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Opinion: Nick Rodriguez could become BJJ’s biggest star if he beats Luke Rockhold

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NIck Rodriguez faces his biggest test to date at Polaris 12 and if he wins, he might become professional grappling’s biggest star.

The business of professional grappling is booming. For the first time ever, being a pro grappler is actually financially feasible. In the past we saw great athletes supplement their jiu jitsu lifestyle by running gyms on the side, but over the last five years, we have began to witness the first generation of grapplers whose sole focus is competition.

This movement is spearheaded by Gordon Ryan and the Danaher Death Squad, and while Gordon is undoubtedly the biggest name in the sport, he has frequently hinted that he will move to MMA in 2020. With Gordon potentially leaving the pro grappling world the opportunity is there for someone to step up to the plate, and I firmly believe that man is Nick Rodriguez.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room right away. Nicky Rod isn’t the best grappler in the world and that has been proven twice this year by Kaynan Duarte and by Hulk Barbosa. But the biggest star doesn’t necessarily need to be the best athlete in a sport; we only need to look at Conor McGregor’s unbelievable popularity to illustrate that.

Nick Rodriguez is a once in a generation star. I have been watching BJJ for years and have never witnessed a rise as meteoric as his. Within two weeks of training he was submitting black belts and winning competitions and within a year, he had qualified for the Olympics of submission grappling, the ADCC World Championships. This is akin to walking into a boxing gym and a year later making the Olympic Team. As a blue belt, Nick has beaten a number of strong black belts and when ADCC 2019 came around, he managed to do the unthinkable and win a silver medal.

At ADCC, Rodriguez defeated former champ Cyborg Abreu and was only defeated in a tightly contested final against Duarte. His achievements this soon in his jiu jitsu journey shouldn’t be ignored, and a lot of credit can go to his coaches in New Jersey and John Danaher and Gordon Ryan who he works with intensely. Nick was promoted to purple belt at ADCC and since that tournament has been defeated twice, but I truly believe he is on the cusp of greatness.

In MMA we tend to think of BJ Penn as the biggest prodigy we’ve ever seen and everyone knows how he earned his black belt in three years. But remarkably within a year and a half of training, Rodriguez is defeating black belts consistently and main eventing big promotions regularly.

There are two common criticisms cited at Rodriguez. The first is that everyone pretends that he was some sort of elite wrestler who just uses wrestling to win matches, and that’s wrong. Rodriguez wrestled for NCAA Div 3 for a year before deciding to become a male model. The second criticism is that people speculate that he may use PEDs, which to me is a moot point as there is no testing in BJJ and we can only speculate until there is widespread testing.

While Rodriguez has garnered acclaim from the insular grappling community, he has yet to transcend the sport, but on Saturday night that could all change as he is scheduled for his most high-profile match to date.

Rodriguez is scheduled to face Luke Rockhold in the main event of Polaris 12 on UFC Fight Pass this Saturday night in a match that could propel Nicky Rod to stardom. While primarily known as a former Strikeforce and UFC champion, Luke Rockhold is also an elite grappler who won the world championships as a purple belt. Rockhold is a huge star in his own right and all eyes will be on him to see if can get back to winning ways.

While we have had Jon Jones face Dan Henderson in a grappling match, Luke is the first modern former UFC champ to take on a grappler in a grappling match in recent memory. And by facing an elite grappler like Rodriguez, he has taken a huge risk. Nick’s back takes are phenomenal, but his leg lock game is really developing and in my opinion there is a good chance he will tap Rockhold, who notoriously hates leg locks, with a heel hook.

Nick Rodriguez is exciting, talented and highly marketable. He was briefly in talks with the WWE, but I believe a win over Rockhold will grow his stock so much that he will become one of the best known grapplers among casual MMA fans. If his teammate, Gordon Ryan, does indeed move over to MMA, Nicky will become the biggest name in the sport.

Realistically Nick needs to win ADCC gold to be considered the best competitor in the world, but he is definitely on track to take home gold in 2021 and he already has the advantage of being the most marketable and charismatic guy on the mats. Should Nick tap Luke Rockhold, expect him to become the most marketable man in professional grappling.

Polaris 12 goes down on 30th November in Newport, Wales and airs live on UFC Fight Pass.