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Yair Rodriguez opens up about abrupt departure from UFC

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It wasn’t long ago that Yair Rodriguez was earmarked as the UFC’s next featherweight star.

A 25-year-old with Mexican roots and a flashy, fan-friendly fighting style, Rodriguez had been hailed as one of the premier rising talents at 145 pounds since he entered the UFC in 2014 fresh off a victorious run on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. That vast untapped potential made it all the more stunning last week when the UFC abruptly cut “El Pantera” from the organization. At the time, UFC president Dana White explained the decision as a response to Rodriguez allegedly turning down two fights for UFC 227: One against veteran contender Ricardo Lamas, and another against fellow prospect Zabit Magomedsharipov.

And according to Rodriguez, those claims simply aren’t true.

Rodriguez appeared Monday on The MMA Hour to explain his side of the story regarding his unexpected release from the UFC.

Rodriguez, who hasn’t competed since a May 2017 loss to Frankie Edgar, attributed much of his year-long absence to personal matters that he had to resolve with his family back home in Mexico. Rodriguez said it wasn’t until February that he was once again settled enough in his life to start fielding fight offers for a potential return to the Octagon.

“I got to talk to (UFC matchmaker) Sean Shelby and I told him I was able to fight Josh Emmett in February in Orlando, Florida, to headline that event (UFC on FOX 28),” Rodriguez explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “And I accepted. I stepped up, and I learned that Josh Emmett wouldn’t accept the fight, or I don’t know if the UFC didn’t want to give it to me or whatever, then I was replaced with Jeremy Stephens. Jeremy Stephens took that fight.

“Then, after that, we sat again with the UFC and talked about a few other opponents. I talked to Sean Shelby and he told me, ‘What do you have in your mind?’ I told him I think I at least deserve a top 10 [opponent]. No matter what happens, I think I deserve a top 10 [opponent] just because of what I already showed in the UFC. I’m 6-1 in the UFC. Not all the fighters in the UFC have the same record as me. I know I’m still a rising star for the sport or whatever, but I know I have done a lot already. I know [how many] fans I have inside the sport and I don’t think I have to show anybody that I’m not afraid.”

Rodriguez claimed that during the time of these conversations, he personally reached out to White to offer his services to rematch Edgar on short notice at UFC 222 after featherweight champion Max Holloway withdrew from the event due to injury. “El Pantera” said that once the offer didn’t pan out — Edgar ended up losing to Brian Ortega at UFC 222 — he returned to the drawing board to resume discussing potential opponents with UFC officials.

“They said Ricardo Lamas, then I said yes to Ricardo Lamas,” Rodriguez said. “I accepted to fight Ricardo Lamas, but then I later learned that he didn’t take the fight with me. He decided to fight (Mirsad) Bektic instead. Then, during that process, the Zabit fight was causing a lot of hype on social media. … I was like, alright, this is going to be great. I started looking at the big potential for this fight. And it was kind of my fault that I — like a week after Lamas declined the fight, Sean Shelby called me again and he said, ‘Hey, the Lamas fight is still back open. It’s back open for you to fight.’ And after I was asking for any top-10 [opponent] and they didn’t want to give it to me, and then Lamas took Bektic instead of me, I was kind of disappointed. Just kind of disappointed, I’ll say that.

“I started looking at this other fight with Zabit. It was making a lot of sense for me because of the stylistic matchup and stuff. We saw big potential of renegotiating my contract. There was a negotiation that if they wanted me to fight him in LA (at UFC 227), which, I said I’ll fight him in LA, of course, but [only] if you pay me more, because I had saying for the last year that I wanted to fight a top 10 [opponent]. I’m not picking my opponents. I’m just saying I deserve a top 10. Anyone. I actually asked for ‘Korean Zombie’ as well, but they told me he wasn’t ready, even though he posted some stuff on Twitter saying that he wanted to fight Frankie.

“I was like, okay, I’ll fight Zabit if you give me more money in LA, because I understand how big of an event it is, and they said no,” Rodriguez continued. “I was like, okay, if you don’t want to give me more money to fight him in LA, why don’t you give [the fight] to me in Russia, and there’s no need to do any negotiation for that. I want him in Russia. Why? Because he was calling me out. I’m the guy who, I never say much, I just act. I don’t have to be talking about this on my social media.

“They didn’t even want to give it to me in Russia. Then I was like, okay, you don’t want to give me more money to fight him in LA, you don’t want to give me a top-10 [opponent]. Now I’m looking — now I see how the things are going.”

Soon after, White told the LA Times that the fight between Rodriguez and Magomedsharipov was set for UFC 227. Given that White’s claims were untrue, Rodriguez tweeted out the hashtag “#FakeNews.” Rodriguez was promptly cut from the promotion. Later that week, White told the LA Times that he had “no use” for Rodriguez. He alleged that the young prospect turned down the Lamas and Magomedsharipov offers.

Rodriguez, however, disputes that he ever turned down the Lamas fight.

He said that his demands were simple: He either wanted a top-10 opponent, like Lamas; he wanted to challenge Magomedsharipov in Russia at UFC Moscow; or he wanted to renegotiate his contract before accepting the Magomedsharipov fight for UFC 227.

“I told them I will accept anyone in the top 10,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t need a negotiation for a top-10 [opponent]. This guy was No. 13 when I was No. 7. I just got beat by Frankie. It’s just one fight. I’m 6-1 in the UFC. I just think that’s what I deserved, and they didn’t want to give it to me. That was more about respect, respecting myself.

“This, for me, was an eye-opening experience.”

As it stands now, in light of the UFC’s surprising decision to cut him, Rodriguez has effectively become the hottest free agent on the MMA market.

Rodriguez said that there has already been substantial interest in securing his services and he is hoping to compete as soon as possible.

“I can’t talk too much about it, brother, but there’s been offers,” Rodriguez said. “There’s been really good offers on the table, but you’ll hear soon about what’s going to happen next with me.

“I’m happy,” he added. “Of course, you always want more because you think you deserve more. It’s just the way that it is. Nobody is happy with whatever they have. But … I’m really happy with the offers right now. I’m happy with what is on the table right now. I’m just being smart, I’ve been waiting to see all the offers, and I know my next move is going to be really important for my career and my life.”

Rodriguez said that he never got a chance to thank White or any UFC officials for the four years he spent in the promotion, but he nonetheless wanted to do so. He said that he reached out to White’s assistant but never heard back.

Either way, despite how things played out, Rodriguez repeated several times that there are no hard feelings — at least on his side — regarding his UFC exit. He enjoyed his time there and is looking forward to penning the next chapter of his MMA journey, wherever it comes.

“No hard feelings,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to move on from things. People live in the past too much. They live the past. I’ve been learning, this is one of the things that I’ve been learning: If you are living in the past, you’re depressed. If you are living in the future, you have anxiety. If you live in the present, you are happy. So I’ve just been slowly learning how to be here and live in the moment, live in the present, and don’t let any little stuff bother me. I cannot let little stuff bother me for the rest of my life.

“This doesn’t stop here. This is the just the beginning of something greater.”