PHOENIX — When Yair Rodriguez steps into the cage Sunday night, he will be fully aware of everything his opponent has accomplished in a Hall of Fame career.
Rodriguez, however, isn’t fighting BJ Penn’s resume.
The rising UFC featherweight contender, 24, insists he sees the 38-year-old Penn as just another fighter attempting to stop his rapid ascension to stardom.
“BJ Penn is a legend. This is a big deal for me,” Rodriguez said of fighting him in the main event of UFC Fight Night 103 at Talking Stick Resort Arena. “But I’m not going to let that bother me when I get in the cage with him.
‘It’s an honor, but it’s just a human being.”
Penn certainly looked like just another guy the last time he stepped in the cage. He was barely competitive when he came out of retirement to get knocked out by former champ Frankie Edgar in the third round in July 2014. The result sent Penn back into retirement, and he was enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame in July 2015.
But the performance didn’t sit well with Penn and he announced another comeback in early 2016. A series of unfortunate events kept pushing back his return and forcing opponent changes.
The wheel stopped on Rodriguez, one of the most talented young fighters in the UFC.
While Penn has the better credentials by far, Rodriguez enters as more than a minus-400 favorite. Much of that number has to do with Penn’s poor performance against Edgar. Rodriguez believes he will see a far different version of Penn.
“I don’t really pay attention to too many of his previous fights. I just focus on this one,” Rodriguez said after open workouts at the arena Friday. “I can’t expect the same BJ Penn he was two years ago. I expect a rejuvenated BJ Penn. He was looking for competition again and he spent a year getting ready for this. I feel like BJ Penn will return stronger than ever.
“That’s what I’m hoping for because I’m ready.”
Rodriguez, a Mexico native who lives in Chicago, also appears on the brink of a breakout 2017. A winner of seven consecutive fights, five since joining the UFC, Rodriguez knows what kind of opportunity is in front of him Sunday.
“This year I see myself in the title picture,” he said. “That’s what I’m working toward. This is going to put me in a better position to maybe challenge for that position.”
There’s little doubt that many people at UFC headquarters would love to see Rodriguez’s stock continue to soar. His flashy style and charisma could help the organization continue to make inroads in his native Mexico.
A victory over a big-name opponent such as Penn certainly would help build his profile, so it’s no surprise the bout will mark his second straight time headlining a Fox Sports 1 card. Rodriguez hopes to validate the organization’s belief in his potential.
“I feel really happy,” he said. “I just feel amazing. I don’t feel any pressure, just more passion for the sport. I don’t see anything going backward. Pressure is something that holds you down. If you let pressure bother you, what the (expletive) are you doing here? Stop doing it and move on. I feel happy with everything.”
If he is still in such a good mood after the fight, it would likely mean he has taken another huge step forward.
It would be perhaps his biggest leap yet.
“BJ Penn is a two-time former champion in two different weight classes,” Rodriguez said. “So few people have accomplished that and he’s one of those guys. He knows what it takes to be a champion and I want to fight those kind of guys.
“He’s is a guy I grew up watching. Now I have the chance to fight him and I’m so happy about that. This is just going to be amazing for me.”
The bout is part of a 7 p.m. main card on Fox Sports 1 that also includes a lightweight bout between Joe Lauzon and Marcin Held.
Contact Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-277-8028. Follow @adamhilllvrj on Twitter.