What once was a joke became reality Oct. 20 when Soldotna’s Victor Rodriguez signed a four-fight deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world.
Rodriguez, 28, will take his 7-2 professional record into a UFC Fight Night 181 matchup with Adrian Yanez (7-2-0) of Texas on Saturday.
“I freaked out,” Rodriguez said about learning he had a deal to fight with UFC. “It all feels like a dream. It’s a very emotional roller-coaster ride.”
It’s also no longer a joke.
Rodriguez grew up in mixed martial arts with his coach, Seth Stacey. The two started out in a local garage and now Stacey has AK-49 Martial Arts in the Peninsula Center Mall and Rodriguez has a deal with UFC.
“I’m so glad I get to have this journey with him,” Stacey said. “It’s been an earned dream of ours for eight years. We always cracked jokes about one day making it to UFC, but there was always a seriousness about it.”
At least a half dozen fighters with Alaska connections have made it to UFC. Two — Lauren Murphy and Jared Cannonier — fought Saturday at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The pay-per-view events like UFC 254 are a step up from the UFC Fight Night in which Rodriguez will appear. That event can be seen on ESPN+.
Austin Vanderford, a 2008 graduate of Ninilchik School, is another peninsula MMA fighter who has had success, compiling a 9-0 professional record. Vanderford fights for Bellator, a competitor of UFC. After recovering from a case of COVID-19, Vanderford will fight Chris Curtis at Bellator 251 on Nov. 5 in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Getting his start
Rodriguez asks himself a question a lot of athletes ask themselves.
“I don’t know if MMA found me or I found MMA,” he said.
He remembers, as a child in California, jealously watching as kids came out from lessons in a boxing gym.
“I never understood why they complained to their mom that they got to go punch things,” said Rodriguez, who is 5-foot-5, 135 pounds. “Living in California, I got in street fights and I got picked on.
“I learned to be scrappy fighting bigger guys.”
Rodriguez moved to the central Kenai Peninsula at 14 before moving to Alabama as a sophomore and junior. He would move back to the peninsula and graduate from Skyview High School.
Before even graduating from high school, Rodriguez had already fought in an MMA event locally for promoter Mat Plant.
“I decided to take the fight at the last minute,” Rodriguez said. “I knocked the guy out. I didn’t know it was a tournament, but the promoter told me I had to fight another guy. I knocked him out, too.”
Knocking a few guys out in Soldotna based on street smarts and fitness he gained from playing multiple sports in Alabama was one thing. If Rodriguez wanted to progress in MMA, though, he would need to become more refined.
That is where Stacey came in.
Stacey has been living in the area on and off for 15 or 16 years. He’s had jobs like cooking for Louie’s Steak and Seafood, but his dream was always to open a martial arts gym.
“He’s a genius,” Rodriguez said of Stacey. “When it comes down to a fight, he has a knack for understanding the game plan for a fight. It’s like he’s watching it in slow motion. I have to watch it 10 times before I see what he does.
“We combined my talent with his knowledge to get done what needs to be done.”
Stacey said he learned from Duane Ludwig of Ludwig Martial Arts in Colorado. Ludwig is a world champion kickboxer and two-time winner of the Shawn Tompkins Coach of the Year in the World MMA Awards.
Rodriguez said a lot of UFC fighters start in nice gyms surrounded by world-class athletes. Stacey and Rodriguez started in a garage.
“We used what we had and made something from nothing,” Rodriguez said. “It absolutely puts me in tears. We didn’t have nothing. We just had a coach and a few sparring partners.”
Rodriguez said people see his striking ability these days and marvel at his talent. He just laughs.
“There’s no talent in that. It’s all legitimate hard work,” he said. “It was all made here in a small, tiny gym.
“Everyone was trying to put my coach down, but I fought through that. I fought through a lot of hard moments and stuck it out so I could do something amazing out of a small town.”
Rodriguez’s biggest victory to date came Feb. 26 when he defeated Anchorage’s Jared Mazurek, who is originally from Nikiski, for the bantamweight title at Alaska Fighting Championships 157 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Mazurek was favored in the fight and was able to open up a cut over Rodriguez’s left eye in the first round. Rodriguez was able to recover from that cut to score a TKO in the second round.
In the process, Stacey said Rodriguez displayed the attributes that make him a special fighter.
“Vic has tenacity, aggressiveness and heart,” Stacey said. “Something he will do that all these guys successful in MMA do — he lives by the sword and dies by the sword. He will go out on his shield, and that’s special.”
Three or four years ago, Stacey took Rodriguez to one of Ludwig’s camps in Colorado. Rodriguez sparred with Tim Elliott, who fought Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight championship in December 2016 and lost.
“Tim touched him up,” Stacey said of Rodriguez. “The next day, Vic went to Duane’s gym with a hunger in his eyes. He was there to get better and came back stronger. At that point and time, I knew he was a different breed.”
Getting his shot
After defeating Mazurek, Stacey said his goal was to get Rodriguez a solid manager so he could move up the ranks.
Stacey found Tiki Ghosn, owner of Arsenal Sports Agency and The Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center. Ghosn used to be a UFC fighter himself and at one point was managed by Dana White, the current UFC president. Ghosn currently represents big names in MMA like Juan Archuleta and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
When Yanez’s opponent fell out of the Saturday bout, Ghosn came calling.
“He called up the other day and asked if we would take the fight on short notice,” Stacey said. “We’re like, ‘Yes.’ This is the opportunity of a lifetime. How can you say no?”
Stacey said taking the fight on short notice robs Rodriguez of an eight- to 12-week training camp to properly prepare. Taking the four-fight deal, however, means Rodriguez will get more UFC shots in the future.
According to Stacey, Yanez is a good boxer with good range and quick hands.
“It’s definitely Vic’s toughest fight to date,” Stacey said.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t have time to build up his cardio capacity, but he does have time to prepare for Yanez’s fight style.
“I just want to go out and make it ugly and entertain the people,” Rodriguez said.
Stacey said Rodriguez-Yanez is sixth fight on the preliminary card, which starts at noon Saturday.
Stacey said the goal is for Rodriguez to earn enough money from this four-fight deal to shift to training full-time at The Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center.
For Saturday’s fight, Rodriguez gets $10,000 for showing up and an additional $10,000 if he wins. There also is a special knockout bonus of $50,000 and a $50,000 bonus for fight of the night.
“The goal is to get him into a position to dedicate his life to fighting,” said Stacey, adding he thinks Rodriguez is at 30% of his true potential. “When he fought Jared, he was working construction in 20-below weather, but he was still getting to the gym for two or three sessions a day.”
In addition to changing his life, Rodriguez also would like to change other lives. Since getting his four-fight deal, Rodriguez said he has had old friends call him up, saying they were going to clean up their lives and get back in the gym.
Rodriguez also remembers being a shy kid not having the confidence to ask questions about training, so he always makes sure to give kids his attention.
“I love this place and want to put it on the map,” Rodriguez said. “So many people want to get out of Soldotna. I can’t wait until the TV says I’m from Soldotna, Alaska. That’s the town I got my skills from.”
Rodriguez has already changed Stacey’s life by helping him realize the dream of owning a martial arts gym.
“Vic’s made a big difference in my life,” Stacey said. “He’s helped me grow as a human being and as a coach. He’s helped pick me up when I was down. He’s made me better all around and he’s very important to me.”