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Layoff over, Yair Rodriguez ready to jump out of plane (figuratively) and fight Max Holloway

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LAS VEGAS – It’s been more than two years since Yair Rodriguez set foot inside the octagon, but he wants to make it clear that he’s more than prepared for the biggest fight of his career.

To “El Pantera,” a matchup with former UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway is exactly the type of fight he’s worked for since he began his martial arts journey.

“I’ve been waiting for these, like, forever – like I’ve been trying to get big names,” Rodriguez told reporters, including MMA Junkie, at Wednesday’s media day at the UFC Apex. “That’s what I’ve been fighting for all my life, my career, like fighting people that are in front of me in the rankings, people that are going to put me in a better position, not guys that are behind me.”

Rodriguez (13-2 MMA, 8-1 UFC) and Holloway (22-6 MMA, 18-6 UFC) meet in the headlining bout of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 197 event, which streams live on ESPN+ from the UFC Apex.

It’s a big moment for Rodriguez, who currently sits at No. 14 in the USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie featherweight rankings, while Holloway is near the top of the division at No. 3. It’s a tough assignment, of course, perhaps made even tougher by any rust Rodriguez might feel after such a long layoff.

Rodriguez admits it was a tough stretch – one that saw both him and Holloway deal with injuries at various times, as well as being forced to serve a six-month suspension due to repeated whereabouts violations with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Oh, and that whole global pandemic thing that has caused chaos around the planet for the past 20 months or so.

“I guess it was difficult for a lot of reasons – personal reasons like COVID and, like, family passing away, friends recently passing away and injuries – mine and Max,” Rodriguez said. “Kind of everything added to this couple of years of being out of competition, but I’ve been really trying to get back in here, bro.

“I was ready to fight in March. I’d been getting prepared. When my suspension got over March 7, I was ready, and they told me that I was going to fight Max right in June, and then when it happened, it was July. He got injured, and then we moved all the way here. That’s almost a year of just waiting, but that’s the past. Now we’re here, and we’re looking forward for Saturday and doing our best, and we’re ready.”

Yair Rodriguez (red) fights Jeremy Stephens in October 2019, his last fight before UFC Fight Night 197 on Saturday. (Bob DeChiara, USA TODAY Sports)

Rodriguez makes no attempt to deny the challenge that Holloway presents. Rather, he likens the thrill of the task to that of skydiving, giving him a nervous energy he believes will drive him to succeed.

“That’s why we are here: to prove ourselves against the best fighters in history, in the world,” Rodriguez said. “If you really want to prove yourself, not to prove to nobody else, to prove yourself – like, I want to prove myself against Max Holloway because I know the caliber of fighter that he is, and I feel like whenever I’ve got pressure on myself … like I have jumped out of an airplane three times, and everybody says, like, right when you’re scared to jump, that’s when you jump, and that’s what I did with this fight. You know, I was a little scared to jump, but at the same time, I was excited.

“You know, when I’ve got that feeling inside me, that emotion in my stomach, I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be a good fight. Take it. Let’s go. Let’s do it,’ and we’ll just train hard and everything else will be fine.”

With a win, Rodriguez could conceivably enter his name into the featherweight title picture. After all, he’s long been a highly touted prospect. His fighting style is fan friendly, and he’s one of the flag bearers of MMA in Mexico.

But Rodriguez isn’t interested in talking about that at the moment. Instead, he’s got one thing on his mind.

“I mean, I’m sure that the title shot is going to be in front of me, but first I’ve got to win against Max,” Rodriguez said. “Anything can happen in there, and I’m not focusing on that right now. My main focus is Max Holloway, Saturday the 13th at 3 p.m.”

To see the full interview with Rodriguez, check out the video above.

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