Yair Rodriguez walked through hell and back to pull off his Hail Mary victory over Chan Sung Jung at UFC Denver.
One second away from losing a grueling war of attrition on the scorecards, Rodriguez knocked out “The Korean Zombie” with a jaw-dropping upwards back-elbow at 4:59 of the fifth round of the pair’s UFC Denver main event. A contest that was already a bonafide ‘Fight of the Year’ contender instantly turned into a ‘Knockout of the Year’ frontrunner as well. And although “El Pantera” may have left the Pepsi Center in rough shape — both he and Jung were transported to a local hospital — Rodriguez’s coach Israel Martinez believes the test of wills the 26-year-old featherweight aced at UFC Denver is the sort of career-changing experience that can transform a good fighter into a great one — even if Martinez doesn’t ever want Rodriguez to go through something like that again.
“We believe every fighter needs one of those,” Martinez said Monday on The MMA Hour. “It’s one of those things you tell a young athlete, you tell a young fighter, even the older guys: You need to get your ass kicked to kinda be woken up a little bit, and you need to go through some dirty fights, some trenches. But you don’t need to do that every day. You don’t need to get punched in the head every day. And that’s one of those fights that we’re gonna have in our bag and we’re always going to be able to pull out all the things we’re learned from that, but there’s no way we want that type of fight again.
“Those things are deadly. Yair is beat up, and that’s going to be stuck in his head, good and bad, for the rest of his life. So we want to make sure that we take the positives over the negatives and move forward. But yeah, definitely, you know that — you don’t want to be getting hit in the head, you don’t want to get beat up every day, and those long five-round fights are good for the fans, but they’re not good for us. We want to try to [win] early.”
Within a span of 24 hours, the post-fight images from the contest have already become iconic. Rodriguez and Jung both posted statements from the hospital praising the other. Jung also uploaded an instantly legendary photo of both men shaking hands from their respective hospital beds with their faces badly damaged.
Martinez said he spoke to Rodriguez on Sunday night and the Mexican fighter appears fortunate to have avoided significant injury. Despite fearing the worst, Martinez said “El Pantera” emerged without suffering any serious damage other than a broken nose.
“I spoke to him last night before bed, I think he’s doing great,” Martinez said. “His mind is strong and his body’s strong also. When Yair feels good mentally, unbelievable things happen. He thought he broke his foot, so in the first round he’s tapping on his leg to [tell] me that maybe his foot’s broke, and we kinda pushed through it. And then his nose — in the back they said that his nose is broke. And his hand [is hurting].
“He’s got three or four swollen parts of his body that are pretty swollen, but they said there’s no broken bones, and he’s ready, he’s feeling awesome. When you win a fight like that, you tend to feel a little bit better than when you lose one.”
Many people within the mixed martial arts community are now debating where Rodriguez’s last-second heroics stand on the UFC’s list of all-time great knockouts.
Martinez may be a little biased, but in terms of a pure coolness factor, he places Rodriguez’s improbable upwards back-elbow KO among the best he’s even seen in MMA.
“You know what, the UFC’s been around for a long time now. Twenty-five years. I haven’t seen all of the fights, I don’t know if I’ve seen all of the knockouts, and we have that short memory, that short window memory of the last couple years, but, I don’t know. In my eyes, I’ve never seen a cooler knockout in my life,” Martinez said. “Not even in a video game. It was just an awesome situation and I’ve probably watched it 100 times.”
Some critics have tried to throw cold water over the knockout by dismissing it as a lucky, one-in-a-million type of shot. Martinez can understand where those sentiments are coming from considering the circumstances, but he said the technique is one that Rodriguez is accustomed to throwing. A major aspect to Rodriguez’s game is attacking with elbows from all manners of crazy angles and positions, and Martinez believes Rodriguez knew exactly what he was doing when he threw the blow that knocked Jung unconscious.
“Everybody has an opinion,” Martinez said. “We all know Yair, [everyone] that’s close him, he does the craziest stuff. He’s got elbows from his back, he’s got elbows from the side, he’s got elbows from the clinch. This is another one of those unique ideas and flows that Yair’s put together. I’ve seen him hold back elbows in the gym for years without clobbering guys. We were anticipating, believe it or not, that flying knee by ‘The Korean Zombie.’ He throws that flying knee a lot, and I think for the first part of the fight, when we were going down, we were anticipating kinda taking him down from that flying knee. And then Yair got creative, and last second, he hit that elbow. But yeah, that’s Yair. If you know Yair personally and you’ve seen him train, that’s who he is. He can do a lot of things that not many people can.”
As for what’s next for Rodriguez, Martinez said the 26-year-old first needs time to rest and recovery his beaten body, but once “El Pantera” is ready to return, there are no shortage of matchups that could make sense for him. Martinez mentioned two fights specifically: A rematch against Frankie Edgar, the man who gave Rodriguez the only loss of his UFC career; or a potential showdown against Zabit Magomedsharipov, the highly-touted Dagestani up-and-comer who was previously scheduled to face Rodriguez at UFC 228.
Magomedsharipov even called out Rodriguez following his victory over “The Korean Zombie” on Saturday night, and Martinez said he wouldn’t mind the matchup.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for those guys,” Martinez said. “A lot of those Russian Dagestani fighters were in Albuquerque, New Mexico for years, so as I was down there coaching with those guys, I became friends with a lot of those guys, and I know they have a lot of respect for Yair and I know Yair has a lot of respect for him. It’s part of the job, calling these guys out. They want fights, this is a big mega-fight. I think Yair’s ready for anybody at this point.
“Like you said earlier, he’s feeling good. He’s vibing, he’s flowing. I’d like to see the Zabit fight. I’d like to see him run it back with Frankie Edgar — no disrespect to Frankie Edgar, but he’s a different animal now. I really believe that. He’s in a great frame of mind, but you know what, I’m also not about pushing these fighters into positions where they’re not ready, and I think that if Yair can stay [matched up against] somebody in the top 10, high top 10s, 10 to 15, anybody would work. But if it’s up to Yair, he wants them all.”