All they have to do is win.
Nothing is guaranteed in the UFC, but it sure feels like Rodriguez and Tate can cement themselves as the No. 1 contender in their respective divisions at UFC Long Island. Rodriguez seeks his first title shot, while Tate targets gold in a second division after holding the bantamweight title back in 2016.
Both have a tall task ahead of them, with Rodriguez having to take on two-time title challenger Brian Ortega in the main event and Tate opening up the main card against Lauren Murphy, who fought her way to a championship opportunity just 10 months ago. Ortega and Murphy are known for their grit and resilience, so if either Rodriguez or Tate do push their way to the front of the line on Saturday, a title shot will be well-earned.
In other main card action, Michelle Waterson fights Amanda Lemos in the strawweight co-main event, welterweight veteran Li Jingliang looks to snap Muslim Salikhov’s five-fight win streak, Matt Schnell meets Sumudaerji in a battle of flyweight contenders, and New York’s own Shane Burgos fights Charles Jourdain in a featherweight striking duel.
What: UFC Long Island
Where: UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Yair Rodriguez has been chasing that big win for years now. Is Brian Ortega the name to put him over the top?
Still just 29, “El Pantera” has plenty of fights left in his future, so it’s not the end of the road if he loses to an elite featherweight like Ortega. However, there are plenty of fans eager to see Rodriguez reach elite status himself, something he’s yet to do in his UFC career. Rodriguez has been plagued by inactivity and against the featherweight division’s best, he still has a lot to prove. He lost a competitive fight against Max Holloway, had to land maybe the greatest strike in combat sports history to steal a win from Chan Sung Jung, and was thoroughly dominated by Frankie Edgar (in fairness, the last example there happened five years ago). “The Korean Zombie” is Rodriguez’s best win, but who is the biggest name that he’s convincingly beat? Jeremy Stephens? B.J. Penn? Dan Hooker?
None of that matters on Saturday, because what’s most important is that he is the best version of himself now. If he beats Ortega convincingly, his past shortcomings will feel even more distant than they already do. We know he has the striking to compete with anyone at 145 pounds and as improved as Ortega is in that department, Rodriguez beats him there. He’s quicker, has a more diverse arsenal, and has a slight size advantage.
Ortega has lamented not being able to submit Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 266 despite having the champion in serious trouble on the ground, so I believe him when he says he’s put renewed focus on the jiu-jitsu skills that brought him to the dance. Any ground sequences will be dominated by “T-City”; the trick is getting the fight there because outside of the Edgar fight, Rodriguez has shown solid takedown defense.
In all likelihood, Ortega’s takedowns will come off of trips and scrambles, and if he’s not careful, unsuccessful attempts could chip away at his gas tank. I see him taking Rodriguez down and doing enough damage to convincingly take a couple of rounds, with the other three up for grabs. It will be close, but Ortega by decision.
On paper, this matchup makes a lot of sense for the UFC from a promotional standpoint. On one side, you have Michelle Waterson, a reliable draw who has headlined the past three Fight Night events she’s been a part of; on the other, you have Amanda Lemos, a still-developing contender who has hit a rough patch in her past two fights, but still profiles as a serious threat in the strawweight division.
I’m hesitant to count Waterson out here. Though Waterson has more in-cage mileage on her, she’s actually only 16 months older than Lemos. More importantly, she’s been fighting the best in her division the better part of the last decade while Lemos has just begun to step up in competition and her results have been mixed. Lemos narrowly sneaked past veteran Angela Hill and was then soundly defeated by a top 5 opponent in Jessica Andrade. There’s no shame in either of those results, but the fact is that Lemos has not shown out against top competition.
To some degree, you could say the same about Waterson, which is what makes this matchup so tricky. In the UFC, Waterson has only lost to former and future champions, with the exception of Marina Rodriguez (long overdue for a title shot) and Tecia Torres. That still means she has much more big-game experience.
From a style standpoint, you’d like to see Lemos return to the form that saw her record three first-round finishes in her five fights prior to Andrade. She has good size and power for the division, which is why it’s easy to imagine her running over the smaller Waterson in the opening round.
Waterson is incredibly tough and hasn’t been finished in five years, so I’m confident she’ll make it out of the first. From there, her methodical standup will frustrate Lemos and she’ll start to rack up points just like Hill did against the Brazilian power puncher. Once it goes to the cards, it’s anyone’s guess, but you can tell what direction I’m leaning in.
Li Jingliang is one of the more unpredictable fighters in the welterweight division. Always in the mix to have a number next to his name, Li shrugs off losses like rain on the skin and goes at whoever is next for him with genuine ferocity. Muslim Salikhov needs to be prepared, is what I’m saying.
Fortunately for Salikhov, he has just the style to deal with Li. “King of Kung Fu” makes great use of lateral movement and counters to control the standup, so if he stays patient, Li will give him openings to score. He can’t wait too long though, because Li is capable of overwhelming his opponents once he gets going.
This is definitely the right matchup for Salikhov at this stage of his career as he’s beaten a couple of quality veterans in his past two outings following wins over three opponents who are no longer in the UFC. I have questions about his ground defense, but Li isn’t the fighter to put that potential deficiency to the test for any meaningful stretch of time. This one stays standing and that means Salikhov gets the nod.
Salikhov by knockout.
Cherish this moment, because I’m not sure we’ll see two flyweights as long and lanky as this face off in the octagon again anytime soon. Both standing 5-foot-8 and still somehow making the 125-pound cut, Matt Schnell and Sumudaerji look more like mantisweights than flyweights.
I’m curious as to who will attempt to close the distance first as both are effective from range. Sumudaerji has the slight edge in reach and his standup approach is definitely trickier, while Schnell has shown a tendency to get wild from time to time. In this instance, that might actually be to Schnell’s benefit. Sumudaerji hasn’t been in a funky fight yet and a veteran like Schnell isn’t going to stand there and be picked apart. If he feels like Sumudaerji is outpointing him from distance, Schnell is going in.
It’s a dangerous way to live — appropriate, given Schnell’s nickname — and could be disastrous against an accurate puncher like Sumudaerji. But Schnell is going to push through some early adversity here, land something that hurts Sumudaerji, and then submit him.
Shane Burgos vs. Charles Jourdain
Call it a guaranteed Fight of the Night, call it a crowd-pleaser, call it a coin-toss matchup, call it whatever you like. This is an incredibly difficult fight to call.
Shane Burgos and Charles Jourdain are more well-rounded than their free-swinging styles would suggest, but come on, we know these two are looking to put on a show. The rowdy New York crowd will call for Burgos to draw blood and he’ll happily oblige. Jourdain has great counters though, so a quick start for Burgos could also spell a quick end for him.
I think this one comes down to volume as well as damage, so the more aggressive Burgos should come out on top even if he’s a bloody mess by the time the final horn sounds. Judges are only human and when they hear the roar of the fans every time Burgos lands, those pencils are going to notch enough 10s in his favor to get the win.
This could be do or die for Miesha Tate.
If Tate defeats Lauren Murphy, she has a flyweight championship opportunity pretty much in the bag, with Valentina Shevchenko already eyeing Tate for a future title defense. If Tate loses on Saturday, it could signal a second retirement, as the former bantamweight champion’s main purpose for returning to competition after a near five-year hiatus was to test herself against the best once more. A 1-2 mark in her comeback run would make Tate’s climb back to title contention mighty steep.
So how can she get it done? Tate’s wrestling is a major factor here. If she keeps Murphy on defense for the majority of the fight, she’ll eventually wear her down and put her on her back. Tate can scramble with the best of them too, so as tough as Murphy is, it will take a lot of energy to shake “Cupcake”.
On the feet, I like Murphy’s chances. It’s not that Murphy is an outstanding technical striker, but she is a grinder and more than capable of putting it on Tate for three rounds if Tate cannot get this fight to the ground.
I confess that ever since Tate came back, I’ve questioned how sharp she still is, especially against opponents who have put in the endless hours while she’s been away from the game. Her work ethic is unquestionable, but there’s only so much you can do to make up for lost time. That’s time that Murphy has made the most of and I see her outworking Tate for the win on Saturday.