Story and photos by Robert Gundran, for The Sporting Nation
Yair Rodriguez is one of the most promising prospects in UFC, and the Mexican fighter nicknamed "El Pantera" quickly proved during Sunday night's main event that his name belongs with that of other title contenders.
Rodriguez used effective kicks to earn a TKO over Penn in the second round, giving many in the crowd of 11,589 at Talking Stick Resort Arena plenty to cheer about.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship made its long anticipated return to Arizona on Sunday night. UFC Fight Night 103: Phoenix had a main event between unorthodox up-and-comer Rodriguez, and one of the biggest legends in the sport, B.J. Penn.
The event took place on national TV and featured the two fighters in a bout in the featherweight division.
Rodriguez quickly started the fight throwing the fast and unorthodox strikes that he is known for. Spinning kicks, punches and elbows had Penn reeling from the first minute of the first round. Rodriguez landed a head kick that presumably would have put down any other fighter, but Penn is known for having one of the strongest chins in the history of mixed martial arts.
That chin was put to the test again early and often. It ultimately couldn’t save him from a front kick followed up by a right cross. That combination sent Penn to the canvas, where Rodriguez followed up with a flurry of punches that left the referee with no choice but to step in and call a stop to the fight.
What the UFC has largely been lacking is a strong and exciting Latino prospect. A Cain Velasquez championship fight in Mexico City was the company’s attempt to extend into that market, but Velasquez lost his heavyweight title to Fabricio Werdum. Rodriguez might have found a way to capture that Latino fanbase. He’s exciting, well spoken and humble.
“I fought a legend tonight, he should have everyone’s respect,” said Rodriguez.
He also noticed the large Latino population in the building.
“I had my friend, my cornerman tell me that he knew thirty cars were driving up from my hometown to watch,” said Rodriguez. “I feel like I can be that guy they look up to. We can get better. We can get better.”
Yair Rodriguez looks to jump into title contention with this victory over Penn, but when asked who he wants to fight next, he wouldn’t name any names.
“You know what, that [guy] right there, in the black sweater, he’s my boss, ask him,” said Rodriguez, referring to UFC president Dana White.
The potential opponents for Rodriguez are endless at this point in his young career; he has yet to fight any of the higher ranked fighters in the featherweight division.
His next fight could be against Frankie Edgar, Ricardo Lamas, Jeremy Stephens or even the winner of the upcoming fight between Dennis Bermudez and Chan Sung Jung. One thing is for sure, any fight with Yair Rodriguez is a must watch.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Penn, a former legend now in the midst of a four-fight loss streak. "The Prodigy" from Hawaii has not won a fight since 2010.
Penn hoped that finding a new training camp would rejuvenate his game, and relocated to Jackson Wink MMA Academy out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jackson Wink has been home to a wealth of elite fighters such as Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones and Rashad Evans. Unfortunately for Penn, his new training camp could not help him secure a victory.
Penn has been fighting in the UFC since 2001. The 16-year veteran of the sport has fought a who’s who of names and cemented himself as one of the best to ever fight in mixed martial arts. Penn has held belts in two separate weight divisions, something only done by two other fighters in the history of the organization. The sport has since passed him by with the emergence of fighters such as Rodriguez.
Fans of the sport who grew up watching Penn did not enjoy seeing a legend go out this way. Shaheen Al-Shatti, senior editor for MMAFighting.com, was in attendance for the fight and expressed his displeasure at not only the outcome, but the matchmaking as well.
“It’s easy in retrospect to say what someone should or should not have done,” said Al-Shatti. “If we had gotten him against a mid-level guy, it was a good idea if it was right. We ended up getting what we got.”
Al-Shatti includes himself in the camp of those who don’t want to see Penn return to the octagon.
“For B.J.’s sake I hope this is it,” said Al-Shatti.
Penn did not make himself available for questions in the post fight media session.