PHOENIX — With the spotlight squarely on him, Yair Rodriguez delivered.
Rodriguez badly outclassed B.J. Penn in the main event of UFC Fight Night 103, battering the Hall of Famer with an array of punches and kicking combinations before downing the 38-year-old for good with a finishing salvo just 24 seconds in the second round. The result will likely put an end to Penn’s comeback hopes, and despite a lead-up that featured plenty of trash talk from Penn’s side, Rodriguez was all smiles after thoroughly beating a living Octagon legend.
“I was ready to die to win tonight, and thanks God, I won against a legend, B.J. Penn,” Rodriguez said in the aftermath of UFC Fight Night 103.
“I talked to him after the fight and he said, ‘hey man, no disrespect, this is part of the game. I just said all that stuff because it’s part of the strategy, no disrespect.’ I told him, hey man, listen, I know it’s part of the strategy. We all do the same thing in different way, so I’m not mad at you, he’s not mad at me. I respect him even more right now, now that I’ve fought him. I know he’s a legend. He’s a powerful guy, and I’m pretty happy to have the victory tonight.”
The result was never once in doubt. From the outset, Rodriguez used his superior length and speed to barrage Penn with creative punches and kicks from the outside. “El Pantera” ended up outstriking Penn by a lopsided margin of 56-7, with the significant strike total falling to an even more lopsided margin of 55-4.
Rodriguez even became the first man in the UFC to ever be credited with knocking down Penn when he blasted Penn to the floor with a front kick followed by a straight right in the opening seconds of the second round.
“I was trying to feel it out, because I knew he probably could catch me when I threw some kicks with a big punch, so I was trying to be careful, feel him out, read him, read his movements,” Rodriguez said. “You put something in your mind, but sometimes it doesn’t go the way that you want, so you have to be careful, start reading him, his movements, and start your strategy from there.
“So, my coach told me: ‘Be careful. I know you touched him a little bit, but be careful. Don’t pressure him too much. Don’t go for him, because he’s a legend. He knows what he’s doing and he can take advantage of that. So just be careful, respect him a little, and then he’s going to be there. Just believe in your kicks.’ And that’s what I did. I believed in my kicks.”
Once Rodriguez hurt Penn, it was only a matter of time.
The 24-year-old super-prospect swarmed Penn with a devastating flurry of punches to ultimately force referee John McCarthy to stop the fight early in the second round. And while Penn ate a litany of unanswered blows during the finishing sequence, leading some observers to question whether McCarthy let Penn take too much damage, Rodriguez had zero issues with the stoppage.
“I don’t think [it was a late stoppage], and less with a guy like B.J.,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a legend. When I started punching him on the ground, he was moving. I saw him moving. So I was actually being careful of him throwing up an [upkick] or grabbing me with a submission. I moved and I started hitting him again, and whenever I saw the referee stopping the fight, it was just an amazing moment. But I don’t think they should’ve stopped the fight before.”
Rodriguez (10-1) entered the contest considered by many to be one of the most talented prospects in the UFC featherweight division. His performance on Sunday did little to change that, as the TUF Latin America winner extended his Octagon record to a perfect 6-0 with a flawless outing against Penn.
Rodriguez will now be in line for big things in his next fight, although he stopped short of calling his shot.
“For me, personally, it means a lot beating a legend like B.J. Penn,” Rodriguez said. “But I don’t know where this fight is going to put me. I’m going to wait and see what the UFC wants to bring next. I’m not the kind of fighter who’s going to ask for a guy next. I’m just not that kind of guy. I’m different, a different kind of animal. So, whatever the UFC wants to bring next, I’ll be ready for it. I’ll always prepare myself to fight the best in the world, so whatever they want to bring next, I’ll be ready.”
As for Penn, whose comeback attempt against Rodriguez fell short before it ever truly began, it would make sense if UFC Fight Night 103 marked the end of the road for the former two-division champion.
Penn is now 1-6-1 over his last eight fights since 2010, with his last win arriving more than six years ago. But after feeling what Penn had left to give inside the cage, Rodriguez isn’t willing to say whether “The Prodigy” should call it a career.
“I don’t know, man. I cannot say that,” Rodriguez said. “I cannot be the one picking that up. It’s part of his life and his career. It’s up to what he wants to do. I felt him, (he was) strong. But it’s up to him, it’s up to him what he wants to do.”