No one knew what to expect when the Octagon door closed inside the Pepsi Center at UFC Denver in November when Yair Rodriguez and Chan Sung Jung (aka "The Korean Zombie") met in the main event. What the announced crowd of 11,426 and the people watching at home witnessed wound up being the 2018 Sporting News MMA Fight of the Year.
Rodriguez will enter the cage Saturday for the first time since then as he takes on fellow featherweight contender Jeremy Stephens in the headliner of UFC Mexico City. The 26-year-old will be competing for the third time in his native Mexico under the UFC banner.
While Rodriguez is appreciative of getting his second straight main event spot, he also understands the reasoning for him earning this prestigious tip of the cap.
Rodriguez (11-2) was returning from an 18-month layoff to take on Jung on the UFC's 25th-anniversary show. The fight came about when, two weeks before the event, Frankie Edgar, who pummeled Rodriguez to hand him his first UFC loss at UFC 211 in May 2018, suffered an injury and was unable to compete. Looking for a suitable opponent for its historic show, the UFC turned to one of its highly touted prospects.
Taking on someone with Jung's no-nonsense style of attack is hard enough to prepare for, but Rodriguez also had to overcome the death of his Taekwondo coach and a brutal weight cut.
"I understood what I was getting into," Rodriguez told Sporting News. "Of course, I wasn’t going to let myself lose to him because it was going to be a war. He's a proud warrior. I'm a proud Mexican warrior. When the cage closed and the bell sounded, we went to war. It was a really, really good war."
As that "war" entered the fifth round, Rodriguez was down on the scorecards and trending toward his second consecutive defeat. Both men were bloody, battered and bruised as they continued to stand in the middle of the Octagon and trade heavy punches and kicks. Rodriguez had fought well early on but the weight cut looked to be taking its toll; that allowed Jung to seize control.
Then something monumental occurred with one second remaining in the fight: Rodriguez doled out a picture-perfect elbow that knocked Jung out at the point of impact. Jung landed face first on the canvas to send the entire sports world into a frenzy.
— UFC (@ufc) September 18, 2019
"That was such an amazing moment," Rodriguez said. "I never thought about using the elbow. I knew the shot was there. I knew he was going to fight to the end, but I never thought that I was going to land that elbow with such a short amount of time left.
"I knew before the first round began that it was going to be a war. 'The Korean Zombie' is a f—ing warrior. I'm a f—ing warrior. I’ve followed his whole career, and I respect him so much."
Creating a watershed moment is nothing to sneeze at in a sport where cards air weekly and fights tend to blend together. What Rodriguez and Jung did will stand the test of time. Having watched his handiwork numerous times since then has made Rodriguez realize things about himself that he thought were gone because of the way he had lost to Edgar.
"I have watched the fight a ton of times," Rodriguez said. "Everyone got to see what I was capable of. In those two weeks of training, I was preparing for that type of fight all of my life. I just had to push and remember what I’ve learned throughout my career. I put it all out there. I put my heart on the line and left it all out there. Great things happen when you do that."
The fight took a lot out of Rodriguez, mentally and physically. Competing for the first time this year on Saturday is a reflection of that. It took about three months for Rodriguez to heal. He revealed that he suffered damage to his head in the Jung fight, so he wanted to allow his body and brain to heal. He would only start training and preparing to return when he was 100 percent healthy.
That time came when the UFC offered him a fight against Stephens at Mexico City Arena. Even though Stephens' style is a lot like Jung's, Rodriguez understands he can't live off his last fight. "Pantera" knows his full attention needs to be on the hard-hitting Stephens, or else he'll lose everything he regained.
"When this fight was offered, I immediately stopped focusing on the last fight and put all of my attention to this fight," Rodriguez said. "I'm feeling better. I had a whole camp this time and am ready to go.
"I can tell you this: I'm going into Saturday and giving it everything I have," he added. "I believe every time I'm training and my coaches are working with me, I stay in the moment, and I listen to what they want me to do because it’s going to be used in the fight. I don't know what’s going to happen inside the Octagon with Jeremy except I have to stay in the moment and give it my best shot."