High-flying kickboxer, Yair Rodriguez, will go to war with veteran brawler, Jeremy Stephens, this Saturday (Sept. 21, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 159 from inside Mexico City Arena in Mexico City, Mexico.
Rodriguez occupies a weird position in the Featherweight ranks, even if he’s officially No. 7. The 26-year-old Mexican has a ton of talent and has won all but one of his fights inside the Octagon, but he doesn’t seem to be in the title mix. Part of that is because of inactivity: Rodriguez took time to train and grow after his loss to Frankie Edgar, a decision that UFC frowned upon. Perhaps the other aspect is the freak nature of his last victory, which saw Rodriguez avoid certain defeat with an insane upward elbow in the final few seconds of a 25-minute fight (watch it).
Whatever the reason, Rodriguez is facing off with a divisional staple in Jeremy Stephens to prove himself worthy of being in the mix. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
A black belt in Taekwondo, Rodriguez carries more of his art’s unusual kicking techniques into the cage with him than most. “Pantera” is utterly confident in the power of his kicks and his own stamina, which allows Rodriguez to comfortably fling immense amounts of wild offense at opponents.
To make full use of his range game, Rodriguez maintains lots of distance between himself and his opponent. Rodriguez stays light on his feet and switches stances often, bouncing away from his opponent and feinting very actively. While he’s fresh, Rodriguez does a nice job of avoiding being trapped along the fence, switching directions quickly when his opponent tries to cut him off. However, he also spins so wildly that he can accidentally run himself into the cage.
To start, Rodriguez attacks with lots of hard low kicks. The fact that he doesn’t hide them with punches is sometimes an issue, but Rodriguez minimizes that problem by using feints and angles to set them up. In addition, he will step deep into the kick, knocking his opponent out of stance and making the counter difficult.
The low kick makes stepping toward Rodriguez difficult, as does his front kick. In this week’s technique highlight, we talk about how Rodriguez pairs the two strikes and builds from there:
Most of Rodriguez’s kicks help him maintain distance in some way, which allows him to keep his opponent on the defensive under a hail of unpredictable kicks. Some of these kicks, like his spinning back kick, undoubtedly come from his Taekwondo background. However, he has also added straight kicks to that knee that are common of many Jackson-Winkeljohn fighters, and he’s been quite effective with them. Against an opponent pushing forward carelessly, a kick straight to the knee will immediately disrupt offense.
In truth, Rodriguez isn’t much of a boxer. Whenever Rodriguez does find himself in a pocket exchange, he bites down and throws punches quickly as possible. For the most part, Rodriguez punches with the hope that the threat of his hands will keep his opponents off him, rather than really trying to pick his shots. That works at lower levels, but Frankie Edgar found great success in following up after Rodriguez finished throwing and landing combinations.
On the whole, Rodriguez does a good job of making closing the distance an unpleasant task on all fronts. His front kick digs to the body well and can take a careless foe’s chin off. The low kicks knock advancing foes off-balance. His wild punches and spinning back fists have to be respected.
As his last victory showed, it only takes one of these funky shots to end the fight (GIF).
When allowed to work from his range, Rodriguez is very tough to deal with. He simply has so many different kicking techniques that he fluidly switches between that it confounds most men, making it a priority to close the distance. While his opponent is trying to figure out how to get close, “Pantera” is exploding into leaping, spinning, of even flipping techniques (GIF).
He may look a bit silly when he whiffs on a crazy kick, but no one wants to get hit by a shin sailing through the air.
In the best example of Rodriguez’s high-risk kicks paying off, he successfully knocked out Andre Fili with a jumping switch kick. On the whole, that bout was very smart work from Rodriguez, who countered the offensive pressure of Fili well. In the first round, he used a pair of reactive takedowns to get ahead on the scorecards. Fili continued to press in the second, but a sharp jab caught him off-guard and created the space needed for Rodriguez to launch himself into the power kick (GIF).
One of the more impressive aspects of Rodriguez’s victory over Jung was that Rodriguez turned away each of the South Korean’s takedown attempts. Jung may not be Frankie Edgar, but he is a strong wrestler, so that’s certainly a positive sign for “Pantera.”
Offensively, Rodriguez has really showed two paths to the takedown, and both are designed to work against opponents trying to close the distance. For one, Rodriguez is very slick with his overhook trips and throws. As his opponent pushes in the clinch, Rodriguez uses his length and their momentum to crank on the overhook and potentially reverse position (GIF).
At the very least, it often allows him to break free of the clinch or attempt to grab a front headlock.
In addition, Rodriguez does a nice job of scoring reactive takedowns. This was most notable in his bout opposite Fili, as Rodriguez was able to change levels and run through a pair of double legs. The double legs themselves weren’t particularly remarkable technique, but Rodriguez timed the takedowns perfectly to put a solid grappler on his back.
It’s hard to truly know where Rodriguez is at from a defensive standpoint. On one hand, his athleticism and strong hips allow him to deny many shots, and his ability to scramble up from his back after a failed submission attempt is very nice. At the same time, that type of opportunistic and athletic defense does not work against truly elite wrestlers. Edgar never succeeded on his initial shot with “Pantera,” but it only took a transition or two from the chain wrestler to succeed in grounding his opponent shortly after.
Rodriguez is one of those submission players who is dangerous because of aggression more than anything else. Though he’s only secured one submission finish on his professional record, “Pantera” has shown a few grappling techniques that he commonly relies on.
From his back, Rodriguez is all about throwing his legs up for the triangle. There’s nothing overly complicated about his approach; Rodriguez is long and quick and throws his legs up with the intention of trapping an arm and neck. If he can lock up the choke, great, but Rodriguez will also use his legs to hunt for an arm bar or stand up. The bottom line is that he stays incredibly active, and that makes it difficult for his opponent to get anything done from top position.
Besides that, Rodriguez loves leg locks. These holds serve a pair of purposes for him, as they can help him escape bad positions and scramble to his feet. For example, Rodriguez’s spinning attacks leaves him at greater risk of having an opponent latch onto his back from the clinch. In that case, Rodriguez will often roll for a knee bar or into the 50-50 position. He hasn’t finished a hold from there yet, but it usually allows him to scramble into top position or back to his feet.
Similarly, Rodriguez will lace up his opponents legs from his back, as he can use the leg lock to drive his them away and gain a better position.
In one interesting exchange, Rodriguez used the threat of the leg lock to pass Fili’s guard. After leaning back and beginning to grip Fili’s ankle, Rodriguez waited for his opponent to try and kick him off. When that happened, Rodriguez used that space to move around his opponent’s leg in something similar to a smash pass.
Opposite Edgar, Rodriguez’s offensive grappling was definitely threatening. At one point, his rolling knee bar attempt was quite close to doing damage to Edgar’s knee — although good luck getting the New Jersey native to tap. Unfortunately, Rodriguez was unable to use those attempts to gain top position or stand, meaning Edgar returned to smashing him once free.
This is a big moment for Rodriguez, who has a point to prove. Rodriguez may not be a newcomer to main event status, but this is his first in Mexico and first as a bout between two Top 10-ranked fighters. It’s an opportunity to make a statement, to get his name into talks of title contention once again.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.