It wasn’t the firefight that was expected on short notice, but Daniel Rodriguez got the job done against Li Jingliang at UFC 279.
After an absolutely crazy 48 hours in the build-up to UFC 279, the bouts were finally set and the fighters, who had dealt with a lot of uncertainty, prepared to face their opponents. Li Jingliang in particular had received a lot of love from fans after the suit he was so proud of was unable to be displayed at the canceled press conference and after he accepted an opponent who weighed almost ten pounds more than him on one day’s notice. The weight disadvantage was visible in the cage. Nevertheless, this opponent, Daniel Rodriguez, is highly skilled but of a lower profile than his previous opponent, the legend Tony Ferguson. Meanwhile, for the California native, he was somewhat lucky perhaps to get switched from an unranked Kevin Holland to the ranked Leech.
Both D-Rod and the Leech are exciting fighters who primarily win fights with their skill as strikers and so the fight on paper seemed like it would be a banger, potentially even a contender for fight of the night.
The pair came out and quickly got after it, as D-Rod landed a body kick and two right hands early. Li was quick to get those back though. The southpaw vs. orthodox matchup led to the pair trading a lot of those open side, roundhouse body kicks. The striking was at a solid, but not insane pace throughout the opening stage. Both men made sure to stay within themselves but were also putting on a show for the fans, though moreso to the body, with the occasional leg kick, as they both had trouble landing to the head of their opponents. Rodriguez’s jab was on point early on. On one occasion, a lazy kick from the Leech spun him around slowly and D-Rod charged forward to land big shots in the pocket. Soon afterward, a caught kick from the Leech led to him dumping Daniel. A few leg kicks from the Chinese fighter ended the round, with the round winner up in the air, as D-Rod’s coach told him.
Early in round two, the Leech began taunting a bit, dropping his hands, crouching down, and wiggling his body as he backed up in a little dance. D-Rod got back to his jabbing and kicking ways early on as Jingliang started to load up a bit and overextend with his right hand, though it landed to the body and upstairs at times. A stance switch from the Leech allowed him to sneak in a straight left around the halfway point of the round and change up the stance matchup against the southpaw Rodriguez. The bouncing in and out movement of each man started to frustrate the audience who had been treated to a glut of offense throughout the night as boos rang down during the cagey but highly technical striking match. With about a minute left the Leech landed the biggest strike of the fight with a massive overhand left that sent his Californian opponent stumbling backward. But Daniel was not to be deterred as he got right back at it, landing a big head kick semi-cleanly at the end of the round which the Leech ate and used to dump D-Rod to his back as the buzzer sounded. It had been another close round, perhaps won just barely by the big left hand from Jingliang.
Rodriguez opened the third round with forward pressure as his opponent was back in his orthodox stance. The Leech, however, began to find some more openings as he landed some kicks and a straight right to the body, increasing the pace from the previous rounds and finding his way past the jab of D-Rod. The leg kicks were a well that the Leech kept returning to against the boxing style of Rodriguez. Some of the bigger shots of the round were when the Leech went first, avoided the counter of D-Rod, and then countered himself in combination both to the body and head. Daniel kept using his spearing jab but was largely unable to build off of it to much effect while his opponent landed a variety of strikes. The kicks of the Californian had also tailed off later in the fight and the third had a general feeling of a Leech round. However, Rodriguez was able to soon counter in combination and take back the initiative, pressing forward and jabbing his opponent up more. The Leech’s offense tailed off significantly late and the commentary speculated on if he was dealing with cardio issues.
As the round ended, it was completely up in the air who won the fight, but the consensus on social media and among the commentary booth was somewhat leaning towards Leech having had more moments of effective offense throughout. To the surprise of many, Daniel Rodriguez was rewarded with the split decision win as all scorecards read 29-28, though for different fighters. In his post-fight interview, D-Rod initially said he did not feel like he did enough to win but went on to say that he thought he could have stolen it in the final round. This was undoubtedly the biggest victory of his career, as he beat his first ranked opponent and likely would earn himself a spot in the rankings when the update comes around on Tuesday morning.
Daniel Rodriguez def. Li Jingliang by Split Decision (29-28 x2, 28-29)