UFC 211: Yair Rodriguez’s amazing accelerated MMA ascension

Yair Rodriguez is getting a promotional push, but he still has to deliver on Saturday if he’s to become the star the UFC hopes him to be.

It’s a simple question: who is the hottest young prospect in the UFC today? The answer is almost unanimously Yair Rodriguez.  At 24 years old, he is already an Ultimate Fighter winner, has a knockout of the year candidate, and a victory over a UFC Hall-of-Famer.

But, it’s the favour of the new UFC ownership that is pushing the young Mexican toward a title shot much sooner than expected.

Rodriguez opened the year with a victory over BJ Penn in a bout where the legend was severely overmatched. The circumstances did little to stall the momentum of “El Pantera” (the Panther) as WME-IMG has been quick to put him front and centre in their marketing.  Since January, Rodriguez has been seen at New York Fashion Week and other mainstream events.

His appeal is easy to see.  He’s a well-spoken young man with an exciting style that fans gravitate toward.  Also, being a Mexican-born fighter who won TUF: Latin America has made it clear that the organisation is hoping to break into Mexico to make a splash in the market after failing with an inconsistent Cain Velasquez.

There are plenty of contenders ahead of Rodriguez in the rankings, but his match-up against Frankie Edgar would put him ahead of the pack should he walk away with a victory.

Frankie is far and away the best fighter in the division behind José Aldo and Max Holloway. He has defeated contenders Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson and is still a victory or two away from a title shot should Holloway win the undisputed belt next month.

Edgar is a huge step up in competition, one many feel is too soon for the young prospect.  Stylistically, “El Pantera” has been ahead of the competition he’s been matched up with.  In the five-round contest against Alex Caceres, his opponent had no answer for the attack of Rodriguez and found little momentum in the contest. Against Penn, Rodriguez was faster and more explosive by a mile and it was clear that “The Prodigy” at this stage of his career could no longer keep up with the new breed of athlete in MMA.

The appeal of Rodriguez’s attack, and possibly his downfall, is that it is reliant on his variety of kicks.  He utilises a very long range in setting them up and so far has yet to meet an opponent who can get inside and cause significant problems.

However, he has not shown himself to be as proficient in setting them up with punches or using any other strategy even when it would be more effective.

He will have the height and reach over Edgar, but the former lightweight champion has amongst the best footwork in MMA and will be looking to get inside to do damage behind his jab.

Furthermore, Edgar’s wrestling is a factor as he could time a takedown on one of “El Pantera’s” kicks and test him on the mat.

Should he be victorious, it would be an easy sell to have Rodriguez face Aldo or Holloway.  His exciting style would make for fireworks against either of the featherweight champions.  Even if a title shot is not next, he would still likely get an exciting fight against either Cub Swanson or the Korean Zombie in his next outing.

Rodriguez has plenty of upsides, but the fight against Edgar is the toughest of his career.  If he can pass the test, it would be the biggest victory of his career.  But it’s going to take the sharpest performance he’s ever put on to get it.

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