PHOENIX — The lead-up to UFC Fight Night 103’s main event between Yair Rodriguez and B.J. Penn had been largely respectful up until fight week. But with his Jan. 15 comeback fight approaching, Penn turned on the promotional juice over recent days, openly stating numerous times his belief that Rodriguez was overconfident in sizing up the UFC Hall Famer and that their featherweight tilt on Sunday was going to look like a “professional against an amateur.”
But while that kind of tough talk was surprising for Rodriguez to hear, the young prospect isn’t buying what Penn is selling.
“He’s an expert, like he said. He’s pretty good at what he does and I respect him so much. The way that he talks isn’t going to change the way that I think about him,” Rodriguez said at Friday’s UFC Fight Night 103 open workouts. “He said he’s a professional and he’s been in dozens of fights. He’s acting like an amateur.
“For me, I’m not mad at him. I actually respect him so much. I don’t know why he’s mad. I mean, man, I f*cking appreciate you. I respect you so much, I don’t know why you’re mad with me. I haven’t done nothing to you, but I respect you. But if you’re mad, man, what can I do? We’re going to fight anyways, so you’re going to punch me in the face. It’s what we do.”
Part of Penn’s contention is his belief that Rodriguez and Rodriguez’s manager hand-selected Penn as an opponent under the assumption that Penn would be an easy mark with a big name for Rodriguez to add onto his résumé. But while Rodriguez admitted that he was ecstatic with how things ultimately worked out, he also adamantly denied any notion that he called out Penn to the UFC brass.
“I never asked for this fight,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know who told him that, but it was some fight that the UFC offered me and I accepted, just like he did. I don’t know who created that lie, but I didn’t ask for this fight. But now I’m here fighting him, I’m fighting a legend and I’m pretty happy.”
There is no question that the stakes at UFC Fight Night 103 will be high for Penn. Another bad loss in another comeback attempt could spell the end of Penn’s decorated MMA career. However, plenty will also be on the line for Rodriguez, a 24-year-old phenom who is widely considered to be one of the most talented prospects in the UFC featherweight division.
Rodriguez is favored by oddsmakers to a higher degree than any other opponent ever throughout Penn’s 17-year Octagon run. And while Rodriguez insisted that he was focused on the task at hand, he also admitted it meant a lot to him to be given the responsibility of fighting a living legend like Penn.
“I watched him growing up,” Rodriguez said. “I watched some of his highlight videos, I liked the way that he fought and his jiu-jitsu game. I didn’t know any jiu-jitsu when I started practicing MMA, so seeing him with amazing grappling just made me want to do it even more. I remember the first time that I saw him, it was watching videos on YouTube, he was jumping out of a pool doing some strength and conditioning stuff, and doing some boxing and some fighting stuff, and I wasn’t even fighting yet.
“It means a lot, “Rodriguez continued. “It means the UFC wants me to prove [myself] one more time with this kind of fight. B.J. Penn is a two-time former champion, two different weight classes. Few people can achieve that in their careers. B.J. Penn is one of those guys and he knows what it takes to be a champion. You want to fight those kind of guys. This is just going to be amazing for me because he has a lot of experience and I can absorb that too.”
Rodriguez also ensured that any of those nostalgia pangs that come from fighting a revered pioneer like Penn would not prevent him from doing his job and adding another name to his hit-list on Sunday night.
“Nothing like that,” Rodriguez said. “I mean, this is an honor, but he’s a human being. I respect everyone out there. It can be the president and I’m going to respect him the same way I respect you. It doesn’t matter who it is, I’m going to respect him the same way.”