The road to UFC gold is also the home of many broken-down fighters. Of course, there are always exceptions like Jon Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov, but few can rise through the rankings without getting knocked off course several times. It's the relentless determination, commitment to constant self-improvement and a little bit of fortunate timing that can put fighters in a position to contend for the UFC title.
Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez have been up and down the road several times without reaching the sport's ultimate destination. After starting his MMA career with 14 straight wins, Ortega has lost two of his last three, both losses coming in featherweight title shots. However, his opponent, Yair Rodriguez, is still looking for the opportunity to fight for UFC gold.
A win over Ortega should be enough to solidify him as the No. 1 contender. The division is desperate for new blood after current champion Alex Volkanovski defeated Max Holloway for the third time at UFC 276. The timing is perfect for "El Pantera," but is he worth a bet to break through finally in the biggest fight of his career?
The main event provides a fascinating stylistic matchup between two dangerous fighters for distinctly different reasons. Yair Rodriguez is one of the UFC's most innovative strikers. His unique and unpredictable attacks push his opponents into a reactive state of uncertainty. At the same time, it's impossible to fully prepare for Brian Ortega's ability to put you away with his grappling when he gets you to the mat. Both fighters do a great job at using their length, which is why I feel like distance control will be a massive factor in this fight.
While the focus will be on each fighter's dominant strengths, the development of the rest of their game will determine how well they can impose those strengths on their opponent. For example, Ortega has recently showcased his improved boxing in a decision win over "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung. Still, I'm not confident it's at the level required to close distance on Rodriguez. That being said, Yair Rodriguez has allowed his opponents to take him down six times over his last two fights. So it's hard to imagine him lasting long trapped in Ortega's world on his back. If he has made enough improvement in his grappling to get back to his feet, we could see five rounds of a striking clinic.
Every round starts standing. And that's exactly why Rodriguez is live to pull off the upset Saturday as a +140 underdog. Yair's the more aggressive striker and will successfully force the fight to take place at a distance where he can pick Ortega apart. I think Ortega will stick with his developing boxing game for much too long, allowing Rodriguez to pour on the power shots early in this fight.
Ortega has a long history of being on the wrong end of the striking differential. Even with his unbreakable durability, absorbing damage from a dynamic striker like Rodriguez will compromise his ability to get this fight to the mat. Yair's ability to survive when the inevitable takedown occurs increases dramatically the more he is able to punish Ortega prior in the stand-up exchanges. That's a big factor. Rodriguez doesn't need to rely on a mistake from his opponent to execute his gameplan. There is always the risk of a spinning kick turning into an Ortega takedown, and leading to the end the fight. But -165 is too steep to back the favorite. I will take Rodriguez to seize the moment and deliver on his potential.
The Bet: Yair Rodriguez (+140)
Amanda Lemos (-350) vs. Michelle Waterson (+260)
If you are betting into -350 on a UFC fight, the last place you want your money is in the hands of the judges. Amanda Lemos has finished her opponents in nine of her 11 wins. She gets an ideal pairing with the scrappy "Karate Hottie" after having her five-fight win streak snapped by Jessica Andrade. Waterson has lost three of her last four and will struggle mightily to overcome Lemos' length and power. Waterson's few paths to victory support her status as a big underdog in this fight. Lemos' finishing rate makes her the right side for those who like to bet heavy favorites, but I think she is best suited as a parlay leg.
The Parlay: Amanda Lemos and Shane Burgos (+106)
*stats provided by ufcstats.com