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Every fight matters, but some matter just a little more.
In some ways, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is true that every fight matters, some feel more important, for any number of reasons. In some cases, the elevated stakes are easy to define. Picture the fighter on a losing streak who knows he or she is likely fighting for their job; or conversely, any matchup on Dana White's Contender Series, where two hopefuls know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can win impressively. In other cases, a fight feels especially important for reasons that are harder to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being a pioneer in MMA from one’s country, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.
This week, the UFC returns to its home base of Las Vegas for UFC Fight Night 197, a card with the unenviable task of following up the back-to-back “Event of the Year” candidates that rocked our world over the last two weeks. “UFC Vegas 42” doesn’t exactly hold a candle to UFC 267 and 268, which saw four title belts contested and delivered the best fight of the year. However, the dozen fights slated for the Apex this Saturday are not without their own humble charms, and among the contenders, prospects and…well, ex-contenders and ex-prospects on the docket, some are certainly feeling the pressure of circumstances. Here are some fighters who have just a little extra incentive to stand and deliver at UFC Fight Night 197 “Holloway vs. Rodriguez.”
Get [email protected]#$%^g Hostile, Yair Rodriguez
The way public opinion seems to have turned on “Pantera” in the last few years is not too surprising, but it’s still a little depressing. Coming off his first UFC loss, an absolute drubbing on the ground at the hand of Frankie Edgar in May 2017, Rodriguez became embroiled in a backroom dispute with the UFC over his next booking. Employing its trademark scorched-earth diplomacy, the promotion cut him, with Dana White shrugging and intimating that Rodriguez “just [didn’t] want to fight that badly.” The sector of fans that eats up that kind of talk from the UFC boss, even if it means believing that professional fighters have suddenly developed cold feet, ran with it.
The strong-arm tactics appeared to work, as Rodriguez rejoined the roster within weeks. In his return fight, he co-authored one of the most memorable fights of 2019 with Chan Sung Jung. He then closed it out with one of the most memorable knockouts of that or any other year, a no-look upward elbow strike that knocked the “Korean Zombie” out cold with one second left, turning what was likely going to be a decision loss into a highlight-reel win.
One might think all would be forgiven after a performance in which Rodriguez reminded us of all the reasons he had been so highly touted in the first place, but for a variety of reasons, his popularity has yet to truly rebound to its pre-2018 levels. A prime main event slot in the UFC’s foray into his native Mexico in September 2019 ended in disappointment when he poked Jeremy Stephens in the eye just 15 seconds into the fight, which only became worse when Rodriguez egged on the hometown crowd to boo the injured Stephens. That was a bad look, and it also locked Rodriguez into a rematch with a fighter who was ranked below him and who frankly had only been matched with him in the first place in order to give him a winnable action fight in Mexico City. Instead, the “rivalry” ended up eating his entire 2019, and a combination of injuries to Rodriguez and his opponents have conspired to keep him on the shelf for the last two years. In his absence, the dueling narratives that Rodriguez is scared to fight, and that he isn’t all that good, have had plenty of room to fester, fair or not.
That all ends this Saturday — knock on wood — as he will square off against former champ Max Holloway in the main event of UFC Vegas 42. The matchup itself is an indication of the UFC’s lingering animus towards the former phenom, as Rodriguez will be one of the biggest underdogs in a non-title, non-short notice main event in a long time. To ask him to topple a -600 favorite who just happens to be a miserable style matchup may be a bit of a tall order, though that would obviously fast-track him back to the prominence he once enjoyed. However, Rodriguez needs at the very least to deliver a performance that reminds us why he once figured so prominently in the UFC’s plans for Latin America. He is still just 29 years old — incredibly, for someone who has been in the UFC’s icebox for what feels like five years — and a loss here is not the end of the world, but a miserable performance might be.
This Is the Best They Could Do, Andrea Lee
As of the middle of fight week, “KGB” is a slight underdog to Cynthia Calvillo, though the line has been converging and may be a pick ‘em by the weekend. While that sounds like solid matchmaking, especially on a card with some very lopsided bouts, understand that Calvillo is on a two-fight losing streak and as a former strawweight, will be at a height, reach and strength deficit against Lee, a big, athletic flyweight whose game has traditionally thrived on those advantages. In short, Calvillo is about as friendly a matchup as the promotion could have thrown together for Lee without it being a complete laugher.
Lee shone in her most recent appearance, utterly dominating Antonina Shevchenko on the ground on the way to a second-round submission at UFC 262 in May. That snapped a three-fight losing streak during which the Louisianan had been the betting favorite in every fight, as the UFC put out a valiant effort in lowering the bar to meet her. It isn’t hard to understand why: Lee is charismatic, subjectively attractive, and generally a bringer of action in the cage. However, the Shevchenko fight was almost certainly her last chance to hold onto her roster spot.
Lee came through with flying colors at UFC 262 — at the expense of another fighter the UFC probably hoped would do better in Shevchenko — but the next test is this weekend, and it’s nearly as crucial. Beating Calvillo in convincing fashion would send a message that Lee is not only here to stay, but might still have a contender run in her at 32. If she loses, on the other hand, her roster spot might be safe for the moment, but she’s likely to be reduced to the status of gatekeeper for future top flyweights.
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