Going the Distance: Rodriguez cements her spot in strawweight ranks

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

In her second consecutive main event appearance, Marina Rodriguez (15-1-2, 5-1-2 UFC) defeated Mackenzie Dern (11-2, 6-2 UFC) by unanimous decision on Saturday night at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.

Rodriguez put in an impressive striking performance against Dern, who was largely outmatched in that area of the Octagon. She also survived a couple of scary ground positions against Dern, who is one of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in all of MMA. I was impressed with how Rodriguez kept her composure throughout the five-round fight, but especially during the sequences when she was defending submission attempts from Dern, who came very closing to ending the fight in the second round. This was a classic striker versus grappler matchup, and it didn’t disappoint. Let’s look at what’s next for the UFC’s best strawweights:

Strawweight Landscape

“Thug” Rose Namajunas (C) vs. Zhang “Magnum” Weili (No. 1): This fight is going down at UFC 268 on Nov. 6 at Madison Square Garden. Namajunas is looking to defend the belt against Zhang after taking it from her last time out, when she landed a beautiful head kick to knock out Zhang in the first round. I can’t wait for this fight, as Zhang should be sharper this time around. Hopefully we’ll get to see more minutes in this matchup, but at the end of the day, nobody hates a first-round knockout either.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk (No. 2) vs. Marina Rodriguez (No. 6): (From May) Simply put, this fight would be a banger. Both athletes love to strike, and will stand on the canvas and trade shots. This is a significant step up in competition for Rodriguez, but she’s earned that challenge after her recent fights. For Jedrzejczyk, I’m sure she’d love the opportunity to silence the hype behind one of the division’s best strikers. A win for either fighter in this matchup would likely put them back onto the shortlist for title contender.

Carla Esparza (No. 3) vs. the winner of Namajunas vs. Zhang: She’s not a big name, but Esparza has earned the next title shot, having won her last five fights in a row to legitimately good competition in Yan Xiaonan, Rodriguez, Michelle Waterson, Alexa Grasso, and Virna Jandiroba. Esparza has a win over Namajunas, back when both women competed on The Ultimate Fighter in 2014. Should Namajunas prevail for a second time over Zhang, a rematch eight years later would be intriguing. 

Yan Xiaonan (No. 4) vs. Mackenzie Dern (No. 5): Dern vs. Rodriguez showed us that Dern’s striking is simply not good enough yet, but she still looked extremely dangerous on the ground. This matchup is less about Xiaonan and more about Dern, who the UFC still sees potential in given how strong her grappling is. Esparza dominated Xiaonan on the ground in her last fight, so if the matchmakers want to give Dern a more passable test against a striker, Xianon fits that bill.

Nina Nunes (No. 7) vs. Amanda Lemos (No. 13): This matchup has been announced for late 2021. Lemos is red hot of late, coming off of back-to-back first-round technical knockouts of Montserrat Conejo Ruiz and Livinha Souza. Nunes will be a much tougher matchup, but it feels like this could be Lemos’ time. For Lemos, a win over Nunes would cement herself as a contender and likely means a top-5 ranked opponent would be in her future. 

Claudia “Claudinha” Gadelha (No. 8) vs. Tecia “The Tiny Tornado” Torres (No. 9): (From May) Torres is on a two-fight winning streak right now, and although that competition has been weak relative to Gadelha’s skill level, I’m interested to see whether Torres can overcome what will likely be a ground-heavy approach from Gadelha. Torres has struggled against grapplers but is very durable, while Gadelha has struggled against strikers. Styles make fights, and this one could be interesting.

Michelle Waterson (No. 10) vs. Tatiana Suarez: Suarez is an exciting, undefeated prospect in this division that many believe could be a legitimate contender if she can stay healthy. Once she returns from injury, I’d like to see her take on Waterson, a tough veteran who can still give the younger Suarez a good challenge but whose best days could be behind her. Suarez will still have to answer some concerns, namely those associated with a layoff of more than two and a half years. 

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