By Ike Feldman
The new wave of Mexican combat sports stars are benefiting from past champions who laid the groundwork for today’s athletes.
Top UFC featherweight Yair Rodriguez (born: Parral, Mexico) pulled off a last-second elbow knockout at UFC’s 25th Anniversary show last Saturday night that was nothing short of spectacular.
Mexican fighters, mainly boxers, historically have been renowned for their superior cardiovascular conditioning, elite skills and unrelenting will. Rodriguez, in contrast, has been painted as bit of a diva type. And he had every excuse lined up to quit as the fight’s final seconds drew near: He had been in a recent contract dispute with the UFC, he was beaten to a pulp in his last fight and he was returning from an 18-month layoff. Yet the young (26) and very talented fighter proved his doubters wrong with a Knockout of the Year candidate.
Well-known Mexican combat sport athletes include Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya, Victor Ortiz and Canelo Alvarez — all of them are boxers.
Mixed martial arts is several decades behind boxing in its evolution. UFC is just celebrating its 25th anniversary; sanctioned boxing matches date back to the late 1800s. But MMA is about to pass boxing in terms of global reach, and with its spike in popularity, we’re seeing Mexican combat sports athletes choosing MMA over boxing in the past 10 years.
(Alvarez may be one of the last best Mexican athletes to choose boxing over MMA, but he will never regret that decision: He recently broke the bank with a $356 million deal with DAZN to exclusively stream his fights.)
Cain Velasquez, a two-time UFC heavyweight champion, is the biggest pioneer for Mexican fighters jumping on the mats instead of a ring. Velasquez’s story is the son of an immigrant father and an American-born mother. The blue-collar Velasquez displays his Mexican heritage proudly, including having “Brown Pride” tattooed across his chest. The next generation of Mexican and Hispanic American MMA fighters includes Yair Rodriguez, Henry Cejudo, Brian Ortega and Kelvin Gastelum.
In the Conor McGregor Era, MMA fighters are recognizing their worth more and more, resulting in holdouts and late fight cancellations. But in hindsight, it was a no brainer for Dana White and Rodriguez to get a new UFC contract done. Rodriguez is a young, good-looking fighter who speaks Spanish and has a devastating fighting style. If UFC wants to continue its MMA global takeover, it needs to court the Mexican market and exciting marquee fighters like Rodriguez.
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