By Adam Martin
The top prospect in the UFC featherweight division continued his ascent through the the weight class, as Yair Rodriguez destroyed BJ Penn in the main event of UFC Fight Night 103 on Sunday night. Rodriguez threw the kitchen sink at Penn, landing significant strikes in the first round to the point that Penn's corner should have considered throwing in the towel, before putting the finishing touches on his victory with a front kick to Penn's jaw followed by a big punch that floored the legend, with ground-and-pound eventually forcing the stoppage by referee Big John McCarthy just 24 seconds into the second round.
It was the first time Penn had ever been knocked down in his 15-year MMA career, and it came at the feet and hands of Rodriguez, who clearly has a high ceiling in this sport.
Even though he's now 6-0 in the UFC, there are still questions about him. The biggest one is just how much you can take away from this win over Penn. Yes, Rodriguez did win in devastating fashion in what was a one-sided fight, and yes, it's by far the biggest win of his young career, at least as far as name value goes. But then again, Penn is 38, hadn't fought in almost three years, and hasn't won a fight in over six years. It was a flawless performance, but it's hard to say Rodriguez is an elite featherweight right now until he actually beats a top-ranked 145er who is in his prime. Because as of right now, his UFC wins are over an over-the-hill Penn, a split decision over Alex Caceres, a split decision over Charles Rosa, a unanimous decision over Dan Hooker, a unanimous decision over Leonardo Morales, and a highlight-reel KO over Andre Fili, which is likely his best win at the moment. It’s a promising list of names, but still lacks that win over a top contender where you can say without a doubt Rodriguez has a super-high ceiling.
Cub Swanson or Ricardo Lamas is suitable. Both Swanson and Lamas are top-five featherweights who have losses to current UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo and UFC Interim Featherweight Champion Max Holloway, so to get another title shot, both will have to keep winning fights, and a win over Rodriguez, who is quickly climbing the ladder, could put them there. So it's a fight that's risky since Rodriguez is clearly very good, but for both those vets, it makes sense since it could push them back into title contention. And for Rodriguez, either one could be the name that would put him in title contention.
Rodriguez clearly has a very high ceiling in the sport, but we won't know what that is until he starts fighting top fighters who aren't washed up like Penn is. The win over a legend like Penn in the main event is obviously a step in the right direction, but we'll have to wait and see how Rodriguez does when he faces a true upper-echelon fighter. If he can pass that test with flying colors, then we'll know if he's truly for real or not.