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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will bring UFC Fight Night 159 to Mexico City, with Yair Rodriguez slotted opposite Jeremy Stephens in the featherweight main event. Stakes are high across the board.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?
Yair Rodriguez: Following the first loss of his UFC career and a labor dispute with the UFC, the high-flying striking specialist finally earned back some momentum following a buzzer-beating win over Chan Sung Jung in November. Rodriguez can build some serious steam if he can pick up a second consecutive victory against Jeremy Stephens. A fellow striker known for throwing caution to the wind, Stephens appears to be a favorable style matchup for “Pantera.” If Rodriguez can nail down a win in his native country, look for the 26-year-old to close in on a top-ranked opponent on his revived quest for a title shot.
Alexa Grasso: After joining the UFC roster with an undefeated record, Grasso has had mixed results inside the Octagon, going 3-2. This will be her opportunity to put together the first winning streak in the UFC and pick up some steam as she looks to break through into the division’s elite. Grasso is an excellent striker and would be wise to look to keep Esparza at distance and pick her apart with punches in bunches, thus nullifying her counterpart’s takedowns. A win here would be the biggest of Grasso’s career and could launch the Mexican strawweight into contention.
Tyson Nam: Grinding it out on the regional circuit for much of his career, Nam has proclaimed that the UFC has “finally seen the light” in giving him his first shot with the company against a big-name opponent in Sergio Pettis. Nam is a seasoned veteran with savvy striking prowess and will be a tough out for Pettis, who must deal with Nam’s length and power. The size advantage will overwhelmingly favor Nam, and figures to come at Pettis looking to exploit that factor on his way to what he hopes will be the first of many wins inside the UFC.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?
Jeremy Stephens: Following back-to-back losses, Stephens finds himself on the cusp of irrelevance in the UFC’s featherweight division and in desperate need of a win if he hopes to maintain his Top 10 ranking. In his way stands Rodriguez, a lanky and flashy striker with half the bouts Stephens has inside of the UFC. In this fight, Stephens should lean on his Octagon experience and his boxing basics in order to outsmart Rodriguez and outgun him in transitions. Stephens has hellish power, and while he will undoubtedly look for the kill shot at all times, “Lil’ Heathen” would be best served looking to capitalize on the flashiness of his opponent by outdoing him with a measured and fundamental boxing attack. Stephens is capable of boxing circles around Rodriguez, and this fight will come down to whether he chooses to head hunt or utilize his full range of skills.
Carla Esparza: After clawing her way back into relevance with a suffocating wrestling attack, Esparza desperately needs this win against Grasso if she has any hope of regaining the belt she held in the early days of the UFC’s women’s strawweight division. In a business that is becoming more and more about entertainment, Esparza’s method of attack will do her no favors in the eyes of her employers. However, winning silences all doubters, and if “Cookie Monster” sticks to what got her to the dance, she is more than capable of planting her opponent on her back and dominating for three rounds. Esparza is a relentless wrestler and should avoid trading on the feet for prolonged periods of time, instead looking to control the pace and flow of the fight through her grappling.
Brandon Moreno: Following consecutive defeats in the UFC flyweight division, Moreno was given the boot when the weight class was cleared out. A stoppage victory on the regional circuit earned “The Assassin Baby” a ticket back to the big show, but he will have his hands full against an undefeated prospect in Askar Askarov. What Moreno has going for him is length and an aggressive submission attack. His best bet for success here is to keep his foot on the gas from the opening bell and look to chain submissions together until something sticks. Moreno is not going to out-technique or out-grit Askarov, but catching his opponent in a slick submission is not out of the question. Moreno is an entertainer through and through, and if he stays true to his wild style in his return to the UFC, he may just spring a surprise.