Just five months after coming up short in a razor thin decision loss to UFC lightweight champ Islam Makhachev, pound-for-pound standout Alexander Volkanovski returned to his natural weight class to resume his dominant reign at UFC 290.
The challenger that awaited him was the Mexican dynamo Yair Rodríguez, who had picked up a meaningless interim title the same night that Volkanovski made his attempt at lightweight gold. Despite long periods of inactivity, a clear loss to former champ Max Holloway, and a truncated fight with Brian Ortega, Rodríguez’s impressive submission victory over the hard-hitting Josh Emmett was enough to vault him into contention.
Even though it’s hard to understand why Rodríguez’s recent featherweight record elevated him above the 10-fight UFC win streak of Arnold Allen, the manner in which Rodríguez dispatched Emmett and his better-than-expected performance against Holloway still provided reasons to be excited for the matchup with Volkanovski at UFC 290.
Furthermore, Rodríguez brought a unique style challenge to the champion: a dynamic long-range kicking game paired with an iron chin and a sneakily offensive submission game off his back. If Volkanovski had been knocked down by a Max Holloway head kick and surprisingly out-kicked by Islam Makhachev, surely there was a decent chance that Rodríguez could manifest an upset knockout. At UFC 290 however, the pound-for-pound king was determined to mitigate that risk.
UFC 290: Defensive Responsibility
While it may seem at first that Rodríguez’s approach is to recklessly and randomly attack with a wide assortment of kicks, over the course of his UFC career he has honed his style to more effectively build off the threat of his different kicks.
At its core, his style still relies heavily on offensive variety rather than working specific setups, but he has found more success alternating between a few different kicks from both sides while mixing in some of his flashier techniques once he has his opponent guessing.
Against Holloway, it was his willingness to repeatedly attack with safer options like his low calf kick that prevented him from getting out of position too often. From the open stance (i.e. southpaw vs orthodox), his lead leg side kicks and stomps to to the lead knee have provided him an effective way to keep the long kicking distance he desires. Volkanovski was having none of it though.
Volkanovski employed a methodical pressuring approach to close down Rodríguez and gradually take away the space and comfort he needed to fire off his endless stream of kicks. Constant feints and stance switches served to overload the attention of Rodríguez, who found it difficult to decide what kicks to throw and when to throw them.
Essential for making this approach work was effective distance management that allowed Volkanovski to pull back from kicks. It’s easy for fighters who haven’t fought many strong kickers to feel overconfident in their ability to block kicks only for them to realize that repeatedly taking full-power kicks on the arms isn’t actually damage avoidance.
The flip side of this is that over-reactions while trying to avoid kicks can provide crafty kickers with openings to exploit, as Rose Namajunas demonstrated in her first UFC fight with Zhang Weili. Volkanovski was aware of this risk though and always anticipated the multi-kick attacks of Rodríguez.
UFC 290: Tormenting from Top Position
While Volkanovski’s championship reign has mostly been characterized by clinical striking performances, most of his early UFC fights were won through relentless pressure, takedowns, and ground and pound. It’s likely that he could have had a lot of success using his jab to fence with Rodríguez at range, but considering the success Frankie Edgar and Jeremy Stephens found from top position against Rodríguez, it seemed like a no brainer that Volkanovski would be eager to remind fans of his ferocity on the ground.
And of course Volkanovski, perhaps the smartest UFC fighter we’ve ever seen, wouldn’t just rush in and shoot doubles with no setups. Each takedown was set up with threats in transition as he dragged Rodríguez into layered exchanges and changed levels when he knew his opponent was least expecting it. However, the first takedown he landed came off a caught open side body kick, dissuading Rodríguez from throwing one of his best weapons for the rest of the fight.
With a fighter as quick and athletic as Rodríguez, getting the fight to the mat is just the start; keeping him there is another thing. As expected, Volkanovski had two-pronged attack planned for this though…
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Miguel Class has far more details on his in-depth breakdown of the UFC 290 main event, discussing Rodriguez’s adjustments, the finishing sequence and more. Read the full article over at Substack and support this kind of work.
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