Yair Rodriguez will try to give Mexican fans something to cheer about on Saturday, when he takes on Jeremy Stephens in the main event of UFC Fight Night 159 in Mexico City.
The bout pits two, top-10 featherweights against each other in what should be an action-packed fight in front of an energetic crowd.
Rodriguez Leading Growth of Mexican MMA
Rodriguez (11-2) is ranked as the No. 7 contender of the UFC featherweight division, and has won seven of his eight fights with the promotion. After a loss to Frankie Edgar in 2017, Rodriguez bounced back in the main event of UFC Fight Night 139 last November, landing an elbow with one second remaining in the fifth round to knock out the “Korean Zombie”, Chan Sung Jung, in a thrilling main event.
Rodriguez will be looking at his fight with Stephens as a chance to establish himself as a serious contender in the division. But there’s also the responsibility that he bears in terms of building MMA in Mexico, a country that has traditionally been in love with boxing.
“People still love boxing, of course, but MMA is very popular now,” Rodriguez told Yahoo Sports. “People are being more [exposed] to MMA and they’re understanding it, and it’s everywhere now. This is going to be a big place for MMA, and it’s not too far away.”
Journeyman Stephens Hitting Career Peak
Although he’s just 33 years old, Jeremy Stephens (28-16) is a true veteran in the UFC, having fought 30 times, and going exactly 15-15 in that time. As that record would suggest, Stephens has always been a solid competitor – he’s currently the No. 8 contender in the featherweight division – but he’s never been seen as a serious title threat, and has never had a title shot. He’s also on a two-fight losing streak, having taken losses to Jose Aldo and Zabit Magomedsharipov.
Those losses came against quality opponents, and in the eyes of many, Stephens has never been fighting better than he is right now. The confident American thinks he’ll be able to come into Mexico, and destroy Rodriguez in his own back yard.
“He’s a kid,” Stephens told MMA Junkie. “I fight like a man. I don’t run. I’m here to whoop his ass. I’m here to embarrass him and outpoint him every single step of the way.”
Stephens has reasons for optimism. He’s by far the better wrestler, and has shown more of an ability to control a fight, being patient when necessary in contrast to the wilder Rodriguez. As he says, that could give him the opportunity to win the bout on points, especially as his skill advantage should give him the better of most exchanges, especially at the times when Stephens can get the fight on the ground or into the clinch.
UFC Fight Night 159 Odds
- Yair Rodriguez (-116) vs. Jeremy Stephens (-106)
- Carla Esparza (+114) vs. Alexa Grasso (-138)
- Brandon Moreno (+130) vs. Askar Askarov (-160)
- Irene Aldana (-500) vs. Vanessa Melo (+360)
- Martin Bravo (-110) vs. Steven Peterson (-110)
Odds via FanDuel Sportsbook
On the other hand, Rodriguez has shown an incredible gas tank, as well as a propensity for finding unorthodox finishes even against solid opponents. These dynamics point to a fight that will go into the late rounds, with Rodriguez looking better as the fight goes on, and Stephens tries to hold on for a decision.
Bookmakers aren’t quite sure who will come out on top in that scenario. At FanDuel Sportsbook, Rodriguez (-116) is only the slightest of favorites over Stephens (-106) – and at those odds, there may not be an edge for bettors on either side of what should be a closely contested fight.