UFC Mexico City: Can Yair Rodriguez Repeat Brilliance Against Jeremy Stephens?

Yair Rodriguez UFC Denver Jeremy Stephens
Yair Rodriguez Credit: Mike Straus/Cageside Press

Yair Rodriguez would love an encore performance at UFC Mexico City, but Jeremy Stephens is eager to get his own career back on track.  Who will prevail on Saturday?

You could not script Yair Rodriguez’s last fight any better: his knockout of the Korean Zombie with the unbelievable back-elbow at the buzzer that stunned even the longest-standing pundits of combat sports. Then the cherry on top: it happened on a night that celebrated essentially 25 years of mixed martial arts.

Truth be told, “El Pantera” needed the victory. Fans will remember, he was en route to a unanimous decision loss after being out of action for roughly a year and a half. The critics were vocal with their opinion: that Rodriguez had been pushed too fast too soon and wasn’t ready to be the next big thing he had been propped up to be. The knockout in November, just as it stunned the crowd, also silenced the critics.

It is now nearly ten months since that night. The featherweight division has moved forward and Rodriguez still has several difficult challenges between himself and championship gold. In particular, the match-up with Stephens looks to be a gauge for Rodriguez’s place in the rankings. He has been attached to a possible fight with Russian upstart Zabit Magomedsharipov, who in March had a very workmanlike victory over “Lil Heathen” himself. If a fight with “Zabeast” is going to happen, it is likely expected that Rodriguez has to have an even more impressive victory over Stephens.

Jeremy Stephens has recorded 30 fights in the UFC with no signs of slowing down. The perennial contender has fought champions, contenders, legends, and seemingly everyone else in-between. More impressively, he has never had a rematch in that 30-fight span since being with the company since 2007. Rodriguez is yet another notch on his impressive belt, and a look at the division would suggest that he has only more challenges for however long he is willing to continue bringing his brand of violence into the Octagon.

That’s not to say there’s no pressure on Stephens. True, Rodriguez is the one considered to be fighting at home even though Stephens’ mother is from Mexico as well. But Stephens is on a two-fight losing streak, most recently being used to propel Magomedsharipov forward. He has been one of the top-ranked contenders in the division for the better part of the decade, but a third loss in the row is an unenviable position regardless of one’s status in the UFC and Stephens is undoubtedly eager to end his skid.

Stylistically, Rodriguez has a high volume attack that Stephens will have to neutralize with forward pressure and his physicality. Stephens should look to come forward with straight punches down the middle to stifle Rodriguez’s offense. Secondly, cutting off the cage will also be crucial as it will force Rodriguez into the pocket where Stephens has the advantage with his power.

“El Pantera” should look to use his kicks to chop away at Stephens’ mobility early. The key in the early part of the fight will be to use his footwork to get in-and-out and avoid the heavy shots of Stephens. Stephens relies on his ability to deliver devastating damage with a single shot and Rodriguez should avoid standing in front of him. If he is able to effectively execute his game-plan, he figures to be ahead on the scorecards and increase his volume later in the fight.

The winner figures to see a fight with another contender in the top ten with a victory. Should Rodriguez and Magomedsharipov both win, the timing could finally be right for the two to collide in a battle of two of the most dynamic strikers in MMA. For Stephens, the possibilities are endless with names like Brian Ortega, the Korean Zombie, and others all being options in 2020.