High-flying finisher, Yair Rodriguez, will attempt to dethrone pound-for-pound great, Alexander Volkanovski, this Saturday (July 8, 2023) at UFC 290 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Dating back to 2015 or so, Rodriguez has been one of the most exciting and talented Featherweights on the roster. Why then, is this his first real run at UFC gold? Really, it all comes down to consistency. Rodriguez took the time to travel and train, which came at the cost of fighting multiple times per year. It’s paid off in skill, however. Rodriguez is about to walk to the cage for just the fourth time in two years, which is a common schedule for elite fighters — just look where that schedule has taken him. He’s won two in a row, captured an interim title, and is about to challenge arguably the sport’s best fighter.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Rodriguez combines an extensive background in Taekwondo with nearly unparalleled athleticism to operate as one of the nastiest kickers in the sport. He has a wildly deep arsenal
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. His footwork is heavily reliant on athleticism, meaning that Rodriguez tends to hit the cage and find himself in the pocket more often as he fatigues.
To start, Rodriguez attacks with lots of hard low kicks. The fact that he doesn’t hide them with punches is sometimes an issue — both for counters and takedown defense — but Rodriguez mitigates that problem somewhat 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.
Being stupid fast doesn’t hurt either.
The low kick makes stepping toward Rodriguez difficult, as does his front kick. Often, Rodriguez will pair them together, sticking his opponent with a long stomach stab then trying to kick out the calf as his foe tries to step back into range. To complicate the issue further, Rodriguez will then start adding punches to the mix as he recovers his balance off the kick.
Stepping toward Rodriguez can feel akin to stepping into a hurricane of fast, seemingly random strikes.
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 recent years, Rodriguez has worked more and more from the Southpaw stance with fundamental, brutal round kicks. Opposite Jeremy Stephens and Josh Emmett, it was the classic left kick from the Southpaw stance that really did a ton of damage (GIF). Slamming home a shin into the liver is a simple enough concept, but one thing that really stood out to me when rewatching that rematch was Rodriguez’s general gameness. Prior to the body kick that dropped Stephens, Rodriguez slammed several full power kicks directly into Stephens’ elbows. That type of connection hurts, and it turns a lot of fighters off from continuing to attack with that weapon. Rodriguez just kept kicking, full forced, and it paid off.
Against Emmett, Rodriguez put on a master class in striking without engaging in a pocket boxing match. At range, he was kicking Emmett out of his stance with Southpaw right leg low kicks — which isn’t usually a powerful kick, but it is for Yair! — and knocking him around with the left round kick. Any time Emmett tried to swing forward, Rodriguez would circle away entirely or crowd him in the clinch, where he scored with elbows and knees.
Admittedly, Rodriguez’s boxing isn’t great. He just kind of freaks out with wild shots when opponents advance, which is scary to walk through but does provide opportunity for more composed punchers like Max Holloway. Still, as Chan Sung Jung learned, it really only takes one of these funky shots to end the fight.
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 at a wild angle.
One of the more impressive aspects of Rodriguez’s absurd 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. 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.
Like the rest of his game, Rodriguez’s takedown defense is highly reliant on his athleticism. He has strong hips that allow him to deny many shots, and his ability to scramble up from his back after a failed submission attempt is very effective. At the same time, Rodriguez’s couldn’t really keep up with the wrestling transitions of a more elite takedown artist in Frankie Edgar.
More problematic is that Rodriguez’s wildness puts him in bad position to wrestle. His kicks do occasionally get caught, and Rodriguez’s flips can put him on the fence or the canvas outright.
Rodriguez is one of those submission players who is dangerous because of aggression more than anything else. He doesn’t have a ton of submission finishes, but Rodriguez is always hunting for the tap and has a few common approaches.
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.
Against a badly wounded Emmett, that quick triangle attempt was enough to finish the fight. Rodriguez locked it up fast, then quickly took an angle and put on the finishing squeeze to secure interim gold.
Against Stephens, Rodriguez attempted the rarely seen leg scissor finish to the triangle. Rather than locking up the the full triangle hold and securing an angle, the bottom fighter crosses his ankles and extends, squeezing his quads together like he’s trying to pop a watermelon. Stephens is a seriously tough fighter to choke out — ask Charles Oliveira, who put him in a half-dozen d’arce chokes without securing the tap back in the day — and was able to survive, but it was still a neat wrinkle to Rodriguez’s triangle.
Besides the triangle and its variants, 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 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.
Rodriguez is nothing if not unique. His athleticism and powerful kicks are a new threat to Volkanovski, who has struggled a bit with strong Southpaw kickers in the past. Really, there is nobody on the roster who fights quite like “Pantera,” which means he’ll always be a difficult opponent to prepare for ... even for an expert strategist like Volkanovski.
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.
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