Nearly eight years after claiming victory on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): Latin America, Yair Rodriguez makes his sixth Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) main event walk this Saturday afternoon (July 16, 2022) against two-time title challenger, Brian Ortega, inside UBS Arena on Long Island.
Injury has held “El Pantera” to just one fight in almost three years, and that was a loss to Featherweight legend, Max Holloway. He did, however, garner universal praise for his extraordinary grit and remarkable success as a 5:1 underdog who spent much of that bout with a badly damaged foot. At 29 years old, there’s still time for him to reach his considerable potential, but he’ll need an impressive performance to stay in the conversation.
Let’s see whether he can make one happen ...
Rodriguez made his name things to a seemingly bottomless arsenal of kicks that he can unleash from seemingly any position. Wheel kicks, spinning back kicks, rolling thunders, hook kicks, flying switch kicks; in other words, if mankind has invented a way to slam one’s foot or shin into another human’s skull at high velocities, odds are that Rodriguez can and has tried it.
It’s not just the variety that makes Rodriguez effective, but the speed and fluidity as well. He launches those kicks with very little warning, often chaining them together in unexpected fashion.
Most of his more esoteric attacks come when he stands Southpaw, though he’s also got a fondness for traditional roundhouse kicks, front kicks and side kicks/stomps to the lead knee. While he’s more apt to box behind his busy jab when standing Orthodox, he’s still capable of busting some spinning nonsense out of nowhere.
The knee stomps and front kicks can serve to discourage opponents from trying to force him back, and he needs that to work for his game to function, as all kinds of issues crop up when he gets pressured.
Let’s go piece-by-piece.
Rodriguez has good footwork in the sense that he can move quickly without getting tangled up, but he leans far too heavily on his speed to get him out of trouble as opposed to efficient movement. When he had to pace himself for five rounds against Chan Sung Jung and Holloway, he constantly found himself getting clipped either as he kicked from too close or tried to retreat. Even in three-rounders, he’s too easy to pressure into sticking near the fence.
This is compounded by what I think of as, “Not as Slick as He Thinks Syndrome.” He’ll often try to weave or sidestep out of trouble with his hands down, but he mismanages the distance such that Jung and Holloway repeatedly caught him when he backed straight up or tried to fade off to the side. For a fun game, count how many times he tried to just lean out of range while backstepping and got plugged by a combination in those fights.
He also tends to stand very upright when sending out combinations and bring his jab back at his waist. Even before an injured foot cost him a lot of mobility against Holloway, his chin was there for the taking as he swung punches and slammed home leg kicks in the pocket. Said chin is insanely durable, to be fair, but not something he should lean on to this extent.
If you get starstruck by the genuinely dazzling and dangerous offense Rodriguez brings to the table, his athleticism is sufficient to cover up his defensive flaws. If an opponent can force him to manage his energy and doesn’t get too overeager in trying to punish him, as Jung did to my eternal sadness, he’s not a difficult target to find.
That may have come across as more negative than I intended. Rodriguez is a scary and singular striker who’s a genuine threat to most of the division on the feet. There’s just a clear blueprint to dealing with him, especially over five rounds.
Though obviously known for his standup, Rodriguez was actually a decently prolific takedown artist early in his UFC career, downing each of his first five opponents at least once. One of his best wrestling performances came against Andre Fili, whom he brought to the mat twice via caught body kick and reactive double-leg. Before hitting Holloway with a knee pick, though, you’d have to go way back to the ancient days of 2016 to find Rodriguez’s last completed takedown, which came in a scramble against Alex Caceres.
He’s still willing to attempt them, as against Holloway and Jung, but his offensive wrestling hasn’t proven effective at the highest levels
More relevant is his takedown defense, which remains a mixed bag. On the positive side, his excellent balance extends to the clinch, where he left Jung scoreless on five attempts. On the negative side, he’s built a style that’s inherently vulnerable to getting caught unawares. When he spins, he opens himself up to body locks. When he leads with kicks from too far inside, it’s a simple matter to catch them and bring him down, as Stephens and Holloway demonstrated. That tendency to back straight up and linger near the fence is what allowed Frankie Edgar to get him down in the first round.
Rodriguez does have good balance, awareness, and technique; when he’s in position to defend, like with Jung’s clinch, he can take care of himself just fine. Those strengths just aren’t sufficient when he so readily leaves himself out of position, especially when he often lacks the setups and misdirection needed to attack safely and prevent his opponent from capitalizing.
Rodriguez quickly established himself as “dangerous off of his back” thanks to some solid guard attacks against Leonardo Morales and Charles Rosa. That descriptor, which you may recall being attached to Carlos Condit despite “The Natural Born Killer” failing to secure a submission in all his time in the Octagon, was put to the test against Frankie Edgar in 2017.
It came up short.
Rodriguez gave up the first takedown while looking for a guillotine, and rather than stand, he seemed dead-set on only looking for wrist control while Edgar steadily mashed his face into unrecognizability. Though he did show some nice tricks, including a rolling kneebar attempt and a slick kimura trap into an attempted armbar, his boom-or-bust approach got him busted.
Outside of one stand up that only bought him a few seconds before he got taken down again, he had some similar issues against Stephens: some nice submission attempts, including a teepee choke, but no real answers when they failed.
To his credit, he showed better skills and mindset when he faced Holloway nearly two years later. He got out of a tight palm-to-palm guillotine, used the fence to get to his feet when he lost the positional battle, and even swept “Blessed” from half guard in the fifth. The skills are clearly there; it’s just a matter of having the right approach and knowing when discretion is the better part of valor.
Offensively, the triangle/armbar series and front chokes seem to be his best weapons, and he’s willing to go for leglocks. I wouldn’t consider him a serious submission threat at the highest level, but he’s got enough know-how that you have to mind your P’s and Q’s when grappling with him.
This is an extremely volatile match up. Ortega has a lot of the same defensive issues as Rodriguez in the striking, but Rodriguez has more decisive kill shots in his arsenal. At the same time, Rodriguez leaves himself very vulnerable to takedowns, especially since he’ll have to limit his speed to maintain a five-round pace. It boils down to whether Rodriguez has learned and implemented the right lessons from his loss to Holloway.
Patrick L. Stumberg is an MMA and boxing analyst with more than 10 years of experience. He has been refereeing and judging amateur boxing in South Texas since 2017 while also receiving certification as an MMA official.
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