The Complete Guide to UFC Fight Night 103: Rodriguez vs. Penn
UFC Hall of Fame inductee BJ Penn makes his return to the Octagon Sunday 30 months after his disastrous last outing against dangerous up-and-comer Yair Rodriguez on Fox Sports 1. Does Penn have anything left in the tank, one last trick to overcome a rising star? That's the central question of this event and the biggest reason to tune in for a card that doesn't have much else going for it.
Name value is sorely lacking. Penn is a legend and Rodriguez is one of the most talented young fighters in the UFC, a potential cornerstone of the future in whom the UFC has invested a great deal of time and energy, but they're essentially it.
A bantamweight co-main event between Jimmie Rivera and Bryan Caraway was supposed to induce the hardcore fans to tune in, but Caraway pulled out with an injury, and Rivera, who's no more than a win or two away from a title shot, refused to fight Marlon Vera as a replacement.
What we're left with is some potential for action. Joe Lauzon and Marcin Held are now the co-main, and that's a potentially entertaining bout. The opening fight of the main card between Sergio Pettis and John Moraga is likewise a barnburner waiting to happen, and the preliminary-card headliner featuring Frankie Saenz and Augusto Mendes has some promise.
Otherwise, the card consists mostly of loser-leaves-town matchups between low-level fighters. These are well-matched bouts, and many will be fun, but it's hardly a can't-miss event.
Let's take a look at each individual matchup.
The Fight Pass Prelims
Dmitrii Smoliakov (8-1; 0-1 UFC) vs. Cyril Asker (7-2; 0-1 UFC)
France's Asker draws Russia's Smoliakov in the opening bout on Fight Pass. Both fighters lost their UFC debuts inside the distance—Smoliakov to Luis Henrique by submission and Asker to Jared Cannonier by knockout.
Smoliakov is a strong wrestler and throws hard shots from top position, and while he has some boxing skills, he's less imposing on the feet. Asker is better on the feet and throws clean, crisp combinations, but he too does his best work wrestling and on top.
Prediction: Asker is the better striker. He knocks out Smoliakov in the second round.
Bojan Mihajlovic (10-4; 0-1 UFC) vs. Joachim Christensen (13-4; 0-1 UFC)
Low-level light heavyweights meet in a loser-leaves-town matchup as Serbia's Mihajlovic takes on Denmark's Christensen. Mihajlovic likes to throw snapping kicks at long range but does his best work with trips in the clinch and by throwing bombs on top. Christensen is a technically sound striker who throws nice punch-kick combinations and grapples reasonably well.
Prediction: Christensen is a far better striker. He knocks out Mihajlovic in the second round.
Walt Harris (8-5; 1-4 UFC) vs. Chase Sherman (9-2; 0-1 UFC)
Low-level heavyweights meet as the veteran Harris draws Sherman in what should be a fun fight. Harris dropped a decision to Shamil Abdurakhimov in his last fight, while Sherman fell to Justin Ledet. The loser will likely be cut from the UFC.
Sherman is fairly athletic and packs real power in his quick, potent hands. He's a mess defensively but is tough and willing to hang in the pocket to counter. Harris is a pure striker with big power in his hands and kicks, and that's about it.
Prediction: Harris is more experienced, but Sherman works at a quicker pace and has better fundamentals. He knocks out Harris in the second round.
Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger (6-3; 0-2 UFC) vs. Nina Ansaroff (6-5; 0-2 UFC)
Strawweight action fighters meet in the Fight Pass main event as Jones-Lybarger draws Ansaroff in a fun fight. Both have lost each of their two UFC outings, with Jones-Lybarger falling to Tecia Torres and Randa Markos and Ansaroff coming up short against Juliana Lima and Justine Kish.
Jones-Lybarger is big for the division at 5'7", but she's not fast and doesn't hit particularly hard. She makes up for her physical disadvantages with volume, peppering her opponent with a steady stream of jabs, combinations and low kicks while using strong takedown defense to keep it standing.
Ansaroff, by contrast, is quick and packs real power, especially in her kicks. She's a strong combination puncher, jabs well and doesn't mind staying in the pocket to exchange. Good defensive wrestling skills allow her to keep the fight on the feet.
Prediction: Jones-Lybarger throws a bit more volume, but Ansaroff is faster, more powerful and more diverse on the feet. She wins a decision.
The Fox Sports 1 Prelims
Devin Powell (8-1; 0-0 UFC) vs. Drakkar Klose (6-0-1; 0-0 UFC)
Maine's Powell takes on Michigan's Klose in a fun matchup of debuting lightweights to open the action on Fox Sports 1. Powell comes to the UFC via Dana White's Looking for a Fight series, while Klose competed in the RFA and Tachi Palace promotions.
Powell is a crisp combination striker who puts together clean sequences of punches and kicks. Klose is big, strong, athletic and powerful, melding hard punching combinations with potent takedowns and heavy shots from top position.
Prediction: Klose is quicker, stronger and much more powerful. He knocks out Powell in the first round.
Alex White (11-2; 2-2 UFC) vs. Tony Martin (10-3; 2-3 UFC)
White moves up from featherweight and takes on Martin in a solid scrap at 155 pounds. White rebounded from a two-fight losing streak by taking a decision from Artem Lobov last February, while Martin defeated Felipe Olivieri in his last outing.
White is a big, athletic southpaw who mostly prefers to strike. He's quick on the feet and throws his strikes with power, showcasing a sharp straight left and left kick. Wrestling isn't his strong suit, though, and he's a mediocre grappler. Martin is huge for the division at a thick 6'0" and has solid grappling skills. He's not a good wrestler, though, and eats way too many shots on the feet. His cardio is poor as well.
Prediction: White is a much better striker and has a serious edge if he can survive the opening frame. He knocks out Martin in the third round.
Aleksei Oleinik (50-10-1; 2-1 UFC) vs. Viktor Pesta (10-3; 1-3 UFC)
Ukraine's Oleinik meets the Czech Republic's Pesta in a decent heavyweight fight. Oleinik won his first two in the UFC, both inside the distance, before falling to Daniel Omielanczuk last time out. Pesta has lost two in a row, both by knockout, to Marcin Tybura and Derrick Lewis.
The 39-year-old Oleinik knows exactly what he wants to do: move forward, use strikes to cover his takedown attempts and work for a submission on the mat. Pesta is a willing striker but does his best work with takedowns and top control.
Prediction: If Oleinik can't finish early, he's going to lose late. Pesta stuffs his takedowns, survives on the feet and then finishes with strikes from top position in the third round.
Frankie Saenz (11-4; 3-2 UFC) vs. Augusto Mendes (5-1; 0-1 UFC)
Jiu-jitsu ace Mendes draws the experienced Saenz in a fun bantamweight fight. Mendes debuted on short notice against now-champion Cody Garbrandt last February and fell by knockout in the first round, while Saenz has lost two in a row, to Urijah Faber and Eddie Wineland, since winning his first three in the UFC.
Saenz is an athletic fighter with solid skills in every department. He moves well on the feet, darting in and out of range on nice angles with punching combinations and hard kicks. Pace is a strong suit, and he consistently throws more than one strike at a time.
Wrestling is a strength for Saenz, who wrestled at Arizona State in his youth. He has strong takedown defense and can hit a mix of singles, doubles and trips, but he does his best work in the clinch, where he throws hard knees and elbows. On the mat, Saenz is mostly content to control, though he's solid at getting to the back and has a decent rear-naked choke.
Mendes is a physically gifted world-class grappler with great credentials as a black belt, and that's still the core of his approach in the cage. He's everything you'd expect from a competitor at that level, with an aggressive guard, smooth passes, hard ground strikes and a nose for the submission.
In short bursts, Mendes is competent elsewhere. He doesn't do a great job of setting up his takedown attempts and often has to shoot from too far outside, but once in on the hips, he shows solid technique. He's a decent clinch fighter as well.
At range, Mendes throws hard single strikes and has decent fundamentals, but he struggles to throw more than one shot at a time and has a bad habit of letting his chin come up as he throws. The counter left hook is his go-to punch, and he throws it well.
Prediction: We haven't seen Mendes in almost 11 months, and it's common for fighters at that stage of development to look radically different after a long stretch in the gym. It wouldn't be surprising if he came out and showed serious improvements here, and for that reason, the pick is Mendes by submission in the second round.
Sergio Pettis vs. John Moraga
John Moraga (16-5; 5-4 UFC) vs. Sergio Pettis (14-2; 5-2 UFC)
The talented Pettis gets his shot at a veteran with a name as he takes on former title challenger Moraga in a fun flyweight matchup. Pettis has won two in a row, taking decisions from Chris Kelades and Chris Cariaso, while Moraga has lost his last two against Matheus Nicolau and Joseph Benavidez.
Pettis is a smooth, skilled striker. He's more fundamentally sound than his brother, Anthony, with cleaner footwork, tighter command of angles and a better sense for putting together punch-kick combinations. He's not as dynamic or powerful, though, and he doesn't have his brother's slick submission skills. As a wrestler, Pettis has solid takedown defense and can hit nice trips and doubles of his own.
Moraga is an aggressive, dangerous opportunist. He doesn't stand out in any particular phase, though he throws competent combinations with power behind them, wrestles with skill and has a slick submission game in transitions, especially his guillotine. What makes him a good fighter is his ability to find the finish, both on the feet and on the mat.
Pettis -135 (bet $135 to win $100), Moraga +115 (bet $100 to win $115)
Pettis throws more volume on the feet with better technique, can defend takedowns well enough to stay off his back and grapples with sufficient skill to avoid Moraga's dangerous submissions. If he can avoid making a major mistake, it's his fight. Pettis wins a decision.
Court McGee vs. Ben Saunders
Court McGee (18-5; 7-4 UFC) vs. Ben Saunders (20-7-2; 7-4 UFC)
Veteran welterweights meet in a fun matchup. McGee, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 11, has alternated wins and losses over his last four outings. This will be Saunders' third stint in the UFC; he went 3-1 in his last stretch, and then defeated Jacob Volkmann outside the UFC before the company re-signed him yet again. Both McGee and Saunders have settled in as action-oriented mid-tier fighters, so this should be an entertaining fight.
McGee is a rugged, durable and well-rounded fighter. He likes to strike, sticking his opponent on the end of a lengthy jab and then following up with a steady dose of straight right hands and chopping kicks. Power isn't McGee's strong suit, nor is speed, but he's crisp, technical and works at an increasing pace as the fight rolls on. By the third round, he buries his opponents in volume.
Competent wrestling serves as a nice backup skill set for McGee. He's an above-average defensive wrestler and shoots a nice array of singles, doubles and trips, though he doesn't do a great job of setting up his level changes.
On the mat, McGee is solid but not especially dangerous. He generally prefers to control from the top, throw some strikes, pass and only looks for the occasional submission.
Saunders is long for the division at 6'3" and uses his height well on the feet, flicking a consistent stream of front, side, oblique and round kicks from both stances to keep his opponent at range. The occasional jab and straight punch adds some variety, but Saunders isn't comfortable in the pocket, and defensively, he's not difficult to hit once the opponent can get past his kicks.
While he doesn't want to be in the pocket, Saunders has a solution to aggressive, forward-moving opponents: the clinch. His height gives him tremendous leverage on the inside, which he uses to good effect with an arsenal of powerful knees and elbows. Slick trips add another dimension to his clinch game.
The best piece of Saunders' game is his grappling arsenal. He has a lethal and active guard, stringing together triangles, omoplatas, armbars and sweeps from the moment his back hits the mat. On top, he showcases strong control, smooth passes and nice transitions to dominant positions.
Saunders -115, McGee -105
As the odds indicate, this is a razor-thin fight. Saunders is a bit more dangerous both on the feet and on the ground, so that should be the difference here; he wins a decision.
Joe Lauzon vs. Marcin Held
Co-Main Event: Lightweights
Joe Lauzon (26-12; 13-9 UFC) vs. Marcin Held (22-5; 0-1 UFC)
Veteran action fighter Lauzon returns to action against Polish up-and-comer Held in what promises to be an entertaining fight. Held is best known for a long run in Bellator, where he competed in several tournaments and fought for the title against Will Brooks, before debuting in the UFC with a loss to Diego Sanchez. Lauzon has split wins and losses recently, dropping a decision to Jim Miller after knocking out Sanchez in July.
Lauzon is all offense, all the time, in every phase. On the feet, he presses forward behind a heavy jab and the occasional kick until he gets into the pocket, where he unloads heavy punching combinations at a rapid clip. Aggression is the hallmark of his game, and while his pressure footwork and craft in the pocket are average, he's quick and mean enough to do serious damage.
Strikes lead directly into level changes and the clinch. Lauzon is a crisp wrestler with a nice double-leg takedown and strong chains; while in the clinch, he throws nasty knees and elbows.
On the ground, Lauzon constantly hunts for the finish. He's willing to dive on leg locks, does great work in transitions, can finish from his back with triangles and armbars, and has a penchant for utilizing the kimura from top position. His ground strikes are nasty as well.
There are two problems with this approach: defense and cardio. Lauzon is hittable on the feet, doesn't defend takedowns well and is so aggressive on the mat that he regularly gets himself in trouble despite his skills. He pushes such a quick pace early that he can burn through his gas tank in a single round.
Held is also an action fighter by nature. He gets after his opponent from the opening bell, working behind a popping jab and a steady diet of punching combinations. The occasional kick adds some variety, and he'll work in some flash in the form of cartwheel kicks and spinning backfists.
While he can do some damage as a striker, Held is more likely to use his strikes to cover his takedowns and rolls into leg locks than to try to win fights entirely on the feet. At best, Held is a decent wrestler, but he mixes up his takedown attempts and leg locks creatively. This makes him more effective than his raw technical skills would suggest.
On the mat, Held is lethal. Leg locks are his specialty, which he can finish in a variety of ways, but he also uses them to sweep and transition to dominant positions. He's not a one-trick pony, though, and can drop bombing ground strikes while looking for other finishes.
This is very much an all-or-nothing game. Held is a bad defensive fighter and has mediocre cardio, which means he's usually going to get himself into trouble if he can't get an early finish.
Lauzon -140, Held +120
This is a close and exciting matchup of stylistically similar fighters. The difference should be Lauzon's physicality: He's bigger, stronger, hits harder and is generally a meaner fighter. Lauzon finishes with strikes in the second round.
Yair Rodriguez vs. BJ Penn
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.