How a teacher's gift put Mike Rodriguez on a path to the UFC

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·4 mins read

LAS VEGAS — Mike Rodriguez’s story isn’t unlike so many others in this country. He was at a low point, suspended from high school for getting into a fight. He’d knocked another student out and was going to spend a few days at home as a result.

A kindly teacher, who was astonished by the force with which Rodriguez hit the other student, wanted to chat with him.

“He pulled me aside and said, ‘You know you’re going to be suspended, right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know,’” Rodriguez said. “And he said, ‘Well, you sure do have power.’ And then he handed me some DVDs and said, ‘Take a look at these.’”

At home, Rodriguez looked at the stack of DVDs his teacher had given him. He stuck one in the DVD player and pushed play, out of curiosity more than anything else.

His life was suddenly changed. His teacher had given him PRIDE Fighting Championship DVDs. He’d never heard of mixed martial arts previously, or any of the fighters. But seeing that put him on the path to becoming a fighter.

On Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+), Rodriguez will look to stay on the winning track when he meets Ed “Short Fuse” Herman at Apex on the main card of UFC Vegas 10.

(R-L) Mike Rodriguez battles Marcin Prachnio of Poland in their light heavyweight fight during UFC Fight Night at Apex on Aug. 22, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
(R-L) Mike Rodriguez battles Marcin Prachnio of Poland in their light heavyweight fight during UFC Fight Night at Apex on Aug. 22, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Rodriguez is coming off a critical victory on Aug. 22 at Apex over Marcin Prachnio. He was 1-2 with a no contest (that was a loss before opponent John Allan failed an anti-doping test) in his four fights prior to fighting Prachnio, and despite how much he tried to keep it out of his mind, knew he was fighting for his job.

Adding to the pressure on him was the weight of expectations. A fighter in the UFC is by definition one of the elite in his world, but most fans don’t get that. Rodriguez was constantly hearing from fans he’d encounter about why he wasn’t rolling through his opponents and scoring first-round finishes.

“A lot of the fans are really clueless about what it takes to be in the UFC or what it means to be there,” he said. “It’s kind of like the NBA. Just because a guy isn’t scoring 30 a game doesn’t mean he’s not one of the best in the world. People will expect me to be starching these guys in a couple of minutes but they don’t understand, these [expletives] I’m fighting are very good.

“It’s like LeBron [James]. There are some people who expect him to dunk on a guy every time he gets the ball. It’s not easy to do. We’re the one percent of the one percent and we’re not fighting [pushovers].”

Rodriguez, who is 11-4 with the no contest, likes to approach his fights like he does video games. He loves to do puzzles and spends a lot of time trying to understand the techniques required in a video game.

“I play ‘Rainbow 6 Siege’ and it’s a very strategic shooter game,” he said. “I broke it down and it’s very intricate. You have to break down angles and figure things out. It requires an intricate strategy. And that is what MMA is to me and it’s why I love it so much. It’s so strategic.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m going to punch this guy in the face.’ It’s how you set up that punch in the face. You do this because you expect that to happen and when it does, you do that. There’s a lot of strategy required in MMA and, me being a geek, I fell in love with it.”

He’ll love it a lot more if he can get past Herman, a veteran who has made his reputation the hard way: By taking, and doling out, plenty of punishment.

Rodriguez doesn’t think there’s anything secretive about what Herman will do.

“There is no sugar coating things with him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s going to walk up and start punching you in the face as hard as he can for as long as he can. He’s such a durable guy and he can really take a lot of punishment. … You have to be really persistent against a guy like that. You can’t get frustrated and you have to stick with what you know works.”

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