Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC, PFL, Dana White’s Contender Series and “The Ultimate Fighter” live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
As sports grow internationally, it often takes time for athletes from underrepresented regions to earn their proper respect as competitors. European basketball players were doubted for years at the NBA level before the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol changed perceptions. The fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, two of the best players in the game currently, are European does not even register as a point worth making. Canada was stunned by the competitiveness of the Soviet Union in the hockey Summit Series in 1972, but it’s now hard to imagine doubting that Russians can compete with anyone in hockey.
A similar dynamic has been at play in mixed martial arts for years when it comes to fighters from certain regions. MMA in its early days saw dominant fighters come from a variety of countries, with the United States, Brazil, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands among them. It took nations like Australia, South Korea and the United Kingdom time to earn their respect, but they did, too. However, there were other regions where MMA rose in popularity more recently and fighters from those places had to prove anew that they could compete at a world-class level.
It wasn’t that long ago when the Ultimate Fighting Championship made a big push to popularize MMA in Latin America. The Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos fight on Fox was a major part of that effort. Television deals in Mexico and elsewhere led to greater interest in a region where only Brazil was a major MMA player and where boxing was a much more significant part of the culture. The UFC even gave Latin Americans stipends to attempt to create star native fighters who would then inspire the next generation of aspiring athletes.
There was skepticism about that initial crop of Spanish-speaking Latin American fighters, and it was not without just cause. The three seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America” showed a group of fighters still very early in their development. The fighters from those shows, ostensibly the top prospects the UFC could find at the time from that region, struggled mightily once they reached the UFC. They were initially matched against each other and then in many instances against developmental fighters from China and other countries in Asia, where MMA was less popular. Once they reached non-developmental competition, few lasted long.
That the early success rate was low led many to write off other Latin American fighters prematurely. In fact, the UFC program worked well. It just needed to cast a wide net, and it needed time. However, even as that needed time progressed, many still didn’t recognize that the Latin American elite had finally arrived. That was apparent in recent weeks with arguably the two most successful fighters from that oft-maligned group of “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America” prospects: Yair Rodriguez and Marlon Vera.
Rodriguez’s status as one of the most exciting and best featherweight competitors in the world should no longer have been in doubt some time ago. Yet skepticism about Rodriguez has persisted. even as he accumulated an 8-1 record in the UFC, with performance bonuses left and right plus notable wins over the likes of Dan Hooker and Chan Sung Jung. He was only a narrow betting favorite in his fights against Jeremy Stephens, and Max Holloway was an 8-to-1 favorite over him in some sports books as their UFC Fight Night 197 main event approached.
It’s understandable that confidence would be high in a former featherweight champion like Holloway, given how impressive he had looked in his most recent fight against Calvin Kattar. However, Rodriguez is no pushover against anyone in the division, and he was treated as one going into the fight. Perhaps that will be the last time after a fantastic fight in which Rodriguez kept roaring back whenever it looked like Holloway might have seized control. Rodriguez is a potential future champion.
Rodriguez is far from the only underestimated Latin American star fighter. Vera, his castmate on “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America,” took time to put all his skills together but is now 8-2 in his last 10. Still, against a 40-year-old Frankie Edgar, who had lost three of his last four, Vera was only a narrow favorite at UFC 268, and the odds closed in Edgar’s direction as the public had more confidence in the future hall of famer. It’s not just fans and oddsmakers not showing respect for the proud Ecuadorian; Sean O’Malley demonstrated a clear lack of respect for Vera, both before and after a fight that “Chito” won by TKO.
Even champions from the region have been greeted with skepticism. Brandon Moreno was once cut from the UFC despite his young age and propensity for exciting fights. He was a major underdog against Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 256, and even after Moreno took him to a difficult majority draw, it was treated as a shock when he beat the Brazilian the second time out. Moreno also got the classic treatment of a doubted champion: an immediate rematch with the former champion he just finished.
Rodriguez, Vera and Moreno have all needed to prove themselves over and over again. It has taken time, but there is growing recognition of what Spanish-speaking Latin American fighters can do. The good news for the next generation that follows them is that skepticism will have been wiped away, and it will be one more region where MMA champions are made.