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UFC Vegas 26 preview, ‘Waterson vs Rodriguez’ predictions

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UFC Fight Night Open Workouts Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

With TJ Dillashaw injured and removed from this weekend’s Cory Sandhagen headliner, the promotion will call on strawweight veterans Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson to step into the UFC Vegas 26 main event on Sat. night (May 8, 2021) inside APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, a flyweight contest to allow for the short notice change.

Shortly before that clash of styles gets underway, Donald Cerrone — who also got hit with the ol’ switcheroo — will collide with late replacement Alex Morono, a fill in for the dearly-departed Diego Sanchez, who as of this writing is probably making more of those gratuitous Only Fans video with coach and mentor Joshua Fabia.

Before we dive into the main and co-main events, head over to the UFC Vegas 26 preliminary card breakdown expertly deconstructed by effervescent analyst Patrick Stumberg here and here. For the latest “Rodriguez vs. Waterson” odds and betting lines be sure to check out the updated numbers right here.

Let’s get to work ...

125 lbs.: Marina Rodriguez vs. Michelle Waterson

Marina Rodriguez

Record: 13-1-2 | Age: 34 | Betting line: -220
Wins: 6 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 6 DEC | Losses: 0 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 1 DEC
Height: 5’6“ | Reach: 65” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.86 | Striking accuracy: 50%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 3.16 | Striking Defense: 53%
Takedown Average: 0.36 (33% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 59%
Current Ranking: No. 6 | Last fight: Technical knockout win over Amanda Ribas

Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson

Record: 18-8 | Age: 35 | Betting line: +180
Wins: 3 KO/TKO, 9 SUB, 6 DEC | Losses: 1 KO/TKO, 3 SUB, 4 DEC
Height: 5’3“ | Reach: 62” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.58 | Striking accuracy: 49%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 4.00 | Striking Defense: 49%
Takedown Average: 1.52 (34% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 67%
Current Ranking: No. 9 | Last fight: Split-decision win over Angela Hill

A lot of fight fans were rolling their eyes when the promotion announced Marina Rodriguez vs. Michelle Waterson for tomorrow night’s new main event, and I understand that Neil Magny vs. Geoff Neal was an attractive option, as was the legendary Donald Cerrone. But if we’re playing it by the book, Rodriguez and Waterson, collectively, are ranked higher than any of their male counterparts. That has a lot to do with the quality of opposition in each weight class, and I’m not sure the divisions are comparable, but we also can’t kick and scream like Rodriguez vs. Waterson is some horrible injustice because let’s face it, a good portion of UFC fans just don’t like women’s MMA and never will. Unfortunately for them, the promotion doesn’t make business decisions based on the latest forecast and Waterson is marketable as a person as well as an athlete. I don’t get the whole “mom champ” thing but I don’t have to, plenty of other people do and hey, I'm not the only one in the room.

This will mark the fourth time “The Karate Hottie” headlined a UFC card and I’m sure the former Invicta FC titleholder would like to have a more convincing result in this weekend’s showing, having now racked up seven straight decision wins, three of which were split, including her five-rounder against Angela Hill last December. What’s frustrating for Waterson fans is her ability to master all facets of MMA, coupled with her inability to put them altogether on fight night. Competing a weight class above where she originally rose to power certainly plays a part, but something is missing when it comes time to kick ass. Consecutive finishes over Angela Magana and Paige VanZant felt like a big deal back in 2016, though I think we would all agree those victories have not aged well when looking at the subsequent fights from “Your Majesty” and “12 Gauge.”

Magana lost six straight and VanZant dropped five of her last seven, if you include her recent performance for BKFC.

Rodriguez has much of the attention these days, at least when traversing the 115-pound landscape, though all that glitters is not gold. The Brazilian separated herself from the prospect pack by dispatching Amanda Ribas back in January, but prior to that Rodriguez struggled against both Carla Esparza and Cynthia Calvillo, taking some of the hype away from her thunderous debut on Dana White’s “Contender Series.” Similar to the critique levied against Waterson, decision wins over Tecia Torres and Jessica Aguilar are not the cap feathers they were several years back. Combined, Torres and Aguilar have dropped nine of their last 12. In addition, Rodriguez has seven finishes in her career but only one inside the Octagon, because facing Top 10 fighters is not the same as recycling cans on the regional circuit. Remember too, that Rodriguez is 34, so what you see is pretty much what you get at this point, for better or worse.

By the same token, Waterson is now 35 and she hasn’t exactly gotten better with age. “The Karate Hottie” doesn’t hold a win over anyone ranked in the Top 10 and without a recent finish to fall back on, it’s hard to build a case for her victory at UFC Vegas 26. Rodriguez could always come out reckless and get hung up in a submission, or get lured into a point-fighting match against the former atomweight, but the more likely scenario is Rodriguez goes into bulldozer mode, overwhelming Waterson and securing a first or second-round stoppage. Anything after that will likely cost her the cards, because “The Karate Hottie” has a more reliable gas tank — not that I think she’ll get a chance to use it.

Prediction: Rodriguez def. Waterson by technical knockout

170 lbs.: Donald Cerrone vs. Alex Morono

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone

Record: 36-15, 2 NC | Age: 38 | Betting line: -130
Wins: 10 KO/TKO, 17 SUB, 9 DEC | Losses: 7 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 7 DEC
Height: 6’1“ | Reach: 73” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.43 | Striking accuracy: 46%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 4.46 | Striking Defense: 53%
Takedown Average: 1.19 (33% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 73%
Current Ranking: No. 15 | Last fight: No contest against Niko Price

Alex “The Great White” Morono

Record: 18-7, 1 NC | Age: 30 | Betting line: +110
Wins: 5 KO/TKO, 6 SUB, 6 DEC, 1 DQ | Losses: 2 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 5 DEC
Height: 5’11“ | Reach: 72” | Stance: Orthodox
Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.96 | Striking accuracy: 42%
Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 3.69 | Striking Defense: 56%
Takedown Average: 0.44 (28% accuracy) | Takedown Defense: 47%
Current Ranking: Unranked | Last fight: Unanimous decision loss to Anthony Pettis

I’ll admit, it’s been hard to watch the fall of Donald Cerrone over the last few years. What propelled “Cowboy” to the top of the mountain is also what kept him from reaching its summit; namely, his fuck-all attitude when it comes to throwing down. Racking up a ludicrous number of fights in an equally-ludicrous span of time looks great in the history books and made him a legend among fans, but the body — as well as the mind — needs time to rest and recuperate, even for the most elite athlete. “Cowboy” never slowed down and never attempted to be strategic with his trajectory, he simply laced up his gloves and went after whoever matchmakers put in front of him. The fan in me thanks him for the wild ride, but also wonders what might have been.

I think the Diego Sanchez fight was the right fit (read: easy win) for Cerrone at this stage of his career. I’m not sure I feel the say way about Alex Morono, a younger, fresher fighter who’s been with the promotion for over five years and has absolutely nothing to show for it. Without looking it up, can you name three memorable wins for “The Great White?” How about one? I can name his “No Contest” against Niko Price, but only because it’s one of those weird UFC stats where each fighter (Cerrone and Morono) has registered “No Contest” bouts against Price, who failed both drug tests for marijuana. I actually thought Price was nicknamed “The Hybrid” because of his combined skills as a striker and grappler. Now I realize he’s referring to his preferred strain, a “hybrid” of indica and sativa. I’m sure Price was elated to hear the news that Florida is no longer testing for cannabis, a ruling that is long overdue for many combatants (and the sport in general).

It’s been. over two years since Cerrone has seen the win column and he was brutally finished in three of his last four losses. To be fair, he was facing the cream of the crop and losing to the best in the world does not mean a fighter is washed up. Also working in his favor is the fact that Morono is competing at a disadvantage in both height and reach, a justifiable concern when measured against the kickboxing skills of Cerrone. I also wouldn’t rule out the takedown considering the “Great White” has been dragged to the floor 11 times in his UFC career. Probably not the place any fighter wants to be against an opponent with 17 victories by way of submission. I’m not sure I would call “Cowboy” a safe pick at this stage of his career, but I have to imagine a combatant with his skill set and his experience still has the chops to get it done against a middle-of-the-pack’r like Morono.

Prediction: Cerrone def. Morono by unanimous decision

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 26 fight card on Sat. night, starting with the ESPN+ preliminary card bouts at 5 p.m. ET, followed by the ESPN/ESPN+ main card start time at 8 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 26 news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archives here and here. For the complete “Rodriguez vs. Waterson” fight card and ESPN/ESPN+ lineup click here.