With two title fights involving arguably the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the world at this Saturday's UFC 197, it's easy to forget the young talent filling up the rest of the card.
Rodriguez, who won the first season of the UFC's reality television show The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, has quickly been labeled as a prospect to watch in the UFC's featherweight division. The 23-year-old Mexican has an undefeated UFC record, compiling three straight wins over solid competitors such as Charles Rosa, Dan Hooker, and Leonardo Morales. Although all of those victories have come via decision, Rodriguez has shown improvement in every fight along with his unique, creative moves that have caught the eyes of many fans.
"Each fight I try to be different," Rodriguez told MMA Fighting. "Every time, I train things differently with my coach and work on new things, so I don't always come in with the same strategy. We're always working on new things, trying to be creative.
"What makes me fight like that? Well, I don't know. Many things that I do during my fights I don't really do here in my trainings because I can hurt my partners or myself. So I think it's something instinctive, something you're born with or something that you create as time goes on. I've been doing martial arts since I was five, so for me competition is something that's very common. I think that's why, too."
"La Pantera," who trains out of Chicago and cross-trains over at JacksonWink in Albuquerque, has added an extra drive to his training regimen, as he no longer trains wrestling with Izzy Martinez. Every weekend, Rodriguez drives to Champaign, Ill., and stays at the home of Mark Perry, the University of Illinois associate head wrestling coach.
"That change of coaches was actually made for this camp, a little before they gave me the news of who I was fighting," Rodriguez said. "And why? Well, I think he was just focusing on wrestling only and it wasn't what I needed. What I needed was wrestling that was more focused to MMA, and they didn't really understand what I was referring to and what I was looking for, so we didn't come to an agreement on how to handle my camp.
"He's a person I admire a lot, a person that opened the doors of his house to me. I have nothing against him. On the contrary, I'm very thankful for everything he did for me. It's just that the work he was giving me wasn't what I wanted or what I needed, and that's why that change was made."
Despite the new change to his training camp, Rodriguez says he's been preparing hard and expects this fight with Fili to be the toughest of his career.
"He's a very tough, very hard opponent that's coming off a victory over one of my teammates that was with me a year at Jackson's and was in the house of The Ultimate Fighter with me," Rodriguez said. "It's someone that I know very well and I know he's a very good fighter and he [Fili] finished him in the first round."
"That means Andre Fili prepares well and is an opponent that is mentally strong. I've been preparing very hard for this fight, and I know he's an opponent that has been labeled as one of the prospects of the 145-pound division. I think he's a fighter that is very creative and very strong. His wrestling is very good; he has an explosive ground game and has knockout punches, so I've been preparing very well for this fight."
Fili, who not too long ago was being labeled as a rising prospect in the featherweight division, is coming off an impressive technical knockout win over Gabriel Benitez, Rodriguez' friend and teammate.
"Moggly [Benitez] is my friend, but I can't let emotions get involved in the fight and say, ‘Oh, you beat my friend that's why I'm going to beat you,'" Rodriguez explained. "Moggly's fight against him was his fight, not mine. I have a fight and I don't take anything personally. I know it's a sport, so I treat it like a sport. I'm not going there to demonstrate anything to anyone. I'm going to demonstrate for myself."
With no bad blood toward Fili, Rodriguez is happy to be opening the main card and to be fighting in the same event as Jon Jones, who was originally scheduled to fight Daniel Cormier but is now fighting Ovince Saint Preux in the main event of the card.
"Jon Jones is someone I admire for the fact that he's an excellent fighter," Rodriguez said. "I always watched his videos before training to get inspired, and I would try to imitate his style. When I got to Jackson's, we became friends and he started teaching me many things. So for me it's something very special, very significant the fact that I'm fighting in the same card as him. It's something that I wanted being in the UFC, and it's something that makes me very happy."
Unfortunately for Rodriguez, he didn't get the chance to train alongside Jones for UFC 197, but that doesn't mean both fighters weren't able to hang out. Rodriguez talked to Jones over a meal when Jones was still scheduled to fight Cormier.
"When I went to Albuquerque, I had the opportunity to see him, we went out to eat and we talked," Rodriguez said. "He's very happy and very excited. We were going to do this camp together for this fight, but for whatever reason that couldn't happen. Every time we train together, I try to push him hard, and he does the same with me.
"All he told me was ‘You're going to win,' and I told him that that's what I hope for. And when I told him that he's going to win he said, ‘Duh, obviously,'" Rodriguez said with a laugh. "That's how he is. He has a very fun way and he's very confident in himself. I'm more relaxed. I don't like to talk about my opponents."
Although the odds-makers in Las Vegas, Jones, and many fans believe "La Pantera" will defeat Fili, Rodriguez is not letting the promising-young-fighter talk get to his head.
"I know I'm one of the youngest fighters in the division," explained Rodriguez. "I know that people say I'm a prospect in this division, but I'm not letting that get to me. I'm not ranked; I'm not even in the top 20. I can't talk much about me if I'm not even ranked.
"I'm just a young guy with hunger, with will, that wants to be the best in the world. And I'm going to keep it that way until I become the best in the world."