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Marina Rodriguez sees a parallel between she and Zhang Weili’s UFC run

Marina Rodriguez (left) holds UFC wins over veterans Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Zhang Weili only needed three UFC wins to earn a shot at the strawweight championship, and undefeated Brazilian prospect Marina Rodriguez sees that as a model for her own run towards the gold.

Rodriguez impressed the UFC brass with a first-round beatdown of Maria Oliveira at Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018, and next year, she won decisions over experienced veterans Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres. Rodriguez’s rise hasn’t been perfect – she fought to draws against Randa Markos and Cynthia Calvillo – but nothing drives her away from her ultimate goal.

The 115-pound talent will face the inaugural strawweight champion Carla Esparza at UFC’s Fight Island show on July 25 — 10 days after the original date due to her corner’s positive test for COVID-19 — and loves the idea of sharing the cage with another top-ranked foe after being paired up with Claudia Gadelha – another matchup that was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We dream with the belt since I got in (the UFC),” Rodriguez told MMA Fighting. “Since the [Weili] won the belt, she pretty much walked the same path I walked in the organization. She had a few fights and obviously won them all, while I had two draws. But she has beaten the two opponents I beat and went straight for the title fight.”

Weili bested Danielle Taylor in her octagon debut in August 2018 and then followed up with wins over both Aguilar and Torres to challenge Jessica Andrade for the strawweight throne.

“I don’t think there’s such thing as a pattern to determine who gets a shot at a UFC belt, because if they only give it to the ones at the top of the ranking, they won’t give opportunity to other fighters,” Rodriguez said. “But I think many doors will absolutely open for me, and I will get closer to an opportunity for the belt, with a win over Esparza, especially if I knock her out. I’m not asking for it, but we’ll be ready — and when accept it right away — when it comes.”

With a 12-0-2 record, Rodriguez chooses to look at her majority draws as learning experiences. The Brazilian won a pair of rounds in both occasions, but saw the victory slip away.

“I don’t see it as, ‘I didn’t win nor lose,’” Rodriguez said. “It’s written there that it was a draw, of course, but I won two rounds. I have only lost two rounds my entire career, so I don’t see it as… I don’t know. It’s still evolution, because I’ve done many good things there. I was able to impose my skills and win rounds, things I did in training that worked in the fight, but I made mistakes that led to the draw.

“I see it as evolution. At the end of the day, I haven’t lost. It’s part of every competitors’ career to learn with a loss, to know it exists. But I haven’t seen it yet and hope not to see it for a long time.”

With an extra-long training camp ahead of her return in Abu Dhabi, Rodriguez has changed a few things to make sure she has her hands raised by the end of the fight.

“Every grappler I fought has tried to grab me, slow down the fight and take me down,” Rodriguez said. “Not even try to submit me, most of the girls just try to not let me fight at all. I have a muay Thai background, but I’ve been training every other type of game since my UFC debut. I know I’m evolving to be able to fight any girl, any game. But I believe Carla Esparza will try to take me down, like she does in every fight.”

Fighting in an empty arena for the first time since her DWCS bout, which coincidentally was the her most recent stoppage victory, Rodriguez hopes to secure the victory without having to go 15 minutes.

“Maybe this good memory will bring extra motivation – this push to get me my first knockout in the UFC,” she said.

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