The UFC’s dreams of expanding their fanbase more firmly into Mexico are old news at this point. Cain Velasquez was supposed to lead the charge, back in 2010, when he won the heavyweight title. There were ad-campaigns, demo-targeted sponsorships, and a quickly established narrative that the promotion had found their first star to bring MMA fandom to a country better known for its passionate loves of boxing and pro wrestling.
Velasquez fought just once in Mexico. It was a disaster. Long known for his insane pace and cardio, the AKA talent did almost his entire camp for the title defense against Fabricio Werdum at sea level. Hitting Mexico City’s 7,000+ ft. elevation just days out from the fight. To say that mistakes were made would be an understatement.
The UFC has been back to the Arena Ciudad de México three times since then. But only for smaller, Fight Night events. Heavyweights have been notably absent from the lineups. The last time, in 2019, was in fact headlined by none other than Yair Rodriguez, whose cardio still seems boundless no matter the elevation at which he competes (he’s not only won multiple fights in Mexico City, but also Denver and Salt Lake). That fight was also a disaster, but for very different reasons.
Set up as a thrilling battle of sluggers between Rodriguez and longtime action stalwart Jeremy Stephens, the bout looked likely to be a showcase for the UFC’s next big hope for delivering a high profile talent to a market with major expansion potential. Fifteen seconds into round one and it was all over. An inadvertent eye poke from Rodriguez rendered Stephens unable to continue.
Fans—likely prepared to watch their fighter roll through his American opponent—quickly turned on the Iowa native, with the apparent assumption that ‘Lil’ Heathen’ had taken the easy way out, rather than suffer the potential humiliation of a loss. Or perhaps they were just mad that they had been robbed of a violent main event after watching Alexa Grasso & Brandon Moreno suffer back-to-back decision defeats just before. Whatever the reason, the crowd quickly showered the Octagon with trash. The UFC hasn’t been back since.
On Sunday, following the conclusion of UFC 284, Rodriguez petitioned for another chance to fight on home soil. Now interim featherweight champion, he’s looking for a shot at unifying the belts against Alexander Volkanovski in Mexico City.
“Actually, I talked to Alexander Volkanovski in the past—in Dallas,” Rodriguez told the assembled media at the post-fight presser. “Not that much with him, but with his manager. He asked me, ‘Would you be able to go to Australia? Will you go to Australia?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, why not. Yeah, of course I’ll go.’ So, I stick to my word and I came here, won the interim title. And now I want to ask the UFC to take this belt, this championship fight to Mexico City, in September—whenever they open the UFC Performance Institute, so we can do it there.”
It’s unclear if Rodriguez is actually asking to hold the title fight in the Performance Institute itself. If he is, and considering it’s modeled on the Vegas PI, putting a belt on the line in another Apex-like atmosphere should be reason enough to pan the whole idea.
However, ‘El Pantera’ isn’t the first title holder from Mexico to ask for a big fight back in his home country. Brandon Moreno called for his fourth fight against Deiveson Figueiredo to be held in Mexico City last year as well. An idea that the Brazilian briefly seemed to consider, before the positive vibes between the two men seriously cooled. That fight ended up in Brazil instead—with the ‘Assassin Baby’ coincidentally facing his own version of a hostile enemy crowd, riled by an eye poke stoppage.
With Moreno once again holding flyweight gold in 2023, he’s renewed his calls for another Mexico City PPV. Maybe the combined efforts of he and Rodriguez will be enough to convince all other parties involved that it’s time for the world’s largest MMA promotion to make a return.
But, given the atmosphere for past events, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if both Alexander ‘The Great’ and the UFC have some serious reservations about diving back into the market with a high-stakes, high profile event. With the PI incoming, the Endeavor-owned company will almost certainly bring more fight cards along with it. Whether Rodriguez can reap the rewards, however, remains far less certain.