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UFC bantamweight Adrian Yanez on living a 'surreal' life: 'This is so f-cking cool to me'

Perfect through five UFC fights – with four knockouts to boot – Yanez cementing himself as star in making.

Adrian Yanez didn't really hear the crowd inside the Moody Center in Austin, Texas, until he received a nice shove from referee Kerry Hatley late in the first round of his fight. Right before that, he was zeroed-in on landing a few finishing touches on Tony Kelley – the adrenaline and fury of a fight giving Yanez tunnel vision.

Once he finally looked around and heard the crowd cheering, one thought ran through his mind:

"I was like, 'Holy sh-t, there's a lot of people here,'" Yanez said.

A 'surreal' experience

Yanez was one of those fans in the crowd not too long ago. The 28-year-old recently returned home from Las Vegas, where he made the rounds at the 10th annual International Fight Week. There, Yanez met with fans, signed some autographs and hopped on UFC's Twitch watch-along with Jens Pulver during UFC 276.

The experience reminded Yanez of the times he would attend the fan events whenever the UFC came to Houston. He recalled testing his punching power on a bag with Pat Barry and admiring the glove size of Demetrious Johnson compared with Brock Lesnar. Fast-forward to present day, and it was now Yanez with whom fans were eager to chat and take pictures.

"That was a surreal experience for me," Yanez said. "It was bringing me back and everything. So that, to me, was nuts. Every single time I would take a picture with a fan, I would kind of relive my moment a couple years ago, so that was pretty fun for me."

Although Yanez has featured on UFC's loaded bantamweight roster after appearing on Dana White's Contender Series in 2020 – fighting and winning five times since – he still operates with a sort of fan's enthusiasm that endears him to fans. More than that, though, he fuels his rising star each time he steps into the octagon and delivers action-packed fights and performance bonus-worthy knockouts (Yanez earned an extra $50k in each of his five fights). 

All that told, his moment in Austin represented a pair of UFC firsts: his first fight in front of a crowd, and his first fight in his home state of Texas. Considering the streak upon which he rode into the fight, Yanez would've earned a big pop from the crowd no matter what, but some additional attention was lauded onto his fight with Kelley in the buildup to June 18.

Yanez shouldered some extra pressure to put Kelley away because of crude remarks his opponent made while cornering a few weeks earlier, so a pocket of fans and peers were looking to Yanez to dole out some punishment. That, in tandem with fighting in Texas, put a surplus of high expectations on the Houston native to deliver in style against his toughest opponent to date. However, Kelley leaned in and played the part of the heel throughout the week, providing even more reason for people to back Yanez.

"Tony Kelley made it super easy for everybody just to cheer on my side," Yanez said. "So, I didn't have a bad experience, but there was a bit of pressure. At the same time, it's so easy for me to compartmentalize and drown everything else out and just stay super focused. Even in the middle of a fight, when Tony Kelley started talking trash, I'm in there cool, calm and collected just gunning for him."

Even though Yanez showed great composure under the lights, he admits he felt "fuzzy" in the morning. Whether that manifested from the pre-fight anticipation and anxiety or it just being one of those days, he pulled it together when he walked out and heard the crowd respond to his name getting called. 

As the fight proceeded, Yanez methodically worked his way inside of Kelley's lanky frame and countered the Louisiana native's kicks with heavy left hooks early. Yanez displayed his usual slick, textbook boxing and moved his targets down to Kelley's body. Eventually, Yanez found a home for his right hand, then another, then another. He found space as Kelley tried to grab hold of him and cracked Kelley with a left hook that sent him stumbling to the canvas. 

The sniper Yanez is – he landed 36 of his 68 attempted strikes and 29 of 60 to Kelley's head – was on full display when Kelley fell to the floor. After a moment's hesitation, Yanez circled, jumped on Kelley, and followed up with several flush shots before Hatley could push him away and cement the win. 

"I remember the finishing sequence very vividly, man," Yanez recalls. "The one thing I've kind of took from the whole experience is just being in that moment and don't let anything get the best of me. I saw him get rocked, and I threw a couple other punches, and I saw him hit the floor, and a part of me stopped because I was like, ‘Do I want to walk off?' But I told myself within a split second, ‘No,' and I started following up with those extra shots.

"I don't know if you saw it, but I was circling around Tony Kelley just so Kerry Hatley (couldn't push me off), so I was in full control of what I was doing in that moment, and I wanted those extra shots. I was just so amped up."Yanez jokingly laments not landing the final hammerfist more cleanly, but he punctuated the performance with a Diaz-esque double-bird mimicking Kelley's same gesture during introductions.

A year of adversity

It only takes one fight of Yanez's to become a fan and understand there's a star in the making here, but the win still seemed to mark a kind of climax to the first chapter of his UFC career. He is firmly in the mix of the vaunted top 15 at 135 pounds, even floating up to No. 15 depending on the week. 

The win in Austin also put a stamp on a year-long stretch that presented Yanez with a roller coaster of life experiences. 

In July 2021 as he prepared to fight Randy Costa, Yanez's longtime coach Saul Soliz called to let his pupil know he tested positive for COVID-19. A couple days later, Yanez hosted a gender reveal and learned he would soon have a son. Yanez picked up another knockout win and performance bonus in a hard-fought effort. However, on August 17, Soliz died at the age of 55, a death that was felt across the MMA world. 

The following months would present Yanez with a variety of emotions – the grief of losing his mentor, the odd work of stepping into Soliz's coaching role, the stress and excitement of imminent fatherhood, and somewhere in the midst of all that, finding the capacity to train for his toughest test yet: Davey Grant.

Through all that, Yanez came away from the November bout with a split-decision win and his first "Fight of the Night" bonus, and all of the emotion came to a head in the octagon after the scorecards were read. Later in the year, Yanez welcomed his son to the world, and he entered 2022 as not just a well-regarded prospect, but a father as well.

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"Everything has happened for a reason," Yanez said. "But the best part about it was that I know that the chapter that I just had was with as much tragedy that I've had, and I've had a good amount of time to reflect and be able to work on myself."

The 'love-hate' relationship to fame

Initially, Yanez hoped to fight in April or May, but when the Austin date was offered, it was too good to let pass, and despite his rising profile, Yanez still enjoys keeping things low-key.

When he and his team arrived in Austin, they took a few electric scooters and milled about the town mostly anonymously, which is an image made all the funnier considering what Yanez would do in the octagon a few days later. That's him, though, and he assures he won't allow the fame, money and success bloat his ego, citing his first professional loss in just his second fight as a crucial moment in his career. 

What also keeps Yanez's ego in check is his circle of friends, who never miss an opportunity to bring their buddy back down to earth.

"My friends are very good at being like, 'You know you're kind of a piece of sh-t, right?'" Yanez said. "I'm like, 'Alright, yeah, I get it.' I got people that keep me grounded all at all moments, and also, I know that I can't put my head too immersed into it because I do like living a normal life. I do. I do like the normalcy of things because once things started going a little too crazy, I'm done. I don't like being in a room full of crowds of people. It started getting me little bit like, 'I don't want to be here.' A small family environment, things like that, are the greatest things in the world."

Speaking of family, Yanez has enjoyed fatherhood and makes it a point to create a boundary between his public life as a fighter and his private life as a dad, which is easier said than done when fans get too curious. 

That said, Yanez remains one of the more endearing and humorous follows on social media, particularly on Twitter, where he will banter with fans and comment on the day's MMA news. He also understands, somewhat reluctantly, the kind of stature he holds for people and the increasing weight his words carry for those who sing his praises. At the same time, Yanez still finds himself in situations where he is back to the position of a fan, as well.

"I get back to people and they're like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" he said. "I tripped out when Jon Jones hit me back. Even now, like when Aljamain (Sterling) gave me props, and just recently when Henry Cejudo put up the video of me and him talking, I thought that was super dope. Just seeing all these other fighters talk to me, and I think they're still super cool. Joe Rogan follows me on Instagram. I think that's super dope. This is so f-cking cool to me. I love it. I have a love-hate relationship with (social media)."

Nothing but options ahead

The attention and spotlight are only getting brighter for Yanez, who debates on the approach he wants to take to his next few fights. 

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With two fights left on his current contract, Yanez sees the appeal in fighting a couple fights with less risk involved so as to ride into negotiations on a seven-fight win streak and potentially position himself for a more lucrative deal. On the other hand, he's a fighter's fighter and wants to compete against the toughest competition, including Sean O'Malley, whom Yanez called out after beating Kelley. 

"The fighter in me is just like, ‘I'm gonna fight anybody anywhere, anytime,'" He said. "It's hard balancing that at every moment. In reality, of course, I would want the opportunity to fight (O'Malley) because I feel like he's right there. He's top 15. He hasn't touched the top 10. I feel like that's a good fight either way, stylistically and financially."

Yanez laments the fact that he's probably a "high-risk, low-reward" for the always mindful O'Malley, but it's hard to imagine the two avoiding a collision in the coming years. 

Regardless of who comes next for Yanez, he is pretty relaxed about the whole thing. The only aspect that gets him a little riled up, or at least confused, is the way rankings are sorted, joking that he feels like "the assistant to the regional manager" because he keeps getting yo-yoed in and out of the top 15. The only option, he sees, is to take matters in his own hands and keep racking up the emphatic wins. 

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All in all, Yanez is enjoying life and for good reason. He took a step back from coaching at his gym, although he still tries to pass off as much of his gathered knowledge as he can. As previously mentioned, he is very much a fan of the sport and is considering driving up to Dallas ahead of UFC 277 to watch Brandon Moreno in the interim flyweight title fight against Kai Kara-France

Distinguishing oneself, particularly in the bantamweight division, seems to get more difficult by the week, but Yanez has shown nothing but the goods. He is technically sharp, he brings the fight, and he is taking in every step of the journey. On top of all that, he is fighting for more than just himself, and he knows he owes it to everyone who helped him on this journey to keep soldiering on as steadfast as ever.

"(I) know that if I wasn't doing what I was doing now, the people that aren't here would be upset with me," Yanez said. "That's another way for me to cope with everything, just (for them) to see how far I've gone, that would be making them even happier."

This story first published at UFC.com.