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Yair Rodriguez on Sunday in Phoenix will compete in the most important bout in Ultimate Fighting Championship history for a Mexican-born fighter. B.J. Penn, the celebrated former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion, returns to action for only the second time in over four years. Part of the reason Penn is so popular is that throughout his career he has fought pretty much exclusively against consequential fighters. The UFC’s decision to match Penn against Rodriguez is a signal that it sees big-time potential in the 24-year-old Mexican competitor. The stakes have been ratcheted up by the time and place: a main event slot on a Fox Sports 1 show after the NFL on Fox, a position that has led to big ratings in the past.
This is a huge opportunity for Rodriguez, a chance to create the UFC’s first genuine Mexican-born star. To be sure, there is no shortage of successful American fighters with Mexican heritage throughout UFC history, from Frank Shamrock and Tito Ortiz to Cain Velasquez and Dominick Cruz. However, high-level fighters born and bred in Mexico have been much rarer. This isn’t a particularly important distinction in many respects, but it is a potentially key distinction when it comes to marketing -- something UFC is well aware of in its efforts to grow in the Mexican market.
There are large bases of Mexican and Mexican-American boxing fans, but they don’t always gravitate towards the same fighters. Mexican fight fans have always held a special place in their hearts for Mexican fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Marco Antonio Barrera over second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans who don’t always speak Spanish or have links to Mexico’s most celebrated boxing gyms. Those Mexican boxers drive interest in the sport in Mexico, which in turn produces more young fighters to market in both Mexico and the United States.
The hope is that Rodriguez can be the sort of fighter that makes more Mexicans gravitate towards MMA rather than simply boxing. Rodriguez has held up his end of the bargain thus far, winning “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America” and going 5-0 in the UFC. More importantly, he has competed with guts and taken risks, producing two “Fights of the Night” and a spectacular knockout of Andre Fili. He trains out of a great camp and has plenty of room still to grow. A win over Penn in the UFC Fight Night 103 headliner could be his coming-out party and a terrific scrap to boot.
If Rodriguez can’t follow through on his promise, it’s hard to know who else could be the next great Mexican hope. The UFC has worked hard to build up Erik Perez; and while Perez hasn’t been a failure by any means, with a 7-3 UFC record, he has generally taken on lower-end competition and fallen short against mid-level contenders. He doesn’t appear to have the makings of a future championship contender.
The UFC has many other Mexican fighters under contract, but that’s largely deceptive, as they’re almost all fringe competitors that the promotion has signed from various regions in an effort to grow the sport on a worldwide basis. The UFC has essentially taken a flyer on many of them in the hopes that a few will pan out in time. The fighter with the most promise besides Rodriguez -- and who doesn’t fit that mold -- is undefeated strawweight Alexa Grasso, who was received well in her UFC debut in Mexico City.
Part of the problem for young Mexican fighters is that Mexico doesn’t have a widely practiced ground discipline that can serve as a base. Amateur wrestling has provided that base for so many successful American fighters; jiu-jitsu has done the same for Brazilian fighters; and Russia has sambo. None of those are particularly big in Mexico, where boxing has long been king. Striking disciplines haven’t proven to be as good of a base historically in MMA as ground disciplines, and there’s more money for elite boxers anyway, so top-notch boxing prospects are unlikely to make the switch in the same way that world class jiu-jitsu artists and wrestlers often move into MMA.
It’s no sure thing that a great Mexican-born MMA fighter will eventually emerge. Part of the reason that Japanese MMA fell in relevance was the inability to create the next generation of Japanese stars to follow Kazushi Sakuraba, Hidehiko Yoshida and Norifumi Yamamoto. Yoshihiro Akiyama was tainted by a greasing scandal against the beloved Sakuraba, and Satoshi Ishii never caught on as hoped. Now, the market is reliant principally on gimmicks, with the best fighters largely competing abroad.
The importance of Sunday’s fight for Rodriguez personally and for the UFC’s broader objectives in Mexico is a large part of why it’s such an intriguing contest. The stakes are sky-high on the other side, as well, with Penn looking to prove he can still compete at a high level and set up a few more money fights before he retires. The fight’s crucial for both for very different reasons, and neither fighter is known for being conservative in important fights. Penn made his reputation a long time ago carrying the banner for Hawaii, and now Rodriguez will have the opportunity to do the same for Mexico.