Standing in the center of the Octagon in February, Yair Rodriguez got a taste of the moment every fighter envisions for themselves in one form or another.
On the other side of the world, far removed from his hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, more than nine years after he arrived on the scene as a lightning bolt of uncapped potential, Rodriguez stood there listening to Bruce Buffer declare “The New Interim UFC Featherweight Champion of the World” as matchmaker Mick Maynard affixed the title around his waist.
“Remembering the moment, it was a beautiful moment for my family, my friends, my team and, for me, too, it was a special moment, a beautiful moment,” Rodriguez said on Tuesday. “But we’re looking for more.
“We’re looking to unify that title and that’s what we’re going to do this Saturday.”
That evening in Perth, Rodriguez turned in a dominant performance against Josh Emmett, claiming the interim title that guaranteed him the opportunity to face Alexander Volkanovski in the title unification tilt that headlines this weekend’s blockbuster UFC 290 pay-per-view from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
While he had garnered quicker victories and delivered even more jaw-dropping highlights in the past, Rodriguez’ performance against Emmett was the most complete of his 10-year UFC career — a culmination of everything he’s been working towards and working on during the many years he spent tantalizing fans with his talents and striving to reach the top.
There has been something different about Rodriguez as we’ve spoken in the preamble to his last several fights — a new level of focus, a new maturity that permeates his words, radiates through his presence.
When I asked him about it Tuesday, the talented interim champion said it’s awareness more than anything else.
“I don’t know if it’s maturity,” he said, searching his brain to find a better descriptor. “I would say it’s awareness.
“I know what it’s all about. I understand the deal. I know the complexity of it — many of the aspects of this game that I didn’t understand before, and that is important. You’ve gotta put enough attention on what’s important and that’s what I’ve been doing.
“I’ve been putting a lot of attention on what is necessary for me to get here, and to perform well, and I can’t wait for Saturday because I’m excited to see how I can perform under good circumstances.
“Right now, everything is running smooth,” he added. “I don’t know what else to say — I’m ready.”
As much as he’s ready for the weekend, the 30-year-old isn’t really thinking about it all that much.
Yes, there is a massive test in front of him in the form of Volkanovski, the reigning king of the featherweight division, who has gone 12-0 inside the Octagon when competing in the 145-pound weight class, but the work for Saturday has already been done, and their moment to stand across from one another is sure to come soon.
But instead of fixating on what that night may bring, Rodriguez instead prioritizes each day — handling the responsibilities and expectations that come with each fight week, and making sure that he’s enjoying the process, accepting the fact that what happens on Saturday night cannot be decided on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.
“Getting close to the fight, I’m not really focusing much on Saturday; I’m focusing more on my day-by-day, getting everything done the right way, taking advantage of the time that I have, enjoying the process,” explained the interim titleholder, who was projected to be a future title contender from the moment he blazed a trail through the competition on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter Latin America in 2014.
“Fight week, I understand all of it — the interviews, signing posters, and all the things you have to do; it’s part of what we always do. Now that I’m a veteran of the sport, you learn to understand the process of things and to accept it, take it in the best way possible; do the job with a good face, a good attitude.
“I don’t even feel like I’m going to fight — I’m just calm, relaxed,” he added. “I know what I’m going to do. I know the fight is Saturday but, at the same time, I’m relaxed, I’m confident in myself that I’m gonna do a great job, that I’m gonna win, I believe that, and that’s the only thing I know that I need — that belief in myself.”
That belief comes from a decade competing on the biggest stage in the sport; from sharing the Octagon with talented fighters like Dan Hooker, Andre Fili, and Alex Caceres; from preparing for and competing against former champions BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar; from facing off with Chan Sung Jung and Jeremy Stephens, going to battle with Max Holloway, and earning victories over perennial contenders Brian Ortega and Emmett.
It also comes from his coaches and training partners, including UFC lightweight Ignacio Bahamondes and welterweight title contender Belal Muhammad, and believing that together, they have brought him to a point where he is ready for anything and everything Volkanovski will bring to the table this weekend.
Yair Rodriguez | Greatest Hits
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Yair Rodriguez | Greatest Hits
And if something unexpected presents itself, the dynamic Mexican featherweight is poised to roll with the punches, literally and figuratively.
“I know what he’s capable of doing, but I also have here Belal, my other friend Alejandro; I have shared the cage with them, with Ignacio Bahamondes,” said Rodriguez. “These people have an amazing amount of talent, they’re the best in their divisions, and being in there with people I consider as talented as Alexander Volkanovski, it won’t be a surprise for me anything that he brings into the fight because I know I’ve been in there with some of the best, as well.
“You have to accept whatever (may happen) before the fight in order to let go of any fear and just flow, enjoy the process,” he added. “Enjoy the process and get the job done.”
Rodriguez securing a victory on Saturday night to unseat Volkanovski from the featherweight throne wouldn’t be a shock, but it would come as a surprise to some, as the Australian has asserted his dominance in recent outings and is coming off an outstanding effort against lightweight champ Islam Makhachev the same evening Rodriguez got his first taste of UFC gold.
But it will not be a surprise for the gifted fighter who flashed promise as a prospect and has seemingly put it all together as he readies to make his 14th appearance inside the Octagon this weekend.
“I don’t even know what I would feel about it,” he said when asked what it would mean to hear “And New” on Saturday night. “It’s just one of those things that I’m prepared for. I don’t know if that makes sense or not — I have been preparing for it, I’ve been visualizing it, I’ve felt it in my head.
“For me, it won’t be a surprise what is going to happen on Saturday. For many people, maybe it will be but, for me, it won’t be a surprise.
“I’m gonna win.”