When it comes to dynamic and creative strikers at featherweight, we have some outliers. Zabit Magomedsharipov, Jose Aldo, and maybe most impressively, UFC Fight Night Mexico City headliner Yair ‘El Pantera’ Rodriguez. The Chihuahua native has reinstated himself into the 145 pound elite with his last second upward elbow stoppage of Chan Sung Jung last November, after suffering a battering at the hands of Frankie Edgar in his premier Octagon loss. Still just 26 years of age, Rodriguez remains a highly thought of contender amongst his featherweight peers, but faces arguably his most dangerous striker to date this Saturday, in the form of Jeremy Stephens.
The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America victor has displayed his well varied standup weaponry in each of eight Octagon appearances to date, stopping Andre Fili with a jumping switch-kick as well as a front kick stoppage of former UFC lightweight and welterweight best B.J. Penn. Against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, Rodriguez met his real kryptonite for the first time in his still brief Octagon stint, wrestling. Ultimately losing via a second round doctor’s stoppage, Rodriguez was pummeled off his back by Edgar as he suffered severe swelling to his left eye.
Rodriguez of course was briefly released from his Ultimate Fighting Championship contract last year, after refusing multiple fight offers to face both the aforementioned Magomedsharipov and one-time title chaser Ricardo Lamas. After working through the dispute, Rodriguez rejoined the ranks nearly a month later. The Mexico native agreed to meet Magomedsharipov at UFC 228 in a hugely exciting prospect versus prospect meeting, until an injury to Rodriguez forced him off the card.
Replacing former opponent Edgar in a headlining slot against ‘The Korean Zombie’, Rodriguez scored the 2018 Knockout of the Year, as he rallied to stop Jung with literally a single second remaining in the fifth and final round. Both men agreed to throw till the buzzer, with Jung advancing and Rodriguez evading. Countering the South Korea’s winging hooks, Rodriguez launched an upward elbow, which folded Jung.
When paired with Stephens this weekend, Rodriguez cannot afford to get into a firefight with the Iowa power puncher, due to his superior one- shot finishing ability. The utilization of his consensus superior movement and footwork will also prove key to ‘El Pantera’. If we study Stephens’ losses in the Octagon, we see a real struggle against kicking oriented strikes, who utilize lateral locomotion to evade pocket exchanges. Case in point; Anthony Pettis, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Yves Edwards and ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone.
Rodriguez often throws roundhouse kicks to the body, as well as spinning back kicks to the midsection, but the varied offense of front kicks may provide success against Stephens, who struggled with range against Zabit. With a light lead leg approach, Rodriguez must remain wary of Stephens outside calf kick, a technique which proved detrimental to Gilbert Melendez. Remaining at kicking range offers Rodriguez the most clearcut path to victory in Mexico City on Saturday night, if he can manage to stick on the outside and outpoint the heavy handed Stephens.
The career of UFC Fight night Mexico City headliner Jeremy Stephens, Is that of a storied one. The Iowa native has spent twelve of his fourteen year professional career under the promotion’s banner, but so far, has yet to achieve title challenger status. The 33-year-old made an impressive blitz to the top of the featherweight rankings over the last year, but consecutive losses to former champion Jose Aldo followed by a decision defeat to Zabit Magomedsharipov, has seen him slide down the rankings. This Saturday, Stephens stands opposite Yair ‘El Pantera’ Rodriguez, with an opportunity to re-cement his stake for 145 pound prominence.
A true knockout artist during both his days at lightweight and featherweight, on any given night, the Des Moines striker has the ability to leave an opponent staring at the bright lights of the Octagon from their back. With a new found focus on footwork, under the guidance and advice of lightweight contender Tony Ferguson at the title hopefuls Big Bear facility, Stephens looks to add to his already dangerous standup arsenal.
Stephens, who looks to score a remarkable twentieth career knockout this weekend, has dropped numerous decision defeats throughout his time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but his success rate is not something to be balked at. With knockout triumphs of Dennis Bermudez, Doo Ho Choi, Josh Emmet, Rafael dos Anjos and Rony Jason to name a few, Stephens poses a legitimate threat to the returning Rodriguez this weekend.
In his rather one sided unanimous decision victory over former Strikeforce lightweight best Gilbert Melendez, Stephens displayed a polished calf kick attack early and often, knocking ‘El Nino’ off his feet on countless occasions. Against the kicking orientated Rodriguez, the utilization of said calf kick may pay dividends, and would certainly cancel out some front leg offensive techniques from the Chihuahua favourite.
Against the aforementioned Aldo, Stephens was stopped with a vicious body hook despite hurting the Brazilian early, suffering just the second knockout defeat of his forty-four fight career. Against dynamic strikers and in particular, opponents with superior lateral movement and footwork, Stephens has come unstuck. Against Rodriguez, Stephens can’t afford to stay at kicking range, and must close the distance and fight somewhat in the pocket.
When pitted with Magomedsharipov, Stephens struggled with front kicks to the body early and especially, the kicking range Zabit utilized. In the later rounds, Magomedsharipov secured a couple of hugely important takedowns, zapping Stephens’ energy. In my opinion, Stephens’ most likely route to success lies within the opening three rounds, with his explosive and heavy hitting style and perhaps a new found ability to close distance against a consensus superior controller of the Octagon.