Yair Rodriguez is a walking highlight reel, best known for his stunning last-second knockout of Chan Sung Jung in a 2018 bout that the Mexican was on the verge of losing by decision. The KO came at 4:59 of Round 5 via a no-look, upward-trajectory elbow that collapsed “The Korean Zombie” in his tracks. It was a thing of beauty.
On Saturday, Rodriguez has an opportunity to further enhance the perception of him within the upper echelon of the UFC men’s featherweight division.
Facing Max Holloway in the main event of a matinee UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas, Rodriguez can instantly transform himself from must-see attraction to championship contender. Holloway is a former 145-pound champion and is No. 10 in the ESPN men’s pound-for-pound rankings. Defeating him would elevate Rodriguez into the title picture.
Rodriguez (13-2, 1 NC) has lost only once in nearly nine years. That defeat came in 2017 against former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar, just a few months after Rodriguez had knocked out another legendary ex-champ, BJ Penn. Rodriguez is unbeaten in three outings since the Edgar loss, but he has not competed since October 2019 thanks to a US Anti-Doping Agency suspension. He did not fail a drug test, but failed to keep USADA apprised of his whereabouts for testing purposes.
He can make all of that fade into the past if he can handle Holloway (22-6), who is coming off a virtuosic performance in his last appearance. In a unanimous decision over Calvin Kattar in January, Holloway shattered several UFC records, landing 445 significant strikes (old record: 290), attempting 744 (old record: 515) and more. Among other things, that was the night when Holloway passed Georges St-Pierre for most strikes landed in UFC history by running his total to 2,805 (St-Pierre landed 2,591).
The stakes for Holloway are perhaps less definitive but no less dramatic. As strong as he looked in the Kattar fight, it ended a two-fight losing streak — the 2019 bout in which he dropped the featherweight title to Alexander Volkanovski, then a rematch that many observers believe Holloway won. Getting back to a title shot while Volkanovski still owns the belt might be a challenge, but Holloway cannot afford to slip up this weekend if he hopes for big things in his near future.
As for Rodriguez, if he can hang with Holloway, he will open some eyes and some doors. He might not necessarily be next in line for Volkanovski, but he surely would have a spot near the front of the queue.
Numbers matchup: -625 vs. 757
-625: Betting odds favoring Holloway (as of Tuesday), the largest odds of his UFC career, surpassing his -600 odds for a bout against Jeremy Stephens in 2015.
757: Days it will have been on fight night since Rodriguez last competed, in a unanimous-decision win over Stephens on Oct. 18, 2019.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
And the winner is …
“These are the two best guys in division when it comes to footwork, with the possible exception of Edson Barboza,” said Eddie Cha, the Fight Ready striking coach. “Yair has great distance, phenomenal footwork. Max does as well. Can Yair get out of trouble with his feet? Does he have the cardio to keep moving for five rounds? If Yair doesn’t have to sit on a takedown, he’s dangerous. The small size of the cage favors Holloway — there’s really nowhere for Yair to go. How does Yair handle the pressure?”
Check out how Cha and other experts break down the main event and predict a winner.
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Saturday’s fight card
ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET
Men’s featherweight: Max Holloway vs. Yair Rodriguez
Heavyweight: Ben Rothwell vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima
Women’s featherweight: Felicia Spencer vs. Leah Letson
Welterweight: Miguel Baeza vs. Khaos Williams
Men’s bantamweight: Song Yadong vs. Julio Arce
ESPN+, 1 p.m. ET
Lightweight: Thiago Moises vs. Joel Alvarez
Women’s flyweight: Cynthia Calvillo vs. Andrea Lee
Men’s featherweight: Sean Woodson vs. Collin Anglin
Women’s flyweight: Cortney Casey vs. Liana Jojua
Lightweight: Marc Diakiese vs. Rafael Alves
Light heavyweight: Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Da-Un Jung
Ian Parker’s best bet
Coming off one of the most dominant striking performances in the history of the UFC, in a win over Calvin Kattar in January, Holloway is looking to take one more step in his quest to getting back to another title shot. I expect this fight against Rodriguez to be very similar to the Kattar fight. Look for Holloway to turn this into a boxing match, use his speed, precision and volume to overwhelm Rodriguez throughout the five rounds. Rodriguez is a very talented striker with a karate style, and he could lands some sort of spinning elbow or wild kick. But I don’t see that happening against Holloway. I don’t see either man getting the finish, as neither possesses true KO power. And Holloway’s past five appearances, dating back to 2018, all have gone the distance. For those reasons, I am going with the “over” here.
Pick: Holloway or Rodriguez over 3.5 rounds at -162.
For more tips from Parker on this fight card’s best bets, go here.
Three more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Rothwell, who faces Rogerio de Lima in the co-main event, will be competing in his 17th UFC fight. If Rothwell wins, it will be his 10th UFC win and the 40th victory of his professional MMA career. “Big Ben” would become the sixth heavyweight to win 10 UFC fights.
2. Spencer will be looking to get back into the win column when she faces Letson, who will make her first UFC appearance since the TUF 28 finale in November 2018. If Spencer wins, she would tie Megan Anderson for the most UFC victories in women’s featherweight history with three.
3. Alvarez, who clashes with lightweight Moises in the featured prelim, will be looking for his fourth straight win and fourth consecutive finish. He would join five others with a UFC finish streak of at least four fights. Alvarez has finished all 18 of his wins, with 16 coming by submission.