- No. 7-ranked featherweight Yair Rodriguez vs No. 8-ranked Jeremy Stephens headlines the UFC Fight Night 159 card
- Can Rodriguez build off of his 2018 “Knockout of the Year” stoppage of Chan Sung Jung?
- Can Stephens avoid the second three-fight losing skid of his lengthy career?
The UFC returns to Arena Ciudad de Mexico in Mexico City for the first time in more than two years this Saturday (Sept. 21). In the main event, two heavy-hitting featherweights with a combined 23 knockout victories meet in a contest that could launch the winner into the upper tier of the division.
The main card for UFC Fight Night 159 streams on ESPN+ at 8:00 PM ET, following prelims on ESPN+ at 5:00 PM ET.
RODRIGUEZ VS STEPHENS ODDS
|Fighter||Odds (as of Sept. 17)|
Rodriguez was on an eight-fight winning streak when he asked to face former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in May 2017. The fight did not go Rodriguez’s way. Edgar took Rodriguez to the mat in the first round and pummeled him with ground strikes. When the round ended, Rodriguez’s eye was nearly swollen shut. Rodriguez fought for a submission in the second round, but he failed to secure the technique. Edgar then opened up with more ground strikes. The doctor waved off the fight at the end of the second stanza due to Rodriguez’s damaged eye, which was swollen shut.
Rodriguez bounced back from that loss with a perfectly-timed elbow that knocked out Chan Sung Jung at the 4:59 mark of the fifth round of their UFC Fight Night 139 battle.
Stephens was steadily climbing the featherweight rankings in 2017-18. During that time he scored three impressive wins over Gilbert Melendez, Doo Ho Choi, and Josh Emmett. Stephens was rewarded with fight-night bonuses in each of those bouts.
Anxious to earn a title shot, Stephens next faced former featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Aldo knocked out Stephens in the first round of that 2019 contest. Stephens, never one to back down from a test, faced rising star Zabit Magomedsharipov in his next outing. Magomedsharipov won that matchup by decision.
Stephens has had four previous two-fight losing skids in his career. Only once did he lose a third straight fight.
TALE OF THE TAPE
|Yair Rodriguez||Category||Jeremy Stephens|
|4.06||Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute||3.08|
|3.11||Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute||2.84|
|1.02||Takedown Average Per 15 Minutes||1.11|
|1.0||Submission Average Per 15 Minutes||0.4|
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
This is an important fight for Rodriguez. If Stephens is a gatekeeper, he is the gatekeeper to the upper echelon of the featherweight division. Stephens’ recent losses have come to Magomedsharipov, Aldo, Renato Moicano, Edgar, and Max Holloway. A win over Stephens moves a fighter into the elite of the 145-pound division and makes him a legit title threat.
The UFC has been searching for a Mexican fighter it can promote as a star. By putting Rodriguez at the top of this card against a tough opponent, the UFC is banking on a lot of eyes being on this matchup. If Rodriguez wins, he could be the fighter the UFC pushes in the Mexican market.
Stephens is a favorite of UFC president Dana White. He won’t be released if he loses this fight, but he may find himself sliding down the rankings and getting worse placement on fight cards. Stephens has fought in the main event or co-main event in three of his last four outings. Stephens is still only 33, so his days as a potential title challenger are not over, but he needs to get back in the win column or else the road will to title contention will get a bit longer.
Rodriguez is one of the more exciting strikers in the UFC. He uses his tae kwon do base to unleash a lot of flashy techniques, but he often requires space to do so. The 26-year-old also has decent fight IQ (watch the elbow that knocked out Jung). Rodriguez learned that his ground game is not up to snuff when he battled with Edgar on the mat, so expect him to try and work from distance against Stephens.
One thing Rodriguez needs to show UFC matchmakers is that he can control a fight and set the pace. He cannot give Stephens any openings in this matchup because Stephens has the power to stop anyone in the division if given that opportunity.
[Rodriguez] cannot give Stephens any openings in this matchup because Stephens has the power to stop anyone in the division if given that opportunity
Stephens is known as a brawler, but he has added to his skill set over the years. He has good leg kicks that he could use to slow Rodriguez’s attacks. Stephens also uses pressure well, which could allow him to cut the distance that Rodriguez needs to unleash the kicks he favors. If the fight does go to the ground, Stephens will not hesitate to unleash a torrent of heavy ground strikes in the hopes of ending the battle on the mat. As aggressive as Stephens is, he is also a smart fighter who can adjust his game plan if needed.
As the odds indicate, this is a tough fight to pick. Rodriguez is the better technical fighter, but Stephens might be the more well-rounded competitor. The difference-maker in this bout might be Stephens’ recent fight with Magomedsharipov, who is similar in style to Rodriguez, but maybe a bit more unpredictable. If Stephens can take the lessons he learned from that decision setback and adjust where he went wrong in that matchup, he has a good chance of coming out the victor in this contest.
Pick: Stephens (-110)