International Fight Week is upon us, and the UFC’s capstone event is UFC 290: Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez. The men on the marquee will be fighting to unify the featherweight titlem as long-reigning champion Alexander Volkanovski puts his title on the line against interim champion Yair Rodriguez.
Volkanovski actually enters this title fight on the heels of a loss, having come up just short in his bid to become a two-division champion, when he took on lightweight king Islam Makhachev at UFC 284. “The Great” has already cemented his place in the Hall of Fame, but, if he is able to defeat Rodriguez, it will be his fifth title defense and even more people will be talking about him as potentially the greatest featherweight of all time. For Rodriguez, the stakes are just as high. We are seeing an unprecedented run of Mexican success in mixed martial arts, as three fighters from the country currently hold titles. Of those three, Rodriguez is the only one with an interim belt, so, should he be able to walk away with a victory, he would join Alexa Grasso and Brandon Moreno as undisputed UFC champions from Mexico.
Speaking of Brandon Moreno, he puts his flyweight title on the line as he clashes with longtime rival Alexandre Pantoja. The pair first met on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, where Pantoja scored a submission victory as part of Team Cejudo. Their paths would cross again at UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Usman. where the fight went the distance, but it was another clear victory for Pantoja. Now that Moreno wears the belt, the dynamic has shifted, but he still has to be mentally prepared to step into the cage with a man who has had his number on two separate occasions.
Also on the main card is a middleweight bout with title implications as Robert Whittaker takes on Dricus du Plessis. Whittaker, the former champion, has come up short in both of his attempts to take out reigning champ Israel Adesanya, but, with another win, he could be in line for a third crack at “The Last Stylebender” in the Octagon. Du Plessis not only wants to face Adesanya to win the belt, but the pair have gotten into a heated war of words regarding who has the right to call himself a “real African.” The pair are joined on the main card by rising star and wrestling phenom Bo Nickal. Nickal needed less than three minutes to dispatch Jamie Pickett in his UFC debut and with his original opponent Tresean Gore falling out of the fight, he looks to improve his promotional record to 2-0 against newcomer Val Woodburn.
The UFC 290 early prelims air live on ESPN2, ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass starting at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Alexander Volkanovski has looked unbeatable at featherweight over his title run; does the unique problem posed by Yair Rodriguez finally cause the champion some trouble?
Kuhl: Alexander Volkanovski is a great featherweight champion, and he does not appear to be showing signs of slowing down. His journey as a champ has not been easy either. The 34-year-old Australian has gone the distance with former champ Max Holloway a whopping three times in less than three years. He has also been through five full rounds against Brian Ortega and, most recently, Islam Makhachev in an unsuccessful lightweight title bid. His sole stoppage victory as a champ came by way of fourth-round TKO over “The Korean Zombie” Chan-sung Jung in Apr. 2022. In just a few years, Volk has had almost two-and-a-half hours of cage time with some of the best athletes in the sport.
For comparison, in the amount of time that Volk has spent as the titleholder, now-interim champ Yair Rodriguez had a 15-second, no-contest bout against Jeremy Stephens, followed by the make-up fight, which he won by decision. He then lost a five-round decision to Holloway, beat Ortega due to a shoulder injury, and submitted Josh Emmett in Feb. 2023 to pick up the interim strap. The path of the Mexican athlete has been much different than that of the Aussie.
To bring this all together, Rodiguez is not nearly as battle-tested as Volkanovski. Volk can handle whatever his opponents throw at him, whether it’s the boxing of Holloway, the jiu-jitsu of Ortega or the wrestling of Makhachev. He even could have won that lightweight strap, and he may very well do so in a rematch with Makhachev. And, not only does he handle it, but he has dominated over and over again.
Rodriguez has that infamous taekwondo style with some fantastic kicking techniques, and he even had a crazy reverse elbow knockout of The Korean Zombie back in 2018. But, Volkanovski plans for everything, so we can be certain that he is going to be ready for the dynamic striking. However, I also expect him to close the distance, keep the pressure against the cage, and control the fight from wire-to-wire. He will likely be staying inside of Rodriguez’s ideal striking distance, and he will be using his superior wrestling to force the takedowns. This one should go the distance, with Volkanovski unifying the title.
Petela: I have a feeling that Yair Rodriguez pulls off the upset in this one. He is just so hard to prepare for, because there aren’t many people who can replicate him in training. The most important thing for Rodriguez is going to be making sure that he keeps his back off the cage.
If Volkanovski can dictate the range where the two men engage, the champion could cruise to a decision in a fight that will largely be forgettable. I don’t think that he will be able to do that for much of the time against Rodriguez. With Rodriguez in perpetual motion, the champion will be moving forward constantly in an effort to cut off the cage and keep the fight in the clinch or boxing range, where he will have the advantage. Volkanovski is too good not to have some success, but as well as he gameplanned for this one, he won’t be able to execute with any consistency.
By the fourth round, Volkanovski will be starting to get frustrated and that is when Rodriguez will have his biggest moment of the fight. Expect Rodriguez to catch the champion with a head kick as Volkanovski shows a rare undisciplined moment and chases the challenger rather than cutting him off on an angle. A quick step to the side will give Rodriguez the chance to line up the kick and execute it in a split second. Once he has the champion on shaky legs it will be academic. A few follow up punches close the show and Yair Rodriguez pulls off the upset and majorly shakes up the dynamic in the featherweight division.
Twice Brandon Moreno has come up short against Alexandre Pantoja; can the Mexican champion finally vanquish his longtime foe?
Petela: Technically, Brandon Moreno and Alexandre Pantoja are meeting for the second time professionally, because their first meeting was an exhibition bout on The Ultimate Fighter 24. However, that doesn’t change the idea that Pantoja should feel supremely confident going into this fight, and he very well could have the champ’s number. Pantoja is dangerous, he is one of the hardest hitting flyweights around, and it isn’t like he is some slouch in the grappling department. Pantoja has a total of 18 career finishes, eight knockouts and 10 submissions. It wouldn’t shock me if he kept his undefeated record against Moreno.
It won’t be easy though, and I expect the champion to retain his title in yet another classic flyweight throwdown, which we never would have gotten to see if the UFC dumped the division a few years back. Moreno is exponentially better than he was back on TUF. He was then an unpolished kid whose potential was sky high, but whose actual technical skills were years away from maturing. The 29-year-old is now entering his physical prime, and, despite the setbacks against Pantoja, his confidence is also sky high after picking up a definitive victory in the final fight of his tetralogy against Deiveson Figueiredo. Moreno will be able to avoid the heavy hands of Pantoja, and he will out-scramble him to get into dominant grappling positions more often than not. This one goes the distance, and it will be a close, but clear, win for the champion. He will hold onto that belt for quite a long time.
Kuhl: I agree with my colleague. Pantoja may have bested Moreno twice in the past, but “The Assassin Baby” was still just that – a youngster in the sport. He has developed his skills and confidence, and taking on Deiveson Figueiredo four times in 25 months adds a level of experience that cannot be matched.
I expect Moreno to come out cautious, yet confident, before putting away Pantoja in the third round.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 290?
Kuhl: Brandon Moreno will put a big stamp on his legacy with a win over Alexandre Pantoja in their trilogy fight. Not only will it serve as the first defense of his undisputed title, but he will finally exact revenge on the first foe to beat him twice.
Petela: Dricus Du Plessis. With a win over Robert Whittaker, the next stop is title town for Du Plessis. He has a strange style to be honest, it seems like he uses his face to block punches more than trying to evade them. He will definitely get tagged up a bit by the former champion but Du Plessis has looked almost indestructible over his UFC run. He always looks like he is exhausted but has said time and time again that that is not the case, he just looks like that. All the questions will be answered this weekend and the momentum will be more than enough to earn him a crack at the belt in a showdown with his newfound rival Israel Adesanya.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 290?
Petela: Alexander Volkanovski. The incumbent champion will lose the belt that he has held for several years and that will be two losses in a row. Granted one of those losses came up a weight class against one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world but at the end of the day a loss is a loss. I expect this fight to end violently with Yair Rodriguez picking up a jaw dropping knockout and claiming the undisputed championship. Volkanovski will certainly deserve a rematch and he will likely get one but going into that fight after a devastating loss, his second in a row, could shake his confidence mightily. Not only does he lose the belt but he also loses his mojo after this weekend.
Kuhl: Bo Nickal. Just kidding, but how crazy would it be to see short-notice replacement, and promotional newcomer, Val Woodburn send that hype train flying off the tracks?
In reality, I think the loser of Robbie Lawler vs. Niko Price is not going to look so hot. Hall of Famer, former UFC welterweight champ, and fan favorite Lawler is going into retirement, and he is currently 2-6 over the last seven years. Fellow UFC veteran Price has not strung together two wins in five years. Barring a true Fight of the Night performance, both of these guys are coming off losses, and the loser of this one is likely the biggest loser of the evening.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: I know that his UFC career may not be exactly in jeopardy with a loss, but Jimmy Crute needs to get back to winning ASAP. He came out of the Contender Series five years ago looking like he might be an actual contender one day. However, he has not won a fight since Oct. 2020, having suffered back-to-back first-round knockouts to Jamahal Hill and Anthony Smith in 2021, and then, his last fight with Alonzo Menifield went to a majority draw, because Menifield lost a point for grabbing the fence on takedown attempts. Going 0-3-1 in his last four fights would not look great, so Crute’s back is against the wall in this one.
Petela: Niko Price. He has to beat Robbie Lawler if he wants to remain relevant in the welterweight division. Price is just 1-3 with a no-contest over his last five outings. If he can’t get past this version of Robbie Lawler, he probably doesn’t have a place fighting in the UFC against the most elite competition in the world.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: I’ve looked up and down this card and outside of the main card and the preliminary tilt between Robbie Lawler and Niko Price there isn’t much that gets me excited. That prelim will be fun though, as long as Robbie Lawler has at least a little bit left in the tank. The former champion will probably come up short this weekend and call it a career but I expect some fireworks before the fight is all said and done.
Kuhl: After going to a draw in their last fight, Jimmy Crute and Alonzo Menifield could be looking to put on a banger. Both of these guys needs to get in the win column, and both men could have their backs against the wall. This fight should be fireworks.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: If Dricus du Plessis ends up being more than just a hype train, which he seems far from anyway, he could win a nice bonus on Saturday night, if he beats former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker. This fight is already a title eliminator bout, and du Plessis could definitely add a little extra padding to his pockets with a stoppage win.
Petela: Bo Nickal. He is taking on a short notice replacement opponent and the former NCAA wrestling standout is poised to have another dominant performance this weekend. He will make short work of Valentine Woodburn and scoop up $50K along the way. Hopefully, the next opponent we see Nickal face will be a step up in competition and we will learn something more about his actual potential to become an elite mixed martial artist.
Pair this card with…
Petela: I’ll apologize in advance for re-using this choice so soon after I picked it a few weeks back but it has to be a celebratory Mexican meal. Brandon Moreno retains his title and Yair Rodriguez unifies the featherweight belts, this will be perhaps the biggest night in Mexican MMA history. Whether it’s takeout from Chipotle or your local favorite spot, a night of this magnitude calls for some cultural appreciation!
Kuhl: Street tacos and Australian stout. With both champs defending their titles successfully, it only makes sense.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FW Championship: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodriguez
FlyW Championship: Brandon Moreno vs. Alexandre Pantoja
MW: Robert Whittaker vs. Dricus Du Plessis
LW: Dan Hooker vs. Jalin Turner
MW: Bo Nickal vs. Val Woodburn
Preliminary Card (ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Robbie Lawler vs. Niko Price
WW: Jack Della Maddalena vs. Josiah Harrell
Women’s StrawW: Yazmin Jauregui vs. Denise Gomes
LHW: Jimmy Crute vs. Alonzo Menifield
Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN 2/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
CatchW (130 lbs.): Edgar Chairez vs. Tatsuro Taira
LHW: Vitor Petrino vs. Marcin Prachnio
BW: Cameron Saaiman vs. Terrence Mitchell
FlyW: Shannon Ross vs. Jesus Aguilar
LW: Kamuela Kirk vs. Esteban Ribovics
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