It is easy to forget that those fighters we see on television with the perfect bodies who are the epitome of toughness and exude confidence are human beings with the same fears, insecurities and real-life problems as the rest of us.
They do their best to hide them from us — mostly from their opponents, to be honest — but occasionally we get a peek behind the curtain.
Yair Rodriguez’s meteoric rise to the top cratered after some difficult times, and he spent the next 18 months trying to rebuild.
Rodriguez, who fights Chan Sung Jung, aka “The Korean Zombie,” on Saturday in Denver in the main event of the UFC’s 25th anniversary show, is confident he has regained his footing and after overcoming some personal difficulties, has the swagger back.
He’s a young guy who in the last 18 months has gotten wise beyond his years.
“I’m a different person now because I’ve learned so much,” Rodriguez said. “So, so much.”
It began with the results of his last fight, a heavily hyped May 13, 2017, bout in Dallas on the main card of UFC 211 against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. It was one of those bouts matchmakers have put together since they first started to charge people to watch two men beat each other up: The young, rising star is paired with the wizened, grizzled veteran.
Rodriguez was coming off a spectacular victory over UFC Hall of Famer B.J. Penn and looked for all the world like championship timber. He threw kicks from places and in combinations that few have tried before, and he had an innate sense of timing and distance.
Edgar, though, controlled the fight and finished Rodriguez in the second round. Rodriguez felt he had done a lot of good things in the fight, but, even then, he understood the nature of mixed martial arts.
“We’re out there exposed and vulnerable to the world, but this sport, I’m telling you, man, there’s nothing like it,” Rodriguez said, his voice rising as he speaks. “Everybody loses. I don’t care who the [expletive] you are, you’re going to lose sooner or later.”
He did, though, admit he felt pressure to live up to the expectations of not only the fans and the media, but also of his family. That was the pressure that burdened him the most. He felt he had in some way let them down, and after losing to Edgar, he sought out his parents.
He felt as if he needed to say something, to make the loss OK and easier for them to bear.
“I used to be so worried, brother; so, so worried about losing,” Rodriguez said. “I made a promise to myself and to my family the first time I lost in MMA [in Mexico in 2012] that I would never lose again. After that loss [by TKO to Roberto Herrera], I said that I never wanted to look into my Dad’s eyes, or into my Mom’s eyes, and have to see the hurt they felt because I lost.
“The loss against Frankie Edgar was pretty tough on me, of course. I said I wouldn’t let this happen again and here I was, again, looking at them after I lost. But I know this: Frankie Edgar is one tough [expletive]. That’s the truth. You know it. Everyone who watches this sport knows it. Frankie Edgar is one tough [expletive].”
Little did anyone realize as Rodriguez exited the cage that night that it would be the last he’d be seen publicly in 18 months. He was then stunningly, and unceremoniously, cut by the UFC because he apparently declined to fight Zabit Magomedsharipov.
There was something going on, all right, but it had nothing to do with being afraid.
“People were saying I’m afraid to fight and it was just so wrong,” Rodriguez said. “People didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, to be honest. I have been fighting since I was 5 years old. I do this because I love it. I want to fight. But people would say that and I’ll admit it, it made it hard. I lost trust in a lot of people.”
Rodriguez is a charismatic man who has star written all over him. He said he’s made it a point to share a lot about his life with the public because he wanted to better market himself, and he felt the fans would have a stronger connection with him if they knew more about him.
But there is a line that can’t be crossed, he said.
“People know me as a professional fighter and when you are in the UFC, you are very visible,” Rodriguez said. “But I’m not just a fighter. I’m a man and I have a personal life, too. And I don’t have to share every detail of my personal life with the public.”
He sighed and paused a bit before continuing.
“Not everything that happens is professional,” Rodriguez said. “I had some personal matters that needed to be addressed and taken care of, and I did that. I needed to be private for a while to do what I felt I needed to do.”
Rodriguez has been asked “What happened?” so much in recent months that he can probably answer that question in his sleep.
He mended his differences with the UFC after a private meeting, and said he’s eager to resume his career and make a run at the top. He wants to fight anyone and everyone in his division, and is eager to leave a lasting legacy.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, and I saw the reaction from people and so much of it was total bulls–t,” Rodriguez said. “I lost trust in people and it’s tougher than you think when that happens, because I’m a guy who cared about what the fans thought and I wanted them to enjoy my fights.
“I have had to change and I’ll admit it, I’m different now. I feel like I’ve grown a lot personally in this time, and I’m better for that. People who can’t understand that, well, I just will say this: They’re not my true fans. They’re just haters. I know you have to deal with them, too, but I just realized that I can’t worry about what they think any more. I’m at a good spot in my career now and I think the best is ahead of me, still.”
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