Taekwondo black belt, Yair Rodriguez, will throw down opposite former Featherweight champ, Max Holloway, this Saturday (Nov. 13, 2021) at UFC Vegas 42 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s been just over two years since we last saw Rodriguez in the Octagon, back when he scored a “Fight of the Night” victory over Jeremy Stephens. That’s essentially a microcosm of the “Pantera” problem: he’ll do something spectacular then immediately disappear. It’s not easy to build momentum without an active schedule, but technically, Rodriguez is unbeaten in his last three bouts and is ranked as the third best contender at 145 pounds.
One way or another, he finds himself in a title eliminator here — anyone who defeats Holloway deserves a shot at Featherweight gold. That’s a tall ask, but let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Rodriguez is one of the more unique strikers in the sport. He’s extremely quick and has a great variety to his kicking game, which allows Rodriguez to really confuse his opponents and keep them uncomfortable at distance.
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. 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.
Opposite Jeremy Stephens, 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.
In truth, Rodriguez isn’t much of a boxer. Whenever Rodriguez does find himself in a pocket exchange, he bites down and throws hard, quick punches intended to back his foe off. That works extremely well 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s unlikely to be an issue against Holloway, but if Rodriguez hasn’t improved in this regard, Alexander Volkanovski would happily exploit that previous flaw.
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.
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 submission game.
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 one of the most athletic, talented men on the Featherweight roster. General fan confidence may be low because, well, it’s Max Holloway and because of Rodriguez’s inconsistency in making it to the cage, but it would be silly to write off the 29-year-old Mexican.
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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