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Preview: UFC 290 ‘Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez’

Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez



The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to T-Mobile Arena for International Fight Week, which as usual comes with a loaded pay-per-view card. Two of the best title fights that the UFC can put together take center stage, led by Alexander Volkanovski's latest featherweight title defense; there may not be a man at 145 pounds that can upend Volkanovski at the moment, but Rodriguez has about as good a chance as anyone at making good on the effort. In the co-main, flyweight champ Brandon Moreno looks to avenge two previous losses to Alexandre Pantoja now that his rivalry with Deiveson Figueiredo is in the rearview mirror; and past that, Robert Whittaker takes on Dricus Du Plessis at middleweight to determine Israel Adesanya's next challenge. Add in an excellent lightweight banger between Jalin Turner and Dan Hooker and the latest showcase for uber-prospect Bo Nickal, and this is one of the UFC's marquee events of 2023.

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UFC Featherweight Championship

Alexander Volkanovski (25-2) vs. Yair Rodriguez (15-3, 1 N/C)
Odds: Volkanovski (-380), Rodriguez (+290)

Even with a loss in his last fight, Volkanovski continues to prove his greatness. Volkanovski was easy to overlook at first upon hitting the UFC, as the pipeline of wrestling-heavy fighters out of Australia had been a bit spotty in the past, but within a few fights it became apparent that "Alexander The Great" was an exception that rule, particularly after a 2018 mauling of top prospect Jeremy Kennedy. That kicked off a year that saw Volkanovski earn hard-nosed wins over Darren Elkins and Chad Mendes to get himself into title contention, but it was a 2019 victory over Jose Aldo that suggested Volkanovski could truly be something special; fighting against type from anything he had shown in the past, Volkanovski broke out a feint-heavy striking approach that managed to neutralize an all-time great over fifteen minutes. From then on, seemingly every Volkanovski performance has broken through to a new level that's shown him to be one of the most well-rounded and adaptable fighters that the sport has ever seen. Volkanovski came out on top in two close fights to both wrest the featherweight title from Max Holloway and defend it successfully, then put on much cleaner wins over Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung, even if the former saw him survive a guillotine choke in a manner that suggested the Australian might actually be immortal. But even those impressive performances weren't enough to prepare most people for how the trilogy fight with Holloway went; Holloway has been on his own tear establishing himself as the second-best featherweight in the world, but Volkanovski made that gap even greater with an absolute domination over five rounds in one of the most impressive one-sided performances in history. Up next for Volkanovski was a shot at all-time great status against lightweight champ Islam Makhachev, and even as an undersized featherweight, there was a solid chance for Volkanovski to move up to 155 pounds and put together a historic run of back to back fights - and while Volkanovski eventually fell short on the scorecards, he fought the lightweight champion essentially even and made Makhachev look mortal at times, setting things up for what seems like an inevitable rematch. But for now there's business to take care back down at 145 pounds, where Volkanovski has the pleasure of lording what might be the sport's deepest division, as he still somehow has an array of fresh challengers on the horizon - and Rodriguez might be his most dangerous challenge yet.

Rodriguez came into the UFC with considerably more hype than Volkanovski, though he overachieved just as much in the early going; as the first winner of TUF: Latin America, he got the expected promotional push, but conventional wisdom was that "El Pantera" and a lot of his Mexican countrymen would struggle to find their footing against much stronger competition. Instead, Rodriguez marked himself as one of the most electric prospects in the sport, finding success with a ridiculously dynamic fighting style; it's a cliche to say someone fights like they're in a video game, but Rodriguez was able to string together effective offense in a manner that most fighters wouldn't even think to attempt. After a clear showcase win over B.J. Penn, the UFC rocketed Rodriguez into a fight against Frankie Edgar, still then near the top of his game - and that's where the hype train temporarily got derailed, as Edgar's crushing top game was enough to actually neutralize Rodriguez for once, as the former champ laid on a mauling that eventually awarded him the win via doctor stoppage. And for a while, it looked like that might be it for Rodriguez; fighters suddenly fall out of favor with the UFC all the time, but it was still particularly shocking when the promotion announced they were cutting ties with Rodriguez thanks to his refusal to take subsequent fights. Fences eventually got mended, likely once the promotion realized what an asset Rodriguez would be to somebody else, and Rodriguez's return re-established himself in a fashion that only he could pull off; after five rounds of an entertaining main event against Jung that Jung seemed on his way to winning, Rodriguez uncorked a no-look elbow literally at the final horn, earning both one of the craziest finishes in mixed martial arts history and the type of win that established him as a true contender. After a detour into a pair of fights against Jeremy Stephens, Rodriguez was frustratingly inactive until a 2021 return against Holloway, a loss that may have actually raised Rodriguez's stock; few had been able to test Holloway outside of Volkanovski, but Rodriguez's dynamic offense was enough to drag the former champ into a relatively even fight, even forcing Holloway to go off script and pursue some wrestling at times. A subsequent win via injury over Ortega seemed a bit fluky, but a domination of Josh Emmett directly before Volkanovski's fight against Makhachev established a clear narrative: Rodriguez is one of the most potent fighters in the sport, and he's an immediate threat to the all-time great reigning over the featherweight division.

It's essentially impossible to pick against someone as proven as Volkanovski at this point, but Rodriguez certainly makes a case as the toughest challenger at 145 pounds, particularly since he only needs one moment to completely change a fight. Rodriguez's style would be inefficient in the hands - and feet - of most men, as it's built around fast movement and high-amplitude techniques, but the Mexican is uniquely gifted in a way that makes it all work; his wins over Jung and Alex Caceres were fast-paced five-rounders that establish Rodriguez as having the best gas tank in the sport, and he's seemingly indestructible in terms of his inability to get knocked out. Those attributes alone are enough to make Rodriguez the type of opponent that nobody looks good against, but he presses that even further with the most dynamic kicking game around; his ability to chop Holloway down caused a ton of frustration, and given the type of range game that Volkanovski likes to play from default nowadays, it figures to slow down the usual process that the champion takes to work his way into fights. And in general, Rodriguez's creativity and unpredictability figures to be a huge asset here, particularly compared to other fighters' ability to hang with Volkanovski; if the champion's truly rare attribute is his ability to read and adapt to his opponents, it's unclear how much that will help against an opponent who, at his best, can often seem like he's making it up as he goes along. But with all that said, the default bet is always that Volkanovski will find a way, given that he's possibly the most genius fighter the sport has ever seen when it comes to his ability to turn things into a winning fight - even if it takes reverting a bit and turning things into a bit of a grind given what Rodriguez can get accomplished on the feet. This should be an excellent bout; the pick is Volkanovski via decision.

Jump To »
Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez
Moreno vs. Pantoja
Whittaker vs. Du Plessis
Turner vs. Hooker
Nickal vs. Woodburn
The Prelims

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