Mexican prospect Yair Rodriguez will headline his third UFC card on Saturday night, but this weekend will mark the first time he will have the opportunity to top a card in his home country.
In Mexico City, Rodriguez will face off against powerful veteran Jeremy Stephens. “Lil Heathen” is coming off back-to-back losses, but he has proven himself to always be a dangerous challenge. The following statistical categories highlight the key differences for Saturday’s Fight Night main event.
After eight UFC fights, Rodriguez has landed 4.06 significant strikes per minute. In most scenarios, this would be an impressive rate. However, the featherweight division is currently stocked with volume strikers. That striking rate is only ninth best when compared with the UFC’s ranked 145-pound fighters. Even though he has not set himself apart from his contemporaries from an offensive perspective, he has put up respectable numbers defensively. He has only absorbed 3.11 significant strikes per minute, which is above average among ranked featherweights. This leaves him with a +0.95 striking differential, which is defined as significant strikes landed per minute minus significant strikes absorbed per minute.
While that differential is above the average for ranked featherweights (+0.86). It does not tell the entire story. In the UFC, 20% of all of Rodriguez’s absorbed significant strikes came against Frankie Edgar. In their fight in 2017, Rodriguez had no answers for the former title challenger’s ground-and-pound. Excluding that fight, the prospect’s striking numbers jump up significantly. In his other seven fights, he has landed 4.28 per minute and absorbed 2.73 per minute for a differential of +1.55. That differential would be fifth best among ranked featherweights behind only Alexander Volkanovski, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Renato Moicano and champion Max Holloway.
With the exception of a few notable performances, Stephens has never really been a volume striker. He is much more likely to sit down on his punches and try to land with power. In the UFC, he has landed only 3.08 significant strikes per minute, which is the fourth worst among ranked featherweights. Even though he is not going to win any strike-count contests, there is a benefit to his conservative striking approach. His depressed volume allows him to avoid a lot of punishment. Stephens absorbs only 2.84 significant strikes per minute. However, in terms of striking differential, his defense is not strong enough to overcome his lack of offensive output. His +0.24 differential is one of the three lowest among ranked featherweights, ahead of only Calvin Kattar (-1.29) and Brian Ortega (-3.29).
If this fight comes down to who can land the most strikes, then Rodriguez is certainly the favorite. Stephens will get his opportunities, but he will not be able to keep up with his opponent’s pace unless he makes some major adjustments. While some fighters are able to find success while being outlanded, that has not been the case for Stephens. In the UFC, he has lost 12 of the 13 fights where he has been outlanded.
One of the adjustments that Stephens could try to make is to limit Rodriguez’s opportunities to strike at distance, which is defined as standing and not in the clinch. Both fighters see a majority of their landed significant strikes comes at distance — 79% for Rodriguez and 73% for Stephens. However, when it comes to landing strikes, Rodriguez has a clear advantage in the position.
When standing and not in the clinch, he lands 3.21 significant strikes per minute, while absorbing only 1.14 significant strikes per minute. That leaves him with a +1.14 striking differential at distance.
On the other hand, Stephens actually has a negative differential at distance. He lands only 2.25 significant strikes per minute, and he only manages to avoid 2.29 per minute. His -0.40 differential is meaningfully lower than that of Rodriguez.
Of Stephens’ landed significant strikes, 37% have come in other positions, 10% in the clinch and 17% on the ground. Things might swing in his favor if he is able to change where the fight takes place.
The ground game
Stephens has often displayed solid offensive wrestling during his UFC career. In the Octagon, he has landed 1.11 takedowns per 15 minutes of fight time. If he is able to score takedowns, he could put Rodriguez into a tough position. Rodriguez has absorbed 96 significant strikes, or 26% of his total absorbed significant strikes, on the ground. On top of that, he has not been stout in terms of defending takedowns. He has allowed his opponents to land 1.15 takedowns against him per 15 minutes of fight time.
If Stephens tries to use his wrestling to avoid the distance striking of Rodriguez, he could find himself in a different kind of trouble. Rodriguez has shown a dynamic guard and proved himself to be an opportunistic submission threat. He averages 1.0 submission attempts per minute, which is the second-highest submission attempt rate behind only Ortega. Stephens may have more striking success on the ground, but he must be aware of the submission offense of Rodriguez.
While Stephens’ chances might improve from a statistical standpoint if he is able to drag the fight to the floor or impose a clinch fight, he has never really been opposed to standing and trading. While he has been outlanded at distance for his career, he has always been able to rely on one decisive factor, and that is his striking power.
During his extensive UFC career, Stephens has scored 18 knockdowns at a rate of 0.74 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time. Against Gilbert Melendez in 2017, he tied the UFC record for most knockdowns in a fight with five. He has unusually high striking power for a featherweight and remains a threat to finish the fight at any moment.
While landing with power has always been an outsized part of Stephens’ game, he has shown some cracks in this realm recently. Through his first 27 UFC fights, he was dropped by his opponents only twice. He has also been dropped twice in his last three fights. If this recent trend is signaling a decline in his chin, swinging for the fences against Rodriguez might be a bad idea.
Rodriguez has scored only three knockdowns in his UFC career, averaging only 0.38 knockdowns per 15 minutes. However, in his last trip into the Octagon, against Chan Sung Jung, he showed that he has the power to end a fight and create a memorable highlight even with very little time left on the clock. Stephens is known for landing the big strike, but if his chin has in fact faded, Rodriguez could be the one stopping the fight early.