Main Event: Featherweights
Yair Rodriguez (8-1; 5-0 UFC) vs. BJ Penn (16-10-2; 12-9-2 UFC)
The legendary Penn returns from a two-and-a-half-year retirement to take on blue-chip prospect Rodriguez in a strong main event.
Penn is one of the greatest of all time and is one of only three two-division champions in UFC history, along with Randy Couture and Conor McGregor. He has fallen on rough times at the end of his career, though, and is currently on a 1-5-1 run in his last seven fights. His last win, a knockout of Matt Hughes, was more than six years ago, and his last fight was a one-sided drubbing at the hands of Frankie Edgar in July 2014.
Rodriguez has sliced through the UFC's featherweight division since competing on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, compiling five consecutive victories over steadily increasing competition. Alex Caceres fell to Rodriguez in his first headlining effort, while a jumping head kick separated Andre Fili from consciousness before that.
This is a chance for Rodriguez to put himself on the map against a big-name opponent, even if Penn has faded badly since his years as a champion. For Penn, it's a shot at redemption, to prove that he still belongs at the top.
It's hard to say how Penn's going to fare after 30 months on the shelf, especially considering how bad he looked in his last fight against Edgar. He has changed up his training, going back to work with longtime boxing trainer Jason Parillo and spending some time in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the elite at Jackson Wink MMA. But whether that can make up for being 38 years old and his general decline is anyone's guess.
At his best, Penn was a dominant, if somewhat inconsistent force. He was one of the first great athletes to enter MMA, a marvel of graceful physicality and speed who had well-rounded skills and a ferocious killer instinct. But as his gifts diminished with time and age and his competitors caught up skill-wise, the game seemed to leave Penn behind.
On the feet, Penn is almost exclusively a boxer. He has quick, powerful hands and solid fundamentals, working his way forward behind a heavy and consistent jab that sets the distance and establishes a rhythm. Once in the pocket, Penn waits for his opponent to throw and then unleashes powerful counters with both hands, using his excellent timing to throw at the same time as his opponent.
All of Penn's shots carry serious pop, and in his prime, his timing was some of the best in the sport. As he has aged, though, he has been just a split-second slower on the counters, which has robbed him of some of his effectiveness.
Penn's surprisingly strong takedown game, even against much larger opponents, provides a solid complement to his striking. He has excellent timing, does a good job of punching his way into his level changes and uses the fence nicely to string together chains.
Penn formerly had some of the best defensive wrestling in the sport, with marvelous balance and strong technical skills. He pioneered the approach of "feeding the single leg," using a wide stance and giving up his lead leg before hopping to the fence to defend as his opponent grabbed the single, which Jose Aldo later perfected. Now, though, his balance and strength have drastically declined in these exchanges.
On the mat, Penn was one of the best grapplers the sport has ever seen, and it's still probably his best path to victory. His guard is extremely flexible and dangerous, with a nice array of submissions and sweeps, but strong top players can shut him down. On top, he's a monster who melds gorgeous passes with heavy punches. Getting to the back is a specialty.
Cardio has been a consistent issue for Penn, and it likely hasn't improved at the tender age of 38. He's good for a round, maybe two and at most three, but after that, he may be in trouble.
Rodriguez is a physical marvel. He's tall for the division at 5'11" but also showcases extreme speed, explosiveness and general athletic ability.
Striking is Rodriguez's wheelhouse. He prefers to operate at extreme long range, flicking a dizzying variety of front, side, oblique, jumping, axe, round and spinning kicks at his opponent while mixing in the occasional jab. Switching stances at will, Rodriguez moves well through the space of the cage, and his preference for long distance gives him plenty of room to avoid pressure and stay away from the fence.
Pace is a strong suit for Rodriguez, and he can consistently pepper his opponents with a high volume of kicks for 25 minutes even at altitude, an exhausting prospect.
Boxing is the weakest part of Rodriguez's striking game. He can throw jabs, crosses and hooks, and strings together combinations, but he doesn't throw with much power. His head movement is basic, and he relies on range and angles to avoid his opponent's shots. While he moves well in a general sense, his footwork in tight spaces—pivots, sidesteps, turns—is still a work in progress.
This means that if Rodriguez can't maintain long range, he's much more vulnerable in the pocket. It's not easy to get him there, but opponents can make him work on the inside.
The clinch is Rodriguez's safety blanket if he can't stay outside and his opponent is having some success in the pocket. In tie-ups, Rodriguez's height and length give him tremendous leverage and control, and he has a gorgeous arsenal of trips, foot sweeps and throws. His knees and elbows on the inside are sharp and dangerous.
Takedown defense isn't Rodriguez's strength, and at this point, he's no more than average in defending shots. His length, movement and preference for operating at long distance make it hard to get a clean shot at his hips, though.
Even if he gets taken down, Rodriguez isn't helpless. His guard is active and dangerous, mixing together triangle-armbar-sweep chains with great acumen. He's better on top, with smooth passes and heavy ground strikes. Scrambles are a specialty.
Rodriguez -485, Penn +385
This depends entirely on Penn—how he looks physically, whether he's worked on the things that have troubled him in the last several years and what kind of cardiovascular shape he's in on fight night.
If Penn isn't shot, he has the tools to give Rodriguez some trouble. He's a much more skilled and powerful puncher in the pocket, and if Rodriguez gets reckless, Penn can crack him as he comes in. The scramble-heavy style Rodriguez prefers on the mat will leave openings for Penn to get to the back. Rodriguez's takedown defense has been spotty, and Penn is still a proficient wrestler.
With that said, this is Rodriguez's fight to lose. Even in Penn's prime, tall and athletic strikers who operated from long range were a problem for him, and Penn is obviously no longer the fighter he was back in 2007. The most likely scenario here involves Penn trying and failing to pressure while eating a steady diet of long kicks before either losing a decision or eating a knockout blow.
Penn is still durable, and Rodriguez doesn't have Edgar's top game, but Rodriguez's pace and speed are off the charts. He'll wear Penn down to the body and finish with a knockout shot in the fourth round.
Odds courtesy of OddsShark and current as of Jan. 11.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.