AFTER consecutive weekends of double title fight action, the UFC returns behind closed doors at their Apex facility in Las Vegas on Saturday with an irresistible main event featuring the two leading featherweight contenders.
Hawaii’s former champion and pound-for-pound star Max Holloway takes on #3 ranked Mexican Yair Rodriguez for the right to challenge Australian champion Alexander Volkanovski early in the New Year.
Rodriguez, 29, has lost just once in his last 12 outings, picking up The Ultimate Fighter tournament title and no less than seven $50,000 dollar performance bonuses in the process.
A creative striker thanks to a lifetime in taekwondo, Rodriguez (13-2) boasts a stoppage win over Hall of Famer BJ Penn, a win over ranked lightweight Dan Hooker and made off with the 2018 Knockout of the Year following a jaw-dropping upward elbow against Chan Sung Jung.
1 second left…Yair Rodriguez KO's Chan Sung Jung out of nowhere.
No better way to go out on the 25th Anniversary! pic.twitter.com/1C2C6ev62c
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) November 11, 2018
However, it’s not all been sunshine and rainbows. That sole defeat, a TKO to a 40-year-old Frankie Edgar hasn’t aged well, plus Rodriguez was also heavily criticized for pulling out of two fights with enthralling Russian Zabit Magomedsharipov.
He also returns to the Octagon this weekend on the back of a six-month suspension after failing to notify USADA of his whereabouts and being unavailable for drug testing last year. He’s been inactive since October 2019.
Holloway (22-6) has also endured a troublesome last couple of years. The 29-year-old went on a 13-fight unbeaten run that also featured a two-year stint as featherweight champion. In that time he defeated current lightweight champ Charles Oliveira, former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis and had back-to-back wins over future Hall of Famer Jose Aldo.
But after stopping current #2-ranked Brian Ortega in December 2018 he jumped up to lightweight daring to become a double weight champ and was decisioned by Dustin Poirier.
He returned to defend the 145lb belt against Edgar, but then lost his title – albeit controversially – along with an immediate rematch against Volkanovski, resulting in a career-worst 1-3 campaign.
Holloway bounced back in January with a sublime performance against Calvin Kattar, which has undoubtedly pushed him back in the frame for the third title fight with the Aussie powerhouse. Should he show similar form against Rodriguez, that fight will surely come in the first part of 2022.
@BlessedMMA landed 445 significant strikes in his last fight!
— UFC Canada (@UFC_CA) November 10, 2021
What we do know though is Rodriguez is never out of it. The highlight reel upward elbow knockout he scored against ‘Korean Zombie’ arrived in the very last second of the fifth and final round when he was behind on the scorecards.
Rodriguez has been tagged as a real title prospect forever, but it’s now or never for him. Being inactive for two years, and having fought little more than three rounds the year before, won’t help him against a man with six five-round fights under his belt in the same timeframe.
I also believe Holloway remains the best featherweight on the planet. He proved that against Kattar at the start of the year, completing dominating the fight with his trademark high tempo, varied accurate striking and relentless pressure. Expect more of the same.