It’s International Fight Week and you know what that means: The biggest fights of the year are on deck as UFC 290 rolls into Las Vegas this Saturday.
In the main event, featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski makes his return to the 145-pound division to square off with interim champion Yair Rodriguez in a battle to unite the belts. A win could further cement Volkanovski as one of the greatest of all-time, while a loss would mean the long-awaited arrival of Rodriguez. Who will win and why? Let’s take a look.
Paths to Victory for Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 290
After coming up just short in his attempt to claim a second title, Volkanovski returns to the division where he made his name to take on arguably his most dangerous opponent to date. And to get the win, Volkanovski is going to need to use all of his many skills.
For most of his recent run, Volkanovski’s striking has been the straw that stirs the drink for the champ. He’s not a huge knockout artist but he has quick hands, excellent footwork, and brilliant timing. That, combined with a strong defensive acumen, and his ability to adapt on the fly, has allowed him to piece up guys like Max Holloway and Chan Sung Jung. Against Rodriguez though, he will primarily need to use those tools to set up takedowns.
Rodriguez is an exceedingly dangerous striker, and while he does have four career submission wins, including an armbar against Josh Emmett in his most recent fight, the truth is that Rodriguez is unlikely to offer much serious offense from his back, more so the threat of offense. Rodriguez will elbow and attack with triangles and armbars, but Volkanovski is a good enough top position grappler where that won’t actually phase him. Instead, the champion can simply sit on top and wear down the young dynamo. The more he can do that, the less explosive Rodriguez becomes and the easier it is to take him down again, and so on and so forth.
If this was a straight kickboxing match, Rodriguez would obviously be favored to win. He’s the better finisher and more dynamic striker. Volkanovski would not be out of it though, and that’s key here. Volkanovski has to be willing to compete with Rodriguez at range, use his pressuring footwork to back the interim champion up to the fence, and then land his combinations and chain into takedowns. From there, it’s a replay of the Jose Aldo fight for Volkanovski, grinding away until Rodriguez has nothing left to offer.
Paths to victory for Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290
Rodriguez is a dynamic, fluid striker with explosive finishing capabilities from every conceivable angle — and at the least likely times imaginable. That is going to be the single biggest key to beating Volkanovski: The threat of a violent end at any moment in time. Volkanovski knows that any lapse in concentration on Saturday could end poorly for him, and Rodriguez needs to drive that point home early, flashing a variety of attacks to give Volkanovski the full gamut of things to worry about. Worrying causes hesitation, and he who hesitates is lost.
Along those lines, establishing a threat is going to require committed offense in multiples. Volkanovski is a brilliant defensive fighter when he wants to be (sometimes he can focus more on attacking, and when he does so, his defense slips like it did against Makhachev) and that means that single-shot attacks are not going to cut it. Rodriguez needs to attack in combination, making Volkanovski defend the first, second, and third salvos, instead of one and separate.
The biggest key for Rodriguez to win, though, will be finding consistent offense, which I think can happen most readily in his kicking game. While Volkanovski beat Max Holloway and fought well against Islam Makhachev, the length advantage both men had on him was noticeable and gave him problems, especially with their kicks. Makhachev in particular had great success with kicks to the body and then counter shots up top when Volkanovski steps in, and Rodriguez should be able to replicate that offense.
Lastly, but critically, Rodriguez cannot consent to wrestling. As mentioned above, Volkanovski is going to look to take Rodriguez down, and if he acquiesces and attempts to play guard, that’s tantamount to surrender. Rodriguez needs to stay moving on the feet, make it difficult for Volkanovski to shoot takedowns, and fight like hell whenever the champion does force a clinch. And if he does get taken down, use those nasty elbows to light Volkanovski up and then kick him off and get back to the feet.
Volkanovski is turning 35 in three months. Some people think this doesn’t mean much, but I think it could be extremely important, because as it stands, Volkanovski is the second-oldest champion in UFC history beneath welterweight. The only man older than him, Deiveson Figueiredo, was 35 coming into this most recent fight with Brandon Moreno and we saw how that went.
It is exceedingly difficult to succeed at the highest level in lighter weight divisions. Volkanovski is already an outlier with what he’s doing, and now we’re talking about a man coming off his first loss in a decade and moving back down a weight class. Maybe it won’t mean anything. After all, Volkanovski didn’t look any sort of diminished against Makhachev. But generally speaking, Volkanovski is fast approaching the end of his prime, and when that happens in these weight classes, the fall comes swiftly.
What makes Volkanovski so good is his deep well of tools and his expert fight IQ, which paired together make him a nightmare for most fighters. I’ve used the analogy to describe Volkanovski before, but because he is so skilled and so smart, and always makes the right decisions, I think of him as The House in the Las Vegas: Play enough games, on a long enough timeline and the house always wins. So how do you beat that? Well, to steal Danny Ocean’s line, you bet big on that one perfect hand, and then you take The House. And Yair Rodriguez is one of the few fighters at featherweight than can really bet big. Brian Ortega almost did it, and I think Rodriguez, against a slightly slowed version of Volkanovski, can get it done on Saturday.
Yair Rodriguez def. Alexander Volkanovski by KO (head kick) at 3:16 of round 3.