|Mark J. Rebilas USA TODAY Sports
The exciting title hopeful Yair Rodriguez returns home this weekend.
When it comes to dynamic and creative strikers at featherweight, we have some outliers. Zabit Magomedsharipov, Jose Aldo, and maybe most impressively, UFC Fight Night Mexico City headliner Yair ‘El Pantera’ Rodriguez. The Chihuahua native has reinstated himself into the 145 pound elite with his last second upward elbow stoppage of Chan Sung Jung last November, after suffering a battering at the hands of Frankie Edgar in his premier Octagon loss. Still just 26 years of age, Rodriguez remains a highly thought of contender amongst his featherweight peers, but faces arguably his most dangerous striker to date this Saturday, in the form of Jeremy Stephens.
The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America victor has displayed his well varied standup weaponry in each of eight Octagon appearances to date, stopping Andre Fili with a jumping switch-kick as well as a front kick stoppage of former UFC lightweight and welterweight best B.J. Penn. Against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, Rodriguez met his real kryptonite for the first time in his still brief Octagon stint, wrestling. Ultimately losing via a second round doctor’s stoppage, Rodriguez was pummeled off his back by Edgar as he suffered severe swelling to his left eye.
Rodriguez of course was briefly released from his Ultimate Fighting Championship contract last year, after refusing multiple fight offers to face both the aforementioned Magomedsharipov and one-time title chaser Ricardo Lamas. After working through the dispute, Rodriguez rejoined the ranks nearly a month later. The Mexico native agreed to meet Magomedsharipov at UFC 228 in a hugely exciting prospect versus prospect meeting, until an injury to Rodriguez forced him off the card.
Replacing former opponent Edgar in a headlining slot against ‘The Korean Zombie’, Rodriguez scored the 2018 Knockout of the Year, as he rallied to stop Jung with literally a single second remaining in the fifth and final round. Both men agreed to throw till the buzzer, with Jung advancing and Rodriguez evading. Countering the South Korea’s winging hooks, Rodriguez launched an upward elbow, which folded Jung.
When paired with Stephens this weekend, Rodriguez cannot afford to get into a firefight with the Iowa power puncher, due to his superior one- shot finishing ability. The utilization of his consensus superior movement and footwork will also prove key to ‘El Pantera’. If we study Stephens’ losses in the Octagon, we see a real struggle against kicking oriented strikes, who utilize lateral locomotion to evade pocket exchanges. Case in point; Anthony Pettis, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Yves Edwards and ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone.
Rodriguez often throws roundhouse kicks to the body, as well as spinning back kicks to the midsection, but the varied offense of front kicks may provide success against Stephens, who struggled with range against Zabit. With a light lead leg approach, Rodriguez must remain wary of Stephens outside calf kick, a technique which proved detrimental to Gilbert Melendez. Remaining at kicking range offers Rodriguez the most clearcut path to victory in Mexico City on Saturday night, if he can manage to stick on the outside and outpoint the heavy handed Stephens.