was continually pushed against elite level competition. After his championship war against Lawler, Rory MacDonald was immediately matched up with Stephen Thompson. Who was the projected number 1 contender and most dangerous fighter in his division at the time. This fight resulted in MacDonald breaking his nose again, then losing his standing in the welterweight division. As a result, Rory MacDonald never fully recovered from damage sustained in his fight against Robbie Lawler, and is no longer a UFC fighter.
In potentially continuing to give Yair Rodriguez elite level competition, Yair and the UFC run the risk of suffering more devastating losses and avoidable damage. Which could hinder his development and have significant long term consequences.
The long game:
The UFC have a history of prematurely overselling prospects, then rushing them into big fights. This often leads to the premature elimination of potential future superstars. Recent examples include Erik Silva, Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant.
Through better career management and learning from past mistakes, the UFC have a genuine opportunity to develop Yair Rodriguez into a superstar, a champion and the potential face of Latin American combat sports.
Will the UFC take the short sighted, riskier option and continue to feed Yair Rodriguez to the wolves of his division? Or will they take a smart approach and help slowly develop ‘El Pantera’ through mid level competition? Only time will tell.