Preview: UFC on ESPN 24 ‘Rodriguez vs. Waterson’

Rodriguez vs. Waterson

By Tom Feely May 7, 2021

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Even with the top two fights thrown together on about a week’s notice, UFC on ESPN 24 this Saturday looks like a particularly strong offering from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Strawweight contenders Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson collide in an interesting late-notice flyweight main event, and Alex Morono steps in for the recently released Diego Sanchez to face Donald Cerrone in what should be an entertaining co-feature. Beyond that, there are a number of fights that could have served as viable short-notice main events in their own right, with a series of top prospects trying to bounce back from their first UFC losses against stiff veteran tests. Neil Magny is back in action against Geoff Neal in a bout that makes plenty of sense beyond the symmetry in their names, and Gregor Gillespie and Amanda Ribas each look to regain their “future contender” shine, though neither Diego Ferreira nor Angela Hill figure to make it easy. Add in the requisite heavyweight affair, and this becomes about as strong of a six-fight slate as the UFC Apex in Las Vegas sees nowadays.

Now to the preview for the UFC on ESPN 24 “Rodriguez vs. Waterson” main card:

Women’s Flyweights

#6 WSW | Marina Rodriguez (13-1-2, 3-1-2 UFC) vs. #9 WSW | Michelle Waterson (18-8, 6-4 UFC)

ODDS: Rodriguez (-220), Waterson (+180)

With the original Cory Sandhagen-T.J. Dillashaw main event falling through, it remains unclear why the UFC chose to throw together this fight rather than promote a viable option from elsewhere on the card. However, it is also hard to complain about what should be a solid headliner. Rodriguez’s knockout of Ribas in January helped her regain some momentum. While the Brazilian is one of the better prospects in the strawweight division, there are some questions about her championship ceiling. Rodriguez’s UFC debut against Randa Markos in 2018 set the tone for the next three years. Markos completely dominated the first round with her wrestling, only to see Rodriguez battle back and earn a draw on the scorecards. Rodriguez is clearly a talented striker, but her wrestling defense has been inconsistent at best and a complete liability at worst. She did well to defend takedowns from Tecia Torres and caused a surprising amount of damage from the bottom against Carla Esparza, but her fights against Markos, Ribas and Cynthia Calvillo all saw her drop one-sided rounds against opponents who were willing to take the action to the mat. Of course, that wound up not mattering in the Ribas bout. Despite getting blown out in the first frame, Rodriguez ended the fight almost immediately upon the start of the second round, blasting Ribas with a sharp counter to get the ball rolling towards a finish. Rodriguez is certainly a Top 10 strawweight, but it will be interesting to see if she can thread the needle for a run at true title contention—something that could continue here against Waterson.

There were some questions about how Waterson would fare upon signing with the UFC in 2015. “The Karate Hottie” figured to be a promotional favorite, but she had found most of her success at atomweight and figured to have some struggles against larger and stronger opponents. It did in fact take her some time to put away Angela Magana in her UFC debut, but her late 2016 win over Paige VanZant was essentially a proof of concept that Waterson could hang in the organization. VanZant is a physical force if nothing else, and Waterson had little issue taking her down and choking her out. At her best, Waterson’s game leverages her speed into a sniping style on the feet that in turn leads to takedowns. Despite her diminutive size, Waterson has proven to be a surprisingly effective wrestler over the years. However, that approach can get choked off at points, particularly against the larger or more physical forces on the UFC’s strawweight roster. Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s length forced Waterson to try a surprising amount of ineffective clinch work, and she barely pursued her wrestling against Carla Esparza and coasted to a loss as a result. That has given Waterson a clear ceiling as far as becoming a future contender, but a headlining win over Angela Hill in September served as a reminder that she is still a going concern near the top of the division.

Historical parallels seem to favor Rodriguez in terms of looking back at recent matchups in a similar style. Waterson struggled against the last lanky kickboxer she faced in Jedrzejczyk, and the best comparison on Rodriguez’s record is probably the Torres fight, which resulted in one of the Brazilian’s best performances. It would not be a surprise if Waterson wound up pursuing a similar approach as the Jedrzejczyk fight. While Rodriguez can be forced to chase down her opponents, her length figures to give Waterson some issues and lead “The Karate Hottie” into pursuing the clinch or some takedowns. The clinch part of the equation is a bit hard to parse. Based on the Torres fight, you would have to favor Rodriguez, but Waterson has proven to be shockingly powerful at moments. With that said, Waterson may just wind up avoiding all that and focusing on her wrestling. After all, she did attempt 18 takedowns over the course of 25 minutes against Hill. That is basically the bet. Rodriguez has been open enough to takedowns over the course of her career that Waterson should be able to get this to the mat within a few attempts and take over each round. Rodriguez’s knockout of Ribas does provide some extra intrigue as far as the Brazilian’s ability to score a finish, and there is the chance that Waterson could pursue a poor game plan and choose to strike. Even so, Waterson’s wrestling advantage should carry the day. The pick is Waterson via decision.

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