The future of MMA is looking brighter than ever. Not only is the sport itself entering into the realm of mainstream pop-culture but so too are the athletes.
However, as of late, star competitors have been few and far between, with Ronda Rousey and GSP absent as well as Conor McGregor coming off of the wrong end of a submission.
But the future crop of talent is if not as transcendent, just as talented case in point is 23-year-old Yair “El Pantera” Rodriguez. Joining the ranks of 24-year- old Max “Blessed” Holloway and 20-year- old “Super” Sage Northcutt, Rodriguez has shown that the newest crop of mixed martial artists are perhaps the most talented yet.
The Ultimate Fighter winner has put on one impressive performance after another, most recently stealing the show at UFC 197 with a jumping head-kick knockout of Andre Fili. What’s more, the 8-1 fighter has an incredible ceiling and will undoubtedly improve leaps and bounds over the next few years.
With the mediocre success of UFC 200 and UFC 202 boasting perhaps the only massive draw in the sport today, there is little doubt as to the star-strapped condition of MMA today. It has been said ad nauseam that this is a star-driven sport and for good reason. But the clear lack of few either breakthrough or highly recognizable talent is indicative of an upcoming trough after a period of unprecedented growth.
Barring the return of Rousey and or GSP, or the acquisition of a Michael “Venom” Page, the UFC will have to rely on a small stable of mid-tier talent and superstar “Mystic Mac”. The news isn’t all bad though. Even if McGregor were to lose once again to Nate Diaz, he would still be head and shoulders above anyone else currently on the roster in terms of drawing power. However, besides the Irishman, the UFC doesn’t havemuch else.
So while it might take a couple of years to cultivate some new stars, the premier MMA org. is not lacking in potential sources. I would posit that foremost among these potential stars is Rodriguez. “El Pantera” has all the prerequisites for being a major draw; this is already evident in the fact that he is main-eventing UFC Fight Night 92 at such a young age.
Besides his obviously fan-friendly fighting style, Rodriguez’s most valuable asset is his Mexican heritage. Mexico has been and is an enormous combat sports market, historically for boxing but increasingly so for MMA. Fighters like Gilbert Melendez, Diego Sanchez, and Cain Velasquez have already had a hand in popularizing Mexican interest though to limiting effect.
I believe a young up and comer like Rodriquez is instrumental in mobilizing an entire nation. We have seen what an entire nation roused to support a fighter looks like with “The McGregor Effect” i.e. drawing massive support from Ireland and the Irish diaspora.
Regardless of the markets a fighter can tap into, they need the hardware to achieve physical success. The Jackson-Wink prospect and Ultimate Fighter Winner has shown that he has just that ability even at such a young age. Rodriguez will need to continue to show such progress and on August 6th , he will face fellow flashy fighter Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres.
At 12-8- 1, Caceres has more experience and has fought stiffer competition than Rodriguez. Although he has more than twice the fights that Rodriguez has, he also has eight times the losses. Rodriguez is also coming off of six wins compared to Caceres’ two. I believe this fight will be principally defined by experience versus raw talent.
That isn’t to say that Rodriguez doesn’t have excellent coaches and a bulletproof game plan but being in such an early stage of development means he will have to rely on ability more than say practical knowledge. Although Caceres is no spring chicken, he will assume the role of the wily veteran. His many wins and losses have undoubtedly taught him a lot and he is sure to bring those lessons into the cage.
All that being said, I believe even at this early stage in Rodriguez’s career, he’s already ahead of Caceres, regardless of experience. Caceres has shown a susceptibility to submissions and I like Rodriguez’s chances of getting the fight to the mat and looking for a finish.
With a dominant win Rodriguez moves one step closer to title contention and more importantly to the upper echelons of the sport. Let’s not put the cart before the horse though. Rodriguez might never transcend the sport or open up the cash cow of Mexican markets. What he is certain to do is continue on a path of excellence earning hardcore support along the way.
So while the future looks bright for “El Pantera”, it is considerably less so for those like Caceres who will try to put a stop to the hype.