The return to action of interim UFC lightweight champion Jon Jones after more than a year and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson’s continued domination of opponents were supposed to be the talk of the UFC 198 fight card.
But the spotlight belonged instead to Mexican featherweight, Yair “El Pantera” Rodríguez, who took down Andre Fili (15-4) with a kick to the head that won him Performance of the Night and landed him on the highlight reel of every television sports show.
“I wasn’t looking for that knockout,” Rodríguez (8-1) told Fox News Latino. “I didn’t think the fight would have ended with that kick. When I saw the opportunity, I threw the kick. I didn’t think it was going to knock him out. I was ready to keep fighting.”
MMA fans can expect more highlight reels from the 23-year-old Mexican fighter, because he doesn't intend to change his risk-taking style, despite critics saying that it could shorten his longevity.
“I feel good people thought I was the highlight of the night,” he said in a Spanish-language interview. “But what people say doesn’t bother me. I just keep training hard for my next fight. A victory means a lot, just like the one [against Fili]. I have big goals, and I need to keep working hard.”
Next on Rodríguez’s horizon is Miami-based Alex Caceres (12-8), which is set to be the main event at UFC Fight Night 92 at the Vivint Home Smart Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Rodríguez’s flashy and unorthodox fight style sometimes seems straight out of a video game, but it also leaves opponents like Fili puzzled.
“Every fighter has his own style,” Rodríguez said. “The way I fight is the way I fight.”
El Pantera is a relative newcomer to MMA, with less than 10 pro fights under his belt. He holds a 4-0 record in the UFC. His only loss took place back in 2012 to Luis Herrera in a Mexican Fighters Promotions bout.
The road to being employed by the world’s top MMA circuit was challenging for the native of Chihuahua, Mexico, and he credits his risk-taking for getting him through.
“I confronted many situations before getting here,” said Rodríguez, who had less than $500 to his name before his fight at UFC 188, a June 2015 split decision win over Charles Rosa.
“It was hard to get to this point of my life, but it got me here. There were money, work and school issues. I wanted to choose this path. I left the job and school. I left everything for this.”
He started in martial arts at 5, but it wasn’t until he was 17 that he started to train in mixed martial arts in northern Mexico.
“I was familiar with many martial arts,” Rodríguez told FNL. “One day, I was walking through the streets with my mom and I saw a gym that taught Vale Tudo. The name grabbed my attention. I entered to see what it was about.”
Vale Tudo (Portuguese for “anything goes”) developed in the mid-20th Century in Brazil and is considered a precursor to MMA fighting.
“I fell in love once I entered,” Rodríguez said.
Opportunity came knocking when the UFC offered him a chance to join the cast of the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” in 2014.
He was on former UFC heavyweight champion’s Cain Velasquez’s team, and won the featherweight division on the show.
“It’s a show that’s national and all over the world,” he said about the exposure that TUF brought him. “I do the same things now – there are more people who recognize me because of the show, but it doesn’t bother me if they ask to take a picture with me.”
With a few more wins under his belt, he would be a serious contender for the featherweight title, which currently belongs to the mercurial Conor McGregor.
Asked about the champ, Rodríguez said he doesn’t like to share his opinion on fighters in his weight division.
“I don’t have anything to say about them,” he said. I'll do the talking inside the octagon.”
Rodríguez, who works out in Illinois and with top MMA trainer Greg Jackson, wants to make his mark in MMA on behalf of all Mexicans.
“I fight for my family and everyone who is in my life,” he told FNL. “I would like to be the best fighter in the world. I don’t only want to be the champion, but I want be a leader and an example. I want to do it for my country.”