'He's a fake gangster': Hostility mounts ahead of Yair Rodriguez-Jeremy Stephens rematch

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
(L-R) Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens touch gloves prior to their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event on Sept. 21, 2019 in Mexico City. (Getty Images)
(L-R) Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens touch gloves prior to their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event on Sept. 21, 2019 in Mexico City. (Getty Images)

One must assume that Jeremy Stephens and Yair Rodriguez agree that the sky is blue and the grass is green, but it’d probably be best to check just in case, because the UFC featherweights aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on anything else.

Their enmity stems from 15 seconds in the Octagon in Mexico City on Sept. 21, when Rodriguez may or may not have, depending upon who you believe, poked Stephens in the eye as their fight was beginning, as well as a chance encounter in a hotel the next day.

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Those two brief interactions have led to an intense rivalry in which the only thing they can agree upon is their disdain for each other.

“He’s a guy who has a documented history of dodging fights, but he has no room to run with the UFC anymore,” Stephens said. “But he’s that kind of dude. He’ll spend a lot of time bitching and complaining, but he’s not a guy who’s looking for real fights. I imagine he wanted to run, but he’s run out of room and he’s got one and so here we are, bringing the banger to Boston.”

Rodriguez, who said he didn’t feel his fingers touch Stephens’ eye, said it was Stephens who was looking for a way out.

“I read a lot of books and I’ve read a lot about how to understand and interpret body language,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve studied that. I’m not an expert, but it’s pretty clear when somebody wants to fight you and when somebody doesn’t. He wasn’t trying to fight me. He wasn’t desperate to get back. He was like, ‘No, no.’ When he closed his eyes, he realized he was talking a lot of bulls--- and the whole crowd was against him, and the situation overwhelmed him.”

They’ll get a chance to settle their differences — even though the way they speak makes it sound like they will never come to terms with each other — on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2) when they meet in the co-main event of UFC Boston at TD Garden.

Referee Herb Dean inspects the eye of Jeremy Stephens after an accidental eye poke in his featherweight bout against Yair Rodriguez (not pictured) during the UFC Fight Night event on Sept. 21, 2019, in Mexico City. (Getty Images)
Referee Herb Dean inspects the eye of Jeremy Stephens after an accidental eye poke in his featherweight bout against Yair Rodriguez (not pictured) during the UFC Fight Night event on Sept. 21, 2019, in Mexico City. (Getty Images)

Their first fight was ruled a no contest when referee Herb Dean ruled Stephens couldn’t continue. The crowd erupted in anger when the bout was stopped and hurled trash at the cage, causing UFC play-by-play man Brendan Fitzgerald to go beneath his desk to avoid being hit as he described the goings-on.

Rodriguez reacted angrily in the cage, but it were the events of Sunday morning in the hotel after the fight that created the enmity that so clearly exists between them now.

It’s such that Stephens said, “I’m here to beat his ass and take his lights out. If he doesn’t die, it doesn’t count.” Later, invoking a theme that a young Mike Tyson once used, Stephens added, “I’m just going to crush his jaw and shove it into the back of his skull and leave him in a heap on the canvas, and then go out and celebrate with some good Boston beer.”

Stephens snidely referred to Rodriguez as “the Karate Kid, not a real fighter. He’s a fake gangster.”

The disdain he feels came as a result of their chance encounter in the hotel. Stephens said he saw Rodriguez approach him and assumed Rodriguez was coming to apologize. Instead, Stephens said, “He started talking all this s---.”

Rodriguez said that Stephens’ initial instincts were correct. He said he asked coach Eric Del Fierro and several of Stephens’ teammates how he was doing and whether he went to the hospital. He said that he offered to pay for whatever bills Stephens incurred.

He said he saw Stephens and was going to apologize and Stephens was the aggressor.

“You can see on the video that I was asking him if he was OK,” Rodriguez said. “When I got close to him, he got really, really close to me. I said, ‘Can you see? Can you see? Are you OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I can see,’ and I said, ‘Well, then what the [expletive] happened yesterday?’ And then he pushed me. He said, ‘You poked my eye,’ and s--- like that and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever.’”

Stephens didn’t want to discuss the health of his eye or fears he had about his sight in the immediate aftermath of the fight. “The eye’s OK,” he said, sharply. “Next question.” Stephens said that despite his anger and his disdain for Rodriguez, he’ll be able to fight professionally and control himself.

He’s one of the UFC’s most experienced fighters and has been with the company since 2007. He’s had 45 fights overall in a career that began in 2005, developing a reputation as someone who will fight anyone anywhere at any time.

He said being in a three-rounder instead of a five-rounder will mean the pace is going to be pushed. Stephens said his power will be a factor in the fight as well.

“He has no power and it’s all this tap-tap s---, and I don’t play tap-tap,” Stephens said. “I’m here to put his lights out and I can do it with any limb on my body. But most of all, it’s my mindset. I can eat his best punches; he can’t eat mine. That’s where I’ll shine come Friday night.”

Rodriguez scoffed at the notion that he’s going to be intimidated or that he doesn’t love to fight.

He said growing up in Mexico is a lot different, and harder, than the life Stephens had growing up in the U.S.

“This is a fight and I’m in this job because I love to do it,” Stephens said. “I’m not scared of fighting someone who is real aggressive. I have been in situations where my life depended on it, a very bad situation, and I remained calm. I don’t give a s--- if he pulls out a [expletive] gun inside the Octagon. I’ll be dealing with that as well.”

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