Max Holloway is fighting to hold on to that No. 1 spot.
No. 1 contender’s spot, that is. While some might still consider Holloway to be the king at 145 pounds — including two panelists in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings — there’s a reason “Blessed” is headlining his second straight Fight Night and not headlining pay-per-views this year. He’s on the hunt for a third fight with featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and to get there he has to stave off Yair Rodriguez in Saturday’s UFC Vegas 42 main event.
This is a pivotal fight for “El Pantera” as well. Still just 16 fights into his pro career, Rodriguez has all the makings of a title challenger with a loss to the more experienced Frankie Edgar standing as the only blemish on his UFC record. His run to the top has been slowed considerably by high-profile bouts with Zabit Magomedsharipov and Holloway falling through, but he can make a major statement with a win in his first fight since October 2019.
In other main card action, heavyweight veterans Ben Rothwell and Marcos Rogerio de Lima clash in the co-main event, Felicia Spencer welcomes back Leah Letson in a featherweight bout, welterweight sluggers Miguel Baeza and Khaos Williams throw down, and bantamweights Song Yadong and Julio Arce look to get a win streak going.
What: UFC Vegas 42
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Max Holloway (2) vs. Yair Rodriguez
The featherweight division has continued to cook with Yair Rodriguez on the shelf, yet somehow he finds himself one win away from leapfrogging all the other contenders. That speaks to how talented Rodriguez is and how memorable his highlights have been.
He’s about as live as an underdog can get when you consider how much time he’s been off and the quality of his opposition. Whether you feel Max Holloway won his rematch with Alexander Volkanovski or not, you’d be hard-pressed to make a convincing argument that the former champion has fallen off much based on his past two performances. He’s still one of MMA’s sharpest boxers, still an unholy combination of volume and accuracy on the feet, and still quite possibly the baddest 145er on the planet.
Rodriguez has to fight a perfect fight to upset Holloway. Don’t put it past him. Yes, Rodriguez is a fantastic finisher, but he’s also gone the distance against tough opponents like Jeremy Stephens and Alex Caceres. He’s not a home run or nothing fighter. If he can string together enough base hits, it could be enough to win this ballgame and it doesn’t hurt that Volkanovski has provided a workable blueprint for how to outwork Holloway.
It’s unlikely that Rodriguez takes that approach though as he brings his own unique arsenal to the cage. Rangy and creative, Rodriguez is a constant knockout threat and a difficult puzzle to solve in his own right. This bout could resemble a chess match at times.
At other times it will resemble a brawl and it’s in those moments that Holloway will outshine Rodriguez. We just haven’t seen if Rodriguez has that extra gear to consistently go a hard, draining five rounds (last-second Zombie KO withstanding) and that’s something we know Holloway excels at. If Rodriguez proves me wrong, more power to him.
Until then, Holloway by decision.
Ben Rothwell vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima
Let’s get funky.
Ben Rothwell vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima might not scream co-headliner, but this is the kind of soft spotlight you give to two of your heavyweight lifers. They’re going to stand and bang and maybe even mix in the occasional scramble. Overall, it should be a fun fight of little rankings consequence.
It’s difficult to pick against Rothwell here. He’s the bigger, more experienced fighter, and there’s a controlled wildness about him that has always made him one of the toughest outs in the big boy division. I don’t like de Lima’s chances of finishing him, so if this one goes the distance it should be a W for Rothwell.
Look for “Big Ben” to throw all kinds of wacky stuff to prevent de Lima from getting into any kind of rhythm while picking him apart with solid striking and avoiding de Lima’s power shots.
Felicia Spencer vs. Leah Letson
Felicia Spencer needs to get back to her roots.
She’s shown her durability and improved striking, but grappling is what brought Felicia Spencer to the dance and that’s the skill she should utilize against Leah Letson. Spencer learned a harsh lesson against Norma Dumont as she was out-struck for the majority of that fight. A similar fate could befall her on Saturday if she’s not careful as Letson brings a simple, effective standup approach to the octagon. Add in Letson’s reach advantage and one can see how she’s a feisty upset pick.
Letson does tend to come forward in straight lines, which makes her vulnerable to a Spencer double leg. Otherwise, Spencer should muscle her way into clinch range and find a way to trip Letson to the mat. If Letson hasn’t leveled up her takedown defense, this could be a short one.
Spencer by first-round submission.
Miguel Baeza vs. Khaos Williams
Stylistically, this is an awesome matchup as both Miguel Baeza and Khaos Williams are more well-rounded than their fast finishes would suggest. Baeza has the edge on the feet as far as technical striking goes, while Williams has both power and a smidge of wrestling that he could use to mix things up if it comes to that.
Williams is susceptible to leg kicks, which Baeza is great at throwing; on the flip side, Baeza — like most human beings — is susceptible to face-punching, something that Williams happens to be great at. In all seriousness, if Baeza doesn’t shore up his defensive weaknesses, Williams could be celebrating another KO in under 60 seconds.
I like Baeza to avoid the big kibosh though and slow Williams down by chopping away at his legs. It’s in the second that he’ll turn up the heat and put Williams away.
Song Yadong vs. Julio Arce
This bantamweight opener is the most difficult main card pick to figure out in my opinion.
Song Yadong continues to improve as he heads into his 25th pro bout at just 23 years old. He’s having difficulty putting an exclamation point on his performances, but his split nod over Casey Kenney was a net positive as he scored the win against an unorthodox and tricky foe.
He has an entirely different challenge in Arce, a versatile fighter with a much more unassuming striking style. Arce is deceptively quick, using feints and patience to lure his opponent into range rather than constant movement. He hasn’t had much luck with decisions lately, but once he’s able to suss out his opponents’ timing its usually lights out for them.
Though Song still has a bright future, I have Arce finishing him in what will be a teachable — if painful — moment.