UFC Mexico City preview: Breaking down Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor
Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens face off during a news conference on Sept. 19, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Hector Vivas/Zuffa LLC)
Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens face off during a news conference on Sept. 19, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Hector Vivas/Zuffa LLC)

Saturday’s UFC main event has the potential to be spectacular, as two elite featherweights clash in Mexico City just in time to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. Yair Rodriguez (11-2) and Jeremy Stephens (28-16) have made weight and so their headlining bout is on, and we can’t wait for it.

Rodriguez has not been particularly active the past two years, having last fought and won in 2018 with a last-second KO over former title-challenger Chan Sung Jung. For his part, Stephens has lost two-straight, but they were to opponents that are as good as it gets — Zabit Magomedsharipov and Jose Aldo.

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Stephens has goaded Rodriguez, promising to run over him because he allegedly doesn’t fight like a man, whatever that means. Threats and insults aside, Rodriguez’s last two wins were both brutal stoppage victories.

Still, it’s hard to match Stephens’ own stopping power. In all, 21 out of his career 28 wins have come by way of some form of stoppage.

Below we break down some key areas of the fight to preview Saturday’s main event. Read on and let us know who you’ve got, and why, in the comments section.

Stand-up striking

Jeremy Stephens is known as a pressure-and-guts fighter, capable of knocking any opponent out at any moment. True enough, the Iowan swings big and heavy with punches, knees and kicks.

He’s also as skilled as he is dynamic. Though he often marches forward on opponents, Stephens is also a savvy counter-striker, and some of his biggest KO’s have come from finding holes on opponents as they move or strike first.

Stephens can also fight well backing up. He covers well and has good head and upper body movement that serves both as defense and as a loading mechanism for counter strikes.

So, while Rodriguez is no-doubt mentally prepared for Stephens to attempt to walk him down, he’ll have to be aware of his opponents’ threats at all points on the feet. Rodriguez is best when he fights at long range, using kicks and leads the action.

His kicks have some serious speed and he throws more than many opponents expect in combination. Rodriguez does not mind fighting in the pocket nor does he mind counter-striking from close range.

It certainly has paid-off, most notably with his last-second counter reverse elbow strike KO against “The Korean Zombie.” As dangerous as he always is, however, Rodriguez is quite hittable (at least against top tier opponents) from punching range.

His speed advantage seems to lessen a bit in punching range, and he seems to have a bit too much confidence in his ability to gauge distance and use head movement to get out of the way of opponents who strike first. So, Rodriguez keeps his hands low and tries to slip, roll and lean away from punches and then counter.

He certainly counters well, but he got hit a lot by Jung taking this approach of waiting on his opponent, and I’m not sure he wants to absorb as many jabs, crosses and uppercuts from Stephens as he did in his last fight.

Still, Stephens and Jung are very different fighters on their feet. Both have a propensity to push the pace, but Jung usually has less tell in his punches, shooting them right from his shoulder, making them more straight and quicker than some of Stephens’ shots.

Perhaps Rodriguez can evade more shots from in the pocket while taking a reacting approach from Stephens than he did against Jung, but what the “Lil Heathen” might lack in disguising his offensive striking attack by not loading up, he makes up for with power.

He’s capable of punching through good guards and still knocking an opponent out.

Grappling

Rodriguez doesn’t often look to clinch but he has a good Thai Plum and is also hard to take down, especially against the fence where he stays busy with strikes and gets off of the wall nicely. Stephens has some good wrestling and clinch work when he wants to employ it, and if Rodriguez starts to get hard to handle at long range with kicks, he might look to do damage with rolling punches, close the distance, and then wear down the tall opponent a bit with pressure clinching against the cage.

Both men strike well off of clinch separation, making them both dangerous. On the ground from top positions, Stephens is a remarkably aggressive and accurate striker who understands how to control opponents with one hand while striking with the other.

His ground strike timing is excellent, as is his balance while delivering all-out blows, and he has a real tactical approach that is disguised by his raw aggression. No one wants to be underneath Stephens on the mat for long, especially if they were put there by one of his standing strikes.

Rodriguez is tricky off of his back and it takes a great mat wrestler to keep him pinned, but he hasn’t shown himself to be an elite finishing threat on the ground as much as on the feet, just yet.

Conditioning

Both men are capable of going deep into a five-round fight, though they’ve not had to do so very often. Rodriguez did it in his last bout, and though he was clearly tiring and eating more and more shots from “The Korean Zombie” as their bout wore on, he apparently never lost focus or stopped trying to win, which allowed him to win at the last-second.

If Stephens is too gung-ho early on and doesn’t get a finish, he will need to find ways to get his breath back because he puts so much effort into his punches. The American says he’s spent $30,000 to conduct a six-week camp in Mexico ahead of this bout, however, in order to acclimate to the high altitude he’ll be fighting in on Saturday.

So, he might very well feel right at home fighting in Mexico against the Mexican come fight night.

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