Mixed martial artist and taekwondo black belt Yair Rodriguez (@panteraufc) is determined to reach the top of the official Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) rankings. Born and raised in Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, the 25-year-old featherweight—widely considered one of the hottest young prospects in the division—is proving to be a powerful contender.
Photography by John Russo, @johnrussophoto
Interview by Justin Miller, @miztermiller
Styling by Apuje Kalu, @apuje
Grooming by Michaela Limur, @michaela_hair
Edited by Bonnie Davidson
When did you realize you wanted to be a pro athlete?
I wanted to be in the Olympics since I started training taekwondo at five years old. I was on the running team and I used to play soccer as well, and compete nationally. All this was in elementary school, and middle school wasn’t any different. When I turned 13, I practiced judo for two years and competed locally. My family couldn’t pay for my judo classes, so I decided to go for something cheaper and that’s when I turned to boxing and, eventually, to kick boxing. Then I was on the karate team in high school for a short period of time. I stopped training and I started getting in trouble. My family decided to take me to a psychologist and I was told the cause of the problem was [too much] energy. My mom would take me to different places. I didn’t like anything until I found MMA at 17 years old and I fell in love right away. I started putting more effort into MMA until I became professional at 18 years old.
Were your parents supportive of your career choice?
Yes , they’ve always been supportive. They guide me to the athletic life. Sometimes I didn’t like it, but it was a really important part of my formation as a person and as an athlete. There was a moment when I finished high school where my parents told me to choose [another career] just in case I couldn’t make it in the fighting business, and I wanted to become a veterinarian. But that wasn’t in my mind. I was thinking on fighting!
Mixed martial arts is such a specific niche. What drew you to this genre of competitive fighting?
Competition is always on the rise in this sport, and that’s what has been keeping me going. The competitive side of me pushed me here, to challenge myself and my skills at the highest level.
Were there many tough losses early on in your career?
To be honest, not too many. But those few losses where learning experiences for sure. I remember every fight I lose. I think my first loss in my MMA career marked me and I take [each one] really seriously. I can say that this first loss made me find motivation from my family. I started pushing harder, always taking the good from the bad. I use it as a fuel, not as a stop for my career and my life.
How did it feel to be the featherweight tournament winner of the UFC-produced reality television series The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America?
It’s an honor to say that I’m a The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) winner, but my goal is still in front of me—becoming a champion. But for me, that’s just part of what I wanna do in my lifetime.
Do you worry about the potential long term health risks associated with competitive fighting?
I have passed some time thinking about it, but that’s why I’m working on having a safe fighting career and having other accomplishments. That way I don’t take too much damage to my body.
Tell us about your relationship with your cousin, Olympic boxer Misael Rodriguez. Has he had a big influence on you?
I have a great relationship with him. We’ve both been great influences on each other and we are always in contact, sending good vibes. It’s amazing having a member of my family that’s looking for the same goals in a different combat sport.
If you were not a fighter, what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t a fighter, and whatever else I’d be doing besides fighting . . . I’d be doing it with a passion and at the highest level, as I am doing now, and always striving for more success. The key to succeed is just work hard and be smart enough to take the opportunities that life brings you. Stay ready for whatever comes.
You are creating a legacy in the UFC fighting world. When you look back at your life in 50 years, how do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as I truly am, my good and bad, and for everyone else to learn from my rights and wrongs; as someone who had a passion for what he did and never gave up on his dreams and beliefs. And all with a smile, trying to teach others about life and personal experiences. And hopefully as a legend, not just of a sport but for a lot more than that.
Are you a lover or a fighter?
I’m a fighter, but I’ll fight for true love
Read more in the premiere issue of Gio on January 31, 2018