Mexican UFC Featherweight fighter, Yair “El Pantera” Rodriguez’s, documentary El Pantera which premiered at the New York Latino Film Festival, proves that the pursuit of the American dream is still alive and well. The film follows the UFC fighters journey as he tackles the struggles he’s faced as an immigrant and the sacrifices he’s had to make to pursue a career as a professional fighter.
The film couldn’t have happened without “El Pantera” director, Landon Dyksterhouse, who was inspired when he met the 25-year-old at a popular MMA and UFC training gym known as Jackson’s MMA, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rodriguez’s manager was a director at the gym and as luck would have it, Dyksterhouse, who has formerly directed MMA-based documentaries, was seeking inspiration for his next project.
“I said what better idea than to tell a modern day story of immigration, the American dream, and how Yair is using fighting as a tool to inspire people,” Dyksterhouse explains about his vision. Rodriguez who has a background in martial arts has been dedicated to the sport since he was a child growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico. What started off as an activity his parents signed him up for to help release energy and stay out of trouble soon became a passion he couldn’t shake off. It wasn’t until he was 17 that he decided to dabble with MMA and found that it came naturally to him thanks to his martial arts training.
In 2014, he officially made it in to the UFC’s Featherweight division. Needless to say, what Rodriguez has accomplished so early in life is impressive, but it hasn’t come without a fight. He had to leave family and friends behind in Mexico when he was given the opportunity to train professionally in the United States. He’s proud to represent his native country while residing in America and feels blessed to have the opportunity to do.
Rodriguez is aware that many Mexicans don’t have the option to immigrate to the United States because it’s expensive to do so legally, and there are so many risks are involved if done so illegally. No matter which way immigrants come into this country, he says the struggle is real when it comes to assimilating. “You need to know that coming into another country means you have to respect other people and their culture, and you have to keep an open mind,” he explains adding that immigrants also have to deal with racism.
Dyksterhouse agrees and says, that while we all have hurdles to get through everyday, it’s harder for Latinos and other minorities, “If you are any race other than white in America, those hurdles are even bigger. Which only means you have to be twice as good.” He hopes his film shows the importance of everyone coming together and being understanding. “If you’re an American, understand why people are immigrating here,” he says, emphasizing that this country was built by immigrants and it’s what makes it so great. “They [immigrants] don’t want to come here to bother people. They are here because they need shoes on their feet and they want to feed their children, just like any other person.”
Interestingly enough, Rodriguez considers fighting to be his way of making a statement. “I think of it [fighting] as my own piece of art, because what I do with my training and all the hard work I put in can be seen in this documentary.” He believes it’s important for all viewers and UFC fans to see this side of the sport. “No one wants to show their weak side, but it’s what makes you connect to your audience and allows them to understand why we do what we do,” he says.
Despite his young age, Rodriguez knows a thing or two about making sacrifices to have his own dreams come true. He advises anyone trying to make their own dreams a reality to keep a few things in mind. “If you want to make it, it’s simple, but not easy,” he says. He points out that there are some rules you have to follow in order to be successful. “You have to be disciplined and push forward all the time, and most importantly you have to be willing to learn, and remain dedicated to whatever it is that you put your mind to.”