When it comes to megawatt star power, Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Salt Lake City is lacking — but it might offer an early look at a future champ.
Featherweight Yair Rodriguez, of northern Mexico, sure looks like a stud in the making. The 23-year-old won the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” in 2014 and is now 4-0 in the UFC.
His last performance, a vicious head-kick knockout over Andre Fili in April, turned heads and likely played a part in him headlining his first event.
He’ll face 28-year-old Alex Caceres, a fellow TUF contestant who has held his own in the UFC but struggled with consistency. His overall UFC mark is 7-6.
Let’s take a closer look at Saturday’s featherweight main event. Don’t agree with these picks? Let me know on Twitter: @bokamotoESPN.
Yair Rodriguez (8-1) vs. Alex Caceres (12-8)
Odds: Rodriguez -310; Caceres +255
It’s no secret the UFC wouldn’t mind having a young Mexican star on its roster right now. It wouldn’t mind having several of them.
In 2013, the UFC launched a development program that handpicked Mexican prospects to live and train in the U.S. This group eventually became the first TUF Latin America cast, and Rodriguez emerged as the cream of the crop.
In some ways, he’s an anomaly to mixed martial arts in Mexico. Generally speaking, Mexican fighters have a lot of ground to catch up on in the grappling realm with most coming from a single-discipline background. Rodriguez, on the other hand, rose to the level of black belt in taekwondo before the UFC laid eyes on him. He also trained in judo multiple years and had some experience in boxing, karate and Brazilian jiujitsu.
These days, he trains with striking coach Mike Valle, whom he met in the development program. His wrestling coach is Mark Perry, a two-time NCAA Division I national champion out of the University of Iowa. His style is creative and nontraditional — the phrase “effectively wild” comes to mind.
The best way to stifle him is probably to take him down. He’s a dangerous guy to shoot in on, but the last thing you want to do is give him freedom at a kickboxing range. He frequently switches stances, and the footwork — and angles — he uses to set up his offense is downright artistic. He figures to have a pretty significant power advantage over Caceres, although Caceres should be a breath faster.
To be clear, getting Rodriguez to the floor isn’t a sure path to victory. He has an active guard and has demonstrated an ability to throw nasty elbows off his back. That doesn’t mean you can’t score points (or hurt him) from top position, but it’s not necessarily a picnic doing so.
Caceres is unpredictable in his own right, which, if nothing else, should make for an entertaining fight. Caceres isn’t the type to take a physical, clinch/takedown-heavy approach. He’s relatively small for the division and he tends to fight as such. He relies on speed and timing on the feet and scrambling ability when bigger opponents look to take him down. He’s a talented featherweight, but stylistically, he’ll have to beat Rodriguez in elements of his own game.
The fact this is a five-round main event might favor Caceres. As flashy as he can be, he’s also pretty calm. Rodriguez is aggressive, and the risks he takes in the Octagon have big potential payouts. They also require energy. I’m not sure I expect this to make it to the fourth and fifth rounds, but if it does, it would be interesting to see if Caceres has an advantage in the gas tank and how he’s able to use it.
Prediction: People tend to underrate Caceres, and they’re doing it again ahead of this one. That said, it’s tough to outright pick him against an opponent with such prolific offense. Rodriguez via second-round TKO.