Yair Rodriguez's potential has been as clear as day from the moment we first saw him -- and now is the time to see where it's going.
Rodriguez (12-2) is set to meet veteran featherweight Jeremy Stephens (28-16) on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Mexico City. It will mark the 26-year-old's first appearance in 2019 -- and first since his remarkable no-look, backward elbow knockout of Chan Sung Jung 10 months ago in Denver.
The first impression many of us had of Rodriguez came in 2014, when he won "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series as a flashy, baby-faced, 21-year-old prospect. He's gone 7-1 in the UFC since the show and cracked the UFC's rankings.
There's really no perfect route for a young prospect's career to take, in terms of gaining experience, but when you consider Rodriguez's path thus far, there's reason to believe he's poised for a breakout. He has accumulated valuable time in the cage (eight fights, across two countries). He conquered an old legend, BJ Penn, and was humbled by another legend, Frankie Edgar. He took a five-round main event against Jung on two weeks' notice and went 25 hard minutes. He, intelligently, took time off in 2019 to fully heal.
He has bounced around different training environments over the years. There was JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Donald Cerrone's "BMF Ranch." A more personalized camp in Chicago. This time, he spent extra time in Mexico preparing for the fight so he could train at altitude.
You look at his résumé and see the valuable experiences that can transform a talented, flashy prospect into a bona fide title contender. Rodriguez is entering the prime years of his career. This matchup, against a hungry veteran known for hurting his opponents in the Octagon, might end up telling us a lot about Rodriguez's future.
By the numbers
31: UFC fights for Stephens (as of Saturday), putting him in third place all time behind Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller (tied at 33). Stephens is currently tied at 30 with Diego Sanchez, Demian Maia and Andrei Arlovski.
18: UFC knockdowns by Stephens, tying him with Anderson Silva for second most in history, behind Cerrone (20). Stephens has eight wins by KO/TKO.
7: UFC wins for Rodriguez, tied for second among featherweights since 2014 and tied for most among Mexican-born fighters.
8: Submission attempts in the UFC for Rodriguez, tied for sixth among active featherweights.
6:05:23: Total UFC fight time for Stephens, tying him for sixth all time. The leader is Frankie Edgar, at 7 hours, 12 minutes, 33 seconds. If Stephens goes the distance Saturday, he will take over second place.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information research
A look back: The no-look elbow KO
For an inside look at this epic finish by Rodriguez, click here.
Five vs. five
Yair Rodriguez's most recent results
Win: Chan Sung Jung (KO5, Nov. 10, 2018)
Loss: Frankie Edgar (TKO2, May 13, 2017)
Win: BJ Penn (TKO2, Jan. 15, 2017)
Win: Alex Caceres (SD, Aug. 6, 2016)
Win: Andre Fili (KO2, April 23, 2016)
Jeremy Stephens's most recent results
Loss: Zabit Magomedsharipov (UD, March 2, 2019)
Loss: Jose Aldo (TKO1, July 28, 2018)
Win: Josh Emmett (KO2, Feb. 24, 2018)
Win: Dooho Choi (TKO2, Jan. 14, 2018)
Win: Gilbert Melendez (UD, Sept. 9, 2017)
"I have a little bit of Mexican blood. They wanted to put me on this card because I fight like 100% Mexican. I fight with passion. I fight with raw heart." --Stephens, speaking to ESPN
Here's the fight that produced Rodriguez's 24:59 finish:
Brett Okamoto's pick
Man, how is Stephens not 57 years old? It feels like he's been around since the dark ages of this sport. He's fought virtually everyone in his weight class. Yet he's only 33, and when you listen to this man talk, he's as hungry as a 25-year-old. He has the style to give Rodriguez problems. Rodriguez likes to be in space, where he can best use his length, creativity and speed. Stephens is known for walking his opponents down. This is a fun, pick 'em fight. Ultimately, I lean youth. Rodriguez via decision.
Waiting in the wings
Everyone beneath the very top of the 155-pound division will be paying attention. Stephens is No. 9 in ESPN's featherweight rankings, and while a victory would not propel him all the way up the ladder, it would boost him up a rung or two. For Rodriguez, the 2017 loss to No. 8 Frankie Edgar halted some serious momentum. He'd won eight in a row going in, and after that bump in the road, he had a hard time with seventh-ranked Chan Sung Jung before pulling off his last-second miracle KO. A win Saturday would surely catch the eye of all those above.
You want a name, though, right? That's a tough call. Stephens has already lost to Jose Aldo and Zabit Magomedsharipov. Rodriguez has lost to Edgar and defeated Jung. One guy neither has fought: Brian Ortega, who sits at No. 3 in the ESPN rankings. Let's assume "T-City" will be watching.
What else to look for ... beyond the main event
No. 9 vs. No. 10
The co-main event is the only fight on Saturday's card that pits a fighter in ESPN's divisional rankings against another ranked fighter. Alexa Grasso is No. 9 among strawweights, ex-champion Carla Esparza No. 10.
Grasso (11-2), a 26-year-old native of Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco, is coming off a victory in June over Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
Esparza (15-6) ended a two-fight losing streak in April with a decision victory over Virna Jandiroba. She is 31.
The long, long, long wait is over
Tyson Nam has been a professional fighter since 2006. In those 13 years, he sure has gotten around -- 28 career bouts spanning 17 promotions. The UFC and Bellator are not among those promotions, although years ago he signed with (but never fought for) Bellator and drew interest (but never a contract) from the UFC.
Nam has, however, done some things that got the attention of longtime fans of those top-tier fight promotions. In 2012, he knocked out then-Bellator bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas, though the bout took place in the Shooto Brazil promotion and therefore was a nontitle fight. Two years ago, Nan KO'd onetime UFC flyweight title challenger Ali Bagautinov.
And now, finally, the 35-year-old Hawai'ian is getting his shot in the UFC -- as a late-replacement opponent for Sergio Pettis.
A few more things before you go ...
Some random notes, courtesy of the voracious researchers at ESPN Stats & Information:
The final seven fights of the night will pit fighters from Mexico against non-Mexicans. In the four previous UFC events south of the border, Mexican fighters are 21-13.
Angela Hill will be fighting for the fourth time in 2019, joining Donald Cerrone as the only UFC fighters to do so. Hill will also join Cynthia Calvillo (2017) as the only female fighters to have four fights in a calendar year.