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The Ultimate Fighting Championship seemed to be looking to Mexico as its next significant market to conquer a few years ago, but due to the struggles of Cain Velasquez and Yair Rodriguez to stay healthy and active, plans were pushed to the back burner as the promotion turned its eyes elsewhere. Rodriguez has returned and gives the promotion a local star around which to build a fun card. It may not be immediately important, but UFC Fight Night 159 is full of offensively focused fighters who should bring the action every time out.
Now to the UFC Fight Night “Rodriguez vs. Stephens” preview:
FeatherweightsYair Rodriguez (11-2) vs. Jeremy Stephens (28-16)
ODDS: Rodriguez (-115), Stephens (-105)
The UFC’s Mexican expansion at this point mostly rests on Rodriguez’s shoulders, and it is worth appreciating just how much he has exceeded expectations thus far. “Pantera” won the featherweight bracket on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America,” but he did not even stand out as the best prospect on the show. Remember, Charles Rosa was thought to be too big of a step up for his first post-“Ultimate Fighter” appearance. Instead, the Rosa fight was the second part of a six-fight winning streak that saw Rodriguez become must-watch viewing. Instead of becoming more fundamentally sound over time, Rodriguez has better honed a crazy, dynamic style full of unorthodox combinations and flashy techniques. Against Dan Hooker in 2015, Rodriguez seemingly connected with whatever came to mind in the moment, while 2016 saw him pull off one of the most memorable knockouts of the year, obliterating Andre Fili with a flying switch kick. From there came a headlining affair against Alex Caceres that seemed to be the platonic ideal of a Rodriguez fight, as the two exchanged flashy strikes for the better part of 25 minutes. If nothing else, the blistering pace of that bout at altitude showed that Rodriguez was a cardio freak. From there, it has been an odd few years for someone who should be such a prized prospect. First came a one-sided win over the husk of B.J. Penn, but then, the UFC saw fit to rush “Pantera” into a fight with Frankie Edgar that saw the former lightweight champion blow through the holes in Rodriguez’s game for a dominant win of his own. Rodriguez vanished shortly thereafter, until word eventually came out that the UFC decided to cut him due to his decision to turn down a few fights. The whole situation was utterly bizarre, particularly since Rodriguez is a star talent in a lucrative market, but eventually, fences were mended and he announced his comeback in ridiculous fashion. Rodriguez in November stepped in on short notice to fight Chan Sung Jung and put on one of the best fights of 2018, albeit one that he seemed destined to lose on the scorecards. However, during the last exchange of the fight -- in the last second, in fact -- Rodriguez pulled off one of the most impressive knockouts in the sport’s history, ducking a lunging punch from “The Korean Zombie” before popping his elbow up squarely into Jung’s jaw for the miracle knockout. That is Rodriguez in a nutshell. There is not a ton of connective tissue and he is a bit reliant on finding the finish, but he is such a ridiculously creative athlete that none of that matters, as he can provide some of the most electrifying moments in the sport. A win here in Mexico City is not a guarantee, as Stephens will provide one of the tougher tests of Rodriguez’s young career.
Stephens has won exactly half of his 30 UFC fights, and that about says it all, as he has had a career that has continuously cycled between ups and downs. Stephens was a favorite of both fans and the promotion for years during his days as a lightweight brawler, but after hitting the point of diminishing returns -- it included a knockout loss to Yves Edwards -- he cut down to featherweight and found himself with new life. Stephens’ power and wrestling translated down a level, but after bulldozing a few opponents, Stephens plateaued once again. Wins over Dennis Bermudez and Renan Barao were solid, but they came along a stretch in which Stephens lost five of seven bouts, albeit all against tough competition. A loss to Renato Carneiro forced Stephens to regroup. During that fight, the Brazilian up-and-comer forced Stephens to chase him, making the Iowa native look like an unprepared brawler once more. Thankfully, Stephens came out against Gilbert Melendez a few months later and adopted a much smarter style, picking his spots rather than trying to overwhelm his opponent as soon as the opportunity presented itself. That allowed Stephens to firmly work himself into the featherweight Top 10, only to hit a wall. Jose Aldo went punch for punch with him, and Zabit Magomedsharipov’s dizzying array of skills was too much for “Lil’ Heathen” to keep up with. Stephens is still in his career-best form, so he should be a strong benchmark for Rodriguez, and given how things have gone thus far, he is due for another career resurgence.
As with most Rodriguez fights now that he is taking on stronger competition, this is going to depend on the Mexican’s ability to find a finish. A few years ago, this is a fight that Stephens definitely would have lost. Even if he had some early success, Stephens would have undoubtedly tried to spark a brawl and hunted for the finish, at which point Rodriguez would probably have thrown something that would have taken off his head. With Stephens now being a smarter and much more patient fighter, he has a solid chance here. If he stays cautious, picks his spots and stays defensive while countering what Rodriguez throws his way, there is a clear path for Stephens to take a fun decision win. However, as Rodriguez showed against Jung, he only needs one opportunity to score a finish, and 25 minutes seems like much too long for Stephens to stay in there without having a lapse in judgment. Magomedsharipov is a natural analogue for Rodriguez’s flashy style, and Stephens only had his success late once the Dagestani started to flag. The issue is that Rodriguez simply does not flag, even in a five-round fight at altitude, as his previous affairs against Caceres and Jung showed. It is always difficult to pick a fighter who is more dependent on moments than any sort of process, but Rodriguez is the type of mold-breaking talent that is likelier than not to score a finish, even against a tough opponent like Stephens. The pick is Rodriguez via third-round knockout.
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