Stars aligning for Yair Rodriguez to become UFC star

Yair Rodriguez celebrates after defeating Andre Fili during a featherweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 197, Saturday, April 23, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

Yair Rodriguez finds himself facing a valuable opportunity Sunday in Phoenix. A chance far greater than any he’s ever had in his career as a mixed martial artist.

Just 24 years old and five fights into his UFC career, Rodriguez is a few days away from making the walk to the Octagon as he meets the sport’s most legendary fighter to ever compete under 170 pounds: B.J. Penn. Known as “The Prodigy” after adopting and mastering the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu in then-record time nearly two decades ago, Penn makes his return to the UFC after his second retirement lasted all of 30 months.

It’ll mark the second time Penn, a former UFC champion in both the lightweight and welterweight divisions, plies his trade as a featherweight. If it’s anything like the first, Penn could either be in for a long or short night — neither of which offer the 38-year-old Hawaiian much of a chance against one of the more promising contenders the UFC’s featherweight division has to offer.

We last saw Penn in 2014, ending his first retirement after just 18 months. He faced Frankie Edgar in what was immediately recognized as a peculiar trilogy nobody was dying to see. Just seconds into the fight, we were reminded of why. Penn was uncharacteristically stiff, fighting as upright as we’d ever seen any man or woman inside the UFC cage. The most effortless of Edgar’s three victories over Penn, “The Answer” stopped the former champion in three rounds.

Safe to say nobody was impatiently awaiting Penn’s return — yet here we are.

All things considered, it’s not difficult to understand why Rodriguez, the No. 10-ranked featherweight who rides a seven-fight winning streak, is a 3-to-1 favorite going in.

“I’m just hoping for the best B.J. Penn ever,” Rodriguez said on The MMA Hour. “I never overestimate my opponents.

“I can never be too comfortable [with] him in the cage. He can be pretty dangerous. But, you know, with all the respect I have for him, and watching him while I was growing up, now is my time. He wants to come back and fight? All right, man, let’s do it.”

Rodriguez isn’t just facing the most high-profile opponent of his — and many others’ — career; he also has a great chance of defeating him and running away with all the spotlight these sorts of victories typically offer.

Better yet, the UFC may be doing all it can to ensure Rodriguez’s potential coming out party has as many eyes as it can secure. With Rodriguez vs. Penn not taking place on the traditional Saturday, but rather Sunday, the UFC can enlist the services of big FOX to promote UFC Fight Night 103 during the NFC divisional playoff games between the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday, as well as easily the biggest sporting event of the weekend between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys Sunday.

Two years back, Conor McGregor vs. Dennis Siver drew approximately 2.75 million viewers, while T.J. Dillashaw vs. Dominick Cruz drew about 2.28 million a year later. That makes for the first- and second-most watched FOX Sports 1 UFC events in the company’s history. Both took place on the annual Sunday event. Both were aided by FOX and the NFL playoffs.

“I know this is going to be a very big step for me and my career,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a two-time champion, two weight classes, he really knows what it takes to be a champion. He already knows what it takes to be the best in the world.

“I saw this as a huge opportunity for me and I’m happy to fight him.”

This all goes without mentioning what penchant Rodriguez has for entertaining viewers with his unorthodox style of violence. A talented striker who throws kicks and punches from all angles, “El Pantera” has the capacity to remain a fan favorite regardless of whether he’s able to capture UFC gold in his career.

A potential big win against a big name in front of a big audience. Rodriguez can’t ask for more.

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