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Yair Rodriguez and Alexander Volkanovski will headline UFC 290, but only through circumstance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m hyped as hell for this matchup. It’s everything I love about the various kinds of champions that rise to the top in MMA, from cerebral tacticians who game plan, adjust, and persevere to athletic dynamos who enter the matrix and emerge as the only conscious combatant left standing when the dust settles.
From a style and body type perspective, one could imagine we’re finally getting a Georges St. Pierre vs Anderson Silva super fight. How we got this as the crown jewel of International Fight Week goes way back to the Francis Ngannou / Ciryl Gane / Jon Jones / Stipe Miocic slow-motion fiasco.
Long story short: Francis Ngannou became a free agent in January 2023, and the promotion responded to this by booking Jones vs Gane at UFC 285 for the vacant heavyweight title upon which Jones quickly took down and choked out a woefully inept Gane.
Miocic, having a front-row seat to the event, seemed eager to “beat that ass” and reclaim his title in July. Between Jones, Miocic, and Dana White, no one can offer up a clear explanation as to why that fight never came to fruition but it did lead us to this weekend’s main event.
Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez is a fantastic fight
Preamble aside, this featherweight title fight is fascinating. Volkanovski and Rodriguez share three high level opponents and none of those fights resemble each other in the slightest.
The one we can consider disregarding is Brian Ortega who suffered a shoulder injury in the first round of his fight with Rodriguez, giving us very little comparison footage. The remaining two opponents are Max Holloway and the Korean Zombie, Jung Chan-Sun.
Alexander Volkanovski spent the better part of 2022 absolutely brutalizing both men, to the point of being outwardly pained at having to continue punching Zombie in their fight and leaving Holloway bruised and bloodied in a way we’d never before seen.
Rodriguez by comparison has gone through hell with both of the aforementioned opponents, being soundly outpointed by Jung until a cinematic last second, behind-the-back elbow scored Rodriguez a knockout finish for the the ages.
Rodriguez’ fight with Holloway is the most curious of all these matchups. He was able to punish Max with strikes to the point that Holloway pivoted to a takedown and top control strategy that ultimately won the fight, but I’ve always wondered if the damage sustained in this fight set Max up for the above mentioned third loss to Volkanovski.
That brings us to 2023. Both Alexander Volkanovski and Yair Rodriguez have performed admirably. Volkanovski performed valiantly (but unsuccessfully) in challenging Islam Makhachev for the lightweight championship while Rodriguez showed off a slightly more disciplined approach to fighting versus Josh Emmett, submitting the Team Alpha Male mainstay via triangle choke to secure the interim title, thus setting up Saturday’s fight.
Volkanovski and Rodriguez appear to be at their peaks, with the Australian cresting while El Pantera has just entered his prime. How can a deliberate, cerebral champion analyze and adapt to an opponent who seems to fight the way a jazz musician improvises?
Frankie Edgar put Yair on his back, pushed him up against the fence and crushed elbows into his face, which sounds like a plan. But don’t forget, that didn’t actually make Rodriguez quit or diminish his desire to fight. It took a doctor stoppage to end that contest.
Volkanovski is a competitor to the core
We know that Volkanovski has a competitive fire raging within him, it was on full display when he was locked in Makhachev’s body triangle. The former 400 pound rugby player (shoutout to Master of Facts, Joe Rogan) howled his disapproval and convinced some fans he won the fourth round via over the shoulder punches.
While Volkanovski did not win a second title, his stock rose as he gave Makhachev hell and stole the headlines coming out of their contest. Rodriguez wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to in-cage intensity in contrast to Volkanovski’s methodical dismantling of his most dangerous opponents, but in each of their most recent fights both men have shown the flip side of their personalities.
Saturdays’ fight might require one of them to tap into that otherness to ultimately unify the featherweight title. I might be in Denmark but you can be sure I’ll be awake at approximately 4:30am to catch the entire main card.
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