A rising, dynamic prospect in his home country clashes with a longtime veteran in what’s surely an action-packed matchup a mile-and-a-half above sea level.
Yair Rodriguez, last seen landing a reverse-elbow at the buzzer to knock out Chan Sung Jung in Denver, hosts credentialed knockout artist Jeremy Stephens in Mexico City on September 21. For Stephens, it’s a chance to get back on track after dropping back-to-back fights to Jose Aldo and Zabit Magomedsharipov, and for Rodriguez, an opportunity to catapult himself into the top five with a win.
Rodriguez is aware that while Stephens is looking for his first win since early 2018, the “Lil' Heathen” still presents plenty of dangers inside the cage.
“I think Jeremy Stephens represents a big risk for my career because he comes to look and strike,” he said. “He lost to pretty tough guys, pretty good guys. Now, I think he comes with that thing inside him that he wants to win no matter what, and I think I can use that as an advantage because he’s going to be trying to finish me.”
Stephens, who regularly wears the Mexican flag across his shoulders when he walks to the Octagon, knows the measures he needs to take in order to set himself up for success.
“You have to be ready,” Stephens said. “You have to come out here and embrace the culture, embrace the journey and adjust to the altitude. I can’t wait to be amongst the fans and come off a huge win, a good knockout and come from a Mexican-style fight. I can’t wait. These are my people.”
The 26-year-old Rodriguez doesn’t think Stephens will receive nearly as much support from the crowd because “El Pantera” is “100 percent Mexican.” He did concede that the fans in Mexico City still respect fighters like Stephens, however.
In addition to swinging the crowd this way or that, both athletes understand the altitude is a real factor to which they must adjust before they fight. Mexico City sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level, so preventing fatigue is a high priority. Stephens said he intends to arrive several weeks ahead of fight night and “can’t wait to embrace the journey.” On the other hand, Rodriguez acknowledged that the altitude is a factor, but “not everything,” especially coming off his 24-minute, 59-second war with “The Korean Zombie” in Denver.
“I feel really good,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been training a lot lately just to get my body prepared for high altitude and get used to hard training whenever I’m in those high places.”
With each athlete prepared for an action-packed scrap at elevation, the fans in Mexico City are certainly in for an entertaining fight night – one that excites not only spectators, but the man whose home country he’ll be fighting for in the main event.
“I think it’s going to be a really great event for both of us,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s going to be a great fight. A war, for sure.”
Zac Pacleb is a writer and producer for UFC.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacPacleb.