An epic, high-stakes clash of styles headlines UFC Long Island in Elmont, New York on Saturday night as submission ace Brian Ortega battles striking phenom Yair Rodriquez, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The spotlight shines on strawweight standouts in the co-main event at the UBS Arena with “The Karate Hottie” Michelle Waterson taking on Amanda Lemos, while the featured bout takes place in the welterweight division, where Li Jingliang meets Muslim Salikhov.
Plus, former bantamweight queen Miesha Tate sets out to conquer another division as she lines up third-ranked flyweight Lauren Murphy, Matthew Schnell and Su Mudaerji square off in another 125-pound affair and Shane Burgos collides with Charles Jourdain in what should be a featherweight fire-fight.
MAIN CARD (from 8 PM Saturday SA time):
Brian Ortega (1.60) v Yair Rodriquez (2.35) (Featherweight)
With featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski putting a definitive end to his rivalry with ex-champion and No.1-ranked Max Holloway at UFC 276 a fortnight ago, the door is open for the next title challenger to seize the spotlight.
That sets up Ortega (15-2-1NC) and Rodriquez (13-3-1NC), ranked second and third, perfectly and has essentially turned this weekend’s anticipated main event showdown into a title eliminator.
Ortega’s had two cracks at the gold before, which cruelly resulted in his only losses. He showed incredible heart but was pieced up over five rounds by then-champion Holloway in 2018 and was seconds away from dethroning Volkanovski last September only for “The Great” to somehow survive two deep submissions and win a decision.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is looking to capitalise on his second opportunity to secure his first title shot after he was outpointed by Holloway in his maiden main event last November.
The high-stakes add to what is a classic striker versus grappler battle of the highest order. In Rodriguez, you have a taekwondo black belt with four knockouts, a battle bot equipped with layers upon layers of wildly unpredictable and dangerous punches, kicks, elbows and knees.
In Ortega, you have the highest level of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and arguably the most skilled submission artist in UFC featherweight history. Rener Gracie’s prized pupil has claimed seven of his 15 wins by submission and has the best triangle in the business, hence his moniker “T-City”.
In a fight that comes down to who dictates where it takes place – the feet or the ground – Ortega is capable of playing Rodriguez’s game should he need to. Will he beat him in a five-round stand-up battle? No. But he showed in his two title fights how durable he is, so he should be able to hang tough until he manages to take the fight to the ground.
The same can’t be said for Rodriguez. Once he’s dragged into the deep waters of the mat, he goes from “El Pantera” to a seal trapped with a great white. Ortega is skilled and experienced enough to avoid serious damage on the feet, pick his openings wisely to take Rodriguez down and force him to submit.
Michelle Waterson (3.50) v Amanda Lemos (1.29) (Strawweight)
One of the bigger names and a pioneer of women’s mixed martial arts, Waterson (18-9) returns wanting to prove she still belongs among the strawweight elite.
“The Karate Hottie” is still ranked 10th despite winning just one of her last five fights and the matchmakers haven’t done her any favours by pitting her against the dangerous 11th-ranked Lemos (11-2-1).
As her nickname suggests, Waterson has a karate base. A black belt, her striking expertise and sideways stance have served her well in her 15-year career. Lacking in the power department, she frustrates rather than pummels her opponents and has gone the distance in her last eight straight.
Not quite as quick anymore, she’s been a step behind in most of her recent fights and incorporated more grappling into her game. She’s always had solid jiu-jitsu and has nine submission wins, but I doubt she’ll be able to take down her bigger and stronger foe.
Lemos is primarily a striker as well and was on a five-fight win streak before being submitted by former champion Jessica Andrade last time out in April. The Brazilian boasts heavy hands and is a natural finisher with nine of her 11 wins coming by stoppage, including seven knockouts.
With more firepower and a three-inch reach advantage, Lemos is a lock and will most likely get it done by decision.
Li Jingliang (2.40) v Muslim Salikhov (1.57) (Welterweight)
A man on the rise, 38-year-old Salikhov (18-2) has won five in a row – the last three by decision – to make a late run up the rankings and another win this weekend will see him break into the top 15.
Having lost two of his last three, 14th-ranked Li (18-7) is on a bit of a slide but remains a tough out for any prospect not named Khamzat Chimaev, who manhandled and put him to sleep in short order last October.
Both men are hard-hitting strikers who know how to finish fights, Salikhov having 14 stoppages (12 knockouts and two submissions) and Li 13 (nine knockouts and four submissions).
The difference between them is Salikhov’s exceptional elusiveness. “The King of Kung Fu” is in the top five all-time at 170 pounds in significant strike defence (68.3%), which will give him the edge to outpoint “The Leech.”
Matthew Schnell (3.10) v Su Mudaerji (1.36) (Flyweight)
Three straight wins and a mean streak a mile long have moved Mudaerji (16-4) up to 12th in the rankings and see him enter this clash as the favourite despite Schnell (15-7) sitting eighth in the division.
Schnell’s recent struggles also contribute toward him carrying the underdog tag as he’s lost three of his last four including his last two on the bounce.
“Danger” is hardly an apt nickname for Schnell as he has notoriously little punching power. To be fair, he’s a problem on the ground, where he’s claimed just over half of his wins by submission.
Mudaerji, in contrast, is a flyweight anomaly in terms of the dynamite he has in his hands. He’s racked up 13 knockouts – at an 83% ratio – and has good takedown defence, so expect “The Tibetan Eagle” to soar to another KO win.
Shane Burgos (1.57) v Charles Jourdain (2.40) (Featherweight)
Cue the fireworks. These two are never in a boring fight and will push hard for the Fight of the Night honours. Burgos (14-3) has been in there with some of the best. He holds a cherished win over Cub Swanson, while his three losses all came against the cream of the crop in Calvin Kattar, Josh Emmett and Edson Barboza.
“Hurricane” can brawl and fight a technical fight, whichever is required, has crisp striking, good jiu-jitsu (five knockouts and five submissions) and is tough-as-nails.
Jourdain (13-4-1) is similarly well-rounded but also prefers a stand-up scrap. A finisher of note, all but one of his wins are by stoppage, two-thirds of which are knockouts.
“Air” hasn’t fought nearly the calibre of opponents Burgos has, however, and can’t seem to take the next step to become a ranked contender, which his adversary is (14th) and has been for a while.
Aside from his next-level skills and experience, Burgos will benefit from a massive six-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, so bank on him to deliver. With Jourdain having an iron chin (he’s never been knocked out), it should be a 15-minute banger.
Lauren Murphy (2.75) v Miesha Tate (1.44) (Flyweight)
Elite veterans face-off in the main card opener two weeks after their originally scheduled date on pay-per-view was done in by Murphy (15-5) testing positive for Covid.
The rebooking could either be a blessing or a curse for Tate (19-8) depending on her weight-cutting situation. A legendary figure in women’s mixed martial arts, the former bantamweight queen will be making her flyweight debut after dropping a decision to big, imposing Brazilian Ketlen Vieira last November.
It’s a smart move as she’s a huge name and a win over third-ranked Murphy – who fought for the title last time out – could fast-track her straight to a championship showdown against Valentina Shevchenko. She first has to win the battle on the scale, though.
Dropping 10 pounds is no picnic, but Tate’s a consummate pro with a top team and a champion mentality, so I don’t think it’ll be too taxing. I mention this as she’s set to have a significant size and strength advantage over “Lucky” on fight night if the cut and rehydration go according to plan.
Murphy’s a gamer, solid if not spectacular in any area with a warrior spirit, but she’s 38. “Cupcake”, 35, is a brilliant wrestler on top of being a standout athlete, so she should be able to nail Murphy to the mat and ride out a decision win.