Yair Rodriguez takes on Max Holloway in the main event of this weekend’s UFC Fight Night 197 card. A victory over Holloway would almost certainly earn Rodriguez a title shot. For a number of reasons, the MMA world is giving him almost no chance of securing the win. Can he shock the world on Saturday night?
Rodriguez would have likely been the underdog, even if he had been active, but it will be even more of an upset if he wins, considering he has spent two years away from the Octagon. The Mexican fighter’s career has been plagued by a series of issues, and many believe that this will have caused him to regress as a fighter.
Rodriguez was scheduled to fight fellow top contender Zabit Magomedsharipov at UFC Fight Night 175 card in Aug. 2020, but pulled out with an ankle injury. In Dec. 2020, USADA announced that Rodriguez had been suspended for six months, retroactive to Sept. 8 for failing to notify them of his whereabouts and being unavailable for drug testing. In July 2021, Rodriguez was scheduled to face Holloway, but the former champion pulled out due to injury. The fight was subsequently rescheduled for this Saturday.
Spending two years away from the Octagon would be difficult to overcome for any fighter upon their return, but could be especially the case for Rodriguez. Not being in peak fighting condition will result in almost certain defeat against Holloway, who is famed for his relentless cardio and pressure. The USADA suspension that Rodriguez received raises questions about his state of mind. The 29-year-old is clearly a talented fighter but has perhaps lacked the discipline and commitment needed to fulfil his potential. Rodriguez should not lack any motivation this Saturday, considering a title shot is likely on the line.
Meanwhile, Holloway had arguably the greatest performance of his career in his last outing. Against Calvin Kattar in January, he delivered one of the most brutal beatings in UFC history and broke several records in the process. The also-29-year-old emerged with a 50-42 decision win on the judges’ scorecards, which is the one of the most lopsided scorecards in a five-round fight in UFC history. The Hawaiian broke his own record for most significant strikes landed in a bout, with 445. His 141 significant strikes landed in the fourth round were the most in a single round in the promotion’s history.
The statistics highlight the difficulty of the task that Rodriguez has ahead of him. A factor that has led many to believe that he will lose is that he seems to be a favorable stylistic match-up for Holloway. The Mexican is a striker who possesses very little threat on the ground. He has also previously struggled against pressure fighters. He was notably out-struck for almost an entire five rounds against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung in 2018. However, he was able to secure an unlikely finish in the last few seconds of that fight, landing an upwards elbow that knocked Jung out. The manner of this finish indicates what is likely to be his best chance of securing the win on Saturday.
Rodriguez possesses an unorthodox, flashy striking style and has a wide range of weapons in his arsenal. Against Holloway, he is considered to be out-matched in terms of technical ability and conditioning. As a result, his only path to victory is seemingly a knockout, but trying to knock out Holloway is arguably one of the hardest tasks in MMA today. The former champion has never been knocked down, let alone knocked out, in 24 contests inside the Octagon. This in spite of him having fought some of hardest-hitting, most accomplished strikers in the sport such as Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor and Alex Volkanovski. However, Rodriguez appears to be better equipped than most to be able to do this.
Being able to land a fight-ending upwards elbow on Jung highlights the creativity and unpredictable nature of Rodriguez. Furthermore, his ability to execute this maneuver, after receiving a great deal of punishment, is a testament to his skill and toughness. He will need these traits in abundance against Holloway. Rodriguez’s best chance of putting Holloway away is likely to be by utilizing one of his kicks.
In his last fight against Jeremy Stephens, Rodriguez was effective with a wide range of kicks. He threw a series of body kicks as well as side-kicks. In the second round, he dropped Stephens with a body kick and looked to be on the verge of getting a finish. In both of their fights, Volkanovski was able to restrict Holloway’s output by throwing a high volume of leg kicks. In the rematch, Holloway came out with an upright Muay Thai stance to neutralize the kicks but was ultimately unable to prevent Volkanovski from having success in this area.
Holloway tends to increase the tempo as the rounds go on. Therefore, Rodriguez will need to target the Hawaiian’s legs early to reduce his mobility as soon as possible. If Rodriguez is able to make Holloway a stationary target, then he will be better placed to use his explosive kicks, such as his spinning kicks and head kicks, to try and knock him out.
Another lesson that Rodriguez can learn from the success that Volkanovski had against Holloway was the use of feints. While it would be difficult for Rodriguez to implement feints as well as the current champion does, using these can stop Holloway from exerting his trademark forward pressure. Volkanovski was able to keep the 29-year-old guessing by feinting constantly. This prevented Holloway from walking him down and also gave him space to evade strikes. Having space to work will be especially vital for Rodriguez, as he will not be able to use his kicks to great effect if he is closed down.
If Rodriguez fails to have a good start, he will likely face the same fate as many of Holloway’s previous opponents, which is being overwhelmed by his pace and pressure. Rodriguez does not seem to have the conditioning to persevere in a five-round battle. He appears to have a small window of opportunity to pull off the finish.
This Saturday, Rodriguez heads into his fight with Holloway with most of the MMA world not only expecting him to lose, but to be on the receiving end of a beatdown. With the amount of time that has elapsed since his last bout, it is difficult to determine how Rodriguez will approach the fight. All the aforementioned factors point to a comfortable Holloway victory, but Rodriguez’s fight-ending ability means that he is always a threat. As unlikely as it may seem against someone as durable as Holloway, there is always the chance that Rodriguez could pull off something spectacular, as Chan Sung Jung found out the hard way.
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