UFC 290’s Yair Rodriguez: Brand New Fighter, Or Just An Updated Version?

Yair Rodriguez, UFC 290
Yair Rodriguez, UFC 290 pre-fight press conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

Three of the best ten pound-for-pound fighters in the world – in my opinion, not in the official rankings – and five of the best fifteen appear on the UFC 290 main card this week.

Alexander Volkanovski is the pound-for-pound king, the position having been cemented after he arguably beat his rival claimant to the crown, Islam Makhachev, despite being a weight class smaller. Brandon Moreno is a top five pound-for-pound fighter as champ of one the toughest shark tank divisions in any promotion. Alexandre Pantoja, his challenger, is likely the second best flyweight in the world at present, a monster athlete, and maybe the best back-taker in the sport at present means he always presents a finishing threat in a division where it’s tough to end fights. Robert Whittaker still has an argument to be the best middleweight in the sport today – he is definitely the most well-rounded – and has been top-15 pound-for-pound since he first beat Jacare Souza all those years ago on his rise to the top.

Yair Rodgriguez is a tough one to rank at present but my instinct is to have him in the top-15. His uniquely dynamic kicking attack, elite physical attributes, and consistent development as a fighter have carried him far. Yet there are still questions to be answered after his return from a three-year layoff, notably the fact that before that he was utterly dismantled, mauled, and finished by Frankie Edgar employing a simple ground and pound-centric approach. Has Yair Rodriguez really completed a full ‘Technical Turnaround’? Or has he improved but not completely revamped his skillset?

That return from three years away saw Yair completely counted out against Max Holloway. Max was an eight-to-one favorite in that five-round main event. This came after Rodriguez had gassed out when losing the third and final round against Jeremy Stephens in his last fight. Holloway was also coming off of the most one-sided decision in UFC history, his record-setting beatdown against Calvin Kattar. An all-time great fighter who can land eighty-nine strikes per round against an active top contender, what could Yair hope to do against that coming off a three year layoff? A lot, it turns out.

‘El Pantera’ clearly lost the fight, even showing some of his old weaknesses – like being controlled on the ground and flicking out wild, off-balance kicks which put him in that position – but he still looked remarkably improved as he won rounds, hurt Holloway, and pushed the future Hall of Famer to his limit, and to a decision.

Most important, perhaps, is that he showed an ability to restrain himself, even though some wildness still remained. That comes in stark opposition to his earlier UFC run. One of Yair’s earliest blemishes – one which many fans may not think of as such – was the fight against Alex Caceres, a fellow flashy kicker. The two fought a five round fight in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2016 in Rodriguez’s fourth UFC fight. Yair eked out a split decision victory but he also spun like a top – incessantly and often without effect – for five full rounds. This got so bad that in only the second round it prompted Brian Stann to say, “I’m popping some dramamine here because I’m getting very, very dizzy.”

The fight nevertheless showed off Yair’s known athleticism and put on a fun show for a lot of fans who like that sort of thing, but showed severe tactical limitations. A split decision win against an unranked fighter was likely not what the UFC had in mind when they put Yair Rodriguez in his first main event.

That’s not to say that Caceres is a stylistic matchup that is representative of what Yair will face against Volkanovski, or against any top featherweights, but it still showed the willingness of Rodriguez to give up effective strikes for flashy ones. The biggest issue is perhaps his willingness to throw strikes like Rolling Thunder, a kick which infamously throws the kicker to their back. As a kickboxer with an exploitable takedown defense and bottom game, ‘El Pantera’ should want to do everything possible to stay OFF his back. Yet he has routinely given his opponents good positions by putting himself there with those kicks as well as reckless, head-first, blitzing combinations that open up takedown or clinch opportunities.

Even against Holloway he put himself in such positions, providing evidence that his evolution is not complete. And even when he had Josh Emmett hurt, Yair Rodriguez put himself in a needlessly bad position when he threw a flying knee that got him taken down. Because of how hurt Emmett was, Yair was able to constantly attack off his back while Emmett tried to rest in top position; that is what enabled him to finish the triangle from bottom. A fighter like Volkanovski will not rest on his laurels, his mettle is such that even if hurt he should remain aggressive and smart with his top control, as seen against Brian Ortega.

The aforementioned blitzing combinations not only opened him up for takedowns but also for good counter-striking opportunities. Sometimes Yair’s shifting blitzes were so reckless that he was essentially running full pelt forward while throwing offense. Strikers like Andre Fili, Alex Caceres, and featherweight Dan Hooker could not exploit those deficiencies enough to let them overcome the athletic disparity between them and Rodriguez, but ones like Josh Emmett and Alexander Volkanovski certainly could have – which is why the Yair that showed up in his interim title bout against Emmett was so special.

The Mexican star came out patient and throughout the fight showed a propensity for restraint greater than that he showed against Holloway. He did not spin; he did not even launch an attack at all for a good minute of the title bout. All he needed was his movement plus a mix of hip feints and actual offense to keep Emmett where he wanted him. He bounced around, found his range, and hurt Emmett with nearly the first body kick he threw by choosing the right opportunity. Emmett never gained the front foot for more than a moment after that. Throughout the fight Yair did not blitz forward with his wild combinations. He did not spin. He hardly traded punches at all, preferring to kick from outside of the range of the heavy-handed boxer in Emmett. He came in with a clear gameplan, stuck to that strategy, and stayed focused throughout – for the most part.

At the ends of both the first and seconds rounds Rodriguez did end up on his back, however, as a result of his style. One flying knee was all Emmett needed to catch and ground him. Yair also got careless and got rocked by trading punches in the pocket in round two. His hands low style makes him susceptible to that. And therein lays the crux of the issue. ‘El Pantera’ has made tremendous changes in both his physical performance and his fight IQ. But is it enough? Is he stuck in an archetype? Are the deficiencies which allow opponents to bypass his A-game and engage him on a favorable position on the ground just part of his identity as a fighter?

An article like this, one that asks a specific rhetorical question at the onset, should strive to answer the question presented. Unfortunately in MMA, as in life, the best answers often lie in a middle ground. Yes, Yair has turned around his game and become an elite fighter. But no, he is not a completely different fighter. It is not a 180° turnaround. His ground game has been proven to be still exploitable as his last three fights have shown. That makes it beyond difficult to pick him against Alexander Volkanovski, who can utilize a punishing attack that combines wrestling and ground strikes when he needs to, even if it is not his A-game.

Volkanovski is, as previously mentioned, the best fighter on earth at present. He also has three wins over Max Holloway, who beat Yair. He also is great at an ‘anti jiu-jitsu’ wrestling style which lets him posture up to rain down classical ground and pound, an ostensible weakness of his Mexican foe. Yet MMA is a sport which can see anything change at the drop of a dime. Conventional logic often fails us in predictions. As a shorter, less durable fighter than Holloway, Alexander ‘the Great’ is seemingly more susceptible to a shocking knockout kick than Max. He has had issues with kicks in the past, and with southpaws. His usual, measured sort of pressure may leave Rodriguez enough space to kick freely and dismantle Volk. There are a lot of ways this can go wrong for the champion.

Yet there are also a lot of ways it can go right. If Yair Rodriguez loses to Volk it does not mean that Yair has not turned around his game. The answer to that may come in the finer details of this fight. Is he able to defend the takedowns? Is he able to pace himself? If he gets taken down can he get back up? Will he put himself in bad positions with crazy attacks? Can he focus on substance over flash?

One frustrating aspect of MMA is that any given fight may not answer our questions. Fights may even leave us with more questions than answers. If Volk’s shoulder pops out in the first round we may learn nothing, like when Yair fought Brian Ortega. If Rodriguez gets knocked out in round one then we may only learn that his chin is not what we thought. Yet this will likely be an extended fight, competed across multiple rounds and phases of mixed martial arts. Most fights at this level are. Yair will be facing a better mixer of those martial arts than any he has faced before.

What is important to keep in mind is that even in a fight that goes the twenty-five minute distance, the result will not be what tells us if ‘El Pantera’ has completed a Charles Oliveira-style turnaround. Context always matters. The degree of competency with which he defends Volkanovski’s varied attack and can enforce his own dynamic kicking offense is what will provide the answers.