When it comes to the meritocracy of UFC title shots, favor has historically been given to fighters with exciting styles who also possess high upsides in terms of marketability.
Yair Rodriguez (13-3, 1 NC) has both in spades entering Saturday’s headlining UFC Fight Night card (ABC, 2 p.m. ET) from UBS Arena in Elmont, New York. The afternoon showcase on network television offers the explosive native of Mexico, currently ranked No. 3 at 145 pounds by the promotion, a potential title shot should he get past No. 1 Brian Ortega (15-2 1 NC), a two-time title challenger who was defeated by current featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski in his last outing.
Given the UFC’s long-held interest of expanding into the boxing-obsessed Mexican market, it would make sense for the 29-year-old Rodriguez to get such a push should he win. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it would be fully justified considering Rodriguez is just 2-2 with one no contest in his last five fights and enters the Ortega clash fresh off a unanimous decision defeat to former champion Max Holloway last November.
The good news for Rodriguez is that he fought extremely well against Holloway throughout five all-action rounds, showing a legitimate leap in his all-around game. It was a much-needed performance for the sublime striker who has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, including his last-second knockout of Chan Sung Jung in Round 5 of their 2018 thriller, but has never quite been able to truly find the consistency needed to break free from the contending pack surrounding him.
But even though Rodriguez revealed this week he was told by UFC brass that he would get the next shot at Volkanovski with a win, in what only can be described as yet another must-see fight on paper, it’s fair to question whether the case for Josh Emmett (18-2) is even stronger.
The 37-year-old Emmett, a hard-nosed brawler who has overcome extensive injuries and damage to crawl his way to a share of the No. 3 ranking alongside Rodriguez, is riding a five-fight winning streak. And despite the mild-mannered Emmett having gone out of his comfort of late to make a large media push to promote why he should be next, including a stop in Las Vegas before UFC 276 on “Morning Kombat,” the promotion appears to have disagreed.
Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news.
“[Ortega and Rodriguez] are both coming off of losses and have both fought the best in the world. But one of them is going to win and be on a one-fight winning streak and only Yair hasn’t fought Volkanovski,” Emmett told CBS Sports. “But I am on a five-fight winning streak and I beat guys in the top 10 and top five.
“I feel like this is the only fight to make. I’m the only person who hasn’t fought the elite fighters. The guys in front of me have and they are great fighters but they haven’t been as active yet they stay there, they stay at the top [of the rankings]. If I was inactive for that long, I wouldn’t be in the top 20 yet they stay right there. They just hang out there. [UFC] is moving me down [the rankings] without anything even happening. I don’t understand the rankings or who does this.”
Emmett’s case isn’t without merit. Rodriguez has fought just once in past 32 months, and it ended in a loss to Holloway. Ortega, who sat out two years due to injuries following his 2018 title loss to Holloway, has fought just twice in the past 42 months and also enters fresh off defeat.
Asked about Emmett during media day on Wednesday, Rodriguez appeared sympathetic to his case while also expressing that even he can’t be too certain he will get the next title shot with a win, even with the assurances given by UFC, until it actually happens.
“I think Josh Emmett is right there,” Rodriguez said. “I have said before that he could fight for the title, I could fight for the title. Anybody could fight for the title, it’s just a matter of timing. I think everybody in the division is going to face each other one day. It doesn’t matter if it is one year or two years away. It’s just a matter of time. I [also] think the only ones that can confirm that is the UFC but I have been told that [a title shot] will be [with a win].”
What Rodriguez also believed was just a matter of time was him and Ortega, who are friendly outside of the Octagon, getting a chance to pair their incredible clash of styles against one another in a high-profile fight.
“We knew it would happen but we knew it would be something where we didn’t want to face each other unless it was something like this with an opportunity for a title or the title itself,” Rodriguez said. “And here we are, it came and we are ready.”
Rodriguez said he found huge stretches of success against Holloway because of how well he was able to limit mistakes and stick to his gameplan, which is something that has hampered him throughout his run. That same level of discipline will surely be needed against the 31-year-old Ortega, who often attempts to finish in such a dramatic and reckless manner that he has turned many of his biggest fights, including both defeats against Holloway and Ortega, into outright wild affairs.
“I gained a lot of experience fighting [Holloway], like not getting out of the strategy or getting in bad positions because I know Brian Ortega can take advantage of it,” Rodriguez said. “So I learned about staying basic.
“It is what it is. It’s not the result I wanted. I know people give me a lot of respect after that fight but that is not something that I was looking for. I was looking to win the fight and I couldn’t do it so I’m just getting better every time I step into the Octagon and this time will be different.”
Asked how he might deal with Ortega’s proficient and dangerous grappling attack, the striking-heavy Rodriguez was simple and blunt.
“Staying out of the floor,” Rodriguez said. “That’s it.”
Still, even with the debate surrounding Emmett’s claim for a shot at the throne, the idea of Rodriguez advancing to a fight with Volkanovski is an exciting proposition for fans of the division.
Volkanovski, who battered Holloway over five rounds earlier this month to take a one-sided decision in their trilogy, has added the increased ability to inflict damage to his already complicated style, which is built upon movement and feints. If Rodriguez can continue his own evolution with a win over Ortega, he might be the last remaining featherweight at the moment that fans could see holding a reasonable shot at upsetting Volkanovski because of how unpredictably explosive “El Pantera” can be.
Either way, Rodriguez knows he must keep his focus on Ortega and not anyone else, whether that be Emmett, Volkanovski or UFC matchmakers. He’s excited about sharing the cage this weekend with a fellow, proud Latin American star in hopes of delivering yet another all-action affair.
“I know everybody has the warrior spirit in this game but [Ortega and I] have something special, the fight inside of us,” Rodriguez said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a war. No one is going to pull back in this fight and it’s going to be a throwdown.”