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Behind the scenes at UFC 277, Yair Rodriguez and his manager negotiated with Alexander Volkanovski and his team about a potential title shot. Rodriguez had just beaten two-time title challenger Brian Ortega, and he believed he deserved a fight with the featherweight champ.
There was nothing committed to paper at or after that pay-per-view. Volkanovski, after all, still eyed two-division gold. But when he formally made that choice over Rodriguez, it stung a bit for the Mexican contender. That’s when a message to the champ crossed social media: “Are you a man of your word?”
“[It was] not a promise,” Rodriguez said on The MMA Hour. “We had a talk; we talked to his manager, [and they said], ‘Will you really go to Australia to fight this guy?’ Yeah, let’s go. This is what we do. Why would I say no?
“I thought that we had, not a deal, but we talked about it, and I thought he was going to say OK, let’s go. But he would rather go for 155. I don’t blame him. That’s probably a bigger opportunity than to fight me, and I don’t blame him. I think he’s doing the right moves for his career, and that’s it.”
Volkanovski is now booked to face lightweight champ Islam Makhachev in the headliner of UFC 284. The same day the fight was announced, Rodriguez got the call to play backup, facing Josh Emmett for an interim title in the co-main event of the Feb. 12 pay-per-view in Perth, Australia.
It’s unusual for the UFC to put up a division’s interim belt at the same event on which its champion is fighting for another undisputed belt. But for Rodriguez, it’s the final step to his real goal.
“This is not the undisputed [title],” he said. “I understand this is like the bridge. It’s the final decision to go for the belt. Or, in case Volkanovski decides not to come back to 145 for some reason, the belt comes to whoever wins, which in this case is me. I won’t feel like I’m the champion if I don’t really get to fight for the actual belt.”
The decision to fight for the interim strap comes with a logistical hurdle for Rodriguez and his team; he must secure travel visas to set up as early as possible Down Under. The time difference makes it essential to acclimate as much as possible. The process could take two months or two weeks in this climate.
“As soon as I can get that done, I’ll be there as soon as possible, so I can get adjusted to the time and do a better performance,” he said.
Rodriguez still hasn’t scouted Emmett as an opponent, though the two briefly trained together when they were both under the Team Alpha Male roof in Sacramento, Calif. Emmett beat out surging UK contender Arnold Allen for the interim opportunity. Rodriguez didn’t question the American’s worthiness.
“I just think that anybody that deserves the title shot, they’re good enough,” he said. “We’re in the top of the division. None of us are bad at all. We’re good at what we do, and I think we deserve the opportunity as well. They just offered me Josh Emmett and I said yes right away, because like I tell you, you can’t say no to an opportunity like this. You only have to move forward with it.”
Rodriguez’s career took some well-documented turns after he bucked the UFC on his choice of opposition; he was briefly cut from the promotion in 2018 after reportedly refusing to face then-rising contender Zabit Magomedsharipov. He returned to the promotion and went 2-0 with one no-contest – including a “Knockout of the Year” winner against Chan Sung Jung – before his win against Ortega, which put him back in the win column after a decision setback against ex-champ Max Holloway.
Being a company man has now paid dividends for Rodriguez, which is something he’s not about to question.
“Well, of course I feel happy,” he said. “It’s an opportunity that I think nobody should say no to. It’s a really big opportunity for me, and I’m really happy for it. Of course, I would rather fight for the actual belt than fighting for an interim belt, but this is the situation that I’m in right now, and I don’t really mind it. I have a pretty tough opponent in front of me that I have tons of respect for him, and I just have to go and do what I do best, and that is fighting, and get the win.
“I kind of saw it coming, so I didn’t really care about it. Whatever. I knew that I had the opportunity to fight for the belt soon, and I didn’t really care. I wish both of the guys the best. I don’t have anything against Islam, but I hope Volkanovski wins.”